Shorebird Sightings from the Central Yukon Delta Coast
Posted on: June 8, 2016
Author: Alan Kneidel and Sam Roberts
We welcomed two special Manomet friends back to our field crew this year in the Arctic: Alan Kneidel and Sam Roberts. They both worked on the crew surveying the central part of the Yukon Delta coast. Below, Alan describes the crew’s experience, and they both share some photos from the field. We want to thank them for their hard work in the field and dedication to shorebird conservation science! – Stephen Brown
Alan Kneidel (left) and Sam Roberts at the Kanaryarmiut Field Station on the Yukon Delta NWR. Photo by Brad Winn
From May 16 – May 26, I joined a team of researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Manomet to perform PRISM rapid shorebird surveys in the Yukon Delta NWR of western Alaska.
I was part of the central survey crew and there was also a northern and southern crew. The other members of my team included Kristine Sowl of USFWS, Terry Doyle, and Sam Roberts. Each day, each survey member covered four 400 x 400 meter survey plots. At each plot, the surveyor spent a predetermined ninety-six minutes to estimate the number of breeding pairs of shorebird species within the plot. The cumulative data set from all three survey crews will be used to help estimate breeding shorebird numbers within the refuge.
The surveys cover a variety of dominant habitat strata and are designed to occur when shorebirds are establishing territories and initiating their nests. During this period, the males of many shorebird species such as Dunlin; Bar-tailed Godwit; Wilson’s Snipe; and Rock, Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers are performing their territorial display flights, accompanied by distinctive songs. Other species, such as Red and Red-necked Phalaropes are often seen in pairs, while Black and Ruddy Turnstones are conspicuous as they fiercely protect their territories against intruders.
As we arrived in Bethel to organize our gear and go over final logistics, the weather was unseasonably warm and sunny, as the other crews reported earlier in the blog. But, by the time the central crew began on our plots on May 18, we also experienced the same change in weather, which had returned to more typical spring fare—the skies had turned gray, the wind had picked up, and rain squalls had materialized on the horizon.
These photos below show some of the central crew’s experiences, including some taken by fellow crew member Sam Roberts.
Alan Kneidel’s Photos and Captions:
The use of helicopters to access our plots allowed for increased daily efficiency compared to last year when we had to hike from our boat to each plot. The helicopter also provided a thrilling bird’s eye view of the delta. Here, Brad Winn, Ben Lagasse, and Rick Lanctot of the south survey crew return to the Kanaryarmuit Field Station in the heart of the Yukon Delta.
Robert Kozakiewicz of Pollux Aviation was the excellent pilot for our central crew. In addition to being responsible for our daily aerial commute, it was Robert’s job to drop each survey crew member off at the northwest corner of their plot and pick them up after the survey was completed.
Dunlin are abundant breeders in the grassy, wet meadows of the Yukon Delta. In these habitats they reach some of the greatest estimated densities of any shorebird we surveyed, with up to 15 breeding pairs being estimated in a single 400 x 400 meter plot.
Rock Sandpipers are one of the most charismatic (and camouflaged) breeding shorebirds on the Yukon Delta. During the breeding season, they favor dry, lichen-dominated tundra and are most easily detected by the distinctive whirring song of the male. One day, I was fortunate enough to have a courting pair come within a few meters of me as I lay still on the ground. After observing the female for a while, the male flew in and landed in front of her, promptly flashing the white underside of his wing in display. During the winter, Rock Sandpipers are the northernmost wintering shorebird, occupying the windswept, rocky coastlines of the Pacific Northwest.
It is a common sight to see flocks of transient shorebirds headed farther north on the delta breeding grounds in mid-May. On a survey near the coast, I spotted a large flock of Red Knots moving fast across the tundra. Throughout the survey season, we also saw large numbers of migrant Long-billed Dowitchers and Pectoral Sandpipers.
The act of stumbling across a Willow Ptarmigan is sure to startle you at least once a day, no matter how vigilant you are. Once flushed, the male (pictured) often flies up and does a fluttering display flight, accompanied by their bizarre, guttural calls.
You always have to keep your ears and eyes open while out surveying. After hearing an unfamiliar call note, I looked up and spotted an Aleutian Tern flying overhead. This species is one of the specialties of western Alaska and is uncommonly sighted within the refuge. During the non-breeding season, Aleutian Terns winter off the coasts of Indonesia and Malaysia.
Sam Roberts’ Photos and Captions:
While it is still unclear whether Pectoral Sandpipers actually breed within the refuge or are just displaying on their way farther north, everyone on the central crew encountered a number of pairs and displaying males throughout our survey period.
Because Western Sandpipers are one of the most commonly encountered breeding shorebird species on the refuge, I was exposed to a variety of breeding behaviors ranging from distraction displays when a nest was found, to singing males hovering high in the air, to courtship displays, such as the one photographed here.
Vocal and curious, Bar-tailed Godwits make their presence known if they discover you in the vicinity of their territory.