Surveys Begin

Our first survey day on the Yukon Delta dawned with a disheartening heavy rain, which is unusual compared to our work on the arctic coast, where it is arid and more apt to snow. Fortunately the excitement of seeing so many shorebirds helped raise our spirits. The rain alternated between heavy downpours and lighter drizzle with fog, a low cloud ceiling, and temperatures in the 30s and 40s. It would have been a good day to stay home, but our survey window is very short so we zipped up and pressed on.

The first few days of surveys featured steady cold rain, and looking out over the soggy landscape we had to dig deep for motivation to get out and survey another plot.

The first few days of surveys featured steady cold rain. Looking out over the soggy landscape, we had to dig deep for motivation to get out and survey another plot. Photo by Bob Gill.

 

St. Mary’s is located on a tributary of the Yukon River and we can see the Yukon in the near distance from our lodge. We are nearly 70 miles inland. The ice has gone out here, but the Yukon is still frozen at the coast, so we can see large chunks of ice clogging the river. In the wetlands nearby, we have seen a half dozen moose foraging. The willows are breaking their buds and new species of birds are returning daily. We have seen Bald Eagle, Say’s Phoebe, Northern Shrike, Common Raven, American Robin, White-crowned and Fox Sparrow, right from our window.

 

Bob captured this amazing photo of a Northern Shrike just north of St. Mary’s while exploring along the road to the airport.

Bob captured this amazing photo of a Northern Shrike just north of St. Mary’s while exploring along the road to the airport. Photo by Bob Gill.

 

Although the weather has been wet and dreary, we were able to complete our first four sets of plots in an area of lower elevation, where the fog was not so thick. Hitting the ground reminds us of how tough it is for a human to move on foot through this landscape. Although we prepare for weeks and bring excellent gear, the shorebirds are much better adapted to the tundra than we are. They arrive with nothing except some stored fat, if they are lucky, yet they immediately begin to set up their nests. In addition to the familiar sucking bogs and tussock tundra, the inland areas of the Yukon Delta NWR has dense patches of alder and willow thickets and occasional areas of boreal forest. These give us the pleasure of seeing nesting Lesser Yellowlegs, which do not occur on the arctic coast.

 

The tundra can be difficult going! These tussocks seem designed to make walking difficult. They are hard to step on without falling off, and hard to walk between without turning your ankle

The tundra can be difficult going! These tussocks seem designed to make walking difficult. They are hard to step on without falling off and hard to walk between without turning your ankle. Photo by Bob Gill

 

Day two was even wetter, but we flew over some of the most glorious landscapes we have seen in our many years of field work: beautiful marshes and river channels between ridges with high plateaus and an occasional mountain.  We saw 56 moose while flying on the first day and 78 on the second day! Shorebird species we have documented on the plots thus far include: Pacific Golden-Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs, Whimbrel, Hudsonian and Bar-tailed Godwit, Least Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe and Red-necked Phalarope. All are busily displaying on their territories and beginning to nest.

 

When it finally cleared for a few hours the view from the helicopter was glorious!

When it finally cleared for a few hours, the view from the helicopter was glorious! Photo by Bob Gill.

 

In addition to the shorebirds that are the focus of our study, we have seen many other species, especially waterfowl. These include: Greater White-fronted Goose, Canada Goose, Tundra Swan, American Widgeon, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Ring- necked Duck, Greater Scaup, Black Scoter, Bufflehead and Red-necked Grebe. Other species include Willow Ptarmigan, Pacific and Common Loon, Northern Harrier, Sandhill Crane, Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaeger, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Arctic Tern and Common Raven. We have also seen many passerines, especially in the alder thickets, including: Tree Swallow, Lapland Longspur, Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, American Tree Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird and both Common and Hoary Redpolls.

 

As we settle into long days surveying into the lingering twilight of the Alaskan summer, we nurse many aches and pains from the hours traversing this rough landscape. But we get up excited again in the morning, eager to see what the day will bring as we explore areas that have never been surveyed for shorebirds.

When the Yukon breaks up in the spring all that ice has to go somewhere; much of it floats downstream where it clogs the many mouths of the river lacing the delta, flooding the landscape for many miles.

When the Yukon breaks up in the spring all that ice has to go somewhere; much of it floats downstream where it clogs the many mouths of the river lacing the delta, flooding the landscape for many miles. Photo by Bob Gill.

 

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