Rugged Weather

With thick ice covering everything, including the insulators and wire for our solar bear fence, and 28⁰ INSIDE our sleeping tents, it’s tempting to stay in our sleeping bags! Photo: Metta McGarvey

With thick ice covering everything, including the insulators and wire for our solar bear fence, and 28⁰ INSIDE our sleeping tents, it’s tempting to stay in our sleeping bags! Photo: Metta McGarvey

We always expect some wintry weather in early June in the Arctic. This year has been exceptional. After two glorious sunny days when we flew in and set up camp (though with temps in the 30s), we have had 12 days of mostly sub-freezing temperatures, howling winds gusting over 30 MPH at times, and many overcast days with bouts of freezing fog, pelting snow, and freezing rain. This is the longest consistent stretch of bad weather any of us can remember.

Will and Alex look out over the Arctic Ocean icepack during a blustery walk to Brownlow Point to search for waterfowl nests. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Will and Alex look out over the Arctic Ocean ice pack  during a blustery walk to Brownlow Point to search for waterfowl nests. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

When the weather is this cold and windy shorebirds hunker down and often interrupt or wait to initiate laying their eggs. This makes it very difficult to find shorebird nests, or to do much banding. But in the rare patches of sunshine, the birds are in full glorious display.

Male Pectoral Sandpipers chase each other as they dispute the boundary between their territories. Photo: Alan Kneidel

Male Pectoral Sandpipers chase each other as they dispute the boundary between their territories. Photo: Alan Kneidel

This Semipalmated Sandpiper stays close to the ground in windy conditions. Photo: Alan Kneidel

This Semipalmated Sandpiper stays close to the ground in windy conditions. Photo: Alan Kneidel

As a result of the weather, we have only 3 newly banded Dunlin equipped with a GPS tracker to date, but our crews have found 35 shorebird nests including Pectoral Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, American Golden-plover, Dunlin, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. We also have 71 waterfowl nests of which 50 are Cackling Goose, as well as Tundra Swan, Greater White-fronted Goose, Black Brant, King Eider, Canada Goose, and Long-tailed Duck. The remaining 28 nests include Lapland Longspur, Glaucous Gull, and Parasitic Jaeger.

All 3 species of Jaeger nest on the Canning River Delta. In this photo, Alex gets a beautiful shot of a dark morph Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

All 3 species of Jaeger nest on the Canning River Delta. In this photo, Alex gets a beautiful shot of a dark morph Parasitic Jaeger in flight. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

And here Shiloh catches a Parasitic Jaeger giving Alex a hard time! Photo: Shiloh Schulte

And here Shiloh catches a Parasitic Jaeger giving Alex a hard time! Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Weather forecasts predict less wind but temperatures remaining in the 30s, so it’s not clear when we will have weather good enough to deploy trackers on tiny Semipalmated Sandpipers. Our colleagues in Utqiavik (formerly Barrow) report a similarly late spring, and have not been able to deploy any GPS trackers yet.

A typical view of camp with fog obscuring the mountains to the south. Temperatures were below freezing and wind blowing near 20 MPH. Photo: Metta McGarvey

A typical view of camp with fog obscuring the mountains to the south. Temperatures were below freezing and wind blowing near 20 MPH. Photo: Metta McGarvey

We have had a few breaks in the clouds and a couple of mostly sunny days that reveal inspiring views of the Brooks Range that lift our spirits.

On the occasional sunny day seeing the mountains south of camp and the grandeur of the landscape helps us cope with the cold, wind, and fog. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

On the occasional sunny day seeing the mountains south of camp and the grandeur of the landscape helps us cope with the cold, wind, and fog. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

 Even with fierce weather we have had some spectacular bird sightings as you’ll see in the photos below.

This Snowy Owl landed right across the Staines River from camp one evening after dinner, then did a close fly by to check us out. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

This Snowy Owl landed right across the Staines River from camp one evening after dinner, then did a close fly by to check us out. Photo: Alex Lamoreaux

Because Phalaropes are pelagic and live at sea except when they mate and nest, seeing Red Phalarope (female pictured here) and Red-necked Phalarope on small tundra ponds is always special. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Because Phalaropes are pelagic and live at sea except when they mate and nest, seeing Red Phalarope (female pictured here) and Red-necked Phalarope on small tundra ponds is always special. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This male Rock Ptarmigan makes himself highly visible to deflect attention from the incredibly cryptic female incubating their eggs nearby. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This male Rock Ptarmigan makes himself highly visible to deflect attention from the incredibly cryptic female incubating their eggs nearby. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Similarly, this curious Sandhill Crane flew right over Shiloh and Metta checking them out while they were nest searching. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

Similarly, this curious Sandhill Crane flew right over Shiloh and Metta checking them out while they were nest searching. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

One side benefit to the rugged weather has been some extra time in camp to get the banding and lab gear organized and work out routines for managing samples and data. The consistent cold has also provided great refrigeration, and we’ve had time to cook hearty meals including homemade stews, chilis, curries, and pizza using a backpacker’s oven on top of the camp stove.

Metta prepares to make a shrimp curry for dinner in our camp kitchen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

Metta prepares to make a shrimp curry for dinner in our camp kitchen. Photo: Metta McGarvey

So far we’ve seen very few mammals. There have been occasional Caribou and Red Fox, including this one diligently hunting for eggs and lemmings. Although we’ve seen only one lemming so far, we have observed fox pounce on them through the snow so we know they are still in their burrows due to the late spring. Fortunately we’ve seen no grizzly or polar bear yet, though there is clear evidence of grizzly digging ground squirrels out of the river bank next to our tents in the form of big holes and big scats!

This Red Fox still has its thick winter coat as it hunts in the swamp next to camp. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

This Red Fox still has its thick winter coat as it hunts in the swamp next to camp. Photo: Shiloh Schulte

In the next post, Shiloh will introduce you to the crew and give you an update on nest searching and deploying trackers.

This project is a partnership between Manomet Inc., the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. Geological Survey, and BP Alaska Inc. Major funding was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and by donors to Manomet.

Launching Our Expedition

Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada

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This was our first glimpse of Frobisher Bay, the bay on Baffin Island where Iqaluit is located. After a normal June in Massachusetts Baffin Island looks like a winter wonderland of ice, rock, and snow.

 

After many months of planning, we have finally arrived at the jumping off point for our expedition, which is the small town of Iqaluit, Nunavut, on Baffin Island in Canada. The town was originally called Frobisher Bay, and had a U.S. Air Force Base established in 1942. The town of about 7000 people is now the capital of Nunavut, a Territory that was officially established in 1999. We are excited to be learning a little about the town, its inhabitants, and its history as we work on getting ready for our field expedition. Iqaluit means “many fishes”, and the name was chosen in honor of the excellent fishing in Frobisher Bay. Everywhere we go native craftspeople show us handcrafted wares made of local wildlife, from caribou antlers to whale baleen.

As we taxied into the Iqaluit airport, we caught sight of Ken Borek Air, the flight service that will be taking us by Twin Otter to Coats Island on June 17th.

As we taxied into the Iqaluit airport, we caught sight of Ken Borek Air, the flight service that will be taking us by Twin Otter to Coats Island on June 17th.

 

There are several different definitions of the arctic. The one most people think of is the area north of the Arctic Circle, the line where the summer sun does not set on the summer solstice, and we are not quite that far north here in Iqaluit. But there are several other definitions of the arctic used by biologists. One is the line where the average summer temperature does not rise above 50 degrees Farenheit, and another is the treeline. Both of these lines sweep well south in the cold interior of northern Canada, and cross the middle of Hudson Bay well south of us. Our first views of Frobisher Bay as we descended through the clouds on our flight in certainly looked like the arctic landscape we are familiar with from our work in northern Alaska!

Brad, Sage, and Metta on the tarmac entering the Iqaluit airport, happy to finally be starting our next adventure.

Sage, Metta and Brad on the tarmac entering the Iqaluit airport, happy to finally be starting our next adventure.

 

This expedition is uncharted territory for our crew from Manomet. For most of us this is our first trip to the Canadian arctic. Brad Winn worked on Southampton Island with Larry Niles on a Red Knot project, so he has the best idea of what habitats we are headed for. Paul Smith is a shorebird biologist with Environment Canada, and he and his colleague Grant Gilchrist are hosting us here in Iqaluit. It is amazingly helpful to be working with people who know the place, how to navigate the many bureaucratic challenges like permits that are necessary, and even where to find replacement parts for our equipment on a Saturday afternoon. We are very grateful for all their collaboration and support of this project, which is like most that we get involved in, impossible for us to conceive of doing alone. We’re excited to be reestablishing the close working relationship that Manomet had with Environment Canada many years ago when Brian Harrington and Trevor Lloyd-Evans regularly worked with Canadian biologists on field projects.

First step, getting our personal camping gear to the warehouse.  Paul Smith, our partner from Environment Canada, flew up with us and has been taking excellent care of us, and has gone to fetch a truck to transport the gear.

First step, getting our personal camping gear to the warehouse. Paul Smith, our partner from Environment Canada, flew up with us and has been taking excellent care of us, and has gone to fetch a truck to transport the gear.

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We used an Environment Canada warehouse to tackle the job of sorting and testing all the field gear, then spent an afternoon shopping for food and packing that as well. Everything has to be weighed and the total must be under the amount the pilots can carry in the airplane.

 

All the gear we need to live in the wilderness and to carry out our research has to come here by air. Every time we fly long distances to reach these remote breeding areas in the arctic, I am amazed that the birds come bringing only themselves. What remarkable survivors they are, to be able to travel from our coastal areas in New England, already well into summer this time of year, on their way north to a still frozen arctic where it is like a New England March. We take months to plan, days to transport ourselves and all our gear, while they arrive and immediately set up territories and begin breeding.

Our first step in preparing for any arctic expedition is to collect all the various piles of gear that have been shipped by various modes of transport.  This gear was shipped up from Ottawa by Environment Canada for us to use in the field.  Transporting gear is one of the most logistically challenging and expensive aspects of working in the remote arctic.

Our first step in preparing for any arctic expedition is to collect all the various piles of gear that have been shipped by various modes of transport. This gear was shipped up from Ottawa by Environment Canada for us to use in the field. Transporting gear is one of the most logistically challenging and expensive aspects of working in the remote arctic.

 

Tomorrow we head out for the unknown, and we are very excited to see the first glimpses of Coats Island. We will send back updates as often as our work allows, and look forward to sharing the journey with you.

Our first pause to enjoy the surroundings came late in the evening, overlooking the town of Iqaluit from a hill above, with the long arctic evening light stretching across the distant hills, where we will soon be headed.

Our first pause to enjoy the surroundings came late in the evening, overlooking the town of Iqaluit from a hill above, with the long arctic evening light stretching across the distant hills, where we will soon be headed.

We are flying out to Coats Island in a Twin Otter, a huge workhorse of a bush plane that has way more capacity than the smaller planes we are used to working with.  It will accommodate five people and all our gear in one load!

We are flying out to Coats Island in a Twin Otter, a huge workhorse of a bush plane that has way more capacity than the smaller planes we are used to working with. It will accommodate five people and all our gear in one load!

 

Upcoming Research on Coats Island

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The vast Canadian Arctic is home to millions of shorebirds, but much of the area had never been surveyed until the last decade.

Manomet scientists worked closely with scientists from the Canadian Wildlife Service to help design surveys that would show the areas most important for breeding shorebirds.

This year, from June 13th to July 3rd, Stephen Brown, Brad Winn, Metta McGarvey, and Sage Dunn are leading the effort on Coats Island, a critical site in northern Hudson Bay.  One of the most common shorebirds, the Semipalmated Sandpiper, may be declining dramatically in the core of its wintering areas in South America. At the same time, populations at some Arctic breeding sites appear stable.  What’s going on?

We need to determine whether the declines in the wintering areas affect the whole species or only regional populations.  We also need to know whether the surveys in the wintering grounds include all of the different breeding populations, or whether there are some birds wintering at other locations.  Manomet organized a research project using cutting edge technology with partners Stephen Yezerinac from Mount Allison University, Rick Lanctot from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners from across the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network, to help understand what is happening with this species.

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Stephen Yezerinac, of Mount Allison University prepares geolocators for this field season. Stephen is handling all of the geolocator assembly, and will eventually lead the data downloading and analysis.

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Close-up of the geolocators.

We will be trapping the birds at Coats Island and attaching tiny geolocators while our colleagues do the same at seven other field sites in Alaska and Canada.  These units measure daylight, and from the length of the day and the time of sunrise and sunset we can tell where the unit is anywhere in the world.  Next summer we will return to the same sites, hoping to find the birds again, remove the geolocators, and learn where the birds have spent the past year.  Follow our progress as we attempt to launch a new era of understanding of where these birds are going and what we need to do to protect their declining populations.

Below are several maps at different scales showing the location of the research camp on Coats Island:

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