The First Signs of Life

We left the south slope of the Brooks Range behind as our crew of eight descended onto the Coastal Plain by truck and small airplanes in early June.  Even our staging sites of the Kavik airstrip and Galbraith Lake were quite spring-like and warm.  But the Canning River Delta, including the area of our camp just inland from Flaxman Island on the coast held to its reputation and was covered almost entirely with snow and ice.  We relied on the considerable flying skill of our USFWS pilots and Dirk Nickisch of Coyote Air to deliver us to a small frozen lake, about a quarter of a mile from camp.

Our shorebird study crew includes 5 biologists and volunteers being supported by Manomet, and three being supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service partners.  Ian Davies, Laura Koloski, Alan Kneidel, Mark Lafaver, and Brad Winn are representing Manomet, while Scott Freeman, Elin Pierce, and Alfredo Soto have federal support through the refuge.

Since our arrival, the frozen crust has melted off quite rapidly, while the ground itself just under the surface remains frozen.  Life on the ground has slowly become evident with the bases of most plants showing a bit of green, and flowers too have started to open in south-facing pockets.  The tundra is a micro world of mosses, sedges, lichens, and a surprising variety of flowering plants.  Vivid yellows, whites, pinks, and blues are beginning to dot the landscape, especially along the crown of the bluff next to camp.

The ground-squirrels and lemmings seem to recognize and value this new growth.  The lemmings in particular that have been living in their snow tunnels all winter can be seen grazing on the ground-hugging saxifrage and lichens.  Insect life has begun to take shape as well.  Spiders are out, apparently waiting for the big bug hatches to begin.  We have seen the spiders being eaten by almost every shorebird, including a pair of Baird’s Sandpipers that is resident on the river in front of camp.  Yesterday we watched a Long-tailed Jaeger, a bird that spends most of the year sailing over open-ocean, stalk and eat spiders on foot for almost an hour.

Bird nesting in general appears to be late here compared to previous years.  Species like Semipalmated Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, and Dunlin that show strong site fidelity are back on territories that are either identical to last year or at least close to the same location.  Finding a male Red-necked Phalarope on a nest just yards from where it nested last year is astounding when one considers the magnitude of this landscape, and the idea that this little bird might have spent the winter riding the ocean currents hundreds of miles off of coast of Ecuador.

We are now into our pattern of walking searches for nests, identifying and photographing returning birds that were banded as long ago as 2006, and banding more adults on their nests as we find them.

Thank you for your interest in and support for the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network project, and please stay tuned for the next blog post on Mighty Mites, Semipamated Sandpipers, which will be posted soon.   We also have three podcasts you can listen to for additional stories and perspectives, just click on the links below.  We will continue to update you as the season progresses!

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