Welcome to the 2015 Field Season!
Posted on: May 11, 2015
Author: Stephen Brown
Manomet shorebird science teams are busy preparing for two exciting research projects in remote locations in Western Alaska and Hudson Bay, Canada. We will post photos and regular updates from our field camps, so please check back often!
Our first project, which starts in May and goes through June, is on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge (YDNWR) in western Alaska with partners in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Audubon Alaska. At more than 19 million acres, the size of the state of Maine, YDNWR is the second largest refuge in the country. It is thought to support one of the largest and most diverse populations of breeding shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere, so it has long been on our list of important places to study. With support from USFWS, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and many generous Manomet donors, we are excited to be leading the first ever survey of the entire breeding populations of shorebirds in YDNWR in 2015 and 2016.
The second project continues our work at Coats Island in Hudson Bay with the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) to track Semipalmated Sandpipers. Through this project we are gaining critical information about their migration patterns and wintering sites.
This month our blog will focus on our work in the Yukon Delta. Joining scientists from USFWS we will document previously unexplored ecosystems in several parts of the YDNWR and implement the largest survey of breeding shorebirds ever conducted. This will require four crews, two working by helicopter May 15–27, and two coastal crews working by boat and float plane beginning when the ice breaks up in late May and continuing until mid-June. Stephen Brown will lead Manomet’s helicopter team surveying the northern half of YDNWR along with Brad Winn, Bob Gill, who worked for many years with USGS as a lead shorebird biologist, and Metta McGarvey providing logistical support. Rick Lanctot, the lead shorebird biologist for USFWS in Alaska will lead a helicopter team surveying the southern half of YDNWR together with Diane Granfors who coordinates the Inventory and Monitoring Program for USFWS Alaska, and Jim Lyons and Susan Savage also from USFWS. Manomet is also sending Alan Kneidel on the coastal surveys which will be led by Kristine Sowl of YDNWR.
Working in the Yukon Delta presents an enormous number of difficult logistics due to its vast size, high density of nesting birds, many native communities with hunting and fishing grounds that we do not want to disturb, and the financial challenges of working in a vast wilderness without roads. Metta and Stephen are already on the ground working with our colleagues in Anchorage on an overwhelming number of preparations to support our helicopter surveys. In order to survey more than nineteen million acres in just two weeks, each of our two teams will use their own small helicopter to travel to 16 randomly selected plots each day. Each researcher will have one hour and thirty-six minutes to cover 40 acres of rough terrain on foot, while capturing all signs of breeding shorebirds. This can be very challenging when there is so much bird activity to sort out! When finished, the helicopter will circle back, pick up each surveyor and take the crew to the next plots. Luckily, the spring days are very long in Western Alaska (the sun goes down briefly, but it never gets fully dark) because there is a lot to do!
Walking 40 acres in rough tundra terrain without falling down is a challenge all by itself, so how can we accurately count shorebirds at the same time? Although shorebird nests are usually quite difficult to see, the surveys occur in a remarkably short window of time when the birds are actively setting up territories. These normally demure and quiet birds that are familiar to most of us as silent visitors to the coastlines of the world break into song to advertise their territories, and at this special time of only a couple weeks we can see and count them. The timing is crucial to the success of this study as the birds are incredibly difficult to find once they begin to incubate their small nests in the tundra grasses. Once on their eggs, they hold tight and mostly manage to avoid detection unless we happen to step within a few meters of them.
The YDNWR survey is a part of the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM), an international effort to survey all prime shorebird habitats in the North American Arctic over the past two decades. Manomet scientists have been conducting PRISM surveys in Alaska (including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) and Canada since 2001.
Our Yukon Delta project is supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Inventory and Monitoring Program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and generous donors to Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Program. The data from this survey will help us measure both current population sizes and the impacts of future conservation work on increasing shorebird populations.
We will be posting updates at least weekly during the field season, weather and satellite access permitting, so check back regularly to see the latest from our teams in the field!
We look forward to sharing our adventure with you!