To Find a Shorebird Nest

Note: There has been a considerable gap of time since our last post from the Arctic. This year we are working with our research partners to review blogs, press releases and other documents for accuracy and completeness and this process can take time. The events of this post and the next one take place in late June and early July 2018. We will have the next post up shortly. Thank you for your patience.

July 1, 2018

Nesting shorebirds act suspicious. Sometimes this is obvious with alarm calls or distraction displays designed to grab a predator’s attention and lead it away from the nest. Often it is much more subtle, especially early in the incubation cycle. A Semipalmated Sandpiper or Dunlin with a new nest might sneak off through the sedge as you approach, only to pop up on a nearby mound and preen or start to forage for food. They look like any other sandpiper on the landscape except that they are watching you. You can see it in the tilt of their head or the way they run away only to pop up and stare at you again. A bird without a nest will usually either ignore you entirely or just fly off.

SESA1This banded Semipalmated Sandpiper watches us intently as we search for her nest.

DUNLDunlin are experts at nest concealment and deception. This one is not pleased that we finally found his nest.

Of course, suspecting that a bird has a nest is only the first step. Then you either have a painstaking search for perfectly camouflaged eggs in a dense cover of sedge and grass or more often, a retreat to a good vantage point to hold still and wait for the bird to make his or her way carefully back to the nest cup.

Good nest-finding skills are essential for our work up here on the Canning River. We are trying to retrieve satellite transmitter put out in previous years and deploy new tags on several shorebird species. In both cases, we need to catch the bird, and trapping at the nest is the quickest and most reliable way to do that. We use mesh bow nets that pop over the nesting bird and are easy to use, safe for the bird and eggs, and very reliable. But first, we have to find the nests.

SESA_nestLook carefully to see the little Semipalmated Sandpiper nest in this photo. This photo was taken from 3 feet directly above the nest. You can see why extreme care and good eyesight is needed when searching for these eggs.

In addition to deploying satellite transmitters to track post-breeding and migration movements, we are working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on a large, long-term study of nesting shorebirds and waterbirds on the Arctic coastal plain. By thoroughly searching our study area for nesting birds we can track changes in which species are using the Refuge, monitor bird abundance, and estimate nest survival rates.

LISALisa Kennedy tries to pick up a signal so she can mark the location and information on a new Dunlin nest in our database. The signal works about 70% of the time so the system is still a work in progress. 

This year the late snowstorms and deep snow base have significantly delayed the start of the nesting season. When we arrived two weeks ago we were already very late getting into camp due to weather. Normally the 13th would be the peak of egg-laying, but when we arrived the snow cover was still almost 100% and we saw very little evidence of nesting behavior, let alone nests on the ground. Nesting ramped up quickly as soon as the snow started to melt, but for some species, it may be too late. We have already noticed flocks of Long-billed Dowitchers gathering up as they do before migration.

LBDOLong-billed Dowitchers are regular nesters on the study area, but we have found no nests this year and many are already flocking up and preparing to leave. The late storms and heavy snow may mean a failed nesting season for this species.


Other species such as Dunlin and Pectoral Sandpipers are nesting but much later than normal. This likely will mean that they only get one shot at nesting this year because if anything happens to the nest they will probably not have time to try again before the short Arctic summer is over.

As a result of the weather delays getting into camp and the strange nesting season, our work is considerably more challenging this year. We have only seen a couple of the birds we tagged last year and so far have not been able to find their nests and retrieve transmitters. It is possible that this is a result of the poor nesting conditions on the Canning this year, but it makes the rest of our work more critical. Unlike the transmitters we put out last year, the new devices upload directly to the satellites and do not need to be retrieved the following year to download data. They will degrade and fall off the birds after the batteries run out. This year we are attempting to catch Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers.

PESAA male Pectoral Sandpiper inflates his air pouch as part of a mating display to a nearby female. Pectoral Sandpipers are one of the more abundant nesting species and their deep hoots form part of the background sound of the Arctic summer.

BBPL_nestPlover nests are more exposed than sandpiper nests, but these Black-bellied Plover eggs are still perfectly camouflaged with the surrounding moss and lichen.

While the Pectoral Sandpiper trapping has been a success, we have a shortage of Golden-Plovers on the study area this year. The one nest we found was eaten by a fox within 24 hours and we have few new prospects at the moment. It is possible that the abundant Snowy Owls on the study area this year are keeping the plovers off their normal nesting areas as the two species seem to prefer similar habitat for nesting. In our next post, Shilo Felton, a recent Ph.D. graduate from North Carolina State will describe our search for Plover nests and her experience as a new researcher in the Arctic.

SNOW1The lemming population has exploded and Snowy Owls are everywhere this year, taking advantage of the food bonanza to feed their young.

Early season challenges at the Canning River shorebird camp

09Glacier Avens. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

While our Spoon-billed Sandpiper crew was starting their surveys out of Kotzebue, our Canning River shorebird crew was preparing to get into the field on the North Slope of Alaska.

Half the challenge of our field season in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is just getting to our study site. Located three miles from the Beaufort Sea on the Canning River Delta, the site is accessible only by bush plane on skis or tundra tires, depending on the conditions. After a week of prep in Fairbanks, we headed north on June 5th on a 10-hour drive on the Dalton Highway to a US Fish and Wildlife Service bunkhouse at Galbraith Lake. From there, we would be close enough to shuttle ourselves and our 3500lbs of food and research gear on hour-long flights to our study site.

The drive was stunningly beautiful as we crossed the White Mountains and the Brooks Range before descending down to the lake in the foothills of the mountains. The plan was to fly in our people and gear from Galbraith to the Canning River camp the next day, weather permitting. Unfortunately, the persistent north wind kept a layer of fog over the coastal plain and, though the weather in Galbraith was perfect, we could not fly into camp.

13Shiloh hiking up a ridge at Galbraith Lake

Over the next eight days we repeated the pattern of gearing up, waiting for the weather to clear, and standing down as the flight was called off again. Our consolation was spending over a week in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. Galbraith Lake is nestled in among the mountains on the North side of the Brooks Range. The tundra is dryer and features easier walking than our field site and we took advantage of our delay to explore the foothills and landscape around the cabin.

05Returning from a hike in the hills at Galbraith Lake (Shiloh Schulte, Shilo Felton, Lisa Kennedy, Sarah Hoephner, Patches Flores)

Finally, on June 13, we got a brief window of good weather and were able to make a series of flights into camp to bring in some of the crew and supplies. The snow was unusually deep and persistent on the coastal plain this year so, despite the fact that we arrived two weeks later than last year, the snowpack was much more extensive and birds were still arriving.

04Canning River from 1,200 feet. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

The flight into camp is always stunning. As the mountains fall away to the South, the entire coastal plain and vast river deltas open up ahead, with the endless ice sheet over the Beaufort Sea visible to the North. Our early season landing strip is on a frozen lake about a half a mile from camp. Unfortunately, with the extensive snow cover, it was hard to tell which lake was the right one, and the first two crews and gear were dropped off on a lake about two miles away.

10Landing the crew and gear on the frozen lake. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

Even after finding the correct landing site, we still had to haul all of the remaining gear via sled up to the campsite through ice, slush, and tussock tundra. The weather closed back in the following morning, and the full crew was not united in camp for another two days.

11Hauling gear back to camp (Patches Flores, Elyssa Watford, and Shilo Felton)

The Canning River camp is larger than it has been in past seasons and features several concurrent studies. The team from Manomet is working closely with the US Fish and Wildlife to search for Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin that had been tagged with GPS trackers last year. We are also deploying new tracking tags on Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden-Plovers.

03Canning River field camp. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

08Canada Lynx out on the tundra. Quite an unusual sight north of the treeline. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

These trackers, which sit on the birds like backpacks, record precise locations of the birds after the breeding season and should allow us to identify important staging and feeding sites for conservation along the Alaskan coastlines.

01Baird’s Sandpiper. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

14Smith’s Longspur. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

In addition to the tracking study, we are working as US Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers and assisting the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with multiple projects on the coastal plain. One of these projects assesses the efficacy of monitoring nests with cameras and temperature loggers in an effort to reduce the number of nest visits needed to monitor nest survival. At the same time, a team is conducting a study of the Arctic Fox population in the area by collecting DNA from hair snares and scat.

06Crew training for Arctic Fox sampling. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.

We are also catching waterfowl to assess health indicators and prevalence of disease in the population. Finally, we are collecting information on insect diversity and abundance and the presence of herbivores in the study area.

My next post will describe what we found over the following weeks through long days searching for nests and tagged birds. Despite the weather challenges it is an incredible privilege to be able to work in this beautiful and pristine landscape.

 02A flagged Semipalmated Sandpiper takes off on a display flight. Photo by Shiloh Schulte.


Collaborative Fieldwork Makes for a Busy Camp

We have already described the work we are doing with the GPS-tagged birds, but this year at the Canning River camp we have several additional, but related projects going on. In addition to deploying GPS tags on shorebirds, we are also color-banding for long-term survival and movement studies and taking blood and swab samples for USGS biologists to track the occurrence of avian influenza. Chris Latty, wildlife biologist-ornithologist for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Will Wiese, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), are running a study using nest cameras to examine waterfowl nesting behavior, predator type and effects, and looking at any effect of the cameras themselves on nest survival rates. We are also deploying these cameras at half of the shorebird nests which helps us determine what the nest predators are and if this is a good technique to use in the future. Spoiler alert! Arctic foxes eat shorebird eggs. What is a bit more unusual are the red foxes in the study area. Red foxes are a rare sight on the Arctic coastal plain and have only recently been sighted this far North. This change is likely related to our changing climate and spells trouble for Arctic Foxes, which are often killed or driven out by their larger cousins. In another unusual occurrence, we may have had one shorebird nest that was destroyed by greater white-fronted geese.

IMG_3299Will Wiese and Jessica Herzog return victorious after a long day of waterfowl stalking.

In an attempt to understand how many arctic foxes are using the study area and how many of those are preying on shorebird nests, the USFWS launched a pilot study to try to capture and mark arctic foxes in the study area. Unfortunately, the foxes were already eating too well and none of them felt the need to take the bait and go into the live traps so we could mark them. We will have to get craftier next year if we want to catch the little guys.


IMG_9335Elyssa Watford demonstrates how to inflate and use a pack raft.

With all of the projects going on the camp has been very busy and crowded at times. We started off with 7 people in camp. From Manomet, Shiloh Schulte, Metta McGarvey, Alan Kneidel, and Alex Lamoreaux. From UAF, Will Wiese, Jessica Herzog, and Elyssa Watford. The UAF crew was in camp from May 31 to June 20 and was focused primarily on waterfowl. Despite the consistently terrible weather during this period, they managed to get out in the field and cover an impressive amount of ground to find goose nests and trap waterfowl for banding and sampling. Despite the long days, they all managed to infuse a huge amount of energy and fun into camp. Will in particular never seems to run out of energy and was generally game for anything from dishwashing, to games, to an epic hike, no matter how long he had spent in the field that day. Jessica is an undergraduate student at UAF and this was one of her first field jobs. Somehow she managed to keep up with Will in the field (no easy task) and remain constantly enthused about the work. Elyssa is starting her master’s work at UAF and will be working primarily with Common Eider on the barrier islands in the Refuge.

IMG_4076A pair of tagged Dunlin in flight. Dunlin molt their primary feathers while nesting, so their wings look a little ragged at this time.

IMG_3724A male King Eider cruising his small lake with the Brooks Range behind.

IMG_9412Polar bear tracks under the midnight sun just Northwest of Camp.

On the 15th of June we were joined in camp by Patricia Del Vecchio and Steve Berendzen, the acting refuge manager, bringing in the total in camp to nine. Patricia and Steve were setting up the fox tagging project and were out in the field for long hours deploying and checking traps. Both Patty and Steve have a wealth of knowledge and experience from working in Alaska for many years and dinner conversation was always fascinating. For instance, I did not know that Golden Eagles would hunt Caribou calves! Steve was only able to be in camp for a few days and had to leave on the 20th with the UAF crew. Chris Latty and Patches Flores joined us on the 20th to carry on the waterfowl work. Chris could only stay a few days as well, but Patches remained with Alan and Alex to close out the season.

IMG_4632Our ride home arrives in camp on June 30th.

Metta and I left on June 30th, heading for Fairbanks and back to the “real” world. Lifting off from camp is always a humbling experience. The scope of the study area, which feels huge when you are trudging through it for miles every day, suddenly looks tiny against the sweeping panorama of the landscape from 5000 feet.

IMG_4653Canning River Delta bird camp on the bluffs above the Staines Slough.

After all the coming and going in camp throughout June, the remaining crew is down to Alan, Alex, and Patches for the month of July. I imagine camp will feel empty but peaceful for the remaining weeks. We wish them well and good luck with the mosquitos!

IMG_4681Abrupt transition between rolling foothills and the North edge of the Brooks Range.

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.