Trapping on the Jago River Mudflats

Late summer and the tundra is blooming. Splashes of color dot the landscape from yellow Arctic Poppies (above), purple Bistort, white Cotton Grass, and dozens of other species.

Late summer and the tundra is blooming. Splashes of color dot the landscape from yellow Arctic Poppies (above), purple Bistort, white Cotton Grass, and dozens of other species.

 

Written by Shiloh Schulte.

Change of plans. According to Roy Churchwell it seems there are not many shorebirds on the Canning River mudflats at the moment. Our last survey on the Jago flats had close to 1000 Semipalmated Sandpipers so the new plan is for Roy to come here to the Jago after he is finished trapping at the Okpilak camp. I am pretty happy about this because I am having a good time here on the Jago. The bird surveys are turning up interesting species like Bar-tailed and Hudsonian Godwits, as well as hundreds of Stilt Sandpipers, Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, Red-necked Phalaropes, and Semipalmated Sandpipers.

A caribou and calf take refuge from the mosquitos at the edge of the Jago River mudflat. A small group is grazing around the mouth of the river, but no sign of the great herds as yet.

A caribou and calf take refuge from the mosquitos at the edge of the Jago River mudflat. A small group is grazing around the mouth of the river, but no sign of the great herds as yet.

 

This crew is also a lot of fun to work with. The Jago crew consists of Heather Craig, Eddie Corp, and Vitek Jirinec. Heather is the crew leader. At 22 Heather is the youngest member of the team but she is a three-year veteran of field work on the Arctic coast, and has the most experience in the area. Both of Heather’s parents are wildlife biologists so she grew up handling birds in remote field camps. Heather has worked for Manomet before and was a huge part of our success on the Natural Resource Damage Assessment project in Louisiana. Eddie Corp is also 22 and on his second year of Arctic field work (the first as a Manomet employee). Eddie grew up in Bethel, Alaska hunting, fishing, and exploring. Quiet and thoughtful, Eddie is usually the first to spot wildlife and is always bringing interesting things back to camp. Born in the Czech Republic, Vitek Jirinec is 25 and another veteran of Arctic field work. Vitek never seems to run out of energy. Even after a full day of work Vitek is always ready to go for a swim or head out across the tundra to look for wildlife. The only time I ever saw Vitek get upset was when he thought he missed seeing a Polar Bear. Of course we were just teasing him because he is kind of obsessed with finding a bear.  Trevor decided to stay at the Okpilak camp to help with bird surveys and invertebrate sampling. Hopefully I will get a chance to talk to him soon and let you know what he has been up to.

 

Vitek Jirinec and Heather Craig take different approaches when gearing up for invertebrate sampling.

Vitek Jirinec and Heather Craig take different approaches when gearing up for invertebrate sampling.

 

On trapping day I hike out to the far end of the Jago river mudflats to meet up with Roy. Slogging across mud and river channels for 5 kilometers takes a while, but on this trip I got a great look at a mother caribou and calf taking refuge from the mosquitoes out on the edge of the flats. We set the nets perpendicular to the shoreline so sandpipers will run into the net wall as they move along the edge of the flats. The plan is to catch one or two birds at a time because we need a blood sample within 20 minutes of capture. While Roy Churchwell and Patrick Herzog (a new field tech that will be heading out to the Canning River camp) band and take blood samples, I will work small groups of sandpipers toward the nets and retrieve captured birds.

Mist net in the mist! This mist net is part of a string of nets we set on the Jago River mudflats to catch Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Mist net in the mist! This mist net is part of a string of nets we set on the Jago River mudflats to catch Semipalmated Sandpipers.

 

Getting birds to fly into the nets is a challenge. The nets are almost invisible when set up, but birds have incredible visual acuity and agility. Time and again flocks swerve around or over the nets at the last second. After a few frustrating near-misses I remember a trick to get the birds to fly in. The next time a flock swerves up I throw my hat into the air. Instinctively the flock twists down to avoid the “predator” and suddenly two sandpipers are resting in the net. After that our system worked well for a few hours until the water started rising and it was time to move the nets. Fortunately reinforcements arrived in the form of Vitek and Heather. Our nets make a tiny footprint on a huge mudflat so good placement is crucial. Herding sandpipers is easier with more people and we make steady progress all afternoon. By 7:00pm we are hungry and muddy but we have banded and sampled blood from 16 Semipalmated Sandpipers. Only four more to go to reach our quota. We do not have to catch all 20 today, but the winds are forecast to rise tomorrow and now that we are so close we want to get it done. With the water now dropping we move the net all the way back out to the edge of the water and wait. The birds disperse as we set the nets and for a few minutes it looks like we are going to have to call it quits for the day. Suddenly a small group of sandpipers lifts off the mud and forms up into a tight defensive group twisting and wheeling in the sky. More groups follow and soon the sky is filled with nervous birds. A Parasitic Jaeger flies steadily across the flats ignoring the chaos his presence creates. After the Jaeger passes by the flocks resettle. Right in front of our net! Moving carefully, we spread out behind one group and slowly walk the birds closer and closer to the net wall. When the birds are just a few feet from the net they take flight and scatter. Somehow most of the flock still evades the net with incredible high-speed twists and turns, but one group turns the wrong way and all at once ten Semipalmated Sandpipers are hanging in the net! With so many people on hand retrieving and processing the birds goes quickly and at last a very successful day comes to a close.

Shiloh Schulte about to release four Semipalmated Sandpipers at the end of a long trapping day.

Shiloh Schulte about to release four Semipalmated Sandpipers at the end of a long trapping day.

 

Second Arctic Project Underway

The Brooks Range frames the Jago River field camp on a beautiful day in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Shiloh Schulte).

The Brooks Range frames the Jago River field camp on a beautiful day in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Shiloh Schulte).

 

From Stephen Brown:

Welcome back to our Arctic Blog! After a brief respite, our second project of the summer is now underway in the Arctic. Over the past six years, we have been conducting a survey of the entire coastline of the Arctic Refuge, where southbound shorebirds are getting ready for their long flights. At the same time, we have been helping with another project led by Roy Churchwell, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and his advisor Abby Powell. Roy is studying the distribution of the invertebrates that shorebirds eat, and learning a great deal about how they influence where the birds choose to spend their time. We finished our coastal survey last year, but are still supporting Roy’s project by sending some of our experienced crew to help out with this challenging project. This year, Manomet staffersTrevor Lloyd-Evans and Shiloh Schulte are working with Roy, along with Olivia Hicks, our volunteer from England, and Eddie Corp, from Bethel AK, who also worked at the breeding camp earlier in the season. These four are joining up with the rest of Roy’s crew to survey and band shorebirds, and sample invertebrates at three camps along the Arctic Refuge coastline. Since I’m back at the office working hard on keeping them all funded and organized, Shiloh and Trevor will be updating you on their work as Roy’s project progresses. Enjoy this first post from Shiloh!

Invertebrate sampling is cold, muddy work, but the data will tell us how much food is available for shorebirds on the Jago River delta. Photo by Vitek Jirinec. In the photo: Heather Craig.

Invertebrate sampling is cold, muddy work, but the data will tell us how much food is available for shorebirds on the Jago River delta. Photo by Vitek Jirinec. In the photo: Heather Craig.

 

Written by Shiloh Schulte

“Well you can try the clearance racks, but there is not much call for that item this time of year”. The thermometer outside the L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine stands at 101 degrees and I am trying to buy three sets of thermal underwear. Elaine, the saleswoman, watches me dubiously as I make my way to the back of the men’s clothing department. No luck. Two stores later I finally find what I need at Cabela’s, and my Arctic outfitting is complete. Fast forward five days and I am glad to be wearing the extra layer as I wade into the Arctic Ocean with three other crew members and launch the Zodiac on our way to the Jago River field camp on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It has been 14 years since my last visit to the Arctic. I was 18 and somehow managed to land a job on a field crew on the Colville River in Northern Alaska studying Lapland Longspurs, Loons, and Shorebirds. I was hooked. A series of field jobs and my graduate work followed, but I never managed to find a way to get back to the tundra. Last year I was prepared to come north as part of Manomet’s team working on the fall shorebird study, but by July I was deeply immersed in Manomet’s assessment of damage to shorebirds as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Shiloh Schulte heading out along the flats on a warm and windy morning. When temperatures rise above 50 degrees mosquito protection is usually essential. On this morning the wind kept the bugs at bay and I was able to go out in short sleeves. Extra layers in the pack of course. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

Shiloh Schulte heading out along the flats on a warm and windy morning. When temperatures rise above 50 degrees mosquito protection is usually essential. On this morning the wind kept the bugs at bay and I was able to go out in short sleeves. Extra layers in the pack of course. Photo by Shiloh Schulte

 

Five minutes out from Kaktovik, our boat motor suddenly loses power and we quickly discover that the cooling system has failed or clogged. A 20 minute trip becomes 60 as we creep along to prevent the engine from overheating. The crew takes the setback in stride and when we finally arrive at camp we get to work quickly. Eddie stays in camp to work on the motor while Heather and Vitek, the other two UAF crew members, and I head out to the mudflats to sample invertebrates.

It is late summer in the Arctic and many shorebirds have left their nesting sites to head north to the extensive coastal mudflats. Here they will “stage” in large flocks, foraging day and night to gain weight for their long southward migration. The fall shorebird study is designed to discover how many shorebirds of each species are using these flats, what they are eating, and how much food is available. To answer these questions we have to act like shorebirds. This means getting down and dirty as we extract a series of mud and water samples from a seemingly endless series of plots on the huge Jago River mudflat. These samples will be analyzed for invertebrate abundance and diversity, which in turn will tell us how much food is available for shorebirds.

Returning to camp hours later we discover that repairing the motor was not possible with the tools we have on site. Eddie has already made some calls with the satellite phone and we should have additional support to fix or replace the motor tomorrow or the day after. No worries. In the meantime this just means more walking when we head out in the morning for the next shorebird survey.

Red-necked Phalaropes are one of the many shorebird species staging on the Jago River delta. Photo by Shiloh Schulte (taken with an iPhone through a Swarovski scope).

Red-necked Phalaropes are one of the many shorebird species staging on the Jago River delta. Photo by Shiloh Schulte (taken with an iPhone through a Swarovski scope).

 

And walk we do! The mudflat at the mouth of the Jago River is over 2 kilometers wide and 5 kilometers long. The survey protocol calls for us to census all shorebirds on the flat every three days. In practice this means criss-crossing the flat systematically from one end to the other. Heather and I set out early in the morning, while Eddie and Vitek prepare for another day of muddy invertebrate samples (rotation decided by scissors-paper-rock). By the end of the day Heather and I have walked for eight hours and spent three hours looking through a scope. Our survey was a success though. A rare day of light wind and clear skies made for ideal bird watching conditions and we counted hundreds of shorebirds, most of which were young Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Semipalmated Sandpiper population has declined sharply in recent years for reasons that are still largely unclear. Disturbance and loss of habitat at migration and winter staging areas may be responsible, but part of the answer might lie here on the Arctic mudflats. These newly fledged sandpipers need to pack on weight quickly before the short summer is over. As the Arctic climate warms, more glacial meltwater is released into the rivers on the North Slope. The influx of fresh water might be enough to shift the available feeding habitat or even change the salinity of the mudflats, which in turn, might affect the invertebrates on which the Semipalmated Sandpipers and other shorebirds rely. Hopefully the abundance of young Semipalmated Sandpipers on our survey is a reflection of a good breeding season. We will not know though until the data are in from the rest of the season, both here on the Jago and from partners conducting surveys all across the Arctic.

Grizzly tracks (left) and Wolf tracks (right) on the flats east of camp. Photos by Vitek Jirinec and Shiloh Schulte.

Grizzly tracks (left) and Wolf tracks (right) on the flats east of camp. Photos by Vitek Jirinec and Shiloh Schulte.

 

Returning to camp footsore and tired we find that Eddie and Vitek finished before us, so dinner is hot and ready! A good end to the day. Did I say end? Not with this crew. After dinner Vitek proposes a polar plunge in a permafrost pond near camp. “Near” is a relative term however, as the closest pond is almost a kilometer away. For some reason we head out anyway and find a suitably deep and freezing pond. No way to do it slowly – in rapid succession we cannonball into the pond and emerge gasping to pull on dry clothes and sprint back to camp.

Sometime in the next couple of days I should be heading out to the Canning River camp to re-join Trevor Lloyd-Evans and Roy Churchwell and begin shorebird trapping. We will band the birds and take blood samples which will be analyzed to see how quickly the birds are gaining weight. I will miss the seemingly inexhaustible energy and high spirits of the Jago River crew, but I am excited to see a new and more remote site and get the trapping underway. I will check back in when I can with a report from the Canning River delta.

The Jago River crew heads out into the Beaufort Sea. Photo by Vitek Jirinec.

The Jago River crew heads out into the Beaufort Sea. Photo by Vitek Jirinec.

A Dunlin Gains Fame on the Arctic Refuge

We did not know what this bird was at a distance.  What is black, with red, and a white belly, walks in the water and feeds like a bantam chicken?  We quickly realized that it could only be one bird, a Ruff.  On close approach, we were able to photograph a spectacular male Ruff in full breeding garb.

We did not know what this bird was at a distance. What is black, with red, and a white belly, walks in the water and feeds like a bantam chicken? We quickly realized that it could only be one bird, a Ruff. On close approach, we were able to photograph a spectacular male Ruff in full breeding garb.

 

Written by Brad Winn

He had given us tantalizing clues, but until yesterday, we had not been able to find his nest. This particular Dunlin, with the letters HCH inscribed on his flag-band had been seen many times with and without his mate, usually feeding in wet boggy meadows or on the edge of ponds near the study plots 5-A and 5-B here at the Canning River camp in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. HCH, along with about ten other Dunlin we spotted, was carrying a Geolocator, a device that had been on this bird for a year. The Canning River Demographics research team in 2010 had captured him on his nest and placed the device, along with the alpha-coded flag band, on his legs during the previous nesting season. The study is being led by Rick Lanctot, the Alaska Shorebird Coordinator for US Fish and Wildlife Service. Our quest this year was to recapture as many of the Dunlin with these daylight recorders as possible in order to find out where they had travelled during their year of migration. There was valuable information on these birds that could lead to a better understanding of important sites used by Dunlin during migration and wintering.

The weather has been great.  All of the sun has melted the snow from around our tents and most of the tundra in our study area.  Even late-night sun has some warmth.  The highest temperature we have seen is 49 degrees, but after all of the cold we had during our first week, 49 degrees feels balmy.

The weather has been great. All of the sun has melted the snow from around our tents and most of the tundra in our study area. Even late-night sun has some warmth. The highest temperature we have seen is 49 degrees, but after all of the cold we had during our first week, 49 degrees feels balmy.

 

While studying animals, in this case shorebirds, it is a general rule among biologists not to identify too closely with the individual animal, but to think in terms of populations. It is best to be distant from the subject in order to view the larger picture most accurately. We use small numbers of individuals to gain an understanding of a subpopulation, a species, or even group of species. It is best not to have an emotional connection and just analyze the data to draw conclusions about the questions being asked. Conservation of habitat and knowledge of the threats to populations is the main focus of Manomet’s efforts in the Shorebird Recovery Project, including the work in the Arctic. Periodically however, there are animals that catch the personal attention of the people studying them. Individual study subjects that do something unusual or outstanding draw attention, even when the researcher’s intent is to remain objective.

Parasitic jagers are the smaller relative of Pomarine Jager.  The flight capabilities of these seabirds is very impressive.  If their nest is approached, they attempt to distract the intruder with dramatic distraction displays of wing flapping, squeeking, and even pretending to flop as a wounded bird on the surface of the water. If the distractions fail, they defend their nests with vigor, working as a pair to dive bomb and occasionally bite the intruder.

Parasitic jagers are the smaller relative of Pomarine Jager. The flight capabilities of these seabirds is very impressive. If their nest is approached, they attempt to distract the intruder with dramatic distraction displays of wing flapping, squeeking, and even pretending to flop as a wounded bird on the surface of the water. If the distractions fail, they defend their nests with vigor, working as a pair to dive bomb and occasionally bite the intruder.

 

The Dunlin HCH, after weeks of stalking, became larger than life, a local legend to us while we were trying to track him down.  HCH had become a phantom, and in our tundra-strained and sleep deprived minds, was purposefully taunting us by being elusive on the ground, then giving us full aerial displays and calls during his dramatic departure flights. To be able to catch him, our first task was to find his nest, then find him on the nest incubating eggs. He would share incubation duty with his mate, and we would have to know when he was there before setting up our little hoop trap to catch him.

The effort to recapture Dunlin tagged last year with the little daylight recorders called Geolocators has been successful, with 4 tranmitters removed from birds.  The data from these minute devices will yield important migration information that will help understand the sites of greatest importance to these global travelers.

The effort to recapture Dunlin tagged last year with the little daylight recorders called Geolocators has been successful, with 4 tranmitters removed from birds. The data from these minute devices will yield important migration information that will help understand the sites of greatest importance to these global travelers.

 

One particularly cold and windy morning, two of us spent hours following a female Dunlin, in what we thought was the home range of HCH. We hoped this was his mate and she was going lead us back to their nest location. After watching her feed, fly off for a bath, then return to feed, she eventually flew up a slope into the known territory of a completely different male. This was not the mate of HCH. We were cold and tired and had failed again to find our bird.

This Ruff, a very rare visitor to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, was running and flying after other shorebirds that approached his little section of riverside marsh.  With feathers erect, the ruff became an imposing pint-size monster.

This Ruff, a very rare visitor to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, was running and flying after other shorebirds that approached his little section of riverside marsh. With feathers erect, the ruff became an imposing pint-size monster.

 

Other shorebirds have worked their way from obscure science subjects, to shorebird personalities with a committed following, much larger than our HCH. One of them is the Red Knot known as B-95, that was tagged in Argentina in February of 1995. Click here to learn more about B-95. This Red Knot is so famous that he has a children’s book written about him.  There is a Whimbrel named “Hope”, who was fitted with a transmitter in 2009 that is tracked by satellite. Hope was captured in Virginia by biologists from the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary. Her incredible flights over the last two years have taken her three times to a nesting site on the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada, twice to northern Hudson Bay before her southbound trip, and twice to a wintering site on St. Croix Island in the Caribbean. Click here to follow Hope and other Whimbrels tagged by a cooperative group that includes the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Yesterday, June 22, the first egg on our study area here at the Canning River hatched.  Here is the Semipamated Sandpiper chick in the nest with the three hatching eggs.  Notice the incredible camouflaged pattern of this little brid’s down.  It will soon leave the nest with it’s siblings to begin a life of insect eating and rapid growth.  This little guy will need to be able to migrate in about 7 weeks.

Yesterday, June 22, the first egg on our study area here at the Canning River hatched. Here is the Semipamated Sandpiper chick in the nest with the three hatching eggs. Notice the incredible camouflaged pattern of this little brid’s down. It will soon leave the nest with it’s siblings to begin a life of insect eating and rapid growth. This little guy will need to be able to migrate in about 7 weeks.

 

Yesterday our luck changed quickly. Scott compared the Dunlin nest locations from this year to the Dunlin nests that were marked in 2010 and found that many of the nests this year were in very close proximity to last year’s nests. We went to the 2010 HCH nest site, where he had been fitted with the data recorder last year. He was close, sitting on a nest less than 100 feet from where he had incubated eggs last year.  This bird had most-likely left Alaska late last summer and travelled down the coast of the Eastern Pacific Ocean to spend the winter perhaps in China or South Korea.  Rick Lanctot has been working with Asian partners to exchange color-band resights for several years. The little device on his leg would tell us how far and for how long he had been in any particular location.

This Dunlin, with the code HCH has been seen many times by our study crew but we had failed to discover its nest until two days ago.  We set our little net over the nest and finally captured this elusive bird to remove the Geolocator. To find a nest the size of a teacup on open tundra takes a sharp eye and the ability to recognize telltale behavior of the nesting birds.

This Dunlin, with the code HCH has been seen many times by our study crew but we had failed to discover its nest until two days ago. We set our little net over the nest and finally captured this elusive bird to remove the Geolocator. To find a nest the size of a teacup on open tundra takes a sharp eye and the ability to recognize telltale behavior of the nesting birds.

 

We finally captured HCH, (see the photos) removed the locator, checked his condition, took a small sample of blood for genetic work, and sent him on his way. The geolocator will tell his migratory story and lead to a better understanding of what Dunlin in Alaska need during their migratory year. New technologies like these geolocators, advanced satellite transmitters, and digital VHF transmitters are assisting those most concerned with declining shorebird numbers to understand vital migratory information for the population by tracking individuals.

A male King Eider stands on the edge of a small pond waiting for his mate to return.  She stays in small tundra ponds during the laying process, one egg per day until her clutch is complete.  The male eider will stay with her until she begins incubation.  These big sea ducks spend the rest of the year in the ocean, diving to feed on clams and mussels.

A male King Eider stands on the edge of a small pond waiting for his mate to return. She stays in small tundra ponds during the laying process, one egg per day until her clutch is complete. The male eider will stay with her until she begins incubation. These big sea ducks spend the rest of the year in the ocean, diving to feed on clams and mussels.

 

Small and fancy, this little red phalarope will leave several clutches of eggs for her “men” to incubate for her.  They will rear the chicks before departing for a winter life well out at sea in southern oceans.

Small and fancy, this little red phalarope will leave several clutches of eggs for her “men” to incubate for her. They will rear the chicks before departing for a winter life well out at sea in southern oceans.

 

With the background of treeless mountains, Ryan Burner and Olivia Hicks scan for nesting shorebirds.

With the background of treeless mountains, Ryan Burner and Olivia Hicks scan for nesting shorebirds.

 

To be in the presence of many snowy owls has been a treat for those on this expedition.  There is usually at least one owl in view during our daily work routine, like this one, who has just spotted a lemming.  These large owls are one of the few birds that can survive the cold arctic winter as long as food is plentiful.

To be in the presence of many snowy owls has been a treat for those on this expedition. There is usually at least one owl in view during our daily work routine, like this one, who has just spotted a lemming. These large owls are one of the few birds that can survive the cold arctic winter as long as food is plentiful.

 

This is a Stilt Sandpiper on his nest.  Both sexes incubate.   These beautiful sandpipers usually act quite indignant when disturbed at a nest, and will usually stand, protesting, just feet away as we examine their eggs.

This is a Stilt Sandpiper on his nest. Both sexes incubate. These beautiful sandpipers usually act quite indignant when disturbed at a nest, and will usually stand, protesting, just feet away as we examine their eggs.