The Search for Nests

Although our day-to-day routine in the field varies slightly, the one aspect of the work up here that we always focus on is nest searching. We might be doing surveys of the snow cover one day or banding birds the next, but whenever we are away from the camp we are invariably doing our utmost to discover as many nests as possible. As I touched on briefly in a previous post, we generally locate the nests by cluing in on the behavior of birds or flushing them off their nests.

Distraction displays are a frequent occurrence when a bird is flushed off of a nest, as shown here by this Semipalmated Sandpiper. Agitated calls are often accompanied by a shuffling run through the grass that mimics a rodent, drawing you away from the nest.

Distraction displays are a frequent occurrence when a bird is flushed off of a nest, as shown here by this Semipalmated Sandpiper. Agitated calls are often accompanied by a shuffling run through the grass that mimics a rodent, drawing you away from the nest.

 

We keep track of the nests of every species here except one, checking them at least every five days from the day they’re found until the eggs hatch. The exception is Lapland Longspurs, which are not of interest to this study, and are so abundant that it is not unusual to find 5-8 of their nests in a day of just walking around. It is fascinating to see the differences in nest finding between each species, how they vary in behavior and response to our approach. I won’t describe every one of the species that do nest here since there are so many, but the five species that we are focusing on in this study showcase the spectrum of behavior quite well. Our five focal species are all shorebirds, and more precisely are Semipalmated Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope, and Dunlin, listed in order of abundance of nests.

Female Red-necked Phalaropes are beautiful, with the leaden gray plumage contrasting with a nice rufous neck. However, if you watch them you will rarely be led to a nest, since after laying eggs they get out of there and will not be seen in the area again.

Female Red-necked Phalaropes are beautiful, with the leaden gray plumage contrasting with a nice rufous neck. However, if you watch them you will rarely be led to a nest, since after laying eggs they get out of there and will not be seen in the area again.

 

The Semipalmated Sandpiper, shown above, is our most abundant species here by far, often making up half of the total nests found in a season of all species. They are one of the easiest nests to find in my opinion, so that is likely a large part of why we find so many. They tend to flush up off the nest at between 5-30 yards, which is close enough so that you can often tell the exact spot they flew up from and walk right to the nest, but also a sufficiently large distance that you have a good chance of popping them up when walking through an area. Once flushed, they usually stick close and give a distinctive call that usually indicates they have a nest nearby, just in case you weren’t convinced yet, and will usually sneak back to the nest almost immediately. These serve as the basis of behaviors that we look for in birds with nests, and are a good baseline to compare other species to. Sometimes you won’t see a bird jump off a nest, but then you’ll hear the distinctive call, get a sense of the location, and find a nest after watching the bird for just a couple minutes. These guys tend to like drier ground, and will often line their nests with nice white lichens.

This Semipalmated Sandpiper nest was unusual in that one egg was differently colored than the other three. These are typical eggs for this species, tan and brown and fantastically camouflaged.

This Semipalmated Sandpiper nest was unusual in that one egg was differently colored than the other three. These are typical eggs for this species, tan and brown and fantastically camouflaged.

 

Is this bird worth watching to find a nest? Nope! But he sure is beautiful. Male Pectoral Sandpipers will hang around throughout the season and try to mate with as many females as possible, displaying over the heads of feeding females quite often, trying to draw their attention whenever possible.

Is this bird worth watching to find a nest? Nope! But he sure is beautiful. Male Pectoral Sandpipers will hang around throughout the season and try to mate with as many females as possible, displaying over the heads of feeding females quite often, trying to draw their attention whenever possible.

 

Pectoral Sandpipers are our second most regularly found nest, but they have a whole lot more deviousness to deal with. Due to the breeding strategies of this species, however, you can discount half of the individuals immediately if you can tell whether the bird is male or female. Pectoral Sandpiper males will never be at a nest, and have no role in the parental care, so if the bird isn’t a female, it isn’t going to lead you to a nest. The distance that these will flush is usually 15+ yards, and can often be upwards of 50 or 100 yards. This means that if you’re not looking at the horizon as you’re walking, they will often pop off and fly far away, so when you reach the nest area you have no idea that there was ever a bird there. We will often find Pectoral nests later in the season that have been there for weeks, and have just been eluding us all along. Well over a half hour can pass before some females will go back to their nests, so patience and a bit of luck is required to be in the right spot at the right time when she returns. The combination of long flush distance and time away from the nest makes these on the tougher side to find sometimes, and some of the nest searchers here are frequently frustrated by a tricky Pectoral. They tend to nest in drier habitats, but will sometimes be on small dry patches surrounded by swampiness.

I personally think Pectoral Sandpiper eggs are the most beautiful, large and slightly greenish in coloration, and mostly covered with dark blotches.

I personally think Pectoral Sandpiper eggs are the most beautiful, large and slightly greenish in coloration, and mostly covered with dark blotches.

 

This is a bird to watch: a lone male Red-necked Phalarope. He will almost certainly have a nest, and will enjoy leading you on a merry chase to find it. As you can see, the female shown above is much brighter with more striking plumage overall.

This is a bird to watch: a lone male Red-necked Phalarope.
He will almost certainly have a nest, and will enjoy leading you on a merry chase to find it. As you can see, the female shown above is much brighter with more striking plumage overall.

 

Red-necked and Red Phalaropes are similar to Pectoral Sandpipers in that you only have to worry about half of them – but in phalaropes, those are the males! The gender roles are reversed in phalaropes, where the females are the snazzy-looking ones that compete for male attention, and the males build the nest and incubate the eggs. At the start of the season, we will see lots of pairs hanging out together and after a certain point the females lay their eggs and depart, leaving only lone males. Phalaropes are unique among the shorebirds in that they spend their migration and winters mostly offshore in the oceans, returning to land only to breed.

They are much more adapted for water as opposed to shore, and are almost exclusively found in or next to water. As is to be expected, their nests are usually near water, scarcely further than 6 inches away from some pool or ditch. It is amazing some of the sites they choose – small tussocks of vegetation isolated in a large marshy pool, with the grasses tucked neatly around the nest in such a way as to render it almost invisible from above. Phalaropes will sometimes sit on the nest until you’re feet away, looking up and pretending they’re not there until you almost step on them. They also add another dimension to the finding process in that they will often walk off of the nest and fly up five or ten feet away from the actual nest, deluding you into thinking you know where they came from, until you realize you’ve been duped yet again.

Red-necked Phalarope eggs are small and yellowish, with very dark spots. As you can see here, the grass comes up on all sides and mostly overshadows the eggs too, making for almost complete concealment of the nest.

Red-necked Phalarope eggs are small and yellowish, with very dark spots. As you can see here, the grass comes up on all sides and mostly overshadows the eggs too, making for almost complete concealment of the nest.

 

Although appearing beautiful and innocent in this photo, this Dunlin was almost certainly about to sneak off to a nest somewhere and give some nest searcher the slip.

Although appearing beautiful and innocent in this photo, this Dunlin was almost certainly about to sneak off to a nest somewhere and give some nest searcher the slip.

 

Last but not least, the Dunlin. In my opinion, Dunlin are by far the craftiest and sneakiest of nesters up here, often leading you on a merry chase for the better part of an hour, only to leave you no closer to finding their eggs than when you started. Most Dunlin encounters begin when you hear the bird, and then look up and see it standing there watching you calmly, showing its unquestioned superiority. They will often flush at between 100-200 yards, so when you arrive in the area they will be very far from the nest, or not even around. Usually you have to visit the territory of a Dunlin a good half-dozen times before you finally track down the nest, sometimes crawling over ridges and watching from a distance while someone else walks up and causes the bird to fly off the nest. It can get pretty personal, and we only have 10-15 nests of this species a year usually, so any day that you come back with a Dunlin nest is a good day. They are also very site faithful, and sometimes will even use the same exact nest cup from year to year, cutting down the area that you have to search if you can find a banded bird from a prior year.

Dunlin eggs are lovely, creamy buff in coloration with nice blurry spots. This is an unusually unconcealed nest, but is nicely lined with willow leaves. As you may have noticed, all of the nests have four eggs, which is the most heat-efficient number to have.

Dunlin eggs are lovely, creamy buff in coloration with nice blurry spots. This is an unusually unconcealed nest, but is nicely lined with willow leaves. As you may have noticed, all of the nests have four eggs, which is the most heat-efficient number to have.

 

So there is a rough sketch of some of the trials and tribulations of searching for nests, and the sorts of things that we have to keep in our minds on a daily basis. You could be walking along and flush a bird up at 20 yards, and the first reaction will be “Pectoral!”, only to realize after a few seconds that it is a male, and that it won’t lead you to a nest. Or sometimes you won’t see it well enough to see it is a male, and waste 10-15 minutes watching a bird before coming to the realization that it has all been for naught.

Even though they are not as brilliantly colored as the females, male Red Phalaropes are still gorgeous creatures and will often lead you to a nest. These guys will often run off of a nest and flush from a ways away, confusing the actual location of their eggs quite handily.

Even though they are not as brilliantly colored as the females, male Red Phalaropes are still gorgeous creatures and will often lead you to a nest. These guys will often run off of a nest and flush from a ways away, confusing the actual location of their eggs quite handily.

 

As the season winds on there are fewer and fewer new nests, so each one becomes more coveted and challenging to find, since the areas that are frequently walked have already been pretty thoroughly canvassed. Soon we will be having nests begin to hatch, which opens up a whole new dimension, since birds with chicks act like they have a nest nearby, even though they’re mobile with their young.

A Real Arctic Summer

IMG_2147

This beautiful view across the tundra towards the Brooks Range in the distance is what we have to suffer through on a daily basis. It has been amazingly clear this year, and you can scarcely tell that the base of the foothills are 35 miles away.

 

As the second week of the field season draws to a close, it really feels like summer. Our little space heater hasn’t been used since June 10 (!), and the high over the last week was a whopping 78.1 degrees, about 12 degrees higher than the peak last year. It has been really striking to see the tundra change from the snowscape created by the blizzards when we first arrived to the brown and gold expanse of tundra that currently dominates our world. Although we are appreciating the warm weather for the most part, it could have dire consequences come July: mosquitoes. Last year it was considered to be a warm year, and along with the transition from June to July came uncountable hordes of mosquitoes – so I can’t even imagine what this year is going to be like. It has been fantastic weather for photography as well – it has been hard to go to bed some nights since you just want to stay up longer. Also, as a brief disclaimer on image quality in these posts, I am severely limited by the satellite phone uplink, and so that is why the photos are so low-res.

King Eider must be some of the most beautiful birds on the continent, from their ornately patterned head to the peculiar black “sails” on their back. We have found several nests and see dozens daily.

 

Once the weather turned around, the birds got down to business. We have been finding nests left and right, and have had multiple days with over 20 nests found as a group, with a total of ~120 for the season. These mainly consist of Semipalmated Sandpiper nests, our bread-and-butter species here, but also have more exotic species thrown in, such as four Buff-breasted Sandpiper nests (none found last year), a Greater White-fronted Goose nest, and a pair of Parasitic Jaegers. We also have good numbers of Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, Pectoral Sandpipers, and Cackling Geese, and a smattering of other species.

Love is in the air! These Dunlin were renewing their pair bond, and a couple days later had set up shop with a nest just a short distance from where this photo was taken.

 

By this point we have fallen into the standard daily routine, finding nests and banding birds. We get up between 6:30-8 depending on the person, and then are out in the field usually by 9ish, and back between 5-7pm. We will walk eight or ten miles in a day on average, searching for nests by observing bird behavior or going so close to an active nest that we cause the bird to fly off of it, alerting us to its location. Once we have discovered a nest, we take down basic information, such as the species, GPS coordinates of the nest, number of eggs, and whether the bird is previously banded. You can also tell the age of the eggs in the nest by using a really cool technique called “floating”, where you place an egg in water and observe the angle at which it lays in the water. As the egg ages, the egg will float more upright until it is floating at the surface, and then will hatch soon after.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper eggs have to be some of the most beautiful, and are made all the more special by the fact that they are a species that is not frequently encountered on the breeding grounds. This year we have been lucky enough to watch them displaying all over the study area, and have found four nests thus far.

 

After we have found a nest, we will revisit it to keep tabs on the birds until the nest hatches. If the birds are not banded, we may also capture the birds and band them, allowing us to understand more about these birds between years, watching them return to the same area to nest. For most of our species it is about 20 days from the last egg being laid until they begin to hatch, which usually ends up being in the first two weeks of July. As the hatching date gets closer and closer, we will check the nest daily because once the chicks hatch, they will only be in the nest for several hours and could easily be missed before their departure.

Semipalmated Sandpipers like this one here are our most frequently discovered nest, and definitely the species that keeps us going. These cute little guys will often come back to the same nesting site year after year, often within ten meters of the nest of the year before and sometimes in the exact same nest.

 

Right now we’re still at the finding and banding stage, but our first nests could be hatching in about a week! Most days this week there have been 10-15 nests found by the group, and between 5-20 birds banded. One of the really fascinating things we can do is synthesize banding and nest finding, since some of the species are so faithful to the area of their nesting site. Semipalmated Sandpipers and Dunlin in particular are so loyal that they will occasionally use the same exact nest cup in different years. With these birds being banded, after we observe and identify an individual we can target our searching for where it nested the year prior and quickly and efficiently locate nests.

Heidi assists in the banding process out in the field. We carry all of our gear with us in a large bag that was made to be a shower kit and band the birds near their nests to minimize disturbance.

 

Despite all of our searching, we are still finding nests right by camp; every day this week there has been at least one new one found within 100 meters of the tents we live in every day! When our furthest point in the study area is over 3.5km away, and we are still finding nests by camp, it makes you wonder how many are out there. We will be doing our best to find out in the remainder of the field season! Our temporary graduate student helper Roy Churchwell will be departing on June 24th, so we will try to churn out as much work as possible before being down to five people for the final few weeks of the season.

These nice summery nights (for here) are perfect for photography – showcased here as Brendan photographs a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

 

Different Year, Different World

The mosaic patterns of snow, tundra, and winding rivers made for a beautiful flight from Galbraith Lake to the Canning River.

The mosaic patterns of snow, tundra, and winding rivers made for a beautiful flight from Galbraith Lake to the Canning River.

 

After finishing up the preparations in Fairbanks, the first leg of our journey began: Scott, Brendan, Adam, and myself in two pickup trucks, laden with supplies, heading north for 12 hours up the Dalton Highway to Galbraith Lake. About 30 minutes down the road we hit the first snag – when one of the tires on the trailer that the lead truck was carrying sheared off and bounced down the road towards us in the rear vehicle! Luckily there was no lasting damage to anyone or anything, and after returning to town and a couple hours of replacing parts and repair we were once again on our way, this time without anything more than a flat before reaching our destination.

Brendan wading through a shallow pond to photograph some King Eider on the first night of the season.

Brendan wading through a shallow pond to photograph some King Eider on the first night of the season.

 

We spent the night at a cabin at Galbraith Lake, where we stayed with another field crew who were researching Smith’s Longspurs. The following morning we were picked up by Dirk and headed off for the 90 minute flight to camp. Scott and Adam headed out first, and Brendan and I took advantage of the couple hours of downtime to go find and photograph the uncommon and local Smith’s Longspur while we waited. After great success in that department, the pilot returned and we loaded up the remaining gear and were off for the true beginning to the summer!

SMLO

This Smith’s Longspur eased the passing of time at Galbraith Lake as we waited for the plane to return. This bird was with a banded female, on a known territory from last year, and is part of a research project of the people stayed the night with.

 

The flight from Galbraith Lake to our destination of the Canning River Delta was simply gorgeous, passing over miles and miles of unbroken and pristine ground, with pale ribbons of icy rivers interspersed among the rolling tundra. Landing as usual on a frozen lake, we were greeted with a truly exceptional sight for June 2 at the edge of the Arctic Ocean – nearly 60 degree temperatures, clear blue sky, and almost no wind. Amazed by our good fortune, we quickly started hauling our gear the kilometer from the landing strip to camp, and spent the remainder of the day setting up camp and organizing our food and supplies. Having the glorious weather that we did made this much easier, as opposed to the usual strong winds, fog, and sub-freezing temperatures that are a feature of setting up camp most years.

RNPH

The first night was as perfect as it gets – and this Red-necked Phalarope was having a blast on the glass-like water, a highly unusual sight here at a place where the winds are rarely in single digits.

 

Brendan and I spent the first evening walking around part of the study area, taking advantage of the beautiful warm light that you get here in the hours around midnight. You might be thinking wait, light around midnight? Since we are so far north, the sun never sets during our field season here, making day and night blend together. On this evening the birds were reveling in the weather as much as we were, singing, feeding, and busily setting up house on the newly exposed open ground. It was a good thing that we took advantage of this first night, as it immediately turned back to standard Arctic weather the following day! A complete contrast to the first night, June 3-7 featured temperatures that never went over freezing, and were as low as 23 degrees. We also had two large snow events that approached blizzard conditions at times, with 20mph+ winds driving sideways snow that drifted upwards of a foot in some places.

Although in most years the weather and overall climate here is unpredictable, and often brutal, the hot weather this early in June is quite unusual, and could make for an incredible number of mosquitos for us by the end of the season!

PESA

Male Pectoral Sandpipers inflate sacs of air in their chest region, and then fly in a unique display flight over females, making a truly astounding booming noise as they do so. I hope to have a photo of one in the middle of this display to show later in the season, so you can see how truly bizarre it is.

 

As a result of this unusually cold weather, the first three nests we found on June 3 were abandoned and buried under 4 inches of snow in the storms, and the rest of the breeding was pretty much put on hold. The large number of birds that were present the first night thinned out and seemed to mostly disappear, and new nests were not found for five days. During this time we were able to get everything in camp set up that we needed to, and get settled into life here, but it definitely got old after a little while. Having the initial surge of hope with three nests, only to have a long period of not many birds and subpar weather put an unfortunate damper on things, but that is not too surprising given the late spring that the area up here has had.

STIS

When the blizzard hit, you can see how this golden landscape quickly became a winter wonderland. This Stilt Sandpiper was making the best of it in the small areas of open water, but had to bide her time to wait for nesting.

 

We spent one of these slow days taking a jaunt out to the Arctic Ocean as a group – with the five of us walking about 16 miles for the day. Lunch at the edge of the ocean of ice (iced over), walking on some sea ice and looking at Ringed Seals, and a beautiful sunny day made for about as nice a visit as you can have there! While walking along the barrier beach there we found many washed up bones from Bowhead Whales, and some Polar Bear tracks. Slightly different than spending some time on a beach back in Massachusetts.

Adam looking at Ringed Seals from a large snowdrift at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Nothing between us and the North Pole in this image except a lot of ice, some seals, and maybe a few Polar Bears.

Adam looking at Ringed Seals from a large snowdrift at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Nothing between us and the North Pole in this image except a lot of ice, some seals, and maybe a few Polar Bears.

 

 

On this last day, June 10, the cold weather has broken and the birds are beginning to make preparations for nesting. Males are flying around and proclaiming their territories to everything nearby, while females watch, evaluate, and pair up. The initial nest scrapes are made in the tundra, and first eggs are laid. Over the next few days we should start to find many more nests, and be able to get into the full swing of the field season.

Snow

The scene in camp and by our sleeping tents on the first day of serious snow – by the end of the night we had drifts along the side of our tents.