Late June = Late Season

These Pectoral Sandpiper chicks, from our second hatched nest of the year, were still in the nest cup when visited. Four little guys fit into the nest cup, with the female bird still keeping them warm for the moment. Their beautiful silver and red-brown fluff might be my favorite of any of the chicks we have here.

These Pectoral Sandpiper chicks, from our second hatched nest of the year, were still in the nest cup when visited. Four little guys fit into the nest cup, with the female bird still keeping them warm for the moment. Their beautiful silver and red-brown fluff might be my favorite of any of the chicks we have here.

 

Really, late season already? Even though it seems like we just got here a few weeks ago (because we did), the shorebird breeding season in the Arctic is already on the wane. It is really astounding how narrow the window of opportunity is for these birds – they arrived and started nesting about three weeks ago, and in only three more weeks many of them will be on their way southbound, starting the cycle of migration once more. The stage of the summer that late June brings has its certain ups and downs, but is really a special time to be out here.

The display of the male Pectoral Sandpiper starts on the ground, where he gulps air in order to prepare for his flight display, where he greatly inflates his throat and flies over a female, making a deep booming noise, as is somewhat shown here.

The display of the male Pectoral Sandpiper starts on the ground, where he gulps air in order to prepare for his flight display, where he greatly inflates his throat and flies over a female, making a deep booming noise, as is somewhat shown here.

 

By now, pretty much all of the birds that will nest around here have at least begun the process of breeding if they’re going to do so, which is a stark contrast from only a week ago. Our tundra is mostly quiet now, with the occasional loon echoing out from a lake or pond, but near silence from the shorebird front. The booming of Pectoral Sandpiper displays is a rare event now, and the familiar idling motor sound of our staple Semipalmated Sandpipers is all-too-infrequent. Every bird that is going to find a mate and breed has done so and is either on a nest or feeding, so there isn’t nearly as much of a need to display since the two primary reasons for that behavior are to establish territory boundaries and attract mates.

More than slightly conspicuous, Pacific Loons nest on little islands and peninsulas throughout the study area. These rank among the easiest nests to find, since you can often see them from hundreds of meters away. Despite this, few of them have been depredated by foxes yet this year!

More than slightly conspicuous, Pacific Loons nest on little islands and peninsulas throughout the study area. These rank among the easiest nests to find, since you can often see them from hundreds of meters away. Despite this, few of them have been depredated by foxes yet this year!

 

Although still pretty visible at close range, at longer distances the incredible cryptic patterning on a female King Eider makes her look like a clump of dirt or a small mound near the edge of a lake. These guys have unfortunately been hit pretty hard by the foxes, since they are literally sitting ducks.

Although still pretty visible at close range, at longer distances the incredible cryptic patterning on a female King Eider makes her look like a clump of dirt or a small mound near the edge of a lake. These guys have unfortunately been hit pretty hard by the foxes, since they are literally sitting ducks.

 

The fact that birds are on nests is great for us, since that is what we live for up here! This year has been exceptional for nest finding, and we have surpassed the previous three years of the study in numbers of nests, currently just 2-3 nests shy of 300 total. Even as of today we are still finding new nests of Pectoral Sandpiper and both flavors of phalarope, so we hope to find many more! Sadly the flip side of these nests is that, like last year, many of our nests are being depredated – eaten by seemingly ubiquitous Arctic Foxes, taking a large toll on the unfortunate shorebirds. At the start of the season, we were cautiously optimistic about there being few foxes because we were only seeing 0-1 a day as compared to 3-5/day last summer. As our stay has progressed, the numbers have grown somewhat, and 2-3 a day has been the norm for the past week or so. This doesn’t seem like a large change, but the presence of just one of these egg-eating machines is enough to put a large dent in the success of breeding birds, and a couple more makes for some serious effects. This might seem regrettable but it is part of the natural order here; there are surely areas where the same species have very high breeding success this year to make up for the Canning area.

One of the culprits of many of our failed nests, these cute and (sort of) cuddly foxes spend all of their time hunting for lemmings, shorebird nests, and whatever else they can get their paws on. This individual still has some of the fluffy white winter coat showing on the flanks and neck, but has mostly switched to the darker, shorter summer coat.

One of the culprits of many of our failed nests, these cute and (sort of) cuddly foxes spend all of their time hunting for lemmings, shorebird nests, and whatever else they can get their paws on. This individual still has some of the fluffy white winter coat showing on the flanks and neck, but has mostly switched to the darker, shorter summer coat.

 

But not all is bad! The birds are fighters, and our first chicks have been hatching. It is easier to forget about the foxes when you are gazing at some adorable fuzzy chicks from a nest that we’ve been keeping tabs on for 20 days. As of June 30 there have been two broods of Pectoral Sandpiper chicks, and one brood each of Semipalmated Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone. Over the next few days we have most of our nests slated to hatch, so if we are lucky we should soon be ankle-deep in fluffy adorableness. Once the chicks have hatched and left the nest, they will hang around with the adults for several days to learn the ways of the shorebird. After, the parents will leave their chicks and head out to fatten up for their flights south. The young shorebirds will often find each other at this point, forming small groups and feeding together, still unable to fly for a few more days. About two or three weeks after the parents leave, the juvenile shorebirds will follow in their footsteps, migrating south for their first journey. If all goes well, they’ll be back to breed in one or two years, and we might even see some of them here!

Our first hatched bird of the year was this Ruddy Turnstone, shown here at roughly one day old a few meters from the nest. From any sort of distance, the mottling on the feathers of this bird blend flawlessly into the ground.

Our first hatched bird of the year was this Ruddy Turnstone, shown here at roughly one day old a few meters from the nest. From any sort of distance, the mottling on the feathers of this bird blend flawlessly into the ground.

 

The other big news at this time of year is the arrival of the caribou. We are treated to not only an impressive bird scene here, but also a large mammal spectacle that we call the American Serengeti. As of the past few days, we have woken up to a horizon littered with caribou, ranging from small groups of 20 or 30 upwards to herds of thousands, with an estimated 6,400 visible at one time in the evening two days ago. Some of these larger herds have come through the study area, even coming through camp one day. On a calm day, you can hear the big herds coming from miles away – snorting noises and the low drumming of hooves that feels like an earthquake. It is a pretty awesome experience to get in the path of an oncoming herd and lay down – they completely ignore you and come within mere dozens of feet, passing by like water around a rock in a river. Some animals will stop and stare for a minute or two, coming close and sniffing, but they all eventually continue on. It takes a herd of 1,000 animals or so a mere 10-15 minutes to pass by, feeding calmly but continually moving to avoid the bugs.

This photo was taken around midnight, when I spent some time laying down near a herd of a couple thousand caribou that were scattered across the tundra. Many of the animals were bedding down for the night, which made for a wonderful scene with the Brooks Range looming in the background.

This photo was taken around midnight, when I spent some time laying down near a herd of a couple thousand caribou that were scattered across the tundra. Many of the animals were bedding down for the night, which made for a wonderful scene with the Brooks Range looming in the background.

 

Over the remaining couple weeks the caribou should continue to pass through by the thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands. Nests will continue to hatch, even in the fact of hungry foxes, and the bugs will continue to get worse. I didn’t even touch on the bugs here; I could write a whole post about the fun they bring. Before we know it, the brief Arctic summer will be over and making way for another long, dark winter in the far north. Our crew will be down to four members as of July 1, and one other person and I will be out of here on July 15.

Many of the caribou are in cow/calf pairs, with newborn young that are only several weeks old toddling along behind their mothers. The young caribou, or "baby 'bou" as we like to call them, are very inquisitive and will come right up to you sometimes.

Many of the caribou are in cow/calf pairs, with newborn young that are only several weeks old toddling along behind their mothers. The young caribou, or “baby ‘bou” as we like to call them, are very inquisitive and will come right up to you sometimes.

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