Wildlife on Coats Island
Posted on: June 29, 2015
Author: Shiloh Schulte
The short arctic summer feels even shorter this year, with temperatures close to freezing each morning and windy and foggy conditions most days. It is hard to believe it’s almost July. Yesterday was beautiful though, and we all took advantage of the good weather to spend a long day in the field. We caught and geo-tagged another nine Semipalmated Sandpipers, for a total of 24 so far this season. Next year we will recapture the returning birds and remove the tags to get the track of their entire annual migration.
While out in the field tagging Semipalmated Sandpipers (affectionately known as SESA or Semis), we also find nests of other arctic-breeding shorebirds, including Dunlin, American Golden Plovers, White-rumped Sandpipers, Red Phalaropes, Ruddy Turnstones, and Black-bellied Plovers. On a still morning (few and far between) you can hear the descending “jreeeeeeeeeeeeee” calls of displaying Dunlin, the “whirrrrrrr” of Semipalmated Sandpipers, and the plaintive “Tu-wheee” of the Golden Plovers.
A few King Eider are still courting in the ponds, but most of the females are incubating, while the males return to the open ocean. A pair of Tundra Swans have been visiting the ponds near camp and the Pacific Loons are on eggs. Cackling Geese and Snow Geese are all over the study area and have increased substantially in recent years. One of the goals of the Environment Canada/Trent University research team is to understand the effects of increasing goose populations on Arctic nesting shorebirds.
In addition to birdlife, we have a few mammal species on the island. Arctic Foxes are frequently seen cruising the study area looking for goose and shorebird nests. Our crew is good, but the foxes have keen noses and are likely beating us in the nest finding game.
Last night, I hiked out a few kilometers to visit a fox den on a nearby river. Scott had spotted baby kits near the den and I wanted a look. No adult foxes were around, but the babies were playing near the mouth of the den and were fascinated with me for a few minutes. They all spooked at a passing Jaeger and disappeared into the den together. Arctic foxes are a major predator of shorebird nests, but it’s hard to beat the cuteness factor of a baby fox!
We have started seeing more caribou in the past few days as well. The Coats Island Caribou have very pale coats and the females are smaller and shaggier than the barren ground Caribou of Northern Alaska.
Finally, we have polar bears on the island. The bears generally stay on or near the sea ice until July and August when they come inland to look for goose and seabird nests and cross over the island. This year, we saw our first polar bears in mid-June, shortly after arriving. We watched a mother and her cub moving inland about a kilometer from camp. We had a good view through the scope but the bears were not nearly close enough to be a threat.
A few days ago we had a much closer encounter. We woke up to find a male Polar Bear in camp nosing around the cooking tent. He was persistent and did not want to leave even after we fired a few warning shots. The crew all reacted well and ultimately we were able to scare it off with cracker shells and shotgun blasts in the dirt nearby. It was good to see him take off across the tundra without any damage to the camp or the bear.
This morning we were visited by a larger male polar bear. This one turned and ran as soon as we fired a warning shot, which is what we like to see. He went out and spent some time foraging in the study plots about a mile from camp before moving away inland. This type of bear activity is quite unusual this early in the season and probably is a result of the sea ice disappearing faster than usual. This phenomenon is becoming more pronounced each year as our climate warms. Needless to say, we are staying vigilant and working in teams.