A Semi-Annual Publication of Manomet

Into the Arctic
Studying shorebirds across 3,000 miles of Tundra
By: David McGlinchey

Grizzly Bear
© Brad Winn

They first saw the grizzly bear about 400 yards away, coming over a small bluff and running directly toward them.

The two field biologists were hiking back to camp after a long day of surveying shorebirds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They stopped to face the animal.

Never run from a grizzly.

They remembered their training, despite every instinct to escape. A herd of caribou to the east stampeded, fleeing from the predator.

Make noise. Yell. Wave your arms. Let the bear know you are not a caribou.

They thought back to their safety course. The bear would most likely leave as soon as it realized they were humans. But this one, because of curiosity or hunger, was not turning away.

200 yards.

The bear was still coming, moving quickly and effortlessly over the low tussocks and frost heaves of the tundra.

100 yards.

One of the biologists, Alan Kneidel, braced the stock of his charcoal gray remington pump-action shotgun against his shoulder. He trained the crosshairs on the bear. Laura Koloski, the other biologist, readied her canisters of bear spray.

50 yards.

30 yards.

20 yards.

Twenty-five feet away the bear stopped.

Kneidel kept the shotgun up, trained on the animal. He knew that if the bear charged he would only have one shot.

Koloski aimed and fired the bear spray, but the wind was against them. The spray's telltale red dye hung in the air and was carried off into the cold Arctic sky, away from the grizzly. The bear paused, looked at the pair, and started circling. The biologists seized this chance and circled the opposite direction, maneuvering to get the wind behind them.

Thirty seconds later Koloski sent another blast of bear spray, this time with the wind at her back. The red dye looked like it missed again but then the grizzly caught a whiff of the spray. With a snort and a violent sneeze, it fled.

* * *

This was the closest, but not the only, bear encounter during Manomet’s 2012 Arctic field research season. Over a decade of studying shorebirds in the Arctic, there have been multiple run-ins. Polar bears are the iconic symbol of the endangered Arctic but grizzlies share the habitat during the summer.

“While many people think of polar bears as the most dangerous and aggressive bear, and we’ve had some close encounters with them, our interactions with a few aggressive grizzlies have been the most intense and have left the most lasting impressions,” said Stephen Brown, director of Manomet’s Shorebird Science Division and a veteran of 12 Arctic field seasons.

Arctic Researcher

© River Gates searches for shorebird nests at Cape Krusenstern National Monument, one of 16 sites across the Arctic that are taking part in the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network, an effort to track shorebird survival and help understand what limits populations. Photo by Slade Sapora.

But when Brown cautions new team members about the hardships of the Arctic he does not talk about the bears. Instead, he warns of the bitter cold, swarms of mos­quitoes and unrelenting winds that top 50 miles per hour.

“It starts to wear on you,” said Manomet Conservation Specialist Brad Winn. “It’s like walking uphill all day long.”

But year after year the Manomet researchers keep coming back to the north slope of Alaska. They keep coming back to face the hardships of the Arctic tundra because this is where shorebirds come to breed.

Shorebirds

Juvenile Stilt Sandpipers fresh from the tundra gather
on the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo by Stephen Brown.

From as far away as Brazil and Argentina, birds like Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones migrate to their ances­tral breeding grounds every spring to find mates and build nests. These long-distance migrants can travel as far as 11,000 miles, one-way.

The world’s most famous Red Knot — known as B95 because of the number on its leg band — has made the round trip at least 19 times.

In recent decades, however, shorebird populations have plummeted. Many conservationists believe that without effective and immediate action some species could disappear entirely in the coming decade.

The number of one population of Red Knots has fallen by 80 percent in the last 20 years.

The population of Semipalmated Sandpiper wintering on the northern coast of South America has also dropped 80 percent in the past two decades. The number of Whimbrel that stop-over in the mid-Atlantic U.S. states during their northward spring migration has shown a 50 percent decline in the last 15 years.

Scientists know that populations are falling precipi­tously, but they don't know exactly why. According to researchers, conservation efforts must be carefully targeted at the underlying problems, if they only knew what those problems were.

And the Arctic is where Manomet researchers hope they can unlock some of the mysteries of these dramatic shorebird population declines.

* * *

The difficulty in studying shorebird breeding is scale.

Mountain Range

Looking south across the rich shorebird nesting grounds of
the Alaskan coastal plain to the snow-covered Brooks Range. Photo by Stephen Brown.

The nests are spread across thousands of miles of remote and inhospitable U.S. and Canadian Arctic.

Manomet had been studying shorebirds in the Arctic for several years, but had not cracked the big picture problem.

"The challenge," Winn said, "is how dispersed the birds are on an unimaginably vast landscape."

In early 2009, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shore­bird biologist Rick Lanctot invited Kansas State profes­sor Brett Sandercock to give a presentation on wildlife demographics at the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Group meeting in Mazatlan, Mexico.

Brown was in the audience for the presentation. He remembers the talk explained how a demographics model would help scientists "understand which part of the lifecycle is limiting populations."

Later that day over lunch, a group of scientists dis­cussed what it would take to produce a useful shorebird demographics model. By the end of the meal they had laid out an ambitious plan, a network of study sites that would stretch from Nome, Alaska to Churchill, Canada.

Momentum built over the next year. Organizers secured financial support from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Manomet Center's Research and Development Fund.

In the summer of 2010, the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network (ASDN) was launched as a five-year project.

Administered by Manomet, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Kansas State University, the ASDN is about to begin its fourth year of fieldwork and now includes 17 organizations working at 16 sites across the U.S., Canada and Russia.

The other participating organizations are Simon Fraser University, Wildlife Conservation Society, EnvironmentCanada, University of Quebec at Rimouski, Trent University, Smith and Associates Ecological Research, New Jersey Audubon, Bureau of Land Management, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Institute of Biological Problems of the North-Russia, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Groningen, the Government of Nunavut Department of the Environment and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

"I've been in research for about 15 years and I've never seen any project at the scale that the Network is working on," said River Gates, who manages logistics for the ASDN from Anchorage. And because of this collab­orative research — over 3,000 miles and three countries — the shorebird picture is coming into focus.

But bringing the big picture into focus takes lots of small steps. When Koloski and Kneidel were charged by the grizzly this summer, they were on their way back from trapping and banding Red Phalaropes on their nests. Red Phalaropes have reversed the typical avian sex roles. The females are larger and more brightly colored — with red bellies and white cheek patches. In a remarkable piece of adaptation, the female maximizes her nesting chances in the short Arctic summer by breeding with several males and leaving each of them to incubate the eggs and nurture the chicks.

They had also checked in on a Cackling Goose nest. The geese were not a focal species for the ASDN research, but each year the Arctic team identifies all nests in its study area and monitors their progress. The researchers attempt to trap and band adult shorebirds on the nest. Back at Manomet headquarters, the scien­tists compare the nesting success year-to-year.

The teams are also monitoring survival and recruit­ment (new adults who show up on the sites). The team counts the number of birds that were banded the year before and returned. Remarkably, after migrating to South America and back, the birds often return to the same sites and sometimes the same nests each year.

"We figured out that some of them were actually nest­ing in the same cup as they had the year before," Winn said. "They are really tight on territory. This strong fidel­ity to the nest site is the reason that the Arctic is the best place to study these globally nomadic birds."

Conducting the nesting, survival and recruitment research over five years and 16 sites "is important because nesting success is highly variable," Brown said. Shorebirds can do well in one part of the Arctic, and poorly in another, all in the same year. The broad scale is necessary for a comprehensive and balanced picture of shorebird population health.

nest

Working across 3,000 miles of tundra with 17 differ­ent organizations presents daunting scientific challenges.

In order to make this research useful, Brown and his team wrote a 120-page protocol for the study, to be used by all the researchers on the project.

"A big challenge was convincing everyone to stan­dardize their methods," said Lanctot, the Fish and Wildlife Service's shorebird coordinator for the Alaska region and the science coordinator for the ASDN.

Every scientist involved in organizing ASDN research echoed the difficulty of implementing the protocol across all the camps. Adding to the complexity, many of the camps have other research projects running at the same time.

"That standardization makes sense from the outside but a lot of the people running these camps are graduate students or technicians. They don't have the big picture," Lanctot said.

But despite the logistical challenges, the required scientific coordination and the daunting landscape, the project is already bringing in valuable information.

"We're gaining such a perspective and suite of information, it allows us to understand the mechanisms that are behind the declines of shorebirds," Gates said. "And the only way we could ever have this information was by getting all these different groups on board with the project. No single organization could do this on its own."

This spring Manomet researchers were buoyed by some long awaited news. After processing almost 40 years of data from the International Shorebird Survey, scientists discovered that the overall downward trend in counts of some shorebird species appears to be reversing.

Bird

A female Black-bellied Plover gives an alarm call to her mate on the banks of the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Brad Winn

Even more heartening, the reversal has taken place after the start of targeted conservation efforts in the late 1990s. Conservation scientists at shorebird sites are encouraging local residents to avoid critical habitat and take pride in the visiting flocks. One of the encouraging species, the American Oystercatcher, has been the focus of significant management efforts during that time. It is impossible to assign cause and effect to the reversal in trends, but the news is welcome regardless.

The International Shorebird Survey report still shows declines for 23 species. And even the species that are increasing are not yet on solid ground.

"These analyses suggest some reasons for optimism," Brown said. "This means that the ongoing conservation efforts by Manomet and others might be working."

At the same time, conservationists are discovering — or prompting — growing support for shorebird con­servation in critical regions. Even more importantly, the support is coming from a broad swath of the population, beyond traditional environmental circles.

In late 2011, more than 2,000 people on the Chilean island of Chiloé took part in a migratory bird festival. The island is the wintering ground for 99 percent of the Pacific coast population of Hudsonian Godwit and 61 percent of the Pacific coast population of Whimbrel.

Before the festival, most residents were unaware of the island's ecological importance.

In the spring of this year, a survey conducted for the Manomet Center found that 79 percent of Delaware Bay residents believe shorebirds are important to the environ­mental quality of that region. The Delaware Bay, which falls in New Jersey and Delaware, was the first desig­nated site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. Manomet Center scientists have held listening sessions in the area to find shared conservation ground with everyone from hunters to small business owners.

Now Manomet's shorebird team hopes that infor­mation from the ASDN will direct these conservation efforts and this popular support even more effectively.

"We are bringing together a lot of people to focus on the health of these shorebird populations," Brown said. "But we can't fix the problem until we understand what is causing it. The Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network is a major step toward understanding why populations are declining."

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