Sunday, June 27

Banding Semipalmated Plovers

Semipalmated Plover

One of the best things about working out of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) is the opportunity to share with and learn from other biologists working on a broad range of topics, from bay ice and zooplankton in tundra ponds, to trees, seals and foxes. Today, Shawn, Brad and I took a break from our Godwits and followed Anne Corkery and Jen, from Trent University, to their site to help band Semipalmated Plovers.

We arrived at Bird Cove and began walking along the broad, gravelly beach. It was windy, and quite cold, at least compared to yesterday's heat. We started to see Semipalmated Plovers running along the beach almost immediately; they would pause to give their two-syllabled call, raising their entire bodies with effort, and would then resume running in short sprints from one spot to another, legs a blur. Some were already banded here, with a combination of two color bands on the right leg, and a color band and flag over a metal band on the left leg, but we soon found some territorial birds without bands, indicating new nests to be found.

We sat on the sand to watch an unbanded male, in hopes of him leading us to his nest. As Anne and I watched, the male stood quite still for a while, and it took me a while to notice the head of his female poking up from the ground just at his feet. She was incubating on the nest, and the male had led us straight to it-- how kind! We walked over to the nest in order to set up a walk-in trap. This is a metal-mesh cylinder with a screened over top that is placed over the nest; there is a door on one side where the bird can enter, but when you run towards the trap to retrieve the bird, it tries to get out the opposite side and ignores the door.

While we approached the nest, and as Anne measured the eggs and placed the trap over the nest, the birds constantly called and gave broken-wing displays, walking away from the nest as they did. When they were about 20 meters away, and noticed that we had not followed them away from the nest, they would run back and try again, starting their display from just a few feet away.

When the trap was set and the eggs measured, we would sit back a few dozen meters and watch as the adult bird would slowly approach its nest and investigate the mesh cage. It would often take several minutes, but eventually the bird would find the door and determine the trap to be inanimate enough for its liking, and it would sit down to incubate. Anne would then run towards the door side of the trap and grab the bird from underneath. Then we went to work, putting a unique combination of color bands on its tiny, yellow legs. In the hand, their 48 grams feel almost non-existent, especially compared to the 400-gram Whimbrels we have been banding recently, but their large, dark, inquisitive eyes make the handful of feathers feel infinitely more significant than their weight suggests.

Sunday, June 20

Photo Op!

Parasitic Jaeger

This morning, with my Sunday off, I did something I thought I would never do: I put on my hip boots (voluntarily) and trudged out to one of our study sites. But this time I was on my own, and working my own schedule-- I was out to photograph a pair of Parasitic Jaegers and a pair of Golden-plovers at their nests. These are both species that were surprisingly difficult to approach and photograph early in the season (i.e. before they were on nests), and since I haven't been carrying a camera while we work (when they are cooperative), this was my first real chance to capture some cool images. Luckily for me, they were cooperative enough to get some good shots today, but uncooperative enough still to merit more attempts in the coming weeks.

I parked behind the rifle range, before a large expanse of wet, sub-arctic tundra, and rammed open the stiff door of our old Suburban. I immediately regretted not putting on a bug net before getting out, because now I had to struggle to put it on without trapping dozens of mosquitos between the net and my face. I pushed the shells into the shotgun, pulled up my hip boots and headed into...the big, open, wet area in front of the car--I don't think it's actually called anything in particular by anyone, now that I think about it.

I made my way to the Golden-plover nest first, and watched the bird calling loudly from a lichen mound as I approached. It repeatedly uttered a clear ascending whistle, jumping up to a higher pitch seamlessly, as if sliding into a falsetto. When I came closer, the bird depressed and spread its tail, and shuffled away, feigning a broken wing to draw me away from its nest.

American Golden-plover

I spotted the Jaeger incubating from quite a ways off, and saw it flush to a different mound to watch me approach before I was even within half a kilometer. The bird's mate came flying in from much farther away, and the two of them watched from separate mounds. As I got closer, they circled around me, calling sporadically.

When I got within 100 meters of the nest (which held two, surprisingly small eggs), the birds began to take turns dive-bombing me. One would fly away from me and upwards, then suddenly bank and dive towards my head with stiff, outstretched wings; with a sudden "whoosh," it would pass and begin another climb while its mate swooped down.

As I got even closer, the birds abandoned their efforts to scare me away and instead tried to draw me away with broken wing displays. They would sit near me and spread the wings on the ground, and slowly flap and squawk, sometimes even rolling on their backs and sides. It was strange to see this formidable nest predator desperately defending its own, precious eggs.

Saturday, June 19

Whimbrels are Stupid

Our team spent the better half of Friday catching, banding, and flagging Whimbrels. We are focusing some of our efforts on this species this year as part of a project by the Arctic Shorebird Demography Network (ASDN). ASDN aims to census breeding populations, determine the relative significance of migratory stopover sites, monitor population trends, and inform regional management about how to help meet conservation goals for North American shorebirds.

The best thing about Whimbrels is that they are far stupider than Godwits. To find a Godwit nest--a grass cup hidden under the low tangle of branches of a Dwarf Birch--you must first wander by chance into a territory to find one of the birds calling at you in irritation. The second step is to slowly and meticulously cover about a quarter of a square kilometer by walking tight lines back and forth, as if mowing a lawn. The incubating bird will only flush if you are within about 1 meter of the nest, and it is almost impossible to detect before that point. Whimbrels, on the other hand, lay their eggs in open scrapings on much drier ground, often on elevated mounds of lichen; and since they chase any bird that flies by their nest, a territory can be detected from kilometers away when a raven or jaeger flies over (we've even seen them waste their time and energy chasing Lesser Yellowlegs away from their nests). Once you are in a Whimbrel territory and have the pair in sight, you can simply walk back about 100 meters, sit down, and watch them. They almost immediately go to sit on their nest, at which point you walk over, hold out the GPS, press "mark," and you have yourself a nest.

When it comes time to catch the incubating bird, we use a "bow net." This is essentially a spring-loaded, dome shaped net, that is folded into a crescent and staked down around the nest. It is held open by a screw, which is attached to a spool of fishing line, so that when you sit back and relax about 100 meters away, all you have to do is pull the line to dislodge the screw and catch the bird under the net.

While preparing for one such capture, as we were standing at the nest staking in the bow net, the bird that we had flushed off the nest walked right back and watched the whole process from less than a meter away, all the while giving a broken wing display and jumping up and down. Brad beckoned it like you would a timid cat, and it would walk towards him inquisitively, only to walk away again feigning a broken wing and pretending to eat (i.e. picking up goose poop in its bill and discarding it repeatedly) to try to distract us from its nest.

After we had left, and after watching us place a large foreign object next to its nest, the Whimbrel investigated the net for a few seconds before settling right back down on its four, large eggs. We watched as it huddled back and forth, nestling its breast feathers over the eggs; Nathan gave a signal, and Shawn pulled the line. As soon as the bird was caught, Nathan (who had been lying much closer to the nest than the rest of us) sprinted over to get the bird as quickly as possible, lest it stomp on its own eggs while trying to get out of the net.

We ended up catching and banding five Whimbrel in just a few short hours. If only Godwits were stupid...

Wednesday, June 16

The Rare Moments

My time up in the north country has been quite busy and tiring of late, but I have managed a few memorable moments, here and there...well, they’re not all that rare at all, but here are a few that will stick with me for some time:

1. A beautiful evening at the mouth of the Churchill River: The evening after Nathan arrived, we were “obliged” to go see at least one of the 3 Red Phalaropes that we in the area at the time, since they would be a new Manitoba bird for Nathan. The female had been feeding for a couple days with a flock of about 200 Red-necked Phalaropes at the Granary Ponds in town. In addition to amazing views of the bright, rusty phalarope in amazing evening light, we found a hybrid Common X Green-winged Teal and an Iceland Gull molting into its 4th cycle. We continued down to the bay at the Churchill River (not the Hudson Bay), where we stepped out of the truck to see an expanse of perfectly still water, with large, scattered, blue ice floats and a sky finally turning orange. There was a flock of Common Eiders, whose eery, booming calls echoed across the water to us; a group of Arctic Terns acrobatically fishing near the shore and resting on floating ice; a small group of Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstones foraging along the beach; and most impressively, a flock of nearly 400 Red-throated Loons floating a ways out in the bay. The sun was just beginning to set as we drove off after 10:00, with the booming of eiders still ringing in our ears.

Arctic Tern

2. Taking a much needed 10-minute break in the Fen: Towards the end of the work day, Brad and I were sent to the west side of the Fen to check up on a Godwit nest we had found earlier. After a long day of nest searching, the kilometer into the Fen was tiring, to say the least. On our way back, we were halted by a Least Sandpiper that just flushed off her nest; she flew no more than 5 feet, and gave a broken wing display. It was somewhat pathetic to see her efforts; while she frantically tried to distract us from her nest, standing at our feet, smaller than a House Sparrow, we could look down to our right and see her nest, with a single, speckled egg, smaller than a nickel. After marking the nest with the GPS, we stopped on a dry lichen mound to take a quick break. I took my boots off, laid back, and closed my eyes; it was sunny enough to be warm in spite of a wind strong enough to keep the mosquitos away-- in other words, a perfectly blissful balance. As my paleness absorbed all solar radiation (yes Mom, sunscreen was, unfortunately, part of this equation) and as I alternately squeezed my eyes shut and opened them slightly, watching the spectrum shift from teal to red, I could hear Smith’s Longspurs and Savannah Sparrows singing a short ways off, a Wilson’s Snipe was winnowing just over my head, with steep, fast dives, and a Short-billed Dowitcher displaying nearby (a note to Nathan, should you ever read this: this was not slacking off, merely a brief and amazing rest so that we could maintain vigor throughout the rest of the work day, and be able to make it back to the truck before being eaten by some unseen polar bear, in order to continue our employment for the rest of the summer-- we’re just lookin’ out your employees).

3. Banding my first Godwit: This is pretty self-explanatory; I haven’t had many chances to do banding prior to this summer (a few demonstrations here and there, and a morning with Allen Chartier), so feeling the strong heartbeat of a bright, male Hudsonian Godwit as he laid on his back across my lap, his gleaming, black eye staring back at me, was thrilling. He was surprisingly relaxed as I measured his tarsus and took a blood sample from his femoral artery, such that when I picked him up to weigh him, I had to lift his head as well.

4. Writing this post: I was going to write about how it was very nice to have a relaxed evening to write, sitting in my room and looking out the window at another 10:30PM sunset through the rebar cage (to keep them tricksy polar bears out), all the while listening to the wail of a Pacific Loon, the lovable call of a Long-tailed Duck, the songs of Yellow and Blackpoll warblers, Lincoln’s and White-crowned Sparrows, and watching a Short-eared Owl fly by...but then I fell asleep. So now I’m actually writing this post in the reading room across the hall from the kitchen; we have a morning off because of the rain, and I can’t hear any birds. So “writing this post” would have been memorable, had it happened last night-- now it’s just another morning, not that that’s a problem.

White-crowned Sparrow

5. My 3-hour nap on Sunday: We took a day off on Sunday, which meant that I stayed up late on Saturday, watching some show-- can’t say I remember what it was, but it was probably Lost. Unbeknownst to me, it also meant that I had to get up at 6:00 on Sunday to check the daily insect transects, something I probably should have guessed would be necessary on a day off, but it hadn’t occurred to me. Anyways, I ended sleeping from 2:00 to 5:00 that afternoon, after a nice morning of boreal birding. Strangely, I don’t actually remember much of this rare, memorable moment, except the feeling of waking up before dinner quite rested. Good stuff.

Meanwhile, in the Land of Churchill, in spite of such moments of jollity, there are also those which must simply be endured. As testament to that fact, I spent about half an hour trying to fall asleep last night because I had to keep brushing my face to make sure I wasn’t still wearing a bug net. The mosquitos have been out for all of two or three days, and they are already worse than I have seen almost any other time; luckily for me though, I’ve been assured they will only get approximately ten times worse by the high season


Thursday, June 10

Working with Hudwits

Stilt Sandpiper

In the past few days, before our boss Nathan Senner's arrival on Tuesday, Shawn Billerman, Brad Walker and I spent most of our time searching for Hudsonain Godwit nests and finishing setting up insect transects. We focused most of our efforts on the Fen, where most of the local Godwits nest. The Fen is a massive and disorientingly open bog with a few scattered tamaracks and island of dry lichens. A north-south dirt road (if it can be called that- it is more pothole than road), called Twin Lakes, divides it into two portions, and as you look in any direction from the car, the expanse of sedges interspersed with pools and soggy areas stretches as far as the eye, until those bare tamaracks, few and far between, accumulate on the horizon as a dark tree line, constantly crawling from the heat.
As we set up transects, I kneel in the soggy peat and slice a circular plug out of the ground with a serrated kitchen knife. As I slide my fingers down the edge to pull it out, my fingers immediately throb in the freezing water- just centimeters above the permafrost- even on a 65 degree day like this. I slide a plastic cup into the hole, pour in about an inch of isopropyl, and head off to the next point, 100 meters away. Between two such points, on one fateful day, Shawn happened to look up from the transfixing sight of boots sinking into the wet spongy peat to see a jeager flying over. When I glanced up, the first thing I noticed was a surprisingly long stream of feathers trailing behind the graceful bird- it was, finally, a Long-tailed Jaeger! These are regular but quite uncommon migrants through the Churchill area as they head to their breeding grounds to the north. Later that same day, the first Smith's Longspurs arrived, and Brad and I found several males singing at the south edge of the Fen as we were finishing an insect transect.

The last two days with Nathan have been immensely tiring. On Wednesday, we woke around 6:00 in order to finish checking our daily insect traps before breakfast, and then we split into two groups and covered as much ground as we could in the Fen looking for nests. As soon as we heard a male godwit calling, we would scan the sky for the alarmed bird and follow him until he landed in the sedges or alighted atop a spruce. From there, we would determine whether he was tied very closely to a territory, and whether or not he had a nest with a full clutch yet (they are usually agitated by our approach but tend to leave the area more readily if they do not yet have four eggs). If there was certainly a nest in the area (hopefully with an incubating female), we would meticulously scan the area, walking back and forth as if mowing a lawn and looking down onto sedge mounds with dwarf birches, where they tend to build their nests. We ended up finding several territories and "scrapings (the beginnings of potential nests by males, to be chosen from by females) and two nests with eggs.

Photo by Shawn Billerman

Today, we spent another 9 hours of hard walking in the Fen, going visiting the 8 active nest sites that we have GPS coordinates for so far, and capturing and banding those birds. To do so, we would approach to about 60m of a nest, and set up the banding kit and mist net, which is a very thin, 12-meter net spread between two aluminum poles, each one held parallel to the ground by me and Nathan. We would approach the nest in this manner, and hopefully lay down the net over the incubating bird before it flushed-- this worked on 7 of the 8 nest we visited. Once a bird was caught, we would take the standard measurements and a blood sample, and then, to it's left leg, attach a flag with a two-letter combination and a "data logger" glued to it. These data loggers are light sensors that, once calibrated, record the times of sunsets and sunrises until the bird is recaptured. In this way, the bird's migration route and other movements can be accurately tracked because such timing data can give you the latitude and longitude on any given date.

Photo by Geoff Legault

The photography will certainly be taking a rest for a while now, as we are covering much more ground, carrying much more gear, and spending many more hours in the field at work. Hopefully on the off days, I will be able to catch up on some of the new arrivals, such as the Smith's Longspurs.

Red-necked Phalarope

Thursday, June 3

Churchill: The Beginning

Hudsonian Godwit

The ground was getting closer quickly as the twin prop plane descended to the landing strip. I could still see nothing but expansive, grassy bogs with stunted spruce, willow and birch, pools covered in blue ice, and scattered snow banks; no trace of man until the gravel edge of the runway came into view, not thirty feet from the ground.

I was met by Carly, one of the naturalists from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. We were then joined by Hans, an older man from Denmark, who I had pegged as a birder since the gate in Winnipeg (by his tall boots and a heavy winter parka). From what I understand, he is here independently studying various shorebirds; he's spent much of his career in the high arctic reaches of Greenland, and was excited to experience this transitional, sub-arctic region. As we travelled east to the CNSC via the gravel "highway," we spotted our first Tundra Swans, Long-tailed Ducks, and Pacific Loons, and various peeps flushed from the road.

Red-necked Phalarope

The landscape here is subtly impressive. It appears bleak and barren, with miles of open, boggy tundra, and an occasional patch of craggy, bare tamaracks; but life abounds here when you take a minute to look. The tundra is speckled with mounds of lichens and mosses, which are in turn teeming with insects and arachnids. The tiny arctic wild flowers are just beginning to flower now, as well as a few willows. As we trudge across these expanses of wet, grassy tundra, stepping cautiously lest we exceed the height of our muck boots, birds flush constantly from seemingly lifeless, open areas; longspurs mostly, but shorebirds of all sorts as well: Golden-plovers, Godwits, Whimbrel, Baird's and Stilt sandpipers. The Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings that abound now will soon be replaced by Smith's Longspurs-- a day I am anxiously awaiting.

So far, our work has involved checking and setting up our insect transects. These are sets of points across a certain area where we dig plastic cups into the peat at the surface that act as pitfalls for insects, or anything else that would be a potential meal for a Godwit chick. Some we check daily, others every third day, and still others weekly. We use a plastic watercolor brush to pluck the critters out of the isopropyl solution in the pitfalls, and put anything we find into a corresponding vile with solution for later analysis (identifying to order, counting, and measuring whatever we find). Today, we spent the morning and afternoon setting up three of our weekly transects, each consisting of 11 pitfalls located every 100 meters along a 1 kilometer transect-- that eventually amounted to about 10 kilometers of walking, which is a lot when you're taking very tall, careful steps, and sucking your boot out of spongy peat every time.

As far as the birding goes, I have had 5 life birds so far, and countless "life plumages." The lifers were Hoary Redpoll, Boreal Chickadee, Willow Ptarmigan, Little Gull, and Sabine's Gull. But it's been even more amazing just seeing familiar birds in unfamiliar garb, such as Lapland Longspurs, Parasitic Jaegers, Long-tailed Ducks, Pacific Loons (not that they are all that familiar), and all the shorebirds. So far, nothing quite compares to the absolutely stunning plumage of a breeding adult Pacific Loon; I have yet to get satisfactory photos of these idyllic beings, but I'm not too concerned about that since there's a pair in practically every pond we've seen. Now, as I'm sitting here reminiscing, cooling my wind-burned cheeks with my cold hands, I can't help but look forward to the high season, when the Polar Bears show up, when all the birds will be displaying and defending nests, and when we'll be banding Godwits; but I'm also a bit apprehensive about mosquitoes...I guess however hard they hit, they'll be worth it!

Lapland Longspur