Two teams from the Massachusetts-based Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences are on Arctic expeditions this summer to study declining shorebird populations. Many threatened shorebird species, including some that are seen in New England, breed in Arctic habitat. One Manomet team is at the Canning River Delta on the north coast of Alaska and the other team is on the uninhabited Coats Island in Canada’s Hudson Bay. The Greenblog is running periodic updates of their work, part of the Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network, a research project with 16 camps across Alaska, Canada and Russia.
Coats Island Team -- Early Days
by Stephen Brown/Director of Shorebird Science
We left Iqaluit (Nunavut Territory, Canada) a day late on June 17th, a minor miracle in the Arctic where travel is almost always delayed by weather. It was an auspicious beginning to our field season. We gathered for a group photo at the plane and said goodbye to Iqaluit for the 435-mile flight across Baffin Island and Hudson Strait.
We have been looking at maps of northern Hudson Bay for many weeks preparing for this trip. Staring at a map of North America long enough, you can convince yourself that it isn’t very far from Iqaluit to Coats Island (only a few inches on the map!). But as you sit in a bush plane for hours watching the icy bays, rocky islands and hundreds of miles of open water go by, you realize the true scale of the landscape. There were no signs of human habitation on our entire trip, only a vast Arctic wilderness.
Our pilots were exceptional in pulling off a graceful landing on a Coats Island “airstrip” – in reality only a rocky ridge next to a river. They used less than half the available space and came to a stop directly next to our cabin. Nobody had visited the cabin since the last crew was here in 2010 and we were delighted to find it intact.
Shortly after landing, Manomet Conservation Specialist Brad Winn saw a polar bear in the distance. We were also happy to see that the noise from the plane sent him off in the opposite direction and we hope he finds places to rest and hunt far from our camp. So far we haven’t seen any other bears, which is fine with us.
It has been typical weather for the Arctic so far, in the 30s at night with light snow and a little warmer during the days. But out in the field the wind howls constantly at 15 to 25mph. It has also rained heavily several times, something we are not used to from our work on the north slope of Alaska where rain is rare.
We have had a few days in the field now, and are starting to get a sense of the landscape and the habitats where the birds are likely to nest. This habitat is different in many ways from Alaska. Near our camp the tundra is dominated by frost boils - where fine muds are thrust to the surface by cycles of freezing and thawing over many years. You can easily sink up to your calf in the soft sucking mud. Fortunately the tundra gets more solid as we work toward the coast where most of the shorebirds are located.
We have seen about 15 pairs of Semipalmated Sandpipers, although many are quite far from camp. We have also seen many other shorebirds, including American Golden-Plovers, Dunlin, White-rumped Sandpipers, Red Phalaropes and even one Pectoral Sandpiper pair, quite rare in this area. We are constantly serenaded by tundra waterfowl we pass along our nest searching routes, including many Snow Geese and Canada Geese.
A lone Arctic Fox barked at us for quite some time yesterday for intruding on his territory, then gave up and continued on his way.
We have found a few shorebird nests thus far, but with only 2 or 3 eggs, a clear sign that it is still early in the season. Now the race is on, we are fully set up but with such a late spring we will need to work very fast to accomplish our goals of finding and catching enough birds to attach our tiny transmitters. We will keep you posted as our work progresses and we hope to have our first transmitter out in the next few days.
* Photos courtesy of Manomet.
About the green blog
Helping Boston live a greener, more environmentally friendly life.
Christopher Reidy covers business for the Globe.
Doug Struck covers environmental issues from Boston.
Glenn Yoder produces Boston.com's Lifestyle pages.
Eric Bauer is site architect of Boston.com.
Bennie DiNardo is the Boston Globe's deputy managing editor/multimedia.
Dara Olmsted is a local sustainability professional focusing on green living.