Friday, June 29, 2007

Canada - Expedition to study Red Knots around Cambridge Bay, Victoria Island, Nunavut

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Snow and Ice first started appearing from the jet window about an hour north of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. We were still an hour south of Cambridge Bay, Nunuvut, our final destination and where our expedition would begin. From our warm perch at 10,000 ft, we could first see a remnant patch of ice on the edge of one of the constellation of ponds and lakes that dot the tundra. Within minutes, the ice remnants turned to into the predominant feature of the landscape; the vast unbroken wilderness of tundra stretching thousands of miles to the north, east and west, dotted with frozen lakes and rivers. We could also see small strands of pure white snow, probably drifts in the lee of small hills.

The luggage carousel at Yellowknife Airport

First look at frozen tundra an hour north of Yellowknife

Thus began our 9th expedition in the Canadian Arctic, our home for the next ten days while we search once again for red knots. For the last few weeks we have been anticipating the usual 35 to 45 degree weather with wind that can go from absolute silence to hurricane force in a few hours. Instead a strange heat-wave blanketed Cambridge Bay when we finally landed at the airport; it was a balmy 70 degrees. We enjoyed it but didn’t expect it to last for long. We only have a small team this year: Mandy Dey of the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, Mark Peck of the Royal Ontario Museum, Bruce Luebke of the US Fish and Wildlife Service and me, Larry Niles from Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ, form the returning core group. We will miss Humphrey Sitters of the International Wader Study Group, whose mother is ill, and hopefully recovering, and Nancy Donnelly who must begin her new career as principal of a Friend School in PA. We are glad to embrace Gerry and Gwen Binsfield into the team. Although new to our Arctic team they are not new to the Arctic. And it our pleasure to include Georgia Peck, Mark’s young daughter, who has accompanied us in our work in Florida and on the Delaware Bay since she was only five years old. Now she is an elderly twelve. Last but not least, for the first time on our expeditions we are accompanied by “the media” in the friendly form of wildlife cameraman Michael Male from Locustville, Virginia.

The organization of the expedition this year was in some ways easier, but in others harder than in the past. It was easier because we are not being flown into a remote site and left on our own for a few weeks; this time we will use ATVs direct out of Cambridge Bay. We hope to achieve two major goals. First, we want to create a new study site where we can continue our investigations into the status of the red knot, and the other arctic-breeding shorebirds that pass through the Delaware Bay every May, without the extraordinary cost and difficulty of charter flights to remote locations. We have every hope that we will be successful in finding knots around Cambridge Bay because our predictive mapping suggests it is good knot habitat; moreover birders have found knot nests here in the last few years. However, whether it proves to be a good study site will depend on the numbers of birds. In the early years, we were blessed at our study site on Southampton Island with substantial numbers of knots and other shorebirds nesting around our camp. Unfortunately the decline of knots seen in the Delaware Bay and South America was reflected in the numbers on Southampton Island. In the eight years of our fieldwork, the number of nesting pairs dropped from a high of fourteen pairs to only one in 2004. We hope to find greater numbers around Cambridge Bay.

Our second goal relates to the predictive mapping. Rick Lathrop and John Bognar, of the Grant F. Walton Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Rutgers University, together with Mandy Dey and I have developed a new GIS map that predicts the breeding habitat of the red knot. Hopefully this will prove to be an improvement on the previous version but the only way to tell is to test it by looking for knots in the places they are predicted to occur.

While we are at Cambridge Bay, we will conduct point counts according to a protocol we developed on Southampton and King William which depends on hearing singing birds as well as seeing them. In this way we can test the effectiveness of the map to predict habitat.
But before we could begin our fieldwork, we had to meet with the local conservation authorities. Mark had already spoken to staff with the Nunavut Department of the Environment, a provincial agency comparable to the NJ Wildlife Management Division in the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. However, soon after we landed we had the good fortune to meet with Conservation Officer Rob Harmer and got more details on restrictions to our field work and advice on how to navigate the agencies permitting requirements in the future. Just like the state wildlife conservation agencies concerned with the Delaware Bay, the Nunavut Government in Cambridge takes great care to ensure that the study of wildlife does not cause damage. As employees of US federal and state wildlife agencies, we appreciate Nunavut’s devotion to protecting the integrity of this area. This year the Canadian Wildlife Service recommended the listing of the red knot as an endangered species. Our work contributed to that decision. In the same way we hope our work on Victoria Island will contribute to the protection of critical red knot habitat. It is the ultimate goal of our expedition to provide valuable new data to assist the Nunavut Department of the Environment in the protection of this beautiful and wild land.

Out first look at the community of Cambridge Bay and . . . . .

. . . . Mount Pelly

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Delaware Bay, New Jersey, USA - Thursday, June 7, 2007

We wanted to get a late catch of sanderlings before the season ended. Most of the team had already left for their homes all over the globe: Humphrey, Phil and Alice to England; Clive, Susan and Peter to Australia; Pablo and Victor to Mexico. Now it was down to the core group, Steve, Jeannine, Bill and Mandy with Dick who was due to leave the following day. It seemed that the birds, too, were mostly gone. Kathy, Ron and Bill flew the entire bayshore on Tuesday and found only a few thousand birds, mostly sanderlings in the Villas area. I had hoped to find them for a late catch but by the next day they too had left. We would not be trapping -- the season was over. In all the years of working on the Delaware Bay stopover I found it strange for everything – birds and people – to be gone so completely.

But it’s best when the birds leave this way: at least it suggests that they have all have made sufficient weight and are on their way to the Arctic. The last few seasons haven’t been so clear. Only a couple of years ago nearly 3,000 knots remained in the bay until well after the first week of June. We have also had years when few knots have achieved adequate departure weight (about 185 grams) by the end of May, which is the time by which they need to reach adequate departure weight if they are to have a good chance of breeding successfully. God help those birds. If the Arctic spring is cold or if late storms hit the breeding areas when birds have just arrived, those that are poorly prepared will have a tough time. The best that can happen is they fail to breed; the worst is that they will die.

This was not one of those years, though the situation is far from satisfactory. The full story has yet to be told, but in New Jersey Dan Hernandez has reported that horseshoe crab egg density fell lower than last year for the first five weeks of the egg survey. Densities averaged about 1,800 eggs per square meter, the lowest in the six years of the survey and far lower than the estimated 40,000 eggs per square meter in the early 1990s and the figure considered necessary for recovery of the bird population. The persistent northwest winds that pounded the NJ bayshore may have lowered the count by creating wind driven waves against the Cape Peninsula shoreline and deterred the crabs from spawning. But eggs densities were low on the Moores Beach to Gandys Beach segment as well. These beaches face south and were not affected by the northwest winds.

Kathy and her team reported about a thousand fewer knots than last year. There are complications that may have caused her to miss birds, particularly in the timing of the counts. But the great value of them is that they have been carried out in the same way every year for the last 21 years so the trend will be true. We have yet to hear of the results of the crab spawning index conducted by Delaware and New Jersey Divisions of Fish and Wildlife.

So there it is. Any reasonable person would have to admit that nothing has improved for shorebirds on the Delaware Bay; if anything, conditions are worse. Our team hopes for the best, but considers that no improvement, particularly when numbers are at such a low level, is bound to lead the bird populations into renewed jeopardy. They may not finally go extinct because of problems in Delaware Bay; that may happen because of something natural but unexpected, such as bad arctic weather, hurricanes, or disease outbreaks. Those will be the proximate causes of extinction, but the ultimate cause will be the lack of improvement in the ecological condition of the Delaware Bay. As things stand, it is clear that until there are more horseshoe crab eggs in the bay beaches during May, the bird populations are unlikely to increase. Unless they increase, they will remain vulnerable to the proximate causes of extinction mentioned above.

I can’t say enough about all the people who helped us this season. Our team of professional volunteers is an inspiration to all. By supplying the team with dinners and arranging field trips to Pinelands, Bear Swamp, the Meerwald and Wheaton village, Citizens United provided the team with rewarding experiences that they will never forget; leaving them, like the birds, in better condition than they when arrived. The NJ Natural Lands Trust, NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife, Conserve Wildlife Foundation, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation provided the funds and logistical underpinnings for the whole project. Finally the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife and Conserve Wildlife Foundation’s volunteer program provided us with an eager and hardworking group of people who passionately protected beaches, and helped band and resight birds. This project can only be done by a team, and it best done by a team of good people who care about the birds. We had that and more.We leave for the Arctic in the last week of June. More on that then.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Delaware Bay, New Jersey, USA - Sunday, June 3, 2007

We should not have gone out of the Gandy’s Beach Marina on Sunday. A small craft advisory was posted by the National Weather Service and even worse, over an inch of rain was being forecast. If we were to catch knots, then we had to go out of the barely- protected inlet at Gandy’s Creek and hug the bay shoreline for about a quarter mile in a 16 foot aluminum V-hull known un-affectionately as “the Pig”. But after three unsuccessful tries at catching knots over the previous two days, we had to make a go of it. The team could walk to the catch site safely, only having to taken by boat across a small creek. Clive, Peter and I would take all the heavy equipment in the boat.

Clive and Larry in rough sea, calling the red knot catch. Peter Fullagar

We needed to get a good idea of the condition of the birds at the end of the season. Our last few catches had been as revealing as the big movement of knots from the bay beaches in New Jersey to Mispillion Harbor in Delaware. Reports from Kevin Kalasz, who leads the Delaware Fish and Wildlife’s team, suggested that the knots were building weight rapidly at Mispillion and lifting off to the Arctic in small groups. We had seen turnstones and sanderling doing something similar here in New Jersey.

But Kathy Clark’s flight last week revealed several thousand knots and many thousand turnstones, semipalmated sandpipers and sanderlings still remained along the northern bayshore of New Jersey. We tried to catch the birds several times but without luck. During the previous attempt Clive, operating from a boat, had found a group of about 600 knots just down-bay from Gandy’s Beach. They were only accessible by boat. Most likely the birds were waiting to leave at any moment so there was urgency to go out on this miserable day to catch them.

Greenish wind-rows of horseshoe crab eggs on Gandy's Beach. Dick Veitch

It was important to make this catch because the late season catches are often the most revealing. If most of the shorebirds have left the bay then a late catch will show the weights of the birds that for one reason or another could not make sufficient weight in time and were therefore unlikely to breed successfully. The Arctic summer is so short that even if they did lay down the resources needed to fly to the breeding grounds they would be unable to rear their chicks before the cold weather returns in late summer. But in the last few days there have been a significant number of birds remaining in the bay, and so a late catch will help us to understand their plight. When the Delaware Bay knot population stood at 95,000 birds in 1989, a few thousand left behind at the beginning of June was unimportant, but with the current peak count at only 12,000, a few thousand represents a significant proportion of the whole population. As far as we could determine, at least 1,500-2,000 knots had been left behind, possibly more. We wouldn’t know for sure until Kathy’s flight.

I delivered Sue, Pablo, Victor, Alice, Philippa and Dick to the other side of the small creek so they could walk to the catch site. Clive, Peter and I motored out into a chaotic, choppy sea with Atlantic-coast-size waves crashing against the sod bands that are exposed by the low tide. Rain threatened at any moment. After a difficult landing and a relatively quick set of the three-cannon net, the team moved behind a patch of phragmites while Clive and I watched the danger zone and catch area from the pitching boat. Nearly all the birds left when we arrived but they were now slowly trickling back into the area.

Looking back, this was our lucky day; things went well from the start. A small group of knots walked up straight up the beach into the catch area. These acted as decoys and moments later a larger flock fell “like rain” into the catch area and we fired. We caught 171 knots and 37 turnstones. It was our best catch of the year. And it was the most important.

The three-cannon net firing over a flock of knots and laughing gulls. Peter Fullagar

We found that there were indeed birds with high weights, a few above 205 grams. And there were low weights as well, one poor soul weighing only 98 grams! The most interesting was the weight distribution; more than 80% of the knots were below the threshold weight of 185 g needed to go off to the Arctic. The turnstones had a similar weight profile. We had six retraps from Argentina and one from Chile that we had banded in 2003.

As often happens to us, we were unexpectedly treated to the hospitality of the people who live on the Delaware Bayshore. After we made the catch a cold drizzle threatened our team and the catch with a dismal day. We would have to erect makeshift shelter for the birds and the team, but the wind was driving the rain almost horizontal. We couldn’t allow the birds to get wet so it seemed that we had a difficult problem.

We decided to take everyone, team and birds, back to the landing in the hope of stretching out a tarp across some of the boats in the boatyard to form a makeshift shelter. I went into the Marina office to ask Pete Wagner, the owner of Gandy’s Beach Marina, for his permission to do this and without hesitation he told us to come inside his office and set up our equipment and band the birds indoors! We gratefully did so and processed over 200 birds in perfect comfort. Pete’s son Nick joined our team, which included Pablo and Victor, our visitors from Mexico. In conversation, Nick told us how his father, as part of his local church, helped to build homes for needy families in Mexico. Our group couldn’t thank Pete and Nick enough for their generosity.

From left: Chuck, Nick Wagner and Peter Wagner. Peter is the proprietor of Gandy's Beach Marina. Philippa Sitters

The team processing a catch of red knots and ruddy turnstones in the Gandy's Beach Marina Office. Larry Niles

Nick Wagner weighing a ruddy turnstone. Philippa Sitters

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Delaware Bay, New Jersey, USA - Thursday, May 31, 2007

There were close to thirty people waiting around for a catch of shorebirds. Beside our core team, the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Team studying avian influenza, and Dave Mizrahi’s team working on semipalmated sandpipers, there were ten students from Dan Hernandez’s horseshoe crab egg monitoring team. We set our net on a small beach on Money Island, a tiny bayside community just up-bay from Gandy’s Beach and Fortescue. The sky was a brilliant blue, it was not unbearably hot and the flies and gnats were tolerable, unlike the day before in Fortescue . . . . . .

Larry and Clive assess a potential knot and turnstone catch on Money Island. Peter Fullagar

There the biting strawberry flies were so dense you could count hundreds flying around every person on the beach. We set our net there to try for a catch of red knots which were rapidly becoming scarce in NJ. Two weeks ago there were about 5,000, but without sufficient horseshoe crab eggs on NJ beaches they left and crossed to Mispillion Harbor in Delaware. Still, mostly we were lucky and managed to keep up our catching program. Then we lost nearly all the knots. We could still make catches of sanderlings and turnstones, but we really needed a last catch of knots. So we tried for a small catch in Fortescue but none showed. But that day we saw close to 200 on a small beach on Money Island and we were hoping for the best.

A "flock" of strawberry flies

Over the past ten years, this is how the season often ends. The birds, desperate to find eggs, move all over the bay in search of the best spots. They have to be choosey. Dan Hernandez did his Ph.D on foraging shorebirds on the Delaware Bay and he found they seek places that have more than 20,000 eggs/square meter. The average egg density on the six best beaches in NJ is now about 3,000 eggs/square meter, but there are places, like the mouths of creeks coming out to the bay, where eggs are deposited in higher densities. At Kimble’s Creek entrance last year average densities were 16,000 eggs/square meter.

Horseshoe crab eggs (tiny greenish specs) on the surface of the sand are easily available to hungry shorebirds. Alice Ewing

Ruddy Turnstone digging for eggs (foreground). Peter Fullagar

The knots need these higher egg densities because it takes about 5,000 horseshoe crab eggs for a knot to gain 1 gram of weight. In 1997, knots were gaining an average of 8 grams/day, some up to 15 grams/day – this equates to 40,000 - 75,000 eggs consumed per day! At high egg densities, knots can gain the weight necessary to get them to the Arctic on time. As you might guess, if eggs are abundant the only limit is the rate at which knots can ingest them. If eggs are less abundant birds suffer diminishing returns, and if eggs are sparse the knots are in trouble. This is a well-known ecological relationship called the functional response which describes the how an animal’s intake of food increases as the density of its prey increases. But there is a limit to how fast an animal can pickup food and swallow it -- this is the point beyond which foraging rate cannot increase any further, however much food is available. At one time, most of the bay beaches had egg densities that allowed shorebirds to feed at the optimal, or fastest, rate. Now, even though we have far fewer birds, there are only a few places where this top rate of foraging can be achieved.

A creek mouth at Money Island. The sandy areas on either side of the creek are protected from wave action and are good places for crabs to spawn. Alice Ewing

Semipalmated sandpipers and dunlin foraging in the creek mouth. Alice Ewing

We were on Money Island, and trying to make a last catch. After a few hours, the birds started to arrive, but far fewer than the day before. At one critical point, we had about enough to make a catch of knots and turnstones. We came within seconds of firing the net but a plane flew low over the site. It scared the birds away, and before we could induce them to come back the tide had fallen far below the catching area. We had to throw in the towel.

Nesting double-crested cormorants near Money Island. Alice Ewing

Ironically, the plane was part of Jim Fraser’s team out of Virginia Tech who were tracking radio-tagged red knots outfitted with transmitters in Virginia. One of them was seconds from being caught, but it was not to be. At least not today!