Arctic Shorebird Research and Conservation

On the North Slope of Alaska, at Prudhoe Bay and Ikpikpuk River, and in northern Chukotka at Chaun River Delta and Belyaka Spit, we are engaged in a project to assess adult survivorship of key shorebird species including the Semipalmated Sandpiper and Dunlin, as part of an Arctic-wide project to better understand population trends and migratory pathways of shorebirds species of conservation concern.

Male dunlin on the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Photo by Zak Pohlen.

Male dunlin on the oilfields at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Photo by Zak Pohlen.

In 2014, we recovered about 20 geolocators from dunlin released at our Russian field camps during the prior two years. These geolocators, which establish a bird’s position based on light and time, now give us a much more detailed view of how these birds travel to their wintering grounds where we are concerned about habitat modification and hunting pressure.

Migratory pathway of a dunlin tagged with a geolocator at the Chaun Delta, Chukotka.

Migratory pathway of a dunlin tagged with a geolocator at Belyaka Spit, Chukotka that was recovered two years after its initial release.

Our work with dunlin is also informing our conservation planning for spoon-billed sandpipers which are now one of the world’s most critically endangered bird species.

Spoon-billed sandpiper  at Belyaka Spit.

Spoon-billed sandpiper at Belyaka Spit

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Muskoxen on Wrangel Island. Photo by Joel Berger.

Muskoxen on Wrangel Island. Photo by Joel Berger.

Yale Environment 360 has published a series of three stories about the work of Joel Berger, senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Joel’s work on muskoxen on Russia’s Wrangel Island is part of the Arctic Beringia Program.

You can read the posts here:

On Far-Flung Wrangel Island a Scientist Sizes up Muskoxen

Studying a Polar Menagerie on an Island in Arctic Russia

Russian-American Collaboration Carries on in Key Arctic Ecosystem

Spring at the Top of the World

Wildlife Conservation Society conducted an estimate of the king and common eider duck population this spring in Barrow, Alaska. Eiders are colonial seabirds that nest along the coastline of Alaska’s Beaufort and northern Chukchi seas and are an important subsistence food species.

Michael Wald, of the tour company Arctic Wild, assisted with training and logistics during the eider population estimate and wrote about his experience here.

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Rebecca Bentzen (project Principal Investigator) observes eiders.

Bowhead whale in the lead edge.

Bowhead whale in the lead edge.

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Project biologists observing migration sea ducks.

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Project volunteer Rosemary McGuire takes a break from breaking trail on the sea ice along the lead edge of the Beaufort Sea.

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A flock of eider ducks migrating along the lead edge of the Beaufort Sea.

Climbing up to the viewing perch for a better vantage.

Climbing up to the viewing perch for a better vantage.

Counting eider ducks at Point Barrow, AK.

Counting eider ducks at Point Barrow, AK.

Arctic Wolverine Surveys

In April of this year two Supercubs glided to a landing in Umiat, a lonely outpost on the North Slope of Alaska. It was decidedly not spring this far north as evidenced by the frozen Colville River and the snow-covered tundra all around. From one of the planes emerged Audrey Magoun, a pioneering wolverine biologist and her husband, pilot/wildlife biologist Pat Valkenburg. From the other airplane, Mark Keech, also a pilot/wildlife biologist, and his wife, geologist Tina Laird, also unfolded themselves from the cramped space they had been occupying for 6 hours and stretched their legs. They’d been flying these small airplanes back and forth across the top of the continent for weeks, at least on those days when they weren’t grounded by low-lying fog banks and blizzards. They had stopped at Umiat to re-fuel the airplanes for another pass across vast white expanses where they hoped to find tracks of wolverines and other species inhabiting the Arctic Slope, an area stretching from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. Sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia program, they were conducting the most comprehensive survey of wolverines on the Arctic Slope that has ever been done, in order to make a baseline map of wolverine distribution at its current population level. On a map of the Arctic Slope of Alaska they overlaid a grid of hexagons across a 62,000 square-mile study area and flew from the center of one hexagon to another recording wolverines and their tracks as well as signs of other wildlife, including wolves, caribou, muskox, and moose.

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A wolverine den can be seen off of the right wing of the airplane shadow. Keen eyesight and attention to detail are necessary to conduct aerial tracking surveys.

Because they are superbly adapted to snowy environments, wolverines in the lower 48 states are thought to be vulnerable to climate change. In Canada they are considered a species of special concern because of increasing industrial activity and human access to its remote habitats via new roads and more snowmobiles. Very little is known about the potential effect of climate change and human developments on wolverines in Alaska, but their dependence on snowdrifts for sheltering their young and caching food in the tundra habitats of the Arctic Slope suggests that climate change could be a factor in the future of wolverines in the region.

A wolverine on the North Slope of Alaska as seen from the Super Cub during aerial tracking surveys in April 2015.

A wolverine on the North Slope of Alaska as seen from the Super Cub during aerial tracking surveys in April 2015.

Wolverines are solitary animals, members of the weasel family, with relatively large ranges, with some male wolverines occupying 150 square miles or more. One of the iconic species found in arctic Alaska, the wolverines is virtually proof of a true northern wilderness area. As Audrey says, “if an area doesn’t have wolverines, I don’t feel like I’m in the northern wilderness.” The airplanes used the long days of the arctic spring to fly nearly 14,000 miles, recording tracks, dens, and the occasional animal. Audrey and the crew spent time in the remote villages of Umiat, Barrow, and Atqasuk waiting for blizzards to pass and talking to locals who report that this year is a particularly good year for wolverines. Anecdotal information like that tells us basic information, that numbers of wolverines fluctuate between years, though we don’t yet know what affects wolverine numbers and distribution. Local trappers capture wolverines to use for fur ruffs and trim on their winter parkas and to sell to others in the villages who do not trap. At this time, there is little information on the number of wolverines trapped on the Arctic Slope or whether trapping is influencing distribution or numbers of wolverines in the study area. The Wildlife Conservation Society has recently secured funding from the Murdock Foundation to study the relationship of wolverines to snow, particularly snowdrifts that linger into spring and summer, and to conduct genetic and toxicological studies on Arctic Slope wolverines. This new work will build on our understanding of wolverines in the lower 48 States, Alaska, and Canada and particularly on Audrey’s work on wolverines in northwest Alaska in the 1980s. Understanding such factors as importance of snowdrifts, presence of other species, trapping pressure, and the health, size, and structure of the wolverine population will help guide future development location and practices and help this species thrive in the changing arctic environment.

WCS wolverine surveys

Flight lines flown during wolverine surveys. The intensity of color indicates number of times flown.