Studying Red Knots in the Canadian Arctic 2007
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.
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.