Looking for Shorebirds on Mt Pelly – Canadian Arctic 2007
Our camp lies at the base of Mt. Pelly, about 12 miles north of Cambridge Bay. More a big hill than a mountain, Mt. Pelly nevertheless imposes a mighty presence in this large flat landscape. Imagine a steep mound rising ominously out of the tundra like a giant being with it own wildlife community clinging to its sides: peregrine falcons, ravens, rough-legged hawks, American pipits, horned larks and rock ptarmigans have been seen on Mt Pelly for as long as people have been recording wildlife. No doubt they were here long before people first came to this land. Standing on the mountain’s slopes, one cannot fail to be awed by the endless pattern of tundra and water stretching unbroken in all directions. Mt Pelly looms large in the mythology of the Inuit of this region, but any person of faith can feel the presence of the divine.
Musk Ox family
Red knots are another of the creatures that are known to live on the slopes of Mt Pelly. The mountain top is just high enough for the winds to preclude all but the hardiest of vegetation. There, mainly Arctic Avens and scattered grasses cover 1-20% of the ground. It is exactly the same habitat as that in which we found knots on Southampton and King William Islands, just like the places where we’ve relocated most of our knots with radio transmitters. It is also the place where nests have been found by other people as recently as 2003. Although the mountain-top seems the most likely place to find knots, we will also search the surrounding land. Some areas look promising while others do not seem to be, however we need to be aware that the habitat that knots use may vary from place to place.
But we had no luck. Our team, Jerry and Gwen, Mark and Georgia, Bruce, Mandy and I, systematically combed the pate of the mountain to no avail. Then we moved further down to areas that seemed to offer habitat that was less than prime, but still there were no knots. We had always regarded those areas as a long shot, so our failure to find knots there was not surprising. Jerry and Gwen had searched part of the mountain the day before the rest of us arrived and found no evidence that knots were present. They are expert birders and wouldn’t have missed them if they had been there. We have therefore come to the firm conclusion that no knots are nesting on Mt Pelly this year.
Does this mean that the knot population of the Cambridge Bay area has fallen? By itself: not necessarily, but it does highlight the difficulties of our venture. When we first started coming to the Arctic in 1998, the peak counts of knots in Delaware Bay was over 50,000; this year it was only 12,500. At our last study area on Southampton Island the number of pairs fell from eleven in 2000 to two in 2004. Since then the Delaware Bay peak count has dropped further, so now we would be lucky to find any knots breeding there.
Keep in mind that red knots occur at low densities in the Arctic, even when population levels are high. They are found in bleak arctic deserts; stony areas with sparse vegetation. Sometimes, when snowmelt is late, they are confined to snow-free ridges like the eskers on Southampton Island, but even then there may be only one nest per kilometer of esker. In our old study area, the highest density we recorded was 1.2 nests per square kilometer, but it dropped six-fold to 0.2 nests per sq kilometer. Here on Mt Pelly only one nest was found in 2003, but the area of habitat is quite small so the density would have been relatively high; but at that time the total knot population was double what it is now.
Over the next few days we will range out over the area around Cambridge Bay; but it looks as if it is going to be a tough job finding knots.