Arctic, Bird Study, Expeditions and Travels, Science

Climate Change or Just Lucky? – Canadian Arctic 2007

A cold wet fog ended the long run of unseasonably warm weather we’ve had since our arrival on Victoria Island. Normal for this time of year is a high of about 46 degrees but over the last five days we have basked in temperatures as high as 75 degrees. Although most of the town of Cambridge Bay enjoyed the short reprieve from winter, it felt ominous. Was this global warming in action? Or was it just an odd spell of warmth punctuating the usual cool summer weather? Climate change or not, it was glorious. Warm gentle breezes, coupled with a sun that circled the horizon, lent a joyous atmosphere to this otherwise serious, bleak landscape.

But then the wind shifted, coming right off frozen Lake Ferguson, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. Towards evening, the fog enshrouded the peak of Lady Pelly; and very quickly it swept down the hill into our camp site with a damp that chilled to the bone. It was a tough end to a tough day. The day before, Saturday, we left our main camp on Mt Pelly without the cook tent to lighten our load for the 70 km cross-tundra ATV trip to Lady Pelly. On Sunday, we spent all day searching for knots on Lady Pelly, and the surrounding hills and lakeshores. We were tired. We only had a small Coleman stove, and were anxiously waiting for hot soup when the fog slowly engulfed us. Although the temperature was only in the forties, the wind left us all, Mark, Georgia, Bruce, Michael, Mandy and I, feeling bitterly cold as we clustered around the stove for the smallest bit of warmth. The only good thing was that the cold would forestall the mosquitoes for a few more days.

Cooking at the Lady Pelly campsite with fog approaching

What made the day even more gloomy for us was the absence of any sign of red knots. Over the last three days we had searched Baby Pelly Mountain, the Augustus Coastal Hills and Lady Pelly. Gerry and Gwen, who stayed behind when we left Mt Pelly, searched the small hills north and east of Cambridge Bay. All of these places ranked high as suitable habitat for knots according to our habitat model. In the field, they looked just like the places where we have found knots on both King William and Southampton Islands. We found no nests, heard no song, and saw no birds. We looked at both the high barren plateaus characteristic of nesting habitat, and at all the wet areas characteristic of foraging habitat. We spent the evenings, especially those that were windless, listening for their territorial calls, but we heard nothing. I am convinced there are no red knots in the areas we searched and possibly none in the entire area.

It has made us rethink our assumptions. Why are there no knots here? Could we be outside their range? This is not likely; knots have been seen here in the past even though, until now, no one has done a systematic search. Knots and their nests were recorded here fairly regularly until four years ago. In 1999, we found knots on Jenny Lind Island, just 50 km east; and in 2001 and 2003 we found knots on King William Island, 250 km east. We must be within their range.

So, are we looking in the right habitat? I can say “yes” to this without question. The habitat we have been searching not only fits with what was predicted by remote sensing but also with my experience of knot habitat elsewhere. We are also being very thorough. We are searching all potential habitat; not just the areas that seem to us to be the best, in case we have missed some subtle aspect that is important to knots. We have searched areas that cover a whole range of distances from the sea, different elevations and widely separated areas.

One potentially important factor might be the weather. This year, winter was late and colder than normal. We have seen Canada geese and white-fronted geese flying around in pairs but obviously not nesting. It’s late for them to start, so probably they will not nest this year. But if this is the case with knots, we should still be able to find the adults as we have in similar circumstances elsewhere.

I’m sure there are other possible reasons why the knots are missing around Cambridge Bay, but one can’t help suspect that the main one is that the total population has undergone a drastic decline. Knots always nest at low densities, usually less than one pair per square kilometer. But what happens on the breeding grounds when numbers fall by 90%, as shown by counts in Delaware Bay? Do they gradually dwindle to nothing, one pair lost at a time until perhaps, like a needle in a haystack, only the last pair remains in an area the size of New Jersey; and then it too disappears? Or do they decline until a certain low level is reached, a level too low to allow a population to persist, and then the last remaining birds relocate in an effort to find a mate? Or do they follow other birds to areas with greater densities? I don’t think anyone really knows what happens on Arctic breeding grounds when a shorebird population collapses to the degree we have seen in the American red knot.

Certainly this is outside the experience of our team, which includes people like Clive Minton and Humphrey Sitters who have studied shorebird populations all over the world for more than 40 years. My own experience is more recent, but I have to say that over the last ten years I have grown used to hearing knots in the Arctic. Their plaintive song carries far across the landscape and, perhaps prophetically, they always end with “poor me, poor me, poor me”. All of our team has heard this song many times as we have lain in our tents in the middle of midsummer nights. It will be a great loss to this otherwise bleak and austere land if we can hear it no more.

 

Rock Ptarmigan near Lady Pelly
Willow Ptarmigan on Lady Pelly

Sabine’s Gull near Lady Pelly

Mark, Georgia, Bruce, Michael and Mandy in convoy across the tundra

The Lady Pelly campsite with Mt Pelly in the background

Georgia searching for knots on Lady Pelly

An Arctic Hare in front of the latrine

A Baird’s Sandpiper on Lady Pelly

Michael straining coffee with a new sock after we forgot the coffee pot!