Arctic, Arctic 2013, Expeditions and Travels, Red Knot, Science, Shorebird

In Search of Knots

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While flying from Winnipeg to Nunavut, we focused on a strategy for finding red knot nests and adults with broods. We know from our 9 years of Arctic work that knots don’t occur randomly across the tundra landscape. Quite the opposite, they choose very specific places that distinguish knots from other Arctic nesting shorebirds.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper nesting in wetland tundra on Southampton Island.

A Semipalmated Sandpiper nesting in wetland tundra on Southampton Island.

Most knots choose to nest in relatively barren tundra slightly higher in elevation than more common Arctic nesting shorebirds. The latter prefer the lush wetland tundra along the coast and in the bigger river drainages because of the abundant prey early in the season. So why are knots drawn to colder and more barren places? We suspect they rely on the more persistent snow cover to discourage predation while they lie low in small patches of snow-free patches. Most predators prefer the lush areas with relatively dense shorebird nests. By the time the knot young hatch and are ready to feed, the protective snow barrier melts and the adults take their brood to the surrounding defrosted wetlands. By then, shorebird prey are abundant.

Eskers and frozen wetlands are typical knot nesting habitat on Southampton Island. In only a few weeks, the snow will be mostly gone and the wetlands will produce insect forage for knots.

Eskers and frozen wetlands are typical knot nesting habitat on Southampton Island. In only a few weeks, the snow will be mostly gone and the wetlands will produce insect forage for knots.

So we suspect that at this point in the nesting season, we will find eggs just starting to hatch and soon the adults will lead their young to the nearby wetlands. Rick Lathrop, head of the Rutgers University Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis (CRSSA), has prepared mapping that will help us find prospective nest sites with the following characteristics:

  1. Areas with less than 5% vegetation (We will especially be looking for eskers, or sinuous frost-cracked rocky ridges that snake through the best knots habitats.)
  2. Numerous nearby patches of wetlands or small lakes with interconnecting streams
  3. Areas of slightly higher elevation that stay snowy longer into the season
Map prepared by Rick Lathrop of CRSSA lab at Rutgers, indicating prime areas to search for knots and their broods.

Map prepared by Rick Lathrop of CRSSA lab at Rutgers, indicating prime areas to search for knots and their broods.

We have several targets but we are not certain that we can get to them. We hope to drive into the interior areas of Southampton on a new road built to help residents access new fishing sites. We want to take a truck as far as possible to carry our supplies and equipment. At the road end we will still have to move everything with ATVs to the areas of greatest probability, which are likely to be about 10-20 miles off the new road. It’s hard to plan.

But the rewards are great. If we are successful we will be able to study red knot for the first time without the need of being flown in to a remote place at great expense. We shall see.

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