Third Time’s a Charm to find Arctic Shorebirds
We finally made it to knot plateau! Anyone else would have looked at this barren tundra and wondered what all the fuss was about, but our team fist-bumped with pride. After three tries, we had finally made it – and as it turned out, this final approach was the easiest.
Rick found a north/south ridge of high ground about 3 miles to the west of our camp on the Sutton River. Starting on the west side of the river basin, we began our journey on the same side of the river as the plateau, so we didn’t have the difficulty of crossing the mighty wetland basin. The ridge was almost entirely dry, a mix of esker, frost-shattered rock, and various types of polygonal ground including active mud boils. There were occasional wet drainages, but we rode along the headwaters area of these ice melt streams and so we had no real difficulties traversing them. Don’t be mistaken, it was 5 hours of rough riding with ATVs loaded to the max. But when the plateau finally rose up before us, we were elated.
We came in at the southern end of the plateau, one of the most barren areas I have ever seen in the Arctic. There were miles of rock with almost no vegetation even along the wet snowmelt areas. Our goal within the plateau was a wetland complex near the center of the plateau, about 6 miles from our point of arrival. It was there we located most of the birds with radio transmitters in 1999 and 2000.
We drove the remaining 6 miles and set camp along one of the many lakes in the complex. From a knot’s perspective, the area has a lot going for it. The upland is a poorly vegetated area, with isolated patches of dry vegetation at a modestly high elevation. Here the snow persists longer, thus discouraging ground predators. The wetland complex can provide food for young birds at the time of hatching. And finally the Sutton River basin, the lush wetland that we have fought for the last three days, can provide the incubating adults with ice-free foraging areas even though the nesting areas are mostly covered with snow. On top of it all, the entire habitat mix is almost completely isolated by a vast, barren, rocky area, which might discourage predators as well.
The big question we will answer tomorrow is: do knots still use this area? In 1999, there were at least four times the number of knots as there were three years ago following the collapse of the Delaware Bay horseshoe crab population. In the last two years, we have counted more knots on Delaware Bay, but how many of those were non-breeding sub-adults? Knots have disappeared from many areas of the Arctic – are they still here? We shall find out tomorrow.