Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

The Search Continues

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The rigors of conducting field work and sleeping on therm-a-rest mattresses in unheated, low-ceilinged tents are starting to wear us out. Of course, much of this is age-related. The author of this blog, being on the older side of the crew, finds the need to get dressed in a tent the size of a refrigerator box to be the most difficult part of our field experience. Ironically Joshua, the youngest of our crew, has a small campaign tent in which he can stand.

Arctic Fox are one of the top predators of shorebird eggs. A mottled brown color in the summer, their fur turns snow white every winter.

Arctic Fox are one of the top predators of shorebird eggs. A mottled brown color in the summer, their fur turns snow white every winter.

We are finally settling into a routine. The days of battling the Sutton River basin were exhausting not only because they demanded extraordinary effort, but also because we could not rely on a predictable schedule with time we could devote to ourselves. Once on knot plateau, we could at last set a daily itinerary. At first we started our days at about 8:30-9:00 am and worked until 5:00-6:00 pm, but soon we found knots followed a different schedule. Typically they call at about 4:00-7:00 am and 5:00-9:00 pm, and we need to hear them to determine their presence, as they are rarely seen. So we shifted our searches to 11:00 am to about 7:00 pm.

Another of the Arctic's top predators: a Snowy Owl.

Another of the Arctic’s top predators: a Snowy Owl.

That notwithstanding, the knots are still beguiling us. We know they are here; their territorial calls tell us that. But we had timed our trip so we would arrive just after hatching so we could search for adults with young, as knots more actively defend young than nests with eggs, making the adults easier to find. The hatch date should have been somewhere around July 4th-7th, but it is now July 11th and they are still on eggs, as far as we can determine. We know this because in all shorebird species, egg hatching is usually timed with the insect hatch. Thus, by tracking the incubation of all the other shorebirds we find, we can tell what Red Knots are doing as well. And as of tonight, the American Golden Plovers and Semipalmated Sandpipers we check regularly are still incubating eggs.

Team member Mark Peck examines an unhatched American Golden Plover nest.

Team member Mark Peck examines an unhatched American Golden Plover nest.

This makes our job much harder. Our crew is too small to adequately search for knot nests, which usually requires 8 people or so to walk together holding ropes with flags in between each person. Also making it harder than usual is the superior habitat here, which is in far greater abundance than our other previous study sites. Finally, the population of red knot, while definitely higher than our last visit Arctic visit, is still only a fourth of what it should be. We find empty nest cups regularly.

Typically, knot nests are found by a team of eight observers, who walk with a flagged rope between them to flush any knots from a large area. With our smaller team, we cannot utilize this method on this trip.

Typically, knot nests are found by a team of eight observers, who walk with a flagged rope between them to flush any knots from a large area. With our smaller team, we cannot utilize this method on this trip.

Our mapping work is going well and may prove to be the most valuable part of our work. Under Rick’s guidance we are ground truthing interpreted satellite images that already distinguish tundra habitats with fairly good precision. Our task is to train the map to distinguish habitat important to knots. In the end we will create a relatively precise mapping of optimal knot habitat.

A Google Earth image of our study area.

A Google Earth image of our study area.

An interpreted map of the same area. Each color represents a different level of desirability for Red Knots.

An interpreted map of the same area. Each color represents a different level of desirability for Red Knots.

All in all, we still have a lot of work to do and not much time left to do it. Will we finally locate any knot nests? Will the young knots hatch, aiding our efforts to find their parents? Only the next few days will tell.

An uninterpreted image of Southampton Island. Our study area is directly in the center.

An uninterpreted satellite image of Southampton Island. Our study area is directly in the center.