Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

Summing Up Our 2013 Arctic Expedition

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The expedition was a success simply because we are all going home safe and sound. But it was also a complete success because we achieved all of our primary goals.

Our team. Back row: Larry Niles and Amanda Dey. Front row: Mark Peck, Joshua Keenainak, Steve Gates, and Rick Lathrop.

Our team. Back row: Larry Niles and Amanda Dey. Front row: Mark Peck, Joshua Keenainak, Steve Gates, and Rick Lathrop.

First, we established the presence of a new Red Knot breeding area from the ground. It is unique among the three known on Southampton Island, and already known to be one of the most important breeding sites for the rufa subspecies. Just finding it was a true Arctic expedition, taking us deep into the wilderness of Southampton Island. Our team persisted through extraordinary obstacles that made us feel “rode hard and put away wet” for days on end, and still we continued until we finally reached our objective.

Second, the destination was well worth the effort because we found a significant number of knots compared to our previous study sites on both Southampton and King William Islands. This is important because our last visits to both places were prior to the rapid decline in stopovers like Delaware Bay and wintering areas like Bahia Lomas in Tierra del Fuego. At the end of our 7 years of survey at the Bay of Gods Mercy site on Southampton, we lost most of the knot population in the area. That there is still a workable knot population on Knot Plateau speaks to this area’s importance.

Third, we collected sufficient information to complete our range-wide mapping of rufa knot breeding habitat. We will try to raise funding to complete the work, but the fieldwork portion of the effort is done. A completed map will help future investigations into Red Knot ecology, but also give government agencies a substantive platform on which to decide the impact of development in the rapidly changing Nunavut region.

Finally, we attached the first geolocators to knots in the Canadian Arctic and set a firm foundation for a more successful effort in the future. Finding knots is tough work, and among the small number of researchers who do so, experiences differ widely. Experience varies even on different sites in the same region. At the Bay of Gods Mercy site, it was our judgment that good nesting habitat was limited, because birds nest on eskers where the wind creates snow free areas early in the season. This helped focus our nest finding effort.

A passing Caribou.

A passing Caribou.

At Knot Plateau, our working hypothesis is that good nesting habitat is abundant and other factors limit the density of birds, so searching becomes much more difficult. But if you can find one nest, then effort can focus on areas at least 0.5 to 1 km away in good habitat (our estimate of knot territories). This is how we found the second nest. We feel sure we could have kept going this way, but our time had run out to continue searching.

Wildlife biologists often face uncertainty and risk when they study or conserve wildlife or habitat. Doing so in the Arctic increases these difficulties because of its extreme isolation and potentially life-threatening weather and polar bears. One can never count on success, especially with an investigation into a new area. An expedition of this kind is rarely a completed project but the beginning of projects to come.

A Peregrine Falcon soars overhead.

A Peregrine Falcon soars overhead.

We are grateful to many people. The expedition would have been impossible without the support of Paul Smith of the Canadian Wildlife Service. The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ, the Canadian Wildlife Service, Rutgers University, the Royal Ontario Museum, and The Steve Gates and Julie Fox Foundation all supported the expedition. The Coral Harbor Hunters and Trappers Organization provided essential support. Bruce McKitrik helped us with supplies. Finally we thank Joshua, Suzy, and their family for their hospitality. This expedition was only successful because of all of you.

Joshua Keenainak and his partner Suzy McKitrick with their daughter Sophia

Joshua Keenainak and his partner Suzy McKitrick with their daughter Sophia