Arctic, Conserving Wildlife

Cruel Arctic Weather

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One of our nests the day after a the 12 hour rain on the July 13th, 2013 decribed in an earlier post (click picture to see earlier post) . We left the parent incubating three eggs, with one chick just hatching. The next day the birds faced 12 hours of cold drizzle. The day after we found one egg had failed to hatch and one chick lost to the cold and wet. Hopefully the other two newly hatched chicks survived the rain.

We have been home now for a few days, sweltering in 97+ degree heat, the memory of 39 degree nights as distant as the Arctic. Yesterday I debriefed with Canadian Wildlife Service Biologist Paul Smith ( one of our funders) and we discussed both our team’s and his experience on Southampton this season. Paul went early to the East Bay Camp on the southeast side of Southampton also doing surveys. Afterwards he spoke of July 16th , the day we left Coral Harbor for our homes.

We had a terrible departure, the single room air terminal was filled with people expecting to fly to Winnipeg with a company called First Air. Outside rain sheeted against the runway decreasing visibility and our flight home in jeopardy. We soon heard a large turboprop airplane flew low over the runway, got lost in the fog, only to reappear flying low over the runway. Than it disappeared. We learned that the pilot decided not to land and the next flight would be in two days. The prospect of going home in two days spurred us into action and within 3 hours we were on the another turbo prop, this one run by the more capable Calm Air. We were relieved but we were unaware of the drama taking place outside.

Paul said the weather got worse. At the East Bay Camp winds reached 110 km/hr ( 70 mph) and were accompanied by a biting rain as temperatures fell. It blew away the tents of the biologists and certainly made life miserable. Worse, this terrible event lasted a day and half just when shorebird young were hatching out of their shells and driven to move quickly to find food.

Shorebird young are precocial. We often apply the word to our children as wild before their age, but for birds it means the young can move soon after hatching and search for food while being protected and brooded by the adults. The alternative reproductive strategy is to rear altricial young, who remain in the nest and get feed.

This storm could have had a modest effect. It could have affected only Southampton Island. It also could have been disastrous for shorebird production this year. It hit the young, who are cute, fluffy and woefully unprepared for serious Arctic weather.

Our surveys on the southbound flight will determine the outcome. This is all very sad of course. After all our hard work, one would hope for a good outcome, but these tragedies come with life in the Arctic. This natural failure had nothing to do with Delaware Bay, but if it had happened earlier, when the bird first lay eggs and incubate, the condition of shorebirds leaving Delaware Bay would be critical.

This event helps illustrate the need for a thriving Delaware Bay stopover. The people of NJ and DE are among the few that influence the impact of Arctic weather. We can continue to overexploit horseshoe crabs and allow the slow degradation of the habitats on which they depend, or we can use crabs wisely, rebuild habitat and send millions of shorebirds off to the Arctic in the best condition possible.