Arctic, shorebird conservation, shorebird ecology, wildlife tracking

Arctic Field Notes: A Daily Log from Mark Peck

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Ever wonder what field scientists record in their notebooks during their day-to-day work?

In July 2013, biologist Mark Peck (Royal Ontario Museum) was one of five scientists who traveled to Southampton Island, a large island in northern Canada, in search of nesting red knots and other shorebirds. His daily field notes and photographs provide a fascinating look at the trials and tribulations faced by the scientists seeking to protect these imperiled species.

1 July 2013 – Left at 20:30 for Winnipeg. Arrived at 22:30 and checked into the Hampton Inn. Larry Niles, Mandy Dey, Steve Gates, and Rick Lathrop came in from New Jersey at about 23:30 and we had a brief chat before heading off to bed.

2 July 2013 – Left Winnipeg at 10:30 and flew to Rankin Inlet. From there it was up to Chesterfield Inlet and then on to Coral Harbour on Southampton Island, arriving at 15:30. Ronnie picked us up and we are staying the night at Leonie’s Place for the bargain basement price of $225 a person. We are renting the truck and 2 ATVs in the morning and will be heading out to the southwest to camp. After dinner tonight we headed out to Kirchaffer Falls and then continued on to Rocky Brook to get an idea of the road… We saw 3 Snowy Owls and a number of other birds but did not see or hear any shorebirds.

A snowy owl.

Snowy Owl.

3 July 2013 – Woke up at 6:00, had a quick shower and went for a walk in Coral Harbour. Back at 7:30 for coffee and breakfast that we made ourselves. At 10:00 we went shopping… and picked up some extra food… We also met Suzy who helped us get some wood for the tent poles and suggested we take her boyfriend Joshua as a bear watcher… We left Coral [Harbour] at around 14:00, down the Rocky Brook Road and then we headed inland… Did not see many shorebirds on the way, and only 2 Snowy Owls. Stopped at [a] cabin about 65 km inland beside Ivitaarulik Lake… Clouded over along the way and we did get a little rain… Cold most of the day. We made a salami and potato soup for dinner and then I went out for [a] walk after for about an hour. Not much around but I did get a Horned Lark nest with 2 young that fledged when I was counting the contents… Finished up around 21:30 and came in and set up our beds. We are going to be snug as bugs in a rug.

4 July 2013 – A rather interesting day to say the least. Woke up around 6:00 next to Steve and Rick. Had breakfast, packed up and then headed back to the southwest to head for the high ground and red knots. We unloaded the truck and shuttled equipment to a safe place and then started our journey. Several hours later after we got [one] of the ATVs badly stuck and Steve and I had a flat tire.

Our ATV stuck in the mud.

Our ATV stuck in the mud.

We decided to head back to the cache and truck and try a different route. Kind of a lost day although we did find

American Golden Plover – 4 eggs in in moist mud boil

Dunlin – 4 eggs in wet sparsely vegetated meadow

Lapland Longspur – 5 half grown young in sedge hummock under willow.

Semipalmated Sandpiper – [3 nests, each with] 4 eggs in wet sedge meadow

We then drove back to another spot where we could head for the higher ridges in the morning and set up camp for the night… We set up our personal tents and had a dinner of freeze dried jambalaya and Bisquick biscuits. In bed at 22:00. The good news is that all of the shorebird nests had eggs, so we don’t feel we are too late for the knots.

American Golden Plover.

American Golden Plover.

5 July 2013 – Moved closer to town and then took several ridge systems to try and reach our knot site. It was a pretty rough ride in going through wet sedge, fractured rock and about 4 rivers. Steve is sitting on back and I am getting accustomed to his [equipment] pressed up against my trunk most of the ride… At 18:00, just when we thought we had made it, we ran into the Sutton River and could not find a way across. Very frustrating.

Sutton River.

Sutton River.

We camped on a small cliff along the Sutton and finally got to bed around 22:30. I then watched Game of Thrones for an hour before drifting off for the night. Several good nests today including

Long-tailed Jaeger with two eggs in dry sedge tundra

American Golden Plover – [2 nests, each with] 4 eggs in dry upland tundra

White-rumped Sandpiper – 4 eggs in mudboil sedge tundra

Red Phalarope – [2 nests, each with] 4 eggs in wet sedge tundra

Dunlin – 4 eggs in wet sedge tundra

Longtailed jaeger.

Long-tailed Jaeger.

Long-tailed Jaeger.

Long-tailed Jaeger.

6 July 2013 – Woke up at 7:00 to a cold 50°F [with] 30 km winds most of the day. Partly cloudy but overall not bad. We packed up camp at the river and headed back to the truck… The first hour went well and we got back to the cache with few problems. From there things went downhill quickly. To start, we broke all of the rules of ATV riding. No helmet, [multiple] passengers, and overloaded the vehicle with equipment. The equipment became such a problem that we were stopping every 10 mins to reorganize and tie. At one point the cases we had on the back collapsed and we lost almost everything, including my camera bag. We then adjusted and shared some of the equipment and that seemed to help, except Rick and Joshua were stopping regularly to readjust the camp fuel. We finally made it back out to the road and eventually to the truck without any serious damage or loss. 22 km from camp to truck. Did not stop for nests today although I did see a couple of [semipalmated sandpipers] and a couple of [dunlin] flush from nest sites. Had a quick lunch on the back of the truck. Joshua went into town for the night to get us some more gas and get away from the kablunas [sic] for the evening and we made our way to the cabin to spend the night. Our plan is to reorganize the equipment and try a new route back into the knot site in the morning. Larry and Mandy are cooking dinner and I am doing as little as possible except for catching up on notes, setting up the solar panel for recharging, and checking out the damage to my equipment. We are going to try going [a] little farther northwest in the morning and will then head south to the knot site. Still no sign of a knot.

Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Semipalmated Sandpiper.

7 July 2013 – On the evening of the 4th day the biologists finally found their home in the wilderness. We left the cabin in the morning and at 18:00 we finally made it to the knot area. Most of the ride was on gravel ridges and other than overloading the ATV and destroying the back suspension the ride was reasonable uneventful. The ATVs are amazing machines that are able to go almost anywhere.

Our ATVs bearing a heavy load.

Our ATVs bearing a heavy load.

We are now on the high plateaus in the middle of the island in a lightly vegetated tundra surrounded by gravel ridges and mud boil for miles around. There is a small lake in front of us and a shallow creek where we are drawing our water. The solar panel is charging well and the camp is on some dry mudboil not far from the lake. Watching Josh drive the ATV and pick out a route while moving, his knowledge of the land, while Rick sits on back working the GPS, is a pleasure to watch. Steve and I are on the second ATV followed by Mandy and Larry. Along the way we did not see much but we did pick up an:

American Golden Plover – nest with 4 eggs in dry vegetated tundra

At camp we have a nesting [long-tailed jaeger] close by and another pair of [American golden plover]s. Dinner was soup and salami with Mountain House chicken and rice. I need a wash and despite washing my feet every couple of days there is now a definite odour to my tent. Oh well. To finish off the evening we just heard a knot off in the distance, our first. Tomorrow is going to be a good day!

American Golden Plover.

American Golden Plover.

8 July 2013 – Woke up this morning to knots calling. That was pretty much the highlight. Had a bird bath that helped considerably. Cool but mostly sunny, windy in the afternoon. After breakfast we drove the ATVs around the ridges south of camp but found nest cups only. A rather tiring day with very little to show for our efforts except another flat tire on our ATV and Larry had a ball joint come out of the socket on his front right tire and had to be rescued by Joshua. Everyone was back in camp by 18:00, but most were so tired we took a nap. I watched another episode of [Game of Thrones] and wrote up notes. During the travels we found

Red-throated Loon – nest with 1 egg on small shallow lake

Long-tailed Jaeger – nest behind camp – 2 eggs

Long-tailed Jaeger.

Long-tailed Jaeger.

We are going to wait until 21:00 when the wind dies down and try to focus on calling knots around camp to see if we can do a better job finding territories. The afternoon is too windy and difficult to see many birds. The sun is extreme and I already have blistering on my hands from a couple of hours not wearing gloves. Much of the area around camp is fractured limestone with little vegetation except in the low lying areas. We went back out in the evening until 23:30 without success and no birds called. Near camp found

Semipalmated Sandpiper – nest with 3eggs in wet mudboil.

10 July 2013 – We headed north about two miles and Steve and I searched an area on the west side. Returned home early and started to protect the solar panels before they were damaged. Spent most of the rest of the afternoon in the tent, but after dinner went outside and photographed the long-tailed jaeger and a knot [as well as]:

Semipalmated Sandpiper – 1 egg adult incubating

Sanderling – 4 eggs cold (photos but will check id when I get home on mudboil)

A second Semipalmated Sandpiper – in sedge hummock in the middle of shallow wetland stream. 4 eggs

American Golden Plover – behind camp on lichen mudboil with 4 eggs.

Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Semipalmated Sandpiper.

11 July 2013 – Cloudy and cool through day. Larry and I went south on the ATV at 11:00, home at 18:00. Dinner was leek and potato soup, chili, mac & cheese, and biscuits. We are eating in Joshua’s tent. It is a little crowded but it is working out alright. The only real problem is no chairs so we are sitting on coolers, one case, and two empty gas cans. No knots found today despite traveling over 25 kms in good-looking habitat. I am not sure how we can be missing them. In the wetlands south I had

American Golden Plover – 4 eggs on dry mudboil

A second American Golden Plover – 3 eggs on dryas in small gravel ridge – photo of bird near nest

Parasitic Jaeger – 2 eggs on sedge mind in wetland – photo

Red-throated Loon – 2 eggs in small shallow pond – photos

Not much else to report except my feet are beginning to smell more and more like cornchips! Not in a good way… I had another small bird bath in my which is working out pretty well, except for smelly feet and boots.

Arctic Fox.

Arctic Fox.

12 July 2013 – Pleasant and sunny today. High close to 17°C. Mosquitoes were out when we got back in the evening, but not too bad. Very little wind in the afternoon. Headed back up north to the same site as two days ago after checking the nests around camp.

American Golden Plover – still with 4 eggs

Semipalmated Sandpiper – still with eggs

Long-tailed Jaeger – still with two eggs

Rechecked the [what I had thought was an] eider nest, which turned out to be [that of] a Long-tailed Duck – nest with 5 eggs – took photos of bird and eggs.

Long-tailed Duck.

Long-tailed Duck.

Went farther north and started checking ridges again.

American Golden Plover – still with 4 eggs

Red Knot – nest on small ridge on south east side with 1 young and 3 other eggs starred or hatching. Caught the adult and put on geolocator. We then moved another km further north and eventually Steve found

A second Red Knot – on large ridge in isolated patch of dryas. Nest with 4 eggs. Adult caught and a geolocator was put on the bird.

Red Knot.

Red Knot.

Processing a Red Knot.

Processing a Red Knot.

After dinner of pasta primavera, I went for a walk and checked the area around camp but no sign of any young or shorebirds in the area.

13 June 2013 – The rain began at 4:00 in the morning. Steve woke me from his tent to remind me to bring in the solar panels and scared the [living daylights] out of the rest of camp, who thought there was a bear around. Rained most of the day. Cold and misty. We spent most of the day drinking coffee in Joshua’s tent. I finally had to escape and decided to check all of the nests around camp to see if any had hatched.

American Golden Plover – [2 nests, each] with 4 eggs

Semipalmated Sandpiper – [2 nests, one with 3 eggs, one with 4 eggs]

Long-tailed Duck – nest with 2 eggs

Went back to camp around 17:30, had another coffee and then went out with Larry to check the ridges west of camp at around 400 feet. Didn’t find any knots but I did find;

American Golden Plover – deserted nest with two eggs in small patch of dryas in mudboil.

Back for dinner at 20:00.

14 June 2013 – Travel day. Larry and I started out at 7:00 to check the red knot nests but saw a Polar Bear in the distance about 3 kms from camp and immediately turned around to get the gun. The rest of the group was beginning to break down camp. We headed back out and found

Long-tailed Duck – nest still with 5 eggs, female flushed from nests.

Red Knot – nest with 4 eggs, geolocator bird on nest

Red Knot – nest with 1 egg and a dead young nearby. We checked the surrounding wetlands but did not find any adults or young.

American Golden Plover – [two nests, each] with 4 eggs

Red Knot.

Red Knot.

Red Knot.

Red Knot.

Back to camp at 11:00, a quick pack and we were headed for the cabin. Uneventful ride, except Larry’s ball joint had to be retied halfway through the trip and I had to pump up my left front tire several times due to a small leak. On the way we had:

American Golden Plover – Adult on nest on dryas on small ridge

Dunlin – nest with 4 eggs, adult flushed in dry sedge mud boil.

Arrived back to camp around 18:00 and had dinner of pizza and brownies in the Coleman oven. Larry and Mandy left to sleep in Joshua’s grandfather’s cabin.

15 June 2013 – Left the cabin this morning at 8:00. Mostly sunny, not much wind and the mosquitoes were starting to come out. Thirty miles from the cabin to Coral [Harbour]. Lots of Snow Geese with young along the road and we counted 8 Snowy Owls on the way back. Took back the ATVs, did a little shopping, and we are staying with Joshua, Suzy, and Sophia for the day and evening. I finally had a shower and am beginning to feel human again although my feet are still an issue for most of us!

Snow Geese.

Snow Geese.

Mandy and Sophia, holding Cookie.

Mandy and Sophia, holding Cookie.

16 June 2013 – Headed to the airport in misty rain… [Due to bad weather], we were looking at staying an extra two days until Jane Hart and Medallion Travel (with a little support from Larry) were able to get us another flight, not an easy thing to do and, with a little break in the weather, we arrived back in Winnipeg at 23:00 that night. Jane was able to arrange another flight back to Toronto at 5:25 on the 17th and I was home in no time.