Expedition to the Arctic: Red Knot – July 4, 2003
With the sun shining brightly we finally retired to our tent homes at about 2:00 am. We established camp next to an unnamed lake in low and mostly vegetated tundra, characteristically unsuitable for red knots, but a productive habitat for nearly all the other shorebirds in the central Arctic. Within a day, Mark, Rodger and Steve had ferreted out the nests of semipalmated sandpiper, white-rumped sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, Baird’s sandpiper, ruddy turnstone, stilt sandpiper, red phalarope, golden plover, black-bellied plover, glaucous gull, Sabine’s gull, tundra swan, snow goose, Canada geese, white fronted geese, king eiders, long-tailed duck, pacific loon, red throated loon, snow bunting, lapland longspur, and horned lark. Within a few days we would see arctic tern, snowy owl, white-fronted goose, peregrine falcon, yellow billed loon, willow and rock ptarmigan, long-tailed jaegers. We saw only a few caribou and several arctic foxes.
As usual, the red knot would take more work. Humphrey, Mark and I took the first trip north to reconnoiter suitable sites closer than those northern areas that were indicated on the maps. We followed the trail, which was continuously marked with inuksuits, or stacked stone markers frequently used as symbols of Inuit culture. Inuksuits are guideposts that mark trails in the extreme cold, snow, and wind of an Arctic winter. Dryas, sedge, heath, lichen, and saxifrage dominated the upland landscape in much greater density than what we knew as suitable to knots. We focused on the 1-3 km patches of nearly barren land (less than 10% cover) similar to the knot habitat of Southampton Island. After much overland searching, we found knots calling at two sites and decided to bring in the entire team to search for nests the following day.
(Using maps with Rick Lathrop’s satellite mapping), Pete, Mark, and I designated all the places similar to the area we heard knots that day. Pete downloaded waypoints on each of our GPS units to help locate them in the field. The next day, we divided into three teams, each surveying 8 sites using a protocol developed on Southampton Island, which included 20 minutes of recording all birds seen and heard. The sun shone warmer and brighter than at anytime in our entire trip. Mandy, Bruce and I took the area farthest north, which included an esker as long as that in Southampton Island but about twice as high. Nancy, Mark and Rodger’s area included the site where we had found birds the previous day. Our hopes ran high.
After a grueling day which included crossing an unnamed river and searching the length of the 8 km esker we neither saw nor heard any red knots. Later we would discover, through two way radio conversations with Mark and Humphrey, that they sighted and heard knots in about a quarter of their surveyed sites. But, the numbers were generally similar to those found on Southampton Island and were not encouraging. Although a bit glum, we anticipated a reasonable arrival time back at camp to enjoy a nice hot meal prepared by Nancy. Nancy participates in all of our field work, and while the rest of us flop into our chairs at camp, she gets to work cooking meals that are good tasting, nutritious, and interesting.
On our way back to camp, however, we met Pete who had to leave Humphrey and Steve behind to get through some of the worst mud boil we have ever encountered. Mud boils form through cracks in the permafrost, where mud literally bubbles up from below. Mud boils are the bane of field trips, whether on ATV or foot. Usually they percolate rock which cluster at the edge in a ring around the boil. They are generally soft but not so soft to stop an ATV. But, this mud was alive and well hidden at the edge of the wetlands.
The mud swallowed our ATV’s. It nearly swallowed us when we tried to free the ATV’s. Now muddy and tired, we finally got everyone back at camp at about 10:00 pm.
By Larry Niles
Edited by Nancy Donnelly
Photos by Larry Niles and Mandy Dey