Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

Expedition to the Arctic – June 30, 2001

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Last year we got lucky. On the first search of the first day, we found a nesting red knot. In all we found 11 red knot nests, more than any other researcher had ever located. We hoped to relocate nests within these 11 territories, perhaps even locating them in the same cups or in nearby patches of Dryas. As in 2000, we planned to study this group of birds at these nests using both radio telemetry and observation. Then we planned to move on to other nearby eskers, the sinuous ridges that are the remains of rivers running underneath long-gone glaciers. Barry brought new boots for Hoochie to help with her walking on the frost-cracked slivers of rock that litter this barren landscape. She took to them immediately.

In our first day of searching we found one pair of knots within 150 meters of last year’s nest. While Mark and I responded to a single adult calling above us, Hoochie and Barry came in, searched the area, and found the nest. It was a hopeful sign that turned into a fluke. We were searching the suitable habitat on each side of the esker, spread apart evenly, focusing for any possible indication of nests. We recorded the location of all old nest cups that we found assuming that knots created most of them.. We spent considerable time searching in the area of the old nest sites, assuming new ones would be closeby. Unfortunately, our first nest remained our only nest after a long, hard day of searching. “Why” became our most pressing question.

A few possibilities exist. Johnny suggested a storm that scoured Southampton Island for about two days with winds of over 100 knots (1 knot equals1.15 miles per hour). It occurred three days before we arrived and it may have destroyed the knot nests because they lie in such exposed areas. Unfortunately for us, it would have destroyed our nests as well. Another possibility may be increased predator pressure from jaegers and arctic foxes that seem more abundant than last year. With an earlier snow melt than usual this year, the birds may have had more snow-free areas to choose from. Our team studying birds last year may have created a negative impact by decreasing survival or degrading the quality of the site with our disturbance.

The final possibility, the one that brings us here, the decline in horseshoe crab eggs has restricted breeding. At this point it’s far too early to make conclusions. Late in the day, Steve found a nest cup with a single knot egg. The egg was laid this year but was faded and obviously abandoned. Were the other three eggs depredated? Did the pair abandon the nest before completing the clutch of 4 eggs after suffering the effects of 100 knot winds?

On the following day we searched the esker 3 km south of our home esker. Last year we found four nests, three of them located directly on the esker itself. This search bordered on Herculean — 6 km to get there, 6 km of searching, and 6 km back again, most of trip over frost boil and frost fractured rock that required as much care as walking on broken glass. We used the ATV as much as possible, but it’s size and the terrain restricted it’s usefulness. We searched for about half the day and found only empty nest cups and many summer bear dens. At the end of the search, we found five birds displaying over suitable, but as yet unsearched, habitat, and we decided to created a forward camp next time to allow a better search.