Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

Expedition to the Arctic – July 9, 2001

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Persistent, difficult fieldwork paid off for our team in the last few days. After several long days of searching new areas, Bruno, with Mark, Nancy, and Steve, discovered an adult in “broken-wing” display, a sure sign of a nearby nest. But, she responded oddly. In the typical way, she limped around Bruno, wings hanging limply, vainly attempting to pull him in her direction. Then she gathered herself and performed for the others in the team increasing distances from the original display. She wasn’t incubating but brooding and moving as her chicks moved. It was hard to believe. A wider search revealed two fuzzy, salt and pepper, miniature knots scurrying across the tundra like insects. While the adult repeatedly attempted to distract us, a new pair of birds flew in close, a behavior we have witnessed at other nests but still baffling us. She flew out to them, displayed for a few seconds, than flew into us to resume a half-hearted rendition of a broken wing. We left immediately. Confused, we ruminated the implications. This bird hatched eggs and brooded young at least a week, almost 9 days, before the first hatch last year. Were these birds an anomaly or were the birds last year late?

Part of the answer came soon. The following day we went to tag the incubating bird on our only nest with eggs. On approach we found two downy chicks, a pipping egg and an unhatched egg. Quickly we attached the transmitter and took our measurements. Steve kept track of the bird until nearly ten o’clock that night, at which time he reported that the bird was still incubating.

Johnny later confirmed the early hatch dates. Returning after a day of searching with Brad and Mandy, he noticed a knot within sight of the ATV. Recovering from the shock of stumbling onto a bird after searching intensively for 8 hours, they soon noticed bands, a green flag over a green color band on the left and metal over an orange band on the lower right leg. They had found a Delaware Bay bird banded in Delaware in Spring 2000. After some observation, they located four scampering chicks nearly the same age as those found by Bruno.

They stayed with them for about an hour, watching the adult bird (we disagreed whether male or female) and the chicks wander over the wet mud boil habitat. She appeared to follow the chicks as they worked the crevices of the rock, spreading about her then drawing back when she gently whispered the territory call. Then, as if on cue, the young gathered beneath her comforted by the warmth of her breast and feathers. There they would remain for about five minutes, eventually wandering off in search of food once again.

A few kilometers ahead of the knot with four chicks, they happened upon something of equal interest. Slowly working their way across the mud boils and stony ridges back to base camp, they nearly ran across a Sanderling nest. While Johnny avoided the nest with the ATV, Mandy and Brad jumped from the vehicle and immediately eyed the bands on its leg. Amazingly, they saw another green flag over blue on the left leg and metal over green and white bands on the lower right, a Delaware Bay bird banded in New Jersey this year! It was a great find. We know very little about Sanderlings on Southampton, especially whether the birds on this island migrate through the Delaware Bay. They’re enigmatic. We’ve seen them and found a few nests, but unlike knots we have little understanding of their habitat. They deserve study because they’re as vulnerable to the decline of horseshoe crabs on the Bay as the knots. We had hoped to study them but without evidence of a direct connection to the Delaware Bay a study would be academic. Finding the banded Sanderling was a significant discovery.

After a full day of telemetry, measuring golden plover nests, searching for and banding red knots, we prepared to ATV back to base camp, Nancy, and dinner. Johnny drove with the first group, Mark, Mandy, and Bruno. Approaching the camp, Mark first thought we had a new white tent in camp. The tent was actually a bear within a hundred yards of camp. Johnny raced towards the bear who quickly turned tail and loped off jumping into the lake west of our camp. Ultimately, he swam to the island in the middle of the lake less than a kilometer from camp and fell asleep for the night. We kept watch throughout the night. The bear moved only to roll and stretch, occasionally lifting his mighty head into the air to catch stray scent. The next morning at 12:00 noon he still slept.