Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

Expedition to the Arctic: Red Knot – July 6, 2003

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Early the next morning, our third day at base camp, we intended to sweep the most promising areas found the day before. Although we intuited the habitat as marginal, and our preliminary survey of potential habitats in an area of approximately 100 sq. km substantiated that, we intended to test it by sweeping the most promising areas. We employed the method developed at Southampton Island using 50ft ropes with 2 ft plastic strips every 7 ft carried between 9 people. Our search would be more difficult as the areas suitable for nesting were scattered amongst more vegetated habitats. We found no nests that day, although we had located one pair we presumed to be nesting. Altogether, the area appeared unpromising as a new study site. We resolved to go as far north as we could the next day.

During the sweeps, we sighted three arctic fox, reminders of the ever present threat to nesting shorebirds. Fox hunt the land for nests, while jaegers and glaucous gulls patrol them from the air. The least indication of nesting will bring them close even with humans in the area. Five years ago, while counting snow geese in a colony of 80,000 pairs on Jenny Lind Island, just west of King William, Mark and I learned an early lesson in Arctic depredation. While close to the fringes of the colony we frightened a few flightless adults from their chicks, which were just over fist size. Glaucous gulls relentlessly patrolled the colony for chicks that were briefly abandoned by their parent and quickly seized the opportunity we had created. Before we could remove ourselves, a gull glided down to a small chick, snatched it by the nape of the neck, and quietly carried him away. We cannot ignore the potential negative effect of carelessness.

The trip into the coastal areas north of Gjoa Haven would be an all-day rough ride of over 60 km, much of it without the benefit of a trail. We had little choice though, as the main goal of our work on King William was to establish a new study site that would provide a more extensive area of habitat than on Southampton Island and more economic logistics. The north shore held great promise in this regard. We could access it with ATV’s and establish one base camp from which we could study knots in an area at least five times as large as that in Southampton Island. Between the two sites, we would have a reasonable method of determining breeding status of the red knots coming through the Delaware Bay.

We decided to take two ATV’s that would carry Mark, Mandy, Humphrey and me. Starting early, we hoped to return early enough to begin the arduous process of moving equipment back to Gjoa Haven that night. We had only one chance to evaluate the site. Again the sun shone brightly, and our trip north went without a significant mishap. We arrived at the first area at about 12:00 noon, and we were rewarded with a knot calling within minutes of our arrival. It was a good sign.

It got better. Humphrey and I moved approximately 1 km north while Mandy and Mark tried to find the calling bird. From our northern vantage we could see just how the knot habitat extended in nearly all directions. It was all very similar to Southampton Island. Then we heard a knot calling its territorial call, then another called and soon we could see two birds together. Before the two birds split apart, we heard a third bird calling from an entirely different area. We felt like we had found what we had sought, a good place to study knots. We spent as much time as we could following up on the birds, but the lateness of the day forced us to return to base camp.

By Larry Niles
Edited by Nancy Donnelly
Photos by Larry Niles and Mandy Dey