Arctic, Expeditions and Travels

Expedition to the Arctic: Red Knot – June 23, 2003

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The first leg of our arctic trip includes the grueling journey from home to Rankin Inlet in Nunavut territory. Our second leg involves the frantic gathering of the team and equipment and delivering everyone to our remote study site on Southampton Island. This year it all went awry. While we were in Rankin preparing to fly into base camp, nearly all of our equipment sat stranded in Winnipeg. With the help of several Calm Air staff and Bev, from Skyward, our equipment found its way to the Rankin airport.

Unfortunately, our gear arrived at 7:15 at night and, with a storm forecasted for the following day, we had no choice but to immediately begin the last leg of our journey. Our pilot, Ed Swada of Skyward agreed even though he would have to land at our field site in the Arctic twilight. He lands us on an esker, a 7 mile strip of stone no more than 50 meters wide. Eskers are remnants of rivers flowing below the long departed glaciers and are scattered throughout Southampton Island. He delivered us safely and by 12:00 am he was aflight into the cold reddish glow of a sun just below the horizon. In the biting cold we had to build our camp.

After a late morning we set off on our first sweep for nests. Our goal is to find all the shorebird nests within several hundred meters of the eskers within our study site and then conduct surveys along the esker to compare what we assume is the known number of nests. A sweep for nests requires all of us to walk in a long line, evenly spaced about 15 meters apart, on either side of the esker. Last year, Rick Lathrop, of Rutgers, tracked the outside of our line with a GPS unit allowing us to calculate the total area searched. This year Pete will do the same job.

This year we used ropes between each person to insure that we would miss no nesting knots. We added this because Knots sit the tightest of any of the Arctic nesters and can be easily missed by even the most alert biologists. Ropes with dangling tape insure that even the most reluctant bird will flush.

Knots are among the most difficult Arctic species to survey. We have walked within a meter of a nest and the incubating knot just sat tight. Most shorebirds flush at greater distances. . Moreover, in most Arctic species such as the Golden Plover, the non-incubating adult will remain within a small territory around the nest. The calling bird tells us we are close to a nest. With knots, however, the non-incubating knot leaves the area of the nest to feed elsewhere, sometimes traveling as far as 10 km from the nest. Even when they are displaying, they do so in flight. This yields virtually no indication of the location of the nest except the certainty that you are within his 1 kilometer wide territory. It’s a tough job finding knot nests. We swept 6 miles on our first day and found one knot nest in an area where we found 2 last year and 4 in 2000.

Larry Niles
Edited by Nancy Donnelly
Photos by Larry Niles and Amanda Dey