Tuesday, June 15, 2021

 

    adult male Hudsonian Godwit atop Black Spruce

ALASKA –HUDSONIAN GODWITS ON THEIR BREEDING HABITAT

15 – 27 May 2021

 

    godwit giving flight calls

My main purpose for traveling to Alaska was to spend time with Dr. Nathan Senner of the University of South Carolina and his team as they studied nesting Hudsonian Godwits in the field. Dr. Senner generously allowed me to shadow him and his team over a week as they located active godwit nests in two large bogs in Beluga, Alaska, about 50 miles due west of Anchorage, accessible by a bush plane flight of about 20 minutes.

 

    the North Bog, where I spent most of my time when at Beluga

I was able to drive to the two bogs using a car on loan from the Beluga Fish Camp, where I was staying. The Senner team was based in cabins situated between the two bogs, and drove to them in two ATVs.

 

    Dr. Senner on the way into the bog

Dr. Senner was conducting an abbreviated field tour because of the constraints of 2021 being a covid pandemic year. He was accompanied in the field by a small team—a collaborating scientist, Maria Stager, and a new graduate student, Lauren Puleo. The team’s mandate was to find, trap, measure, and mark as many of the breeding godwits as possible in a field season of less than a month. They also sampled insect abundance to better understand foraging opportunities for the hatchling godwits that grew up in the bog.

 

    preparing to net a nesting godwit

Senner had been working on godwits in the Beluga area for more than a decade, and many of the birds in the two bogs were well-known to him. Two years earlier, I had photographed an adult Hudsonian Godwit in a boggy fen in Churchill, Manitoba, that Senner had color-marked seven years before. Godwits apparently can live quite a while, and thus any study that wants to get a grip on their life history would have to invest a considerable number of years in the effort.

 

    processing a netted godwit: Stager, Senner, Puleo at work

Here is the godwit life story in brief. The adults arrive in southcentral Alaska in late April/early May. Male-female pairs of godwits construct a grassy nest on a small hummock above the waterline. The birds mate and the female lays four speckled green eggs in the nest. The female sits on the nest during the daytime and the male occupies the nest for the night (though there is not much true night up here in May and June).

 

    the godwit nest with its four eggs

The eggs hatch after 27 days and the precocial young are out and about exploring the world and feeding themselves, carefully watched by the parents, from day-one of hatching. By early July the parents start their journey southward, heading off to the saline lakes of Saskatchewan, where they feed and build fat reserves for their long flight to South America. The travel south and east to New England, from which they launch out over the Atlantic, flying as much as 6 days nonstop before touching down in northern South America (some birds stop in New England, others fly nonstop from Saskatchewan to South America). The first-year birds do more or less the same thing, on their own, and how they manage the long journey remains a mystery. Most of the wintering birds (adults and young) end up in the Chiloe Archipelago of southern Chile, where they spend as many as seven months of their year. In March/April, the godwits move northward on a different track, crossing the eastern Pacific and then Central America and then the Gulf of Mexico to the US. After a rest and feeding in the Great Plains (where I have encountered them in 2019 and 2020), they travel up to Canada and then westward and northward back to Alaska.

 

    godwit being processed before release to go back to its nesting duties

One objective of my godwit studies has been to visit three of the breeding zones of the species. I visited Churchill, Manitoba, in 2019. Now Beluga, AK, in 2021. I hope to visit the Mackenzie Delta of the Northwest Territories of Canada in June-July 2022. My travels to the Mackenzie Delta have been prevented, of late, by the covid pandemic and Canadian travel restrictions.

 

    Godwit about to be measured

The two large Beluga bogs, north and south, both hosted nesting godwits. Finding the godwits was not terribly difficult, but finding nests is. To do so, the team would systematically walk sectors hoping to flush a bird off an active nest. The sitting bird rarely flushed until the walker was within 5 feet of the nest. It was theoretically possible to spot a bird on the nest before flushing it, but that was especially difficult to accomplish.

 

    godwit about to be weighed

The bogs supported other nesting waterbirds: Arctic Terns, Mew Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Red-necked Phalaropes, Least Sandpipers, Wilson’s Snipes, Short-billed Dowitchers, Sandhill Cranes, Pintails, White-fronted Geese, and more. But it was remarkable how difficult it was for a mortal like me to come upon the hidden nests of many of these birds. The nests of the terns and gulls were easy to find, but the others were well hidden.

 

    Marie Stager checking the brood patch of this nesting Short-billed Dowitcher, another bog nester

To a field naturalist, the bog environment is seductive. It is open, with stunning vistas of nearby  Sleeping Lady as well as the snowy mountains of the Alaska Range. It is a mix of open water, wet grasslands, quaking boglands, and stands of Black Spruce. This time of year, cow Moose hide in the Black Spruce thickets and drop their calves. Inadvertently flushing a cow Moose from a thicket is an experience that gets one’s attention quickly, as this seven-foot-tall beast bursts out of the spruces. Is the great beast coming for you or avoiding you? Sometimes that is not immediately clear.

 

    Alaska Range frames the bog 

I carried bear spray on my hip whenever I was out and about in Alaska. This is protection for Moose and bear. David Sonneborn reported to me that he had successfully deflected the charge of a cow Moose, though I cannot imagine the experience being anything besides hair-raising.

 

    godwit pair dropping into a Black Spruce

The more commonplace threat in the bog is biting insects. The mosquitoes are the major problem. Luckily for us, they do not appear in swarms until the 1st of June. In my last few days in Beluga, I found more and more mosquitoes in the woods, but I escaped back home before they became unpleasant.

 

    checking the status of the eggs

Once the Senner team located a nest, they marked its location by placing a small dead branch in the grass. Even with the branch in place, and the adult on the eggs, it was very difficult to locate the nest again.

 

    male godwit eyes the photographer

The team captured both sitting adults using a mist-net that was gently laid down over the nest and sitting bird. Most birds were already marked birds known to Senner. Each trapped bird was “processed”—weighed, measured, and its tiny geolocator replaced (the old one for downloading, the new one for recording its movements over the next year).  

 

    Arctic Tern on its nest in the North Bog

The recovered geolocator allowed Senner to map a year’s worth of movements by the bird. The advantages of using geolocators as opposed to satellite transmitters are several: light weight, low expense, and low impact on the bird. The two disadvantages are that the results are not quite as precise and one is forced to recapture the bird to recover the data.

 

    North Bog in the misty morning

The godwit’s day is pretty well set. The male would feed all day out on the mudflats of Cook Inlet. He then would return around 6pm to the bog and swap places with the female. The female would forage and loaf through the evening and night and return the next morning around 6 am.

 

    nattering godwit

I did manage to see godwits on virtually every visit I made to the bogs. Birds typically made a racket on their return to the bog, and they would often perch atop Black Spruces and eye us suspiciously. Sometimes they would circle the bog high overhead vocalizing. They rarely gave us much indication as to where their nests might be...

 


Tromping the bogs was great fun and also great exercise. I loved hearing the godwits and I was not terribly annoyed by the dive-bombing Bonaparte’s Gulls and Arctic Terns. Neither ever struck me, but they came very close indeed.

 

    female godwit on her nest, nearly invisible!

The Senner team put in long, long days in the bogs. Their efforts paid off—locating more than a dozen nests and marking more than twenty adults. I, myself, could not keep up there pace, but it was a great privilege being able to spend time out there with them as they did their work. I salute what they are doing!


    Sleeping Lady from the North Bog

    nesting Bonaparte's Gull


Monday, June 7, 2021

 

ALASKA SEA LIFE 

15-26 May 2021

 


Southwestern Alaska is a wonderful mix of mountains and marine ecosystems—all tossed together in a tectonic jumble. I spent a number of days living right on the north shore of the Cook Inlet, an arm of the Gulf of Alaska, and I also took a day-long boat trip from Seward, sailing south down Resurrection Bay and then around a peninsula and into Aialik Bay and right up to the glacier at the head of that rugged embayment, in Kenai Fjords National Park.

 

     Beluga Whale breaking surface--one does not get to see much

Cook Inlet is home to pods of Beluga Whales, which one can glimpse in bush plane overflights and also when patiently watching from the shore. I saw them on several occasions, just specks of white appearing on the surface of the Inlet, as the creatures popped their heads above the surface for air.

 

    Seward Highway

On the 26th of May, Alaska birding expert Dr. David Sonneborn drove me down to Seward to take the six-hour “National Park” boat trip offered by Kenai Fjords Tours. The early morning drive from Anchorage to Seward took us through stunning scenery, first following Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, and then down Seward Highway hemmed in by wondrous snow-covered mountains—the Chugatch on one side, the Kenai on the other.

 The 2.5 hour drive took us from a dry and warm and sunny day in Anchorage to a cold, gloomy,  and misty day in Seward. This drive takes one from a very dry climate to a perhumid one, where one finds the northernmost rainforest on earth dominated by Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock.

 

    Exit Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park visitor center

Before the boat ride, David drove me to the Kenai Fjords National Park visitor center, which is situated right below the terminus of the Exit Glacier, which was my first close-up experience with such a massive accumulation of ice. The pale bluish color of the ice is quite fetching.

 

We brought lots of cold-weather gear for the boat trip, but not enough. The combination of the speed of the boat and the outdoor temperature and humidity made it difficult to weather the outdoor conditions on the boat from long periods of time. We had been hot the day before in Anchorage. On this day we were very cold. Major wind-chill!

 

    Black-legged Kittiwake 

The Seward harbor featured Black-legged Kittiwakes, looking a lot like Mew Gulls, which is the common species in downtown Anchorage.  There were also some of the larger Glaucous-winged Gulls (a population that has hybridized with Herring Gulls).

 

    kittiwakes (smaller) and Glaucous-winged Gulls (the larger gulls)

Steller’s Sea Lions populated some of the small rocky islets along the route of our boat ride. These are always a pleasure to watch—they are so variable, from the powerful oversized males to the tiny babies...

 

    Stelller's Sea Lions at a haul-out

Hump-backed Whales were out and about. I have spent a lot of time with this species off of Provincetown.

 

    Hump-backed Whales fluking

The featured marine mammal was the Orca (Killer Whale) a lifer for me. Pods of Orcas loafed about one particular bay, and I shot a lot of images of them, trying to capture the creatures themselves, not just their fins. That is a tough assignment...

 

    The above image and the five images below are of Orcas







The featured seabirds of the cruise were the Alcidae (auks and allies), of which I encountered six species on the trip. The prettiest was the Tufted Puffin.

 

    Tufted Puffin

The Horned Puffin was also quite pleasing to the eye (and a lifer too!).

 

    Horned Puffins (above and below)


The Rhinoceros Auklet was in breeding plumage, and pretty nifty, but not at all confiding. A lot of the alcids would be sitting on the water and then launch off away from the boat as it approached.

 

    tail-end view of Rhinoeros Auklets -- this is a common view of these elusive birds

We encounter Marbled Murrelets in breeding condition right in Seward harbor, and also in other spots. This species is fairly common in these parts. Lots of rainforest to nest in.

 


    Marbled Murrelets (two pictures above)

We encountered a few pairs of Pigeon Guillemots, which are handsome, and which closely resemble their East Coast cousins—the Black Guillemot.

 

    Pigeon Guillemots

Perhaps Kittlitz’s Murrelet was the most exciting bird of the trip. It was a lifer for me, and was one of those species I had not planned to see here...

 

    Kittlitz's Murrelet (above and below)

Another surprise to me was encountering two species of storm-petrels (Fork-tailed and Leach’s)  the first whitish, the second blackish with a white rump. Both were foraging low over the icy water up near the calving glacier at the head of Aialik Bay.

 


    Leach's Storm-Petrel (uppermost image), and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (just above)

I did not see phalaropes on this boat ride, but I had them breeding in the North Bog at Beluga, and I include it here, because it spends most of its life far out at sea.

 

    Red-necked Phalarope

Sea Otters were about and easy to see, flat on their backs bobbing around on the water’s surface. I encountered one large group of perhaps 10 individuals.

 


    Sea Otters (2 images above)

Here is the Aialik Glacier that we spent time with. The boat parked and waited for the glacier to peel off some of its ice. The sound of the ice dropping into the water was like thunder—it is very impressive. Geological in its massive force...