22 May 2008

Research to Help Understand Bird Conservation in the Arctic

Joe Liebezeit (right) and Ruby Hammond watching a shorebird reveal its nest location. Images courtesy of Steve Zack, Wildlife Conservation Society.

A research initiative sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society is developing information essential to understanding the values of coastal Alaska for a variety of wild birds.

Research is underway at the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area in the northeast corner of the National Petroleum Reserve, and in the nearby Beaufort Sea region.

Funding is provided from a Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act Grant provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, foundations (Liz Claibourne / Art Ortenberg Foundation, Disney Conservation Fund, the Duke Foundation) and private donors, according to Joe Liebezeit, an associate conservation biologist, with the Society.

Research is being conducted on several bird-related topics, and Liebezeit provided further details in an email interview:

What is the research mission and its methods?

"Our mission is to conserve wildlife and wild places in Arctic Alaska. Our research is centered on understanding the main threats to wildlife in the Arctic: climate change and energy development; and to identify key areas for protection. For this latter issue, our focus has been Teshekpuk.

"This season, we are finishing up a 4-year study examining the breeding success, or how successful birds are at raising young to the point where they can leave the nest. Currently, there is little information on the importance of this region as a bird 'nursery' since no other studies have examined nest survivorship of the full suite of birds that utilize this region. This study is important because the Teshekpuk region of the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska is recognized for its importance to wildlife yet it is currently threatened with oil development. The Bureau of Land Management is currently selling oil exploration bids to oil companies in this region. At the same time we are working with other non-governmental organizations to help protect key areas in this important region.

"We will investigate post-breeding shorebird abundance, species composition, and fitness in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area since so little is known. In addition to the threat of oil development, the coastline in this region is rapidly eroding. As the polar ice cap shrinks due to climate change, wave action in the Arctic Ocean has intensified, particularly in the fall during storms. Because of this, coastal erosion rates have accelerated and salt water has intruded into freshwater habitats utilized by the feeding post-breeding shorebirds. In Alaska, this intensified coastal erosion is most dramatic on the Beaufort Sea coastline north of Teshekpuk Lake with over 1 km of erosion over the past 50 years. For this reason, we will investigate how climate-mediated coastal erosion may be impacting shorebird habitat use in this region.

Joe Liebezeit flushes a Semipalmated Sandpiper (lower left) from its tundra nest.

Joe Liebezeit “rope-dragging” to aid finding shorebird nests.

"In addition to our breeding bird project, we will be initiating a new study on the Beaufort Sea coast north of Teshekpuk Lake examining the use of this area by post-breeding shorebirds. Other researchers have found that after the breeding season, vast numbers of shorebirds congregate in coastal habitats along the Arctic Ocean coastline to fatten up on energy reserves before they begin their long southward migration.

What particular species are focused upon, and why?

"For our breeding bird study, we monitor nests of all birds in ourstudy plots including about 12 shorebirds species. The most common are: Semipalmated Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope and Dunlin; over five waterfowl species, including the King Eider, Greater White-fronted Goose; and other birds such as the Lapland Longspur and Willow Ptarmigan. We focus most of our investigation on the shorebirds and Lapland Longspurs since they provide the largest samples sizes.

"For the post-breeding work, the main species we will focus on will be shorebirds, in particular the Semipalmated Sandpiper, Dunlin, and Pectoral Sandpiper. We are focusing on this group of birds because they are the most numerous migratory birds in this region and some of them are of special conservation concern because their population numbers are low. Many of these species are of international importance because of their long migrations that take them to all parts of the globe.

Ruby Hammond and Joe Liebezeit “rope-dragging” to locate nests.

Joe Liebezeit measuring the angle and amount of shell floating to aid age determination in a shorebird egg.

"Methods during the breeding season (nest success study): we attempt to find all bird nests on 16 10-hectare plots. After nests are discovered we monitor them every few days until we determine whether the eggs hatched and the chicks successfully left the nest or they failed (e.g. failed due to predation, weather, etc.). From this information we can estimate "nest success" for the individual species and we will examine this with respect to other key variables that we measure (including predator numbers, habitat type, nest density) to learn which factors impact nest success the most.

"Methods during the post-breeding season: we will conduct line-transect surveys of shorebirds in key habitat types to estimate species composition, abundance, and timing of migration. We will also capture birds and individually mark them with color bands and take blood samples. The color-bands will enable us to re-sight the birds during surveys and thus estimate the 'tenure time' or how long birds stay in this area before moving on. The blood samples will be analyzed for triglyceride levels which is a measure of rate of fat gain. Birds that have a higher rate of fat gain are finding more food and thus this measure allows us an indirect measure of habitat quality."

How many years have these surveys been conducted? And what is the importance of long-term monitoring?

"We have been conducting surveys for breeding birds for four years at Teshekpuk and for six years at another site in the Prudhoe Bay region. Annual variation in the arctic is high so if we are to detect changes in populations it is important that we monitor over many years to help overcome the 'noise' of high annual variation to tease out the underlying trends."

Please comment on the importance of your survey efforts.

"The Arctic is an important region to study impacts of human disturbance (in our case via oil development) since these disturbances can be compared to nearby remote areas. Even more importantly, climate change is occurring most dramatically in the arctic (compared to the rest of the world) and so it is the most important place to investigate climate change impacts right now."

Are there any changes at your study locales which are affecting local birds?

"Climate change is impacting bird species. We have evidence that some bird species are initiating their nests up to seven days earlier than 20 years ago - a likely response to a warming climate. There is concern that this change in timing may be decoupled from insect emergence or other components of their life cycle. We have not investigated the details of this issue as of yet. Right now our main focus with climate change is investigating how climate-mediated erosion may be impacting post-breeding shorebirds."

What is the importance of the region being studied for birds,locally and globally?

"The Teshekpuk Lake Region is one of the most important areas for wildlife on the Alaskan Arctic coastal plain. Internationally important populations of shorebirds, numbering in the hundreds of thousands nest and stage here, up to 20% of the Pacific flyway brant goose population molts here every summer. The 45,000 head Teshekpuk Lake caribou herd give birth to and rear their young here every year. At the same time, oil development pressure and climate change impacts are important threats in this region. "Globally, this region supports an international assemblage of migratory birds that winter and stopover in all other parts of the planet."

In addition to society reports and published findings, research results are contributed to the Arctic Birds website where findings can be readily accessed. "We post our results on the website so that our data can be shared with other collaborators and scientists," Liebezeit said. This allows different researchers to "begin to detect trends in breeding birds across large geographic regions."

Additional details indicate the importance of the Teshekpuk Lake region for birds.

"The Teshekpuk Lake area is part of a vast network of coastal lagoons, deep water lakes, wet sedge grass meadows, beaded streams & river deltas that cover almost one third of the 23.5 million acre Reserve. Thousands of freshwater lakes cover more than half of the coastal plain," according to information presented on the Northern Alaska Environmental Center website.

"The Teshekpuk Lake area sustains the largest goose molting concentration in the Arctic - with up to 60,000 geese (including the lesser Snow Goose, Canada and White-fronted Goose and up to 20% of the entire Pacific Black Brant population) congregating at once. The coastal plain of the Reserve, including the Teshekpuk Lake area, is the primary arctic habitat for threatened Spectacled Eiders and also supports the entire breeding population of Stellar's Eider."

The Teshekpuk Lake region - sprawling across 1.7 million acres - was designated in 1977 by the Department of the Interior as a "Special Area"with significant natural values that required "maximum protection," in recognition of the habitat utilized by vast numbers of nesting and molting waterfowl, and other birds that gather prior to their annual southerly migration.

"The Wildlife Conservation Society is working with diverse stakeholders including other NGOs, government agencies, and industry," Liebezeit said, "to balance protection of the most important places for wildlife in this region along with responsible development."

Administration Relents on Drilling Near Teshekpuk Lake

"Washington, DC, May 16, 2008 - The Secretary of Interior announced today that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would defer additional oil and gas leasing around Teshekpuk Lake in the Northeast National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA) for at least 10 years. The decision came with the release of a final revised environmental statement and activity plan for Northeast NPRA, after a lawsuit blocked a controversial September 2006 lease sale in that area."

This news is from a press release issued by the National Audubon Society.

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