09 September 2010

Wildlife Conservation Society Continues Arctic Bird Research and Conservation

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), with funding support from a variety of sources, continued and expanded its research in 2010 to provide scientific details of the Arctic region and its resources.

During late-May to early-July, more than a dozen WCS field biologists investigated reproductive biology of all bird species nesting on study plots they established. According to Joe Liebezeit, the Arctic Alaska Field Coordinator for the group, "We continued our work at the same site in the Prudhoe Bay oilfields where we’ve worked since 2003, and at a second new site to the west, in a remote region of the Arctic near the Ikpikpuk River in the National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska."

The focus at both sites is to get a better understanding of how successfully birds are able to reproduce and thereby better understand population trends of key species, Liebezeit said. They focused their research on shorebirds including the Semipalmated Sandpiper, Red Phalarope, and Red-necked Phalarope. Other species were also given attention, including the Bar-tailed Godwit.

The Ikpikpuk River study site is within the a National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, the largest piece of public land in the U.S.A. Funding for research here was provided by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Liz Claiborne/Art Ortenberg Foundation.

Liebezeit and his cohorts noted high densities of shorebirds and other tundra birds at the Ikpikpuk study area. Their investigations at both sites include finding and monitoring nests, evaluating reproductive success and documenting other particulars of the natural history of the birds present.

Ikpikpuk Field Camp, 2010. Images courtesy of Joe Liebezeit, WCS.

Banding a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Two new aspects of the WCS research this season included the use of remote cameras to identify nest predators that will often eat the eggs and young at active nests, and color-banding adult shorebirds to better understand adult survivorship.

Fifteen remote cameras, about the size of a shoebox, were used at both study areas to evaluate nest predation, Liebezeit said. When a would-be predator crosses the infrared beam while it is raiding a nest, pictures are taken enabling the predator to be identified. This is helpful in evaluating differences between the Prudhoe Bay site - which is a human-altered area with a greater preponderance of predators such as the Arctic fox, Common Raven and gulls - to the Ikpikpuk site which is a remote locality with a lesser number of human-related predators, he said.

A second new focus is placing colored bands on the legs of captured, adult shorebirds. Trapping and marking birds is an effective means of determining the survivorship of the adult birds since it enables the same bird to be identified and resighted multiple times, Liebezeit said. If marked birds are recaptured or resighted in subsequent years, a statistical analysis can be used to evaluate this feature of the bird's life cycle. This research is a cooperative effort with the Arctic Shorebird Demography Network.

Liebezeit, in association with the WCS, has been studying birds in the Arctic region since 2002. Each season, recent college graduates with a desire to gain field experience studying birds, apply for a few coveted positions to spend two months on the tundra working with an array of different birds.

"A lot of people want to go to the Arctic to study birds, and we have no problems getting help" Liebezeit said. "Our projects afford a good opportunity for young people to get research experience."

"WCS is concerned with conservation of natural resources of this region. Conditions in the Arctic are a complex situation," Liebezeit said.

"Climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on earth," he said, then indicating notable concerns based upon his experience, including:

  • A rise in sea levels which would inundate shoreline which is important foraging habitat for a variety of species
  • A drying trend on the tundra which may lessen the extent of wetlands, noting that this needs further study as wetland dependent species such as phalaropes and dowitchers may lose habitat, while a species such as the Black-bellied Plover may benefit as they prefer drier habitat
  • An early indication that species more prevalent in boreal forest habitat may be moving their range further northward, which may alter the local food web. One example he noted was more red fox seem to be moving into Arctic Fox habitat.

The information obtained by this research will enable effective management and conservation of nesting birds and other wildlife in the region, Liebezeit said. The North American Program website of WCS has the latest information about their Arctic research.

"Every year I also contribute a summary of our annual findings from each of our study sites to Arctic Birds" an international project which reports details from numerous surveys of breeding birds. "This is valuable since this compilation of information is the only circumpolar synthesis of information on arctic breeding birds," Liebezeit added.

A report on the results of four years worth of studies at Teshekpuk Lake, will be published in the journal Arctic, in March 2011.

The WCS - formerly known as the New York Zoological Society - has a long history of interest in the Alaskan Arctic. Some of their first research surveys were done in the early 1900s. In the 1950s, Olaus and Marty Murie were supported by the organization for their investigations evaluating unique aspects of the area which was eventually established as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In the latter 1990s, the Society - with its headquarters in New York City - restarted its North America conservation initiatives, including efforts to investigate the Arctic.