27 October 2010

Celebrating Arctic Birds at a Refuge's 50th Anniversary

When the Arctic NWR was established in 1960, there was relatively little known of its importance to the region's native birds.

The people essential in the creating the refuge recognized its avian, as this feature was, based on historic accounts, one of the several prominent reasons boundaries were drawn across the Alaskan arctic, and a new federal refuge was established.

With its fifty-year anniversary celebration now underway, recent studies have documented how the unique ecosystems of the refuge are of vital importance to many birds of different sorts.

Research on the avifauna has increased in the past few years, especially since biologist Steve Kendall became the refuge's first official ornithologist in 2002.

His study area is a vast setting with unlimited opportunities to learn more of the birds and their habits.

The refuge "is unique for its variety of ecosystems," Kendall said, "it is an incredibly vast and protected area, where there has been little alteration of habitat.

"There are other special places in Alaska to study birds," Kendall said, but based on his expressive voice and familiarity with the subject during a recent phone conversation, nothing could surpass the place where he works.

Each season, Kendall and his crew load trucks with gear at the refuge headquarters in Fairbanks, drive up the Dalton Highway to Galbraith Lake (mile 275), and everyone and everything is shuttled from the "rustic airport" in four-six flights to the research camp for a stay of six-seven weeks, along the coastal plain of the refuge.

This is just one aspect of studies on the refuge, with additional investigations on other flora and fauna.

Stephen Brown and Steve Kendall surveying post-breeding shorebirds in Refuge coastal habitats. Photograph by Heather Craig. All pictures courtesy of Steve Kendall.

Luke DeCicco and Steve Kendall searching for Gray-headed Chickadees. Photograph by Travis Booms.

The Arctic NWR covers 19,286,482 acres from the Beaufort Sea to the boreal forest just north of the Yukon River. It is the largest national wildlife refuge managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the United States.

"We have birds which fly here from southern South America," Kendall said, indicating, especially, the iconic Buff-breasted Sandpiper. "These are amazing and beautiful little birds" to have such a long migration. "I am in awe of their unique courtship displays."

A leaflet just prepared for the October 2010 World Bird Festival, highlights this species and has a series of illustrations showing their courting behavior on the summer lek.

A couple of summers ago, visitor Frank J. Keim wrote an essay of his encounter with some "buffies." This account, as well as one featuring Bluethroats is featured on the refuge website.

This shorebird is known as the Aklaktaq, by the Inupiat Eskimo which have lived in the region for generations.

This species is just one of the 201 known for the refuge.

There have been several recent additions, Kendall said.

"A vagrant Caspian Tern on the Beaufort Sea last summer," was the most unusual, he said. "While working in the boreal forest on the southern extent of the refuge, we found breeding Mountain Bluebirds, and Chipping Sparrows. Also seen were the Tennessee Warbler and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher."

"Near Barrow, one significant change has been an increase in Horned Puffins," Kendall said. "They have moved further north," along the coast of Alaska, "which may be a indication of changing climatic conditions."

Each species found, whether by a researcher from the refuge or a bird-watching visitor, further indicates the value of the refuge lands for an array of plants and animals, Kendall said. He noted that Debbie Miller, an Alaskan author and birder, knew of the nesting site for some Smith's Longspurs, and the information meant the place became an area of study for a research project.

Being the refuge ornithologist, Kendall directs all bird-related studies.

The federal agency has appreciated the contributions from studies by other students from the University during the past five years. This includes the work by Teri Wild on the Smith's Longspurs, and Audrey Taylor, investigating the habits of shorebirds.

During the past few years, there have been dramatic changes in technology so useful, and essential, for learning more about the birds and where they occur. Kendall noted. Satellite tracking devices are being used to determine migration routes. Satellite imagery helps to determine features of habitat, with localities easily determined using global position satellites. Satellite phones provide effective communication at a place with no cell-phone towers.

In the summer of 2010, the refuge got involved with the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network.

"Populations of shorebirds are declining," Kendall said. "We hope to learn why a lesser number of birds are returning to the Arctic breeding grounds each summer season."

This broad-based project will evaluate shorebird occurrence from northern Alaska, eastward through Canada. Congregations of these distinct birds will be surveyed to determine habitat use and the age of birds. Participants in this five-year effort include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Fish and Game, Canadian Wildlife Service and Manomet Bird Observatory.

A doctoral study from the University of Fairbanks, Roy Churchwell, started an investigation into shorebird migration along the coast of the Beaufort Sea," Kendall said. "There is quite a bit of variability in use between sites, and we hope to determine what variables are determining use."

Staging juvenile Dunlin. Photograph by Heather Craig.

Juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper, at Refuge coastal habitats during the staging period. Photograph by Luke DeCicco.

Kendall personally hopes to better understand how the native Eskimo know and recognize local birds.

"I previously worked at the Yukon Delta NWR, and learned the native names of birds," Kendall said. The people living on the coast of the Beaufort Sea have a much more "guttural manner of speaking," but "I hope to learn more."

Even during his short tenure of bird study on the refuge, Kendall sees changes which could threaten the avifauna.

Oil exploration is underway on the Beaufort Sea. Birds would be vulnerable to any detrimental impacts from spills from production wells, Kendall said. Beach erosion due to a warming climate could causing degradation in habitats for shorebirds.

"The Arctic refuge is a vast, and wild place for birds," Kendall said. "Founders of the refuge did not realize the current issues influencing conservation of the land."

His goals include maintaining the variety of functioning ecosystems, retaining viable populations of birds, and to "have the birds return each season" to the habitats they have used during their own, relatively brief generations.

The Arctic is a harsh land, and Kendall emphasized this point by describing a recent visit to the Canning River delta. We flew in to land on a frozen lake during a 50 m.p.h. wind. The Semipalmated Sandpipers were already there, dealing with the weather beginning their summer breeding season. "This is an important area for them," said Kendall as he noted the extreme situation these little birds have to deal with before they can try to raise another brood.

In association with the refuge's anniversary, Kendall will be giving a presentation about refuge birdlife to Arctic Audubon, on November 8th in Fairbanks. This will be the groups own celebration of the 50 year history.

The Arctic National Wildlife Range was established in 1960. In 1980, it was renamed the William O. Douglas Arctic Wildlife Range in February, but by December, the name became Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A list of anniversary events is available on the refuge website.