Earlier this month, two Manomet research teams left for field sites in the Arctic to conduct shorebird demographics research and try to recover geolocators placed on Semipalmated Sandpipers last year.
Manomet researchers are conducting field work at two sites: Coats Island in Canada’s Hudson Bay, which is the largest uninhabited island south of the Arctic Circle in the Western Hemisphere, and the Canning River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Many long-distance migrant shorebird species return to the same areas to breed each year, making the birds’ Arctic breeding grounds the only place to reliably study individuals from year to year.
The Semipalmated Sandpiper — a small shorebird that breeds in the Arctic and winters in northeastern South America— has experienced dramatic population declines in recent decades.
“Semipalmated Sandpiper populations have declined by about 80 percent in core wintering areas according to surveys by the New Jersey Audubon Society, without a correspondent decline, as far as we can tell, in some Arctic populations,” said Stephen Brown, director of Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Program. “We don’t know if the species is declining rangewide, or just in some areas, and we need to understand where and why the declines are occurring so that we can work effectively at reversing them.”
The devices weigh only two hundredths of an ounce and are equipped with light sensors that use the time of day to track each bird’s migration. If recovered, the geolocators will provide a wealth of information about where the birds are wintering and their migratory patterns.
Researchers placed 192 geolocators on Semipalmated Sandpipers at eight Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network (ASDN) field sites during the 2013 field season.
The ASDN is an international collaboration of 17 partners working at 16 field sites across the North American and Russian Arctic to determine the causes behind shorebird population declines. The project is led by Manomet, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Kansas State University.
During the 2013 field season, Manomet researchers placed 35 geolocators on Semipalmated Sandpipers on Coats Island and 29 on birds at the Canning River. In the past week, the researchers have already recovered three geolocators — two at the Canning River and one on Coats Island.
“The ultimate success of this project depends on our ability to recapture the birds and remove the geolocators,” said Manomet’s Shiloh Schulte, who is part of the Coats Island research team. “So the pressure is on.”
The Coats Island team will remain in the field until July 3, and the Canning River team until July 16.
“The information that can be retrieved from the geolocators is like gold,” Brown said. “Recovering even a few of the units will provide critical new information about where these birds are wintering and which migratory paths they are taking. More importantly, it will help us get at the real objective — to fully understand the population trends and wintering habits of this species so that we can help its populations recover.”
The Manomet researchers will be sending updates and photos via satellite phone throughout the course of the field season. You can follow their progress on the dedicated blog: www.shorebirdscience.org.
– Haley Jordan