Nature's Extreme Makeover:
Shorebirds that Nest on Alaska's Arctic Slope


Welcome to the world of shorebird research on Alaska's north coast. As part of their education outreach, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presents the audio slideshow production found on this page. In this 14-minute program, still images taken during the 2003 shorebird breeding season come alive with the voices of researchers at work and the sounds of the High Arctic tundra. Exercise your imagination by being there!

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Click to play audio - 1:15 (.9 MB)

Audrey Taylor: "Each summer, millions of shorebirds migrate from wintering sites south of the equator to their breeding grounds in the High Arctic. Their destination: the arctic tundra along the northern coasts of Alaska and Canada. Prior to and during their migration, males and sometimes females undergo an amazing transformation - nature's extreme makeover - in which they develop colorful and sexually explicit plumages. Once on the breeding grounds, newly arrived birds typically perform acrobatic displays and produce complex vocalization for establishing territories and attracting mates. Once paired, shorebirds will lay and incubate eggs, and raise their young before migrating south again, all in less than 3 months. During the brief summer in the High Arctic, when the sun never sets, wildlife biologists near Barrow, Alaska, study these incredible migrants in hope of discovering those factors that limit their population size. By monitoring nests and banding adults, information on hatching success and adult survival is gathered. These data will also help biologists evaluate how climate change, human development, and other environmental factors affect shorebird numbers."
Click to play audio - 1:48 (1.3 MB)

ick Lanctot: "Make sure before you leave you have that 'Predator-microtine' form and then double check all the stuff because its easy to take it out of your pack and then forget."

Mike Denega: "When you're walking from the ATV [all-terrain vehicle], the east corner of the core is K-11, and you'll see that real easily."

Audrey Taylor: "We start at A-1, up in this corner, and it basically goes down all the '1's, so this is B-1, C-1, D-1, E-1 all the way down to M-1. And then it goes across in the letters, so C goes all the way across this way to 13 rows of stakes. It took us a long time. Hopefully, we won't have to re-measure out the plot."

Rick Lanctot: "I think we should go down this way because there's a whole bunch of stakes and got to be sure that we get to them today." Audrey Taylor: "Try and go up the 'A' row." Rick Lanctot: "'A' and the 'B' row, yeah."

Audrey Taylor: "We have two plots that are kind of on the wetter side and two that are on the dryer side. You want to be able to see all 50 meters marked out. If you're looking at a bird, you want to be able to say what stake it's close to." Rick Lanctot: "I've been writing numbers a little bit bigger, if I can get away with it." Audrey Taylor: "Yeah, me too."

Click to play audio - 2:09 (1.5 MB)

Rick Lanctot: "Semipalmated Sandpipers have been known to nest in the same nest cup from year after year. That's after migrating to Mexico and back, and juveniles migrate independently of the adults. It's pretty amazing."

Rick Lanctot: "The Red-neck[ed Phalarope] male and female look very similar, but if you look at them with binoculars, the female is a lot brighter. If you have a juvenile Red-neck[ed Phalarope] next to a juvenile Red [Phalarope], they're really hard to tell apart, but if you look at their beak shape, the Red [Phalarope]s are much thicker."

Audrey Taylor: "There's a Pec[toral Sandpiper]." Rick Lanctot: "Males are a lot bigger with that gular pouch here that he inflates when he's flying; that's what makes that sound. They all have a very distinct line between dark here and white on the bottom. The females are just a lot slimmer looking."

Rick Lanctot: "I saw this Dunlin feeding when we were walking up. Sometimes they have feeding territories that are disjunct from where they're nesting. And it could be males or females because both sexes are going to defend the territory."

Audrey Taylor: "American Golden Plover; it looks like a male because the females tend to have a little more streaking. So he's down there, kind of on that little pingo. The white makes him really stick out." Rick Lanctot: "I think they're feeding over there because I saw one kind of in the middle, and then he flew and joined this one over here."

Rick Lanctot: "It's a [Long-billed] Dowitcher. They line the nest with all kinds of little lichen bits and little grasses. He acted like he has an egg in there, at least based on what he's doing. But maybe he only has a couple of eggs and not a full clutch." Audrey Taylor: "He's definitely messing around in there."

Click to play audio - 1:09 (.8 MB)

Rick Lanctot: "This is what you would normally do if you flushed a bird off and you couldn't find the nest." Audrey Taylor: "Yeah, you just wait until it goes back." Rick Lanctot: "You know, get away from it for a little ways; they'll come right back for the most part. It's fun to watch them."

Audrey Taylor: "Parasitic Jaeger!" Rick Lanctot: "We need a GPS [geographical positioning system] on this guy. A bird pokes into it - see how it's bent inward, around the shell fragments? If it's eaten, partially eaten, you'll see blood in there. We know it's not even close to hatching, so we don't have to worry that it hatched." Audrey Taylor: "Right."

Rick Lanctot: "Something came through here yesterday and probably got some of those [nests] you could not find yesterday." Audrey Taylor: "I wonder if it was the fox that Marie saw?" Rick Lanctot: "Fox will frequently wreck the nest site. They'll take the whole egg and swallow it or bite into it. You don't smell fox urine from a fox, do you?" Audrey Taylor: "I don't' smell any."

Audrey Taylor: "I think this is a lemming tunnel. The theory is: productivity of ground-nesting birds should be tied to the abundance of lemmings, which determines what the predators are feeding on. Since these are going to be long term plots, we're interested in trying to get an index of how many lemmings are out here, and then tie that, hopefully, to the productivity of shorebirds."

Click to play audio - 2:05 (1.5 MB)

Rick Lanctot: "So far we have five Semipalmated Sandpipers, one Dunlin, and one American Golden Plover that we know about, and they're all in this southwest corner, so there're probably a lot more out there that we haven't found yet. They're laying eggs; that's the hard time to find them because they are not sitting on the nest all the time. So we have to keep coming out here everyday because as they get to incubating, then they'll be easier to find."

Rick Lanctot: "So, what row are you guys on now?" Blake Trask: "Ahh - C-6, yeah. OK, let's go. Oh, Marie, stop! It flew way out there." Marie-Helene Burle: "What did you see?" Marie-Helene Burle: PESA [Pectoral Sandpiper]! Kathy Turco: "So does she map it?" Blake Trask: "Yeah, she has to map it. It's fun to see their [Lapland Longspur] nests; its tiny little eggs. They're so cute."

Rick Lanctot: "Shorebirds put an enormous amount of investment in shorebird eggs. Some 25% of the calcium in their body goes into making the shell, and so the size of the egg can be indicative of how much energy they have to put into the egg and how well the offspring might do afterwards. We basically put the eggs in a little thing of water and, depending upon where the egg sits, kind of gives you an indication of how far along it is in development. If it sinks all the way to the bottom and lies flat, it's a freshly laid egg. And as the embryo develops inside, it starts floating to the surface and then you know you are close to hatch."

Rick Lanctot: "He's just going to set the trap on it." Bart Kempenaers: "There's the bird. I'm going to go get it. Whew!" Kathy Turco: "So what did he do? He walked around; I didn't see." Bart Kempenaers: "He tried to get in a couple times at different places, and then he found the entrance and walked right in." Kathy Turco: "Can you tell if it is a male or a female?" Bart Kempenaers: "When we measure it and compare both sexes, then the male is the smaller one of the two." Rick Lanctot: "And those bands are fitting alright?" Bart Kempenaers: "Yeah. Can you prepare some blood stuff." Rick Lanctot: "Yeah, that's what I'm doing." Bart Kempenaers: "OK, we're ready - needle?" Rick Lanctot: "It doesn't bleed very well in the cold. The culmen [bill length] is 34.1 [mm]. Double-check the bands before you let it go; make sure you got it right." Bart Kempenaers: "It's green, flag, red, metal, orange, orange. OK?" Rick Lanctot: "OK."

Click to play audio - 1:58 (1.4 MB)

Rick Lanctot: "So we take a variety of different measurements on shorebirds, both adults and the young. Partly to monitor changes in growth rates, especially for young, and that tends to vary depending on the species, but also on the environmental conditions. And we also put bands on chicks so we can look for them both on the wintering areas, but also back on the breeding grounds in succeeding years."

Audrey Taylor: "We know that sometimes the adult birds that we band come back to this same area. They actually get back together with the same mate that they had the year before, and sometimes you find they don't mate with the same mate. And sometimes they switch in the middle of the summer, too, if their first nest fails. So we can really monitor that, and we get a sense of how hatching success in one year plays a part in who is mated with each other in the next year."

Rick Lanctot: "By banding adults, we're able to follow those species to other parts of the world. Dunlin, for example, migrate through Japan, and people over there can connect their wintering areas to Alaska. Similarly, if you have Buff-breasted Sandpipers that migrate to South America, it makes you realize what we do affects birds in other places and vise-versa."
Audrey Taylor: "When you look across the tundra in Barrow, it's kind of hard to see that anything is going on out there. It's not really a big empty area because there are lots of birds mating, and laying eggs, and incubating those eggs, and raising families. So it's very important that we come back year after year and monitor the birds' survival and reproduction by finding nests, and banding birds, and watching those nests. And that gives us a better understanding of how the birds' population sizes are doing through time. So to do this we have to come back here with a big crew of people trying to understand how these birds depend on this habitat."

Click to play audio - 2:27 (1.7 MB)

Audrey Taylor: "When the sun no longer shines continuously on the arctic tundra and shorebirds are embarking on their long journey back to their wintering grounds, nature's extreme makeover is reversed. No longer interested in attracting mates, shorebirds take on a duller look, which helps them avoid being detected and killed by predators while they are focused on feeding. It is at this time of year that biologists compile and analyze the data they have collected during the short, intense summer breeding season. Records of banded individuals reveal that some adults faithfully return to the same territories year after year, frequently pairing with the same mate as in prior years. Others rarely return twice to the same site to breed. Banded birds continue to provide useful information throughout the long winter months. Biologists communicate with researchers in other countries and learn via e-mail of "their" birds being seen on staging and wintering sites far, far from the Arctic."

Audrey Taylor: "Looking closer at the nest monitoring data reveals that shorebird numbers are affected by a variety of environmental factors. Hatching success seems related to weather, food availability, and lemming numbers. Why lemming numbers? The reason is that predators, such as foxes and jaegers, may "switch" from eating lemmings, to eating shorebird eggs and chicks when lemming numbers are low. Another fascinating finding, revealed by laboratory analysis of blood samples, is that females occasionally mate with several different males when producing a clutch of eggs, although only one male helps to incubate the eggs and raise the young. More rarely, females may store sperm from a prior mating to fertilize eggs in a second mating; this only occurs in species where females lay more than one clutch in a single year. It's hard not to wonder if these unusual behaviors are tied to the "extreme makeover" individual birds undergo, as they strive, under the pressures of natural selection, to maximize the number of offspring they leave to future generations. These and other mysteries are gradually being solved by biologists who are committed to understanding and conserving these tireless and rugged long-distance migrants".


Research Sponsored by:

" U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Management, Anchorage, Alaska
" U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Education Outreach, Sheperdstown, West Virginia
" Max Planck Research Centre for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany
" University of Alaska, Coastal Marine Institute, Fairbanks, Alaska
" North Slope Borough, Barrow, Alaska
" Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, Barrow, Alaska

Project Principal Investigators:
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Migratory Bird Management: Richard Lanctot
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Education Outreach: Sandy Spakoff
University of Alaska-Fairbanks: Audrey Taylor, Abby Powell, Nathan
Coutsoubos, and Falk Huettmann
Max Planck Research Centre for Ornithology: Bart Kempenaers

Photographs and/or Audio of:
Rick Lanctot, Audrey Taylor, Marie-Helene Burle, Blake Trask, Gavin Thomas,
Mike Denega, Bart Kempenaers, and Auguste von Bayern

Photographs taken by:
Mike Denega, Juliana Almeida, Auguste von Bayern, Alex Gueco, Barry Grand, Brian Guzzetti,
Jim Johnson, Rick Lanctot, Toru Mano, Yoshi Shigeta, Audrey Taylor, Gavin Thomas,
Blake Trask, and the Bureau of Land Management/by Craig McCaa

All Drawings by:
Maksim Dementyev

Produced by:
Kathy Turco with assistance from audio engineer Ed Smith.
Layout and Flash programming by Roger Topp and GSV.

Special Thanks to:

Mike Denega for his help selecting and preparing the images for the slideshow, Deb Nigro for help
on shorebird species identification, and Kent Wohl for supporting our shorebird studies in Barrow.