Knot what we expected!!!

We’ve had some incredible news of a very unexpected journey!

While we were at the Khairusovo estuary last July-August, we helped to catch over 200 Great Knots and fit them with leg flags. These were black and yellow to denote Kamchatka, with the yellow flag engraved with a unique code for each individual. As we said in our last post, about 20 of these birds have since been reported from Australia, Japan, Korea and Thailand. Every record of a banded bird is useful and informative, but all of those sightings were from countries in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, countries which we might expect our Great Knots to visit.

But on 20th January 2017 one of our birds, wearing flag EI, was observed at a place called Khor al-Beida by Oscar Campbell. That’s in the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES!!! What a fantastic and completely unexpected sighting! And if you’re having trouble believing this, check out the extraordinary sight of EI standing next to a Crab Plover!

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EI’s journey: Khor al-Beida is about 8,300km away from Khairusovo as the crow flies. But Great Knots are not crows, and it seems much more likely that it took a non-direct coastal route, potentially travelling much much further, but who knows?!

The vast majority of the world’s Great Knots spend their non-breeding season in northern Australia, and most of the rest are scattered around the coastlines of South East Asia and the Indian subcontinent. However, a small number are known to winter each year in the Persian Gulf, but where these birds breed is still a mystery – do they breed in the same region as other populations? If so, why do they travel so much further west during the non-breeding season? This is the first record of a banded Great Knot turning up in this region, and the fact that it had travelled from far-eastern Russia is an intriguing clue to their origin.

In just a few weeks, these Great Knots will be setting off from UAE on their migration to the breeding grounds. Oh how we wish we could track them!

 

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Knots are Great!

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Great Knots really are great.

Although we are enormous fans of absolutely all shorebirds, one for which we have a special stickybeak soft spot is the Great Knot. This is a species that we came to know and love during our time in northwest Australia, where it is one of the most numerous wader species and forms spectacular flocks on the region’s mudflats during the austral summer.

While most of the world’s Great Knots spend their non-breeding season in Australia, the species breeds in rocky mountain tundra in north east Siberia (although not Kamchatka), completing a round trip of 20,000km or so each year on migration between these areas. Once they finish breeding and set off on their journey south, the mudflats of Kamchatka’s west coast, on the Sea of Okhotsk, are a major stop-over and refuelling site for many Great Knots. Vast sections of this area are still pretty much unexplored by wader watchers, but it was immediately clear that our study site on the Khairusovo Estuary was one of the Okhotsk’s top Great Knot spots…

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When we arrived at the estuary on 13th July, an estimated 17,000 Great Knots were already present. These birds, part of the first wave of southbound migrants, were presumably those whose breeding attempts had failed early, and perhaps a few females who had already finished their nesting duties for the year – the females do not stick around long once their eggs hatch, and they soon head south leaving their mate to look after the chicks. It was fantastic to see the throngs of Great Knots in their bright breeding plumage, although by now they had been wearing these feathers for four months or more and were showing distinct signs of wear. The all-important flight feathers still had to carry their owners a further 9,000km to Australia, but would be moulted and replaced soon after arrival there.

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Whoa – what the ?!? This leucistic Great Knot certainly stood out from the crowd. We actually saw one just like this on 80-Mile Beach in Australia in 2013 – maybe it’s the same bird!

To be on the mudflats, among the busily feeding Great Knots is a very special shorebird experience. Flocks of thousands move as one, marching across the mud in a dense army of birds, all intently probing the ground for invertebrates, their quiet but excited contact calls combining into a chuckling cacophony. Frequently, at the first hint of danger – usually an overflying raptor, skua or gull – the mass of birds lifts into the air in a single motion, swirling and sweeping evasively through the sky until the all-clear is sensed, and then descending back to mud to resume feeding. Although always alert to danger, the knots are not unduly worried by people and quietly working wader watchers can soon find themselves literally surrounded by furiously foraging birds – at least until the next pesky skua flies by and flushes everything!

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Charadriiforme chubbiness chart, taken from Wiersma and Piersma (1994), in which the authors memorably compare knot body shapes to the portrait styles of different Flemish painters.

As well as showing us what countries and locations these birds had been banded and seen in previously, being able to recognise the same individual birds day after day gives and insight into how long they spend at this stopover site, and how their physical condition changes during their stay. The birds are there to feed, feed and feed as much as possible, piling on enough fat to fuel their flight to the furthest end of the flyway. The weight gain can be rapid, and birds can become visibly fatter in just a few days. Although a little subjective, it is possible to visually gauge the rotundity of a knot, scoring a particular bird’s portliness on a 1 to 5 scale – category 1 birds being skinny and category 5 birds positively bulging at the seams. A healthy knot usually resides in category 2 until it is preparing to migrate, when it begins piling on the pounds, building up vital energy stores and reaching category 4 or 5. Most of the birds we were watching at Khairusovo scored 2 or 3 on the scale, but as time went on more 4s and the occasional 5 were recorded. An interesting observation was that birds in similar shape often foraged together – we would frequently study a flock of mostly 2s, and then move onto a different flock in which most of the birds were 3s. Perhaps birds that arrived together remained together throughout their stay, so such a group of knots would have all been present and feeding  for the same time period and had consequently comparable corpulence.

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Great Knots on a weight-gain program. The one on the right looks lovely and tubby and almost ready for departure – just how Rubens would have painted it.

 

So what are all those knots guzzling in the mud? Even in slo-mo video it is hard to tell what is in the bird’s sticky beak before it gulps it down and out of sight. Well, usually, the prey is small bivalves, of which a great abundance is present just below the Khairusovo estuary’s muddy surface.

We certainly know Great Knots as bivalve specialists, since these molluscs comprise more than 60% of their diet at stopover sites and more than 90% in their Australian non-breeding grounds (see Zhang et al. 2011). The bivalves are gulped down whole to be broken up in the gizzard, before the crushed-up shell is returned to the mud in droppings and regurgitated pellets.

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Bivalve-guzzling Great Knots leave plenty of evidence behind them. Amongst the dense pattern of footprints left behind by feeding flocks are lots of white splodges of poo and regurgitates. On close inspection, these contain many bits of crushed-up indigestible shell.

They do not, however, rely on bivalves all the time. While nesting in the Siberian mountains, they gobble fruit, arthropods and even hard-shelled Dwarf Pine nuts (see here). In Kamchatka we spotted a couple of Great Knots sampling some other unusual foods. This adult is proudly brandishing some sort of large isopod that it has found, although after wrestling it for a while it thought better of it and went back to bivalves.

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Close-up of an isopod crustacean, similar to the one the knot was wrangling.

Even more interesting was this juvenile, which was intently picking at the eye sockets and other soft parts of a dead salmon!

 

Southbound migration of Great Knots comprises three main overlapping waves of birds. After the failed breeders and females comes the second wave, consisting mainly of adult males. These will have stayed on the breeding grounds until their chicks became able to feed themselves, at which point the fathers begin their journey south, leaving the youngsters to take care of themselves. It was not clear when the transition from the first to second wave of migrants took place, but we did notice flocks of fat birds making their excited southbound departure from the estuary on several occasions when the weather was conducive to migration. This was a most wonderful thing to observe, so we must write much more about this ‘migration watching’ in a future post.

The third wave of Great Knot migration is made up of the juvenile birds, just recently hatched and fledged and now finding their way to Kamchatka on the first leg of their maiden migration. The youngsters began appearing at the start of August and were easy to spot. Their juvenile plumage, although not as boldly patterned and striking as the adults, was immaculate and fresh. Although essentially grey and speckled with a neatly scalloped pattern on the upperparts, the pristine feathers have an almost golden fresh-out-of-the-box sheen to them. The juveniles also had a distinctive sort of wide-eyed naivety and air of bewilderment that the more worldly and experienced adults lacked. They were often found singly or in small groups, pecking around uncertainly in the pebbles or shallow mud around the edge of the estuary, or even in the grass and tundra, as if they hadn’t yet worked out that the Great Knot food was out there on the mud where all the thousands of adults were busy stuffing themselves with yummy bivalves. Actually, this may have been the first time some of the juveniles, whose short lives had so far been spent munching berries and spiders in stony tundra, had even seen mudflats, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on them.

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“Why am I here? Where are the berries?” A fresh juvenile looking a bit lost.

As more and more juveniles arrived and began associating with the adults, there was always a degree of segregation, with the youngsters mostly foraging on the periphery of the flocks. Maybe feeding knots have some kind of a social hierarchy, with the adults dominating the best patches of mud and the safest position in the middle of the flock.

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Juvenile Great Knots are often less efficient foragers than the more experienced adult birds, and often struggle with food items that are a bit too big. This one is trying to swallow a rather large bivalve.

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Juvenile Great Knots were sometimes very approachable, so it was easy to watch them feeding. This bird has found a small pink bivalve, of a kind that was common in the Khairusovo mud.

When we left Khairusovo on 8th August, juvenile birds made up a substantial portion of the Great Knots present. We travelled to our next shorebird study site at Vorovskaya River Lagoon, around 300km south of Khairusovo, where the main species were Dunlins and Red-necked Stints, but small numbers of Great Knot were still seen each day. Here, they were almost entirely juveniles. By the time we said goodbye to Kamchatka altogether and set off to the UK in mid September, the vast majority of the Great Knots we had seen would have been well on their way to Australia.

In fact, on 22nd September, wader-watchers in Broome spotted a Great Knot wearing yellow-over-black Kamchatka flags inscribed with the code AV – the first of the birds we had banded at Khairusovo known to have completed the 9,000km trip. Other sightings of our flagged Kamchatka birds were reported from stopover sites in South Korea, Japan, and Thailand, and a couple more were found in Broome in October.

kamchatka2016_great-knot4b-001We snapped this juvenile, D3, at Khairusovo on 7th August. By 30th September, D3 had travelled more than 3200km southwest, where it was seen (by Dmitry, the leader of the our Kamchatka expedition) near Gunsan, South Korea. This location in Korea is close to Saemangeum, formerly a crucial stopover site for about 30% of the world’s Great Knots, but now the site of the world’s longest man-made sea wall and one of its biggest shorebird conservation catastrophes.

The disastrous effect that Saemangeum and other similar mudflat ‘reclamation’ projects in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway are having on migratory shorebirds highlights how crucial their remaining stopover sites are. Bivalve-rich Asian mudflats, such as those around the Yellow Sea coast of China and Korea, are absolutely vital to these birds, which depend on them as refuelling stations on their migrations every year. Protection of these important sites is necessary if we are to continue seeing Great Knots and other shorebird species in their spectacular congregations at both ends of their flyway.

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Scanning the flocks on the Sea of Okhotsk

 

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The west coast of Kamchatka has estuaries with vast mudflats that support many thousands of migratory shorebirds, like here at the Khairusovo-Belogolovaya estuary.

After arriving in Kamchatka as willing wader watchers, we were eager to start work. A 1-hour flight from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky took us across the peninsula to a small town on the west coast. The little plane lifted us past cloud-shrouded volcanoes and mountains, over burning tundra (see below), and bumped us down again on the shallow muddy shores where the Khairusovo and Belogolovaya Rivers flow into the Sea of Okhotsk.

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Arriving by air (there are no roads here!) to Ust-Khairusovo. We flew over the meandering loops of the Belogolovaya River, leading to an expansive estuary of almost 50sqkm. We were surprised to see large areas affected by recent fires – tundra lakes surrounded by burned ground, with fires still active in places. This year, the unusually warm summer brought severe fires to many parts of Siberia.

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A short boat ride across the estuary brought us to a camp on the edge of the mudflats, where we would live and work for the next eight weeks.

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The location of our camp, on the edge of tundra and adjacent to mudflats at the heart of the Khairusovo-Belogolovaya estuary. Check out our clickable map with more locations marked here

 

We had hoped this estuary would be an exciting place, and it soon became abundantly clear that it was!

 

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There were shorebirds all around us – great flocks of sandpipers foraging way out on the mudflats, then as the tide swept in they came streaming over our camp on the way to their roosts.

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Trundling Terek

Terek Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones trundled up and down the nearby shoreline just outside camp. Further along the beach, a pair of overprotective Eurasian Oystercatchers were nesting, and at frequent intervals we would hear their panicky piping as they objected to any visitors entering their territory.

 

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Alarming Eurasian Oystercatcher. Here in Kamchatka it’s the osculans subspecies – note the lack of white in the outer primaries.

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Common Greenshank

Equally indignant were the two pairs of Greenshanks that held breeding territories nearby and, every time we passed, one would take up a prominent perch and let rip with incessant ear-splitting calls (you can experience this charming sound for yourself here). While it was novel to see this breeding behaviour, it was always a relief to move on out of earshot! Dunlins had been nesting too, but thankfully were being much more discreet about it, the only signs being young juveniles sneaking furtively through the tundra vegetation.

 

 

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Dunlin juvenile

Apart from these few species breeding locally, for the vast majority of shorebirds using the estuary the breeding season was already over. It was now mid-July and birds that breed at more northerly latitudes had already begun their post-breeding southwards migration.  Shorebird flocks were dominated by Great Knots, Black-tailed Godwits and Red-necked Stints, with smaller numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits, Eastern Curlews, Red Knots and Dunlins.

Our job was to observe the changes through this migration period: to count the numbers of each species, monitor the birds’ shape/condition (high body fat indicates readiness to migrate), and to scan the flocks very carefully, searching for some very special birds. Over many years, researchers throughout the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (and elsewhere) have been banding shorebirds and attaching leg flags and colour bands so that these marked individuals can be observed in the field, in order to learn more about their movements. Those birds given unique inscriptions or colour combinations are even more useful because it allows the exact individual to be identified, building up a picture over time of the places visited by that particular bird. Observations in previous years had already shown that birds with leg flags from Australia and China were using the estuary, and it was highly likely that birds marked in a variety of other locations along the flyway could also be present. This place was like a gold mine for shorebird researchers hoping for a glimpse of their study birds – all that was needed was a dedicated team to dig through the flocks and uncover the golden nuggets of information!

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Migratory shorebirds captured in Broome, Australia and marked with engraved leg flags or unique combinations of colour bands. Our aim while in Kamchatka was to record sightings of such birds (maybe even the very same individuals we banded ourselves), to add to knowledge about their migration and individual life histories.

Having previously worked with shorebird researchers in north-west Australia, we were most familiar with the yellow engraved leg flags and colour band combinations used in that location. But as there are shorebird researchers working throughout the flyway, a whole kaleidoscope of colours  are used to denote the country or region of the banding location.

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Leg flag colour combinations used by shorebird researchers in the Asia-Pacific region. Flag position on the legs may vary according to the species. Adapted from the original available here

Excited to see what we could find, we set to work scanning the flocks…

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Scanning for leg flags typically involved following the shorebirds a long way out onto the mudflats…

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…way, way out on the mud…

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…and getting there and back could be quite a challenge!

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…and once we got out there it wasn’t always easy getting close enough to the birds to find leg flags…

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…but sometimes the birds obliged very nicely!

 

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See the flags? This Great Knot with black over green flags was banded somewhere in Thailand. (Actually if you check the leg flag diagram above, it shows green over black as the code for Thailand, but this is a mistake!)

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Gold! We found lots of Great Knots with engraved leg flags from north-west Australia, but here was one carrying a light-level geolocator too, which is mounted on an orange flag on the other leg. This is is a device that stores data on light levels, and because the timing of sunrise and sunset can be used to estimate location, this allows a basic method of tracking the bird’s movements. The tricky part is retrieving the data – with a bit of luck this bird will make its way back to Broome, where it can be recaptured and the data downloaded from the geolocator.

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Jackpot! A very special Great Knot indeed – a colour-banded bird from Broome carrying a satellite tag like a little backpack, with the long straight antennae sticking out behind. Of course, as this bird is already transmitting its location  spotting it in the field didn’t really gain a lot, but it was a visual confirmation and a thrill to find it nonetheless.

As you’ll notice from the Great Knots pictured above, the shorebird flocks at this time were entirely comprised of adults  – these were birds that had already finished breeding and had moved into the estuary to rejoin flocks and stay for up to a few weeks while preparing for a long flight south. Most still showed beautiful breeding plumage, although shed body feathers on the tideline showed that many were undergoing moult. Soon these individuals would migrate south, and as the weeks progressed many thousands more adults, and then juveniles, would pass through the estuary. After four weeks of daily scanning, our team amassed over 1,800 records of marked birds (the number of individual marked birds is somewhat lower as many were recorded on multiple days). We’ll tell the stories of some of these birds in posts to come.

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The mudflats after the flocks have departed: a breeding plumage body feather left behind by a moulting Black-tailed Godwit.

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A Siberian summer studying southbound shorebirds

After leaving New Zealand, and a short stint in the UK, it was time for an exciting new stickybeaking adventure: Kamchatka!
We’ve just returned and are working on writing up all the interesting things we saw (and there are heaps!), which we will share here as soon as we can. First, here is an introduction to our trip…

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Kamchatka: land of volcanoes (extinct in this case), tundra and vast mudflats, where shorebirds fatten up for the long journey south

Back in early March 2016 we heard about a tantalising opportunity to help with shorebird research in far eastern Russia: willing wader-watchers were required for counting, scanning for leg-flags and banding in remote Kamchatka. From our experience  banding and observing birds in Broome, WA (“Shorebird capital of Australia”), we knew the study site was a key location for the shorebirds that migrate to Australia. On many a magical evening during the annual migration period (March-May), we’d watched flocks of waders taking off from the mudflats of Roebuck Bay, beginning their journey to breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere. We’d welcomed them back again from late August onwards – adults first, followed later by the new juveniles – as their great flocks filled the bay once again.

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The East Asian – Australasian Flyway: movements of migratory shorebirds link sites from Australasia to Alaska, and everywhere in between. Image adapted from Bamford et al 2008.

But we had no experience of what life was like for our birds in the few months they spent away from our shores.  We knew they fly to the opposite end of the planet to breed, in far-flung, foreign lands with tonsil-taxing, throat-catching names like Kamchatka and Chukotka. Places with landscapes of tundra and mountains, mosquitoes in abundance and unending summer daylight. We knew that after a few short weeks they start to make their return journey south, once again stacking on weight as fuel for marathon non-stop flights. But we’d never seen our birds in those secret places, at that stage in their annual life cycle.

This trip not only offered us the chance to experience the places our shorebirds travel to, but to see the very same birds that come from Broome, possibly finding individuals that we have seen or even banded ourselves in preceding years.  Oh my GODWIT, how could we KNOT go for a STINT in Kamchatka?!!!

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Iconic Kamchatka, where bears fish for salmon and obligingly pose for a perfectly composed picture beneath a snowy-capped volcano. We bought this fridge magnet in Petropavlovsk, then later discovered that the image is by Igor Shpilenok, environmental activist and volunteer ranger at Kronotsky Nature Reserve, where the photo was taken. 

Kamchatka is a federal subject of Russia, lying at the eastern edge of north Asia. It is part of Siberia by the broadest definition of the term (as used by us here, admittedly mainly for its alliterative advantages), which includes the entirety of Russia east of the Ural Mountains. It is certainly an adventurous destination, fêted as a “land of fire and ice”, where its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire bestows intense volcanic activity, and an icy arctic influence brings a blanket of snow for eight months of the year and causes the sea on the west coast to freeze over.

It’s also not the easiest place to visit – the capital, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky must be one of the world’s most isolated cities, with no road connection to any other city. Once you’ve cleared the bureaucratic hurdles of acquiring a Russian visa, the flight from Moscow takes 8 hours and crosses 8 time zones. Touring the peninsula can be difficult (not to mention expensive) with many places only accessible by small plane or helicopter. And you can count yourself lucky you’re able to visit at all – that has only been possible since 1989, and prior to then the region was a closed military zone that not even Soviet citizens were permitted to visit.

Whether from a UK (our original home) or NZ (our most recent home) perspective, Kamchatka is about as far as we could get and, for us, it’s an interesting paradox of the familiar and the foreign. Though sharing a broadly similar latitude and land area with the UK, Kamchatka has much harsher winters, mighty volcanoes three times larger than the UK’s highest mountains, and only 0.5% of the population. Among Kamchatka’s avifauna are many shared species – those with a palearctic distribution that also occur in western Europe, potentially including some nomadic species (particular waterfowl) with individuals that wander between far east Russian and the UK, as well as those with more easterly ranges that pop into the UK as exciting vagrants.  With NZ, it’s longitude that is shared, as well some features of the dramatic geologically-active landscape, and of course a swag of Arctic-breeding migratory shorebirds that journey between the two places on an annual basis.

These shorebirds are the focus of increasing interest, as Russian ornithologists chip away at the bear-sized task  of understanding Kamchatka’s avian ecology. International cooperation on conservation of migratory species demands that significant sites are identified, assessed and protected. Declining populations of threatened species, and the regular presence of one critically endangered rock-star species, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, give urgency to this important work. Meanwhile, researchers based in other countries seek to discover more about the routes taken and locations used by ‘their’ migratory shorebirds, namely from reported sightings of individuals bearing colour-coded leg flags and bands.

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Figure taken from Gerasimov 2006

Observations of migratory shorebirds have been made in Kamchatka since the 1970s, mainly at 12 locations (Gerasimov 2006, see right). This early work highlighted the significance of the region for migratory shorebirds, identifying the west coast as an important route during northward migration, as well as breeding of sub-arctic species (e.g. Dunlin, Greenshank, Lesser Sand Plover, Wood Sandpiper) in suitable habitat throughout the peninsula, and estimated the number of migratory shorebirds using Kamchatka at a minimum of almost 500,000.

 

 

 

 

Recent exploration of less accessible areas identified a further shorebird hotspot at the Khairusovo-Belogolovaya estuary (Dorofeev & Kazansky 2013), which lies half way along the west coast of the Kamchatka peninsula and just north of the Moroshechnaya River estuary. Particularly abundant were Great Knots, Black-tailed Godwits, Bar-tailed Godwits and Red-necked Stints, and between the two sites internationally significant numbers of six migratory shorebird species were recorded during the post-breeding migration season (July-October). In addition, numerous birds carrying coloured leg-flags from various locations in Australia and also China were observed, establishing the direct link with non-breeding locations in the flyway.

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Great Knots gobble down bivalves on the mudflats of the Khairusovo-Belogolvaya estuary, with the town of Ust-Khairusovo in the background.

The Khairusovo-Belogolovaya estuary was clearly a site with valuable work to be done completing further species counts, banding and recording colour-marked individuals.  It was this work we were to assist with for four weeks (mid-July- early August 2016), living in a camp on the estuary.

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We’d seen hundreds if not thousands of Whimbrels migrating from Roebuck Bay in Broome, but never anything like the 32,000 witnessed in one day in Kamchatka – wow!!!

Keen to get as much as possible out of our Kamchatka trip, we were excited to be offered a further opportunity to assist with more shorebird fieldwork at another site – the Vorovskaya River Lagoon – for four weeks (mid-August to early September). Here we would help researchers continue with work from the previous two years (2014 and 2015), though which they have documented species abundances (including internationally significant numbers of 8 species) and the phenology of southward migration, as well as banding over 5,000 birds, and witnessing what must have been the truly incredible sight of 32,000 Whimbrels migrating past (of which 28,000 passed in a 5 hour period!). Just what shorebird spectacle would this site produce for us in 2016?

So after our own migration from NZ to the UK, a few weeks later we flew all the way back to the same time zone to spend our summer with the shorebirds in Kamchatka. We couldn’t wait to get out on the mud for a good ol’ stickybeak.

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