Andy Johnson | Blog

Below is the blog feature of my website - here I will share some of the more detailed stories behind some of my images, video, research, and travels.

Tracking a Marathon Migration: Churchill's Whimbrels

March 07, 2013  •  Leave a Comment
Flagged Whimbrel, "JM"
It’s been a crazy semester this fall, and the Churchill season that I never finished writing about feels incredibly far gone now.  It’s late at night in the middle of a busy week, but physics homework was easier than I thought, so what better time to recall a great summer?
After Alaska, I had a few days back in Ann Arbor to regroup and gear up for the 2012 field season.  I was particularly excited, as this was my first season with my own project, studying the migrations of Whimbrels and filming the process (not to mention the 25 beautiful little geolocators that had just shown up in the mail).  After gathering hip waders, knee boots, other boots, clothes for everything from 0-80˚F over the next two months, tripods, camera equipment, and the scattered notes I would need to finish up my last final term paper en route, I was off.
A light-level geolocator, weighing just 0.65 grams!
After a flight to Winnipeg and a night in a sketchy hotel, I was boarding the train on a rainy morning, headed for Churchill with nearly fifty hours of tracks ahead of me.  The train, ViaRail 693, comprised three passenger cars, a dining car, and a sleeper; all this for about four passengers and as many crew.  I found myself loving the solitude of the train – long hours to sit watching the scenery fly past, to think, to read, and to write the lingering term paper that grabbed at my ankles like a skeleton reaching out of a grave as a frightened protagonist frantically grasps for a tree root.  But I got a good grip on the root, soon freed myself from the zombie paper’s vice grip, and found time to jot down some notes on this new adventure:
May 30th --
“It’s wonderfully quiet now, with the whole car practically to myself, and the tracks’ uncertain condition curbing our pace.  The car sways gently, like a big Cadillac on rolling back roads; the soft creaking between cars and the muffled rhythm of the tracks add weight to my eyelids, still reluctantly open as my eyes jerk right to left, following the passing scenery.  Surely I’ve scanned many treetops that have known the touch of a Hawk-owl’s feathered talons, and the blankets of spindly spruces, peppered with creeks, ponds, and boggy clearings certainly suggest that these predators are plenty.  Nevertheless, none revealed itself today as this enticing landscape flew past my panoramic window. It’s nearing midnight, and still a pale blue lingers between the chaotic fingers of silhouetted spruces filing past in the west, and in the east, a gibbous moon is peeking in and out of otherwise invisible clouds.” 
The landscape began to take on the familiar (and deeply missed) look of the far north, with dense walls of short, spindly spruces lining the tracks, shading a rich understory of lichens and Labrador tea.  A few shorebirds here and there, as clearings in the forest became more frequent – small groups of what were probably Pectoral Sandpipers, the occasional Lesser Yellowlegs, and as we passed a large open stretch of tundra, a Whimbrel stooped to a landing near the tracks after declaring the bounds of his new territory.  Churchill was close.
Hudson Bay, breaking free of ice in early July 
I won’t try to describe my fascination with Churchill’s subtle landscape yet again, but it is just as striking every year, and every day (and surely the train’s careful pace only heightened the anticipation).  After settling into the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, I had a chance to wander the study sites on foot, scoping out a few old Whimbrels in the immediate vicinity (I resighted JX about 50 meters from his 2010 nest cup). 
This year I was working with Johanna Perz, a masters student at Trent University.  We teamed up in the field to work on some common objectives, but each of us has our own project.  Johanna is focusing on demographics and habitat use: resighting flagged individuals to determine whether Whimbrels’ longevity can make up for the high predation and low nesting success typical here, and whether different habitats have different nest success.  My focus is on migration, so I was eager to find enough nests to deploy all 25 geolocators before season’s end.  These tiny data loggers, attached to the Whimbrel’s legs, record ambient light levels to determine the timing of sunrise and sunset each day of the following year.  From these data, we can calculate the daily latitude and longitude of the individual carrying the logger, and trace their exact routes to the wintering grounds (typically the northern coast of South America).  Identifying the specific stopover sites and wintering grounds these birds use will be a crucial first step towards protecting this species, already seeing significant population declines.
Whimbrel at a nest.
To my surprise, we deployed our last geolocator on June 26th, and had found 52 nests by the middle of July (far exceeding my optimistic hopes of 30-40).  So for the last few weeks we kept busy with detailed habitat surveys at each of the nests, and trying to film any last footage I would need before heading south. 
After the field season in Churchill concluded, I spent August in Ithaca, working on an internship at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Multimedia Department to compile all the footage and produce the short film.  It was an awesome experience to plan, write, design, and edit the project, from start to finish – something I’d only casually experimented with on my own before.  I learned a ton from the Multimedia group, and am very grateful for their help and feedback – the final version can be viewed here:
A Whimbrel takes flight; these wings will carry him more than 10,000 miles in the coming year.
And after all this time reviewing the season through video, and now a few stressful months removed from Churchill, I can’t wait to go back next year to retrieve the geolocators and see where “my” birds have gone.  North American Whimbrels’ wintering grounds are well mapped, but perhaps not as precisely as we’ve previously thought.  Some flocks linger along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, and many winter in the islands of the Caribbean, or in northern South America; the western breeding group (Alaska & Yukon) winters along much of the Pacific coast, from Oregon to southern Chile.  But recent satellite tracking studies of Whimbrels have shown some birds from the western arctic flying out over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, en route to Brazil, sometimes flying closer to Africa than the Americas!  With these surprising findings coming out now, it’s especially exciting to speculate about the Churchill birds, which have not yet been specifically tracked to their wintering grounds.  Beyond the universal intrigue of following any individual bird’s international migrations, there is plenty to learn about the specific ranges of these populations (and plenty to look forward to filming in the coming years!).  
A male Smith's Longspur, neighbor of the Whimbrels in Churchill.

Hovering Around 60˚

June 16, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Early May is always a long time in coming.  Between the last of autumn’s migrants and the lingering snow drifts of March, the landscape truly thirsts for birds.  Sure, there are birds in the winter, and cool ones, too, but in Ithaca or Ann Arbor, the emptiness between them looms larger than the birds themselves.  Early April lends a few new birds to the mix, like Phoebes, Hermit Thrushes, and a spattering of icteridsthat are only sufficiently appreciated in these few days of limbo, when even their ubiquitous summer presence has been missed—but really, April just enjoys toying with us.  She brings the spring migration fever to a boil, but doesn’t deliver too much to satiate the cravings.  So these cravings have festered since the first snowfall, and by mid April, the yearning is tangible.  It drips from the trees where warblers ought to be, and where a deceitful mind detects the phantom movements of such would-be, wayward warblers. 
This year was the same…save for a few big differences.  The anticipation was growing, with promise of good birds, but this time, I wouldn’t be seeing many warblers, and the balmy weather that brings so many migrants would have to wait; instead of hovering around 60˚F, I’d be hovering around 60˚N: Anchorage, Homer, Beluga, and finally Churchill – so no qualms about the weather this time.  This winter I heard that I was the recipient of the Tim Schantz Memorial Scholarship, courtesy of a foundation established by Mike and Tom Schantz in honor of their late brother, Tim, who at the age of 36, had died guiding a birding tour to St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.  Tim loved Homer and the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, so fittingly, the scholarship brings a college student each year to give a presentation there at the festival in Homer.  But before heading for Anchorage on May 8th, I had four exams in as many days, another to take with me to Alaska, term papers, and of course, a presentation to prepare for.  So in that first week of May, the amount of stress embedded in my head didn’t leave much extra space for the volumes of excitement that normally accompany May.  But that all changed when I boarded a flight for Alaska – a flight many years in wait.
I met Mike Schantz at baggage claim late the following night, and headed to our host for the night’s beautiful home, situated on a small rise overlooking Cook Inlet—at least, that’s what I had heard, and I was excited to see the view for myself the next morning.  We would be driving from Anchorage, southeast around Turnagain Arm—a finger of the Inlet with sharply rising mountains on either side and the prospect of Dall Sheep clamoring among the high rocks—and then back along Highway 1, eventually travelling southwest the length of the Kenai Peninsula to reach Homer. 
As the road crested a hill and banked left, a view of the mouth of Kachemak Bay panned across the windshield to the south, its entrance guarded by the long, narrow peninsula of stony beach and quaint restaurants and charter offices known as the Homer Spit.  A drive along the Spit ends at a hotel and restaurant known as “Land’s End,” and from here, one can walk along the point’s rocky shore, perched halfway across the bay, looking out to the Kenai Mountains.  Following a winter with twice the average annual snowfall, May still gripped these mountains with snow down to their coniferous feet, until they plunged abruptly into Kachemak’s frigid waters.  The sky above these cold mountains was similarly bleak, but its smooth, deep gray was in stark contrast with the mountains’ rugged, gleaming walls.  On this overcast evening, as I walked along the beach past weathered driftwood, smooth stones grinding under foot, I watched thousands of Common Murres flying towards open water on rapid wings, hugging the waves in tight flocks of a few dozen to a few hundred.  This exodus of hardy birds seemed endless, headed for what seemed an uncertain fate as they disappeared on a foggy horizon.  But this daily flux of Murres in and out of the Kachemak Bay is far from uncertain; sunrise would witness an equal and opposite movement when the birds returned to these protected waters for the day, as predictably as the sunrise itself. 
Common Murres
Common Murres coming in to Gull Island
"Land's End"
A Red-faced Cormorant shared a rock with his Pelagic brethren at Gull Island
Where we were staying on a hill overlooking the bay, this particular sunrise revealed several inches of fresh snow blanketing the lawn and the broad arms of the conifers that ringed the yard, reminiscent of a clear day in January.  A red-breasted nuthatch bleeped from the tops of these firs, a fox sparrow sang from the very top of another, a song as rich, full and sweet as any; and a varied thrush uttered its dissonant, even-pitched whistle from the shaded recesses of a fir’s heavy trunk, in thorough concealment, as if tired of sharing his good looks with the world.
While shorebirding along the Spit that morning, a call came in reporting a bristle-thighed curlew at the Anchor River mouth, just a 20-minute drive to the north.  Tom Schantz and I immediately left for Anchor Point, willing it to stay while we drove.  The light was fading fast, and when we arrived, Tom and I were alone.  Given the bristle-thigh’s considerable rarity and incredible life history, I was expecting an exodus of festival participants to converge on the reported curlew (the first here in about a decade), but inexplicably, the task of refinding the bird lay solely with us.  These large shorebirds, tawny brown with a striped head and a distinctive patch of bright buff on the rump, breed solely in the lower Yukon delta and Seward Peninsula in remote western Alaska.  As its Latin name Numenius tahitiensis suggests, this high arctic breeder is equally (if not more) familiar with tropical beaches and atolls of the South Pacific, where it was first described in Tahiti during James Cook’s expeditions in the 18thcentury.  But it was not until more than one hundred and sixty years later that the curlew’s nest was first discovered in 1948, during an expedition led by Henry Kyllingstad, Warren Peterson, and Arthur Allen.  On a tundra plateau outside of Mountain Village, the team had arguably one of the most rewarding experiences any human has even had under any circumstances, and it’s worth reading a full account here (   But since this well known discovery, representing one of the most recent discoveries of a North American bird’s nest, recent work with surgically implanted satellite transmitters has revealed a more detailed picture of the birds’ incredible journeys.  From Alaska, they fly at least 2,500 miles (4,000km) nonstop to Laysan and nearby islands in the western reaches of the Hawaiian archipelago, and may continue south to winter in Fiji, Tuvalu, Tonga, and other island nations of the South Pacific. 
As we hiked north, we came to a low ridge, with the river snaking to its mouth on our right, running parallel to the shoreline on our left.  Here, at a small oxbow in the river was a large patch of thick beach grass, matted down by wind and rain, a perfect spot for a curlew to nestle down for the night.  Sure enough, nearly the first thing my binoculars met was a good-sized, brown bird, hunkered low in the grass, sitting still.  The scope revealed a bird very similar to a whimbrel, but with a slim bill and buffy scalloping on the back.  But without any whimbrel present to compare with, I was worried that my hopes of seeing this wanderer en route to his remote summer home were making me too quick to call it a curlew, especially in fading light and without any views of the diagnostic rump.  Soon, and to our relief, several people who had had previous experience with this species were making their way down the beach, and the eager but cautious conversation that made its way through the maze of scopes and tripods was leaning towards a bristle-thighed curlew – it looked good, but notes and photos would need to be reviewed against references. 
Bristle-thighed Curlew 
So the next morning, our first stop was the Anchor River mouth – it would be hard to leave Alaska without being completely convinced of this bird’s identity.  As Tom and I walked out the beach, we were again alone.  I heard a whimbrel calling as it flew up from the oxbow where we had watched our so-called bristle-thighed curlew last night – and just like the “curlew,” the whimbrel was alone.  I was quickly beginning to doubt, as painful as it was, that our sighting the evening before had been anything out of the ordinary – save for extraordinary levels of probably unwarranted excitement.  But then another whimbrel flew up from the beach ahead of us, among others, and I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I had heard a soft “piu-weet,” the clear flight call of a bristle-thighed curlew.  Then Tom’s arm flew up as he exclaimed, “There! That one’s got a bright rump!”  I snapped a few record shots as it fled further down the beach, and then, as another whimbrel flew past, I thought I’d get a comparison shot – but as I found it in my viewfinder, I realized this second bird also had a pale rump!  There were two bristle-thighed curlews, and here we were with no one to share them with – one for each of us!  We followed them slowly down the beach to the river mouth, where they crossed and foraged comfortably within a short distance.  In this new day’s light, and with a flock of whimbrels to compare them to, there was no question this was a very different bird.  The buffy scalloping on the upperparts stood out plainly compared to the whimbrels’ even, brown tones; the bills were thin at the base, and seemed to curve more sharply downwards.  I was ecstatic, and when I spotted a bar-tailed godwit joining the flock along with a small group of long-billed dowitchers, I simply couldn’t believe my eyes.  The godwit is another bird usually only seen in remote western Alaska in North America, aside from rare records along both coasts, and this bird had probably just flown from New Zealand and Japan or Hokkaido.  Shortly after, a group of birders made their way down the beach, and we rushed them onwards to share this incredible spectacle that lay in wait at the end of a long walk.
The bristle-thigh's buff rump patch, which Whimbrels lack
Bar-tailed Godwit with two Bristle-thighed Curlews and a Whimbrel (front) 
Throughout the next two days, I was able to spend several hours with these birds, including another lonely evening where a flock of eleven whimbrels, the two bristle-thighed curlews and the bar-tailed godwit landed a few dozen yards in front of me, with soft “piu-weet”s floating over the beach among the melancholy tremolos of the whimbrels.  On this calm evening, there was no wind to stir the ocean or ruffle the birds’ tired feathers, feathers which had just carried them thousands of miles over the open water whose cold fingers were now lapping softly at my feet.  I looked out past these purpose-driven globetrotters, toward a horizon of snow-capped peaks extending to the right and hazy emptiness to the left.  These three birds – the godwit and his curlew companions – had certainly seen worse days over that ocean, now as docile as it was when it was named.  But here they were, alive and breathing, readying for their last quick jaunt to the breeding grounds, and here I was, sitting in the sand not twenty feet away as they settled in to sleep for the night.

*         *         *
That Sunday I left Homer for Anchorage, where I would take a Cessna 207 to Bleuga, a small settlement west of Anchorage, built chiefly around the Chugach Electric power plant, situated over a gas reserve and powering about half of Anchorage.  I was here to visit another field site for Nate Senner’s Hudsonian Godwit research, the project I’ve spent two summers in Churchill working on.  On our way there, we dropped into a viallge called Tyonek, a few miles past Beluga.  We dropped casually into a dirt landing strip, where the pilot promptly began handing out packages to locals: “Is Joe here? This is his.  Maria? Here you go. Grandma?” and so on…certainly a small town feel, to say the least.  He hopped back in, closed the door, and we were immediately bouncing down the runway again, gaining speed – no taxiing around to gates or waiting for fuel trucks.  This is the way to fly!
I could write plenty about Beluga, but given that you now represent the maybe 5% of readers who have made it this far, I will refrain.  It was, however, a very cool experience to see this disparate breeding area for the godwits, especially after seeing them on wintering grounds in southern Chile and working with them in the eastern arctic – I have been incredibly fortunate to have followed so much of this far-flung species’ annual cycle.  By the end of their season this year, the Beluga crew had recaptured 24 geolocators, a truly incredible number (as compared to our abysmal 2 from Churchill in 2011)!  Hopefully, I can have a small fraction of that success in the summer of 2013, when I return to Churchill to recapture some of the 25 geolocators I will be deploying this summer on Whimbrel (more on that in a later post).
And last, but not least, after visiting Beluga, Hope Batcheller, Nate Senner, John Fitzpatrick and I drove back to Homer, once again, to attend Chris Wood and Jessie Barry’s wedding – an awesome event that brought together some of the country’s most ridiculous birders, all sweeping the Kenai peninsula, undoubtedly with centuries of collective experience behind their eyes, affording many great looks at the lingering bristle-thighed curlews, yellow-billed loons, Kittlitz's murrelets, and so forth.  Many thanks and huge congratulations to Chris and Jessie! 
After a quick drop to some 42˚N, I’m now back at 58˚, in Churchill, Manitoba, starting work on a project with Whimbrels – birds with an always-pleasant resemblance to a certain pair of neatly patterned Pacific wanderers.  More on them soon! 

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