We are in the Alaskan tundra stalking a striking bird. He is as dapper as 007 and as skilled in the art of evasion. He is the James Bond of the bird world, the Black-bellied Plover.
Only James Bond would wear a tuxedo in the Arctic.
It is late June and Lee Tibbitts and I have been covering miles of tundra each day in search of nesting Black-bellied Plovers. For a common shorebird, it’s surprising how little is known about their migratory patterns.
Everyone working at the USGS Colville River Camp helps us “nest-search.” The shorebird research at this camp is being conducted within the framework of the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network, an arctic-wide initiative to understand the underlying causes of recent population declines in many shorebird species. It’s nice of them to take the time to help us. The birds laid eggs a bit late this year due to a late snow, and so we are a bit early. The nest-searching is time intensive.
We will capture the birds on their nest while they are incubating their eggs, before the chicks have hatched. Finding a nest often involves birds seeing us before we see them. Plovers may react with aerial acrobatics, a broken-wing display, or piercing cries, all to distract us from the nest location. They’ve had many chances to perfect their secret-agent maneuvers. In a typical day the plovers may need to frighten off aggressive Parasitic and Long-tailed Jaegers, wily foxes, or even brown bears.
Black-bellied Plovers are ground nesters and we watch them from a distance until a member of the pair determines we are not a threat and returns to the nest. Only then do we have a good idea of the nest location.
We approach the nest and set our trap, an articulated spring-loaded bow trap. Our trap is triggered manually…I pull a very long string from very far away to release the spring. When triggered, the net springs open and forms a bubble around the nest within which the bird is free to move until it is removed.
After the trap is set, we retreat and we wait. Lee watches the pair from a distance, I’m hiding with a walkie talkie, ready to pull the line at any moment. Lee alerts me that a member of the pair is settling back on the nest. We wait to make sure, and then, PULL! We run across the tundra toward the trap and we’ve caught him!
This bird is a male and very handsome. In true James Bond fashion, he is about to receive some cutting edge technology. He will carry a 4.6 gram solar-powered satellite tracking device, attached as a harness with a thin teflon ribbon around his leg joints. The tag is one of the smallest available and together with the ribbon, weights about 2.5% of his body weight.
After our measurements are taken, and the transmitter is carefully custom-fit, we release the bird, ready to reveal his migration secrets.
Males and females take turns incubating the eggs. Our goal was to deploy 10 tags and to catch an even sex ratio of individuals: 5 males and 5 females. After a substantial amount of effort focused on the females, and time winding down, we came away with 8 males, and only 2 females.
James Bond’s female companions have proven themselves wiser than their male counterparts. After all, this is real life, not the movies.
Some birds have had chicks, some have already left the Arctic, and others are on their way. Follow along with our live tracking maps…data from these tags are reported daily. And, read our other posts from this expedition.