[Ontbirds]Few Juvenile Shorebirds - Failed Arctic Breeders

Jean Iron jeaniron at sympatico.ca
Tue Aug 10 09:27:31 EDT 2004


Very few southbound juvenile shorebirds from the arctic are currently 
migrating through southern Ontario indicating a failed nesting season for 
many northern species. For example, at Townsend Sewage Lagoons near Lake 
Erie on 8 August, Kevin McLaughlin saw 400-500 adult Semipalmated 
Sandpipers and only one juvenile. He saw only  5-6 juvenile Lesser 
Yellowlegs among 200-300 adults and had few juvenile Least Sandpipers. 
Juveniles of all these species should be common by now. This spring and 
summer have been exceptionally cold, wet and windy in much of northern 
Canada from James Bay to the High Arctic Islands. Here are reports from six 
biologists and birders, five of whom were in the north this summer.

1. Ken Ross, waterfowl and shorebird biologist, Canadian Wildlife Service: 
"It looks to me that there has been a general failure of breeding 
shorebirds from the Hudson Bay Lowlands north. Certainly goose productivity 
was well down along the Hudson Bay coast where it was still winter in late 
May. And I have heard that the Arctic was even worse. Ken Abraham was 
telling me that shorebirds appeared to be migrating earlier than usual in 
the James Bay area, probably reflecting a large proportion of failed breeders."

2. Ken Abraham, biologist and research scientist with the Ontario Ministry 
of Natural Resources (OMNR), studies waterfowl and shorebirds around James 
Bay and Hudson Bay reports, "Strong indications that the extremely late 
year spring (May/June) and cold/wet summer (June-July) was indeed a poor 
year for breeding shorebirds. My student Linh Nguyen had a fair number of 
Semipalmated Plover nests this year, but a ragged nesting season with very 
high egg predation, really asynchronous timing and changes in nest density 
among areas, compared to his two previous summers. While banding 12-23 July 
we witnessed increasing numbers of Pectoral Sandpipers, a few Ruddy 
Turnstones, hundreds of both species of yellowlegs and a very early massing 
of Marbled Godwits (in my experience). We had Marbled Godwits in flocks 
alone and mixed with Hudsonian Godwits at several locations from the 
extreme south end of James Bay (Hannah Bay) up to Lake River and including 
Akimiski Island (largest island in James Bay). I suspect that Marbled 
Godwit, in particular, had a poor year, but possibly so did Hudsonian Godwit."

Note: isolated James Bay population of Marbled Godwits is probably about 
3000 birds.

3. Don Sutherland, zoologist with the Natural Heritage Information Centre 
of the OMNR, reported: "My guess is that there was widespread nest failure 
of shorebirds and many other arctic-subarctic bird species in eastern 
Canada. When we arrived at the Pen Islands (Ontario/Manitoba border of 
Hudson Bay) on June 23rd, things really hadn't started yet. There was still 
substantial ice on many of the larger lakes, large snowdrifts in the lee of 
ridges and spruce copses, hardly a hint of plant growth anywhere, and 
several inches of water on the wet tundra. Many of the local species 
including the common shorebird species (Stilt Sandpiper, Dunlin, Least 
Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe, Short-billed Dowitcher, Hudsonian Godwit, 
Whimbrel, Red-necked Phalarope, American Golden-Plover) were displaying, 
but weren't behaving as though they had initiated nests. After a few days 
we started flushing more birds from scrapes and partial clutches and by the 
time we departed on July 7th there were even some clutches starting to 
hatch (e.g., Least Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper). More telling though were 
the large flocks of shorebirds present throughout the period. These were 
either failed breeders or birds which had just opted not to try. Among 
these were substantial mixed flocks of Hudsonian Godwits and Short-billed 
Dowitchers (which breed more commonly in the taiga-tundra transition) and 
large mixed species aggregations including large numbers of Stilt 
Sandpipers (150 in one flock). Many of these flocks were concentrated in 
ponds along the coast, but were also present six or more kilometres inland. 
Also of interest was the near absence of both Semipalmated Plover and 
Semipalmated Sandpiper. These should have been present and not uncommon (as 
they have been in other years) on the gravel ridges bordering wet tundra 
near the coast, but we saw very few of either and found no nests. Other 
species which typically breed further inland (e.g., both yellowlegs and 
Bonaparte's Gulls) were also loafing in ponds near the coast. Waterfowl 
also had a poor time of it. Large numbers of scaup of both species just 
hanging around and no evidence of breeding even by Long-tailed Ducks which 
were just sitting in pairs on ponds. There was a total failure of the Snow 
Goose colony and near total failure of locally breeding Canada Geese. This 
phenomenon wasn't restricted to the Ontario coast as Churchill apparently 
was a bust as were other places in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Just one of 
those years!"

4. Farther north, Jim Richards of Orono, Ontario, spent 27 June - 13 July 
at Cambridge Bay on Victoria Island in Nunavut Territory. He reported, 
"That overall numbers of birds present at the end of June was down by at 
least 60%. Of those there only a small percentage were actually nesting. In 
past years species such as Semipalmated Sandpipers were usually found at a 
rate of 4-6 nests per day with normal walking. This year I found one nest 
in 16 days! Needless to say, it was very cold, very wet and very windy."

5. Glenn Coady of Toronto, Ontario, was atlassing in the Hudson Bay 
Lowlands and was in contact with other groups in the north: He summarized, 
"Discussing shorebird nesting success with all the Ontario Hudson Bay atlas 
groups, Mark Peck's experience on Southampton Island in Nunavut, Jim 
Richards' experience at Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, as well as one of my 
birding friends who was at Churchill this summer, it would appear very few 
shorebirds were able to successfully breed in the frigid conditions across 
the arctic this summer. Many didn't even attempt to nest, and a lot of 
those that did likely failed in the horrific windstorms. Jim Richards told 
me that areas he covered at Cambridge Bay that normally would have resulted 
in sightings of 70 Semipalmated Sandpipers and 30 Baird's Sandpipers per 
day, proved this summer to be lucky to find more than one or two birds. He 
found only one Semipalmated Sandpiper nest the entire trip, and it only had 
a clutch of two eggs. The fact that it also was a poor year for small 
mammals (and Canada Geese and Snow Geese failed en masse too) in much of 
the arctic meant what few shorebirds that were going to nest successfully 
probably encountered heavier than normal predation from foxes, jaegers, 
gulls and owls."

6. Alvaro Jaramillo of California on 6 August reported: "Juvenile 
shorebirds are down here already, but not the main push. It seems like a 
lot of the north was suffering from very bad weather. Alaska was very cold 
and rainy this season, I hope I am wrong and you begin to see a ton of 
juvenile shorebirds, but my guess is that it will be a weak year for them."

*I hope that birders will report the numbers and age ratios of southbound 
arctic shorebirds during August, September and October. This will give us 
better information on the nesting success of northern shorebirds in 2004.

Acknowledgements: The following biologists/birders were very helpful with 
information: Ken Abraham, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources; Glenn 
Coady, Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas; Bill Crins, Ontario Ministry of Natural 
Resources; Michel Gosselin, Canadian Museum of Nature; Jean Iron, Toronto, 
Ontario; Andrew Jano, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources; Alvaro 
Jaramillo, Half Moon Bay, California; Kevin McLaughlin, Hamilton, Ontario; 
Mark Peck, Royal Ontario Museum; Jim Richards, Orono, Ontario; Mike Runtz, 
Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas; Ken Ross, Canadian Wildlife Service; Don 
Sutherland, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources; and Ron Tozer, Dwight, 

Happy shorebirding,

Ron Pittaway
Ontario Field Ornithologists
Minden and Toronto ON
E-mail: jeaniron at sympatico.ca

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