Shorebird ???scientists??? look for answers: Second year of bird study accumulates more information on timing for migrants??? arrivals

Posted by Naomi Klouda/Homer Tribune, USA

In the brief window of time when thousands of the world???s shorebirds flock to Kachemak Bay, a team of birders become citizen scientists and use designated monitoring spots to take counts.

The 20 or so bird-watchers are trained to take faithful roll call of the birds at the 15-foot tide level in George Matz???s Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Program. They do this two hours a day, every five days on the same tidal level.

???We begin monitoring at 15-foot tides because science likes consistency,??? Matz said. ???During high tides, (21-16 feet) the birds often disappear to an island or we aren???t sure where they go. Low tide isn???t suitable either, because it stretches a mile or more out,??making shorebirds hardly visible.???

Birds

Homer Tribune File Photo – Shorebirds and enthusiasts gather along the Homer Spit during last year???s Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival. This is the 18th year of the festival, which started as a way to prevent development in the sensitive shorebird ecological areas.

The Semi-palmated Plover, Golden Plovers, Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpiper, the Dunlin and the Dowitcher ??? just some of the 30 shorebird species that routinely come here ??? feed on a tiny clam called macoma, as well as other invertabrates.

???This is the optimal time in the tide for them to get at the tiny clams,??? explained U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Park Ranger Carla Stanley. ???It???s after high tide, when mud is the wettest and easiest to get at the clams. This should be when most of the birds are available for counting.???

Matz???s shorebird monitoring study, now in its second year, seeks to gather data that can help understand why shorebird numbers are so much lower today than in the past. His data will compare to an earlier Bay study of the birds by Biologist George West in the late ???70s and early ???80s. Now retired, West lives in Arizona and turned over his data to Matz.

???According to the first??year of data, there has been a significant drop in shorebird population numbers (arriving in the Bay) now,??? Matz explained. ???The difference appears to be more than just sampling error. This gives us motivation to continue the effort.???

Matz has added aerial surveys once every three days for 15 days during the peak of the migration to obtain further data. The Kachemak Bay Birders received a grant from the Forest Service to hire a local pilot to fly Matz and other bird-viewing volunteers on surveys stretching from the Spit to Seldovia. Saturday???s excursion over the Fox River Flats valley and coves in between yielded only a couple of small flocks of shorebirds. However, Sunday morning turned up several hundred at Mud Bay.

Do the shorebirds go to the upper part of the Bay before coming to the Spit?
???In this case, they didn???t. We would have seen them if they first stopped in the upper Bay,??? Matz said. ???One thing we learned last year is that shorebirds arrive in stages.???

Matz said the Yellowlegs arrive first, then the four species of Plovers, sandpipers and godwits.
But seldom does the same event happen exactly the same way twice in nature, he added.

Festival???s beginning
When an annual shorebird festival was conceived 18 years ago, it was in response to a potential ecological disaster: the City of Homer had intentions to fill in the Mariner Lagoon to make an RV Park. The city, which still owns the land and the estuary, operates a small RV park today, but the old plan was to gravel and dirt in wetlands to just below the Lighthouse Village.

In furious and fast response, Scientists Sue Matthews, Jack Lentfer and George West produced a paper about the ecological value of the area to hundreds of thousands of shorebirds.

???A lot of people didn???t realize we had this number of birds coming through town every year,??? recalled the USFWS???s Poppy Benson. ???Then, as the public read their report, enthusiasm grew for starting a festival to help prevent the development and to celebrate the migration.???

Benson put forth the festival as a way to improve the ???shoulder??? tourism season of early spring. Then Chamber of Commerce Chairman Johnny Bushell ???jumped right on it and ran with it.??? The main motivation, however, was to gain attention for the shorebird???s sanctuary.

Had the RV park plan been carried out, the Bay would have lost a major refuge for flight-weary shorebirds en route to points north. This area, as well as Mud Bay and the Fox River Flats, have since been recognized by the??Western??Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network as an area of??international importance to migrating shorebirds.??

???Below (Starvin Marvin???s) Pizza place is one of the best shorebird viewing stations ??? a lot of shorebirds can be seen in that whole area,??? said Benson, who was the festival???s first keynote speaker and remains involved nearly two decades later.

The dates chosen for the festival were based on George West???s data that indicated the bulk of the migration arrived around May 8. The four days of the weekend closest to that date were then selected for the festival.

Willy Dunne, the USFWS Visitor Center Manager, was instrumental in organizing the event, along with Dale Chorman, Buzz Scher, Dave Erickson and Rich Kleinleder.

From a Mother???s Day breakfast at the Elks Lodge where Benson delivered the first keynote address, the event grew in scope and attracted more and more visitors.

???We???ve come a long way from that first festival when we can have a Peter Harrison,??? Benson said, referring to world-renowned pelagic shorebird expert and author Harrison, set to give the opening address 4-6 p.m. Friday at the Pratt Museum.

How to monitor
The monitoring project that utilizes ???citizen scientists??? is looking for information on the birds??? status by identifying all shorebird species using Kachemak Bay during spring migration. It defines the seasonal period and annual timing of when shorebirds migrate through the area in the spring, and estimating the abundance and distribution of the species in the Kachemak Bay area.

Matz points out that this approach to using ordinary residents ??? rather than trained biologists ??? is long-established in events such as the annual Christmas bird count, which has continued for more than 100 years.

Useful information from those counts helps scientists understand bird population changes and response to other??factors such as climate change.

???People like to watch birds,??? Matz said. ???If they can contribute to a study, it draws more interest.???

If an agency were to fund that many individuals conducting a survey at regular intervals, it would prove costly and wouldn???t receive the same kind of coverage.

That isn???t to say it???s less scientific. The shorebird survey follows scientific protocol modified from the Lower 48 to fit Alaska conditions, Matz said. He worked with Rick Lanctot Ph.D, the USF&WS shorebird specialist for the Alaska Region and National Shorebird Coordinator Brad Andres Ph.D, who lent scientific support and advice.

Future plans are to coordinate this effort with other agency work, such as Kachemak Bay Research Reserve studies of the Kachemak Bay shoreline and Fish and Game???s study of invertebrates in inter-tidal zones.

???Their work complements our work,??? Matz said. ???In terms of the bigger picture, it is looking at how healthy the Bay is, and if things are changing, how are they changing????

Compa
ring Kachemak Bay???s relatively pristine status to other marine habitats could mean shorebird visitors here are demonstrating stresses from other parts of the globe.

Biologist Stanley says she has noticed that, over time, the seawall below Ocean Drive Loop has changed the tidal energy and how sand moves.

???I personally have noticed the difference in Mariner Park Lagoon. More sand is going into the lagoon. You still get a nice variety of birds, but not huge numbers,??? Stanley said. ???Kachemak Bay is one of richest estuaries in the world. They really like the mud there, and it doesn???t have huge wave action. That allows little worms to survive. On high-energy beaches, you don???t get that.???

The food is crucial for allowing the shorebirds to ???bulk up.??? By May 15, most will be gone.

Since these species arrive from warmer places in the world, a realization strikes Matz as providing an interesting juxtaposition in global navigation.

???A light drizzle ??? almost wet snow ??? fell toward the end of the session,??? Matz reported of Friday???s beach monitoring. ???And shorebirds left the tropics for this. While true Alaskans relish winter, it always amazes me that the coldest part of a shorebird???s life is when it comes here in the summer to breed on the tundra ??? which seldom gets as warm in summer as a cold winter day in the tropics.???

To read the complete 2009 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project Report, go to http://www.kachemakbaybirders.org

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