Extreme Bird-Nerding

Inside a Remote Research Camp in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A cluster of expedition tents with the Brooks Mountain Range in the background (Shiloh Schulte for USFWS); a tent door guarded with a caribou antler shed; three researchers in full Arctic-ninja gear against the elements. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

Our small, silver wings brush over the tundra, cracked blue ice and honeycombed wetlands shining underneath as we head North across the Arctic coastal plain towards the edge of the sea. Dropping lower, the bush plane banks over a channel of the river, and a bright cluster of tents suddenly comes into view. The next instant, we are bumping along the packed earth and grasses on fat tires. The two women towing sleds who come to greet us are covered in layers of jackets, waders, hats, and face scarves, only their eyes showing. The wind finds its way through my three jackets in a hurry, blowing frigid off the nearby Beaufort Sea ice.

Welcome to Bird Camp.

Left to right: flying over the wetlands and ice remnants on the Canning River; flight path to Bird Camp; unloading the bush plane at camp. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

Each June, a crew of graduate students, interns, and wildlife biologists arrive via bush plane to a frozen landscape at the far northwest corner of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They create a temporary home of expedition tents, a tent laboratory, and a cook/communal tent, all enclosed in electric fencing. Their brief summer field season is packed. Searching for well-hidden nests, they study the health and movements of waterfowl and shorebirds that migrate each summer to breed and rear chicks. An avian research station since 1979, the Canning River Bird Camp is a remote and challenging environment— and a science hotspot for the extreme bird nerd.

“We have shorebirds that are displaying that we never get to see anywhere else, there’s bears, there’s caribou, it’s just an amazing landscape, and something you get to be in. I think for me that’s the biggest part of it, it’s not something you get to see, it’s something you get to be part of. -Shiloh Schulte, Manomet Research Biologist
Lisa Kennedy weighs a semipalmated sandpiper (“lighter than a piece of Wonderbread”) before banding and releasing it back to the nest. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

“It’s an extremely important area for birds that utilize all of the western hemisphere flyways. In a way, all roads lead to the Arctic coastal plain,” said Chris Latty, bird biologist with the Refuge. “And the Canning River Delta has the highest density of wetlands and habitat for these nesting birds within Arctic Refuge.” [READ more here]

“The birds that we see breeding here come from all across the world. We have birds coming up from South America, and many folks in the lower 48 states have birds that winter in their vicinity that come up to Arctic Refuge to breed.”
Pectoral sandpipers migrate to the Arctic coast from South America, passing through the Great Plains and both coasts of North America (Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS). “Pectoral” refers to the inflatable air sac on the male’s chest, which he puffs out and uses to “hoot” for a mate while flying over the Arctic tundra. Listen here: https://www.audubon.org/news/listen-pectoral-sandpipers-amazing-aerial-mating-display

What does it take to be a biologist in this unique time and place? A sense of adventure, resilience to harsh and unpredictable weather, creativity for remote living away from creature comforts, and of course… a love of birds.

Elyssa Watford, graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is

literally living her dream. She splits her field season between the Canning and her graduate work with common eiders on the Barrier Islands just to the northeast.

Elyssa Watford talks about working with birds in Arctic Refuge.
“My dream was always to work with birds in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Every chance that I get to spend at the Canning River is just so special, and I like living in the place that I work, versus commuting back and forth every day from a town. You really get to immerse yourself in field life and understand the birds a lot better, just being out here and hearing them all the time and constantly seeing what they’re doing. So it’s a really unique opportunity and I cherish every moment I get.”
Elyssa Watford cradles a collared cackling goose; Watford crosses the tundra in search of new nests. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

Tundra Technology and Stealth

As the crew gears up to go out for a day of research, laughter and groans drift out from the tents. Getting ready is never simple, and their very survival depends on the proper preparation. Several layers of clothing protect against the needles of wind and the deeply cold coastal fog. Waterproof waders allow for river crossings and wetland nest searches. Hat, gloves, and a face scarf insulate exposed skin against the elements during long hours of field research.

Hanging from packs, pockets, and belts, a variety of essential safety gear: a radio for communication, a GPS for data and navigation, binoculars for bird sightings (and bear sightings), bear spray and a shotgun for protection against grizzly and polar bears. Large packs carry everything they need to be self sufficient and collect data for the day, including nets to capture birds. When fully dressed, they are well-swaddled ninjas against the gnarly outdoors.

Geared up for a day in the field. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)
Tundra Tech Timelapse video: Getting Dressed for Field Research

Although the camp began as a shorebird research station, it has since developed a more integrated approach. Any bird that decides to nest in the study area becomes part of the research, and the biologists also record mammal sightings, insects, and habitat information. They spend the days walking the tundra to find new nests, monitor nests already discovered, and capturing birds to measure their health and fit them with bands and tracking devices.

Even on the remote tundra, technology plays an important role: from tiny location transmitters and temperature-sensing nest probes to traditional nets triggered by a handheld piece of cord. Dozens of wildlife cameras deployed at nests provide valuable clues about parenting behavior and guilty predators, while also reducing human presence and monitoring duties. Evenings are often spent in the cramped laboratory tent, processing blood samples (taken to identify overall health and possible disease) and entering data on laptops charged by solar panels.

Left to right: setting a bownet to capture a sandpiper, holding a semipalmated sandpiper after taking a blood sample, banded and tagged sandpiper, organizing blood samples in the lab tent, and setting up a wildlife camera to monitor a nest. (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

After a cold, windy, foggy day of work, there’s also a place for imaginary technology. When asked about their “camp superpowers,” the answers inevitably dream up ways to make life just a little easier out here. “I’d want to be able to snap my fingers and be instantly dressed for the day — waders, boots and all.” “To have the power to instantly heat things: water, the tents, myself.” “To be able to fly, and nest search from the air…” “To never have to pee.” “For the birds to just come and tell me where they are at and where they are going.” And, of course, the fantasy of a camp leader responsible for logistics in the unpredictable Arctic: “To control the weather.”

Chris Latty and Elyssa Watford on a foggy search for geese; two researchers dwarfed by the landscape of mountains and tundra (Shiloh Schulte for USFWS); the Canning River as it flows out of the Brooks Range; the still-snowy banks of the camp on the Canning (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)
A caribou antler next to purple mountain saxifrage near the Canning River Bird Camp (Lisa Hupp/USFWS)

Contributed by Lisa Hupp, Outreach Specialist

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.