Alaska Video Expedition

by Pat Leonard last modified 2007-07-10 12:39

Capturing unique behaviors of beautiful birds.

From Benjamin Clock

June 22: Of fog and phalaropes

 Female Red PhalaropeMale Red Phalarope
Female Red Phalarope. Photo by  Benjamin Clock
Male Red-necked Phalarope. Photo by Benjamin Clock

Today, I found another Red Phalarope nest and we were able to get great footage of the brilliant female foraging in the adjacent ponds while the male incubated the nest. At camp, we found the largest group of caribou we have seen yet, foraging on willows right across the river from our camp.
Caribou in Camp
Caribou wander near camp. Photo by Benjamin Clock

The new day also brought fog and rain which kept us grounded in camp for most of the day. Larry and I hope to get one more day of good filming and recording before heading back to the Brooks Range.
Rainy Campsite
A rainy day in camp. Photo by Benjamin Clock

While waiting out the weather here in Deadhorse, we plan to work on filming a curious urban bird of the Alaskan North Slope. The numerous buildings supporting the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and oil drilling form a great habitat for the Snow Bunting. Buntings are normally found on rock slide scree slopes in the highlands. But here they have taken a liking to the tall metal buildings and crevices in oil drilling equipment. Today we hope to film a few birds using the Deadhorse infrastructure as song perches—if the rain holds off, that is.

June 20: It’s a shore thing

Filming Phalarope
Ben filming Red Phalarope. Photo by Larry Arbanas

The last few days we have been working on collecting video of shorebirds in the tundra ponds south of Deadhorse. We have had to contend with thick fog, heavy winds, and wind chills in the mid-twenties. But during the night the skies cleared and the wind dissipated, clearing the way for our work. Larry and I are working a reverse schedule now, waking up and heading out for work around 11:00 P.M., capitalizing on the beautiful late-night light, and heading to camp about mid-morning when the sun climbs higher into the sky.

Long-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher. Photo by Benjamin Clock
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper vocalizing. Photo by Benjamin Clock

Our goal of late has been filming the display flights of shorebirds including Long-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. Little by little, we are succeeding with these difficult behaviors. Today, I found the nest of a Red Phalarope hidden under a dome of tundra grasses. This nest, with a male incubating four eggs, was a great find for the trip. We filmed the nest from afar with the long lens of the high-definition camera, and with a remote camera placed a few meters from the nest to document the nest activity for a more extended period.

Red Phalarope Nest
Red Phalarope on nest. Photo by Benjamin Clock

For a few more days, we will work the tundra here in the far north before heading back into the Brooks Range to work on Smith's Longspur.

June 18: What a spectacle!

At midnight last night, Larry and I arrived in the outpost town of Deadhorse after a long push across the Brooks Range. We traveled quickly to the Arctic coastal plain to make sure we could catch the best shorebird display times. We also hoped to find Spectacled Eiders during the brief period they spend as pairs on inland tundra ponds.

Arriving at 3:00 A.M., we spun around town, weaving between the elaborate infrastructure servicing the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. In a pond right in the center of town, Larry spotted a pair of Spectacled Eiders foraging in the shadows of a building. We were able to get fabulous footage of this pair and a second pair, which swam in at the other end of the same pond. The second pair even spent a some time swimming with a beautiful drake King Eider, providing a great visual comparison. 

Spectacled Eider
Spectacled Eider. Photo by Benjamin Clock

Today the Spectacled Eiders have not shown themselves again, so it appears that we arrived just in time to see this elusive species. We are camping along the shore of the Sagavanirktok River south of town and will spend the next few days working on Stilt Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Red-throated Loon.

June 13: Watch the birdie

Larry Arbanas and I just returned from a successful Nome trip. We had great weather for the most part, with only a few rainy and foggy periods. We succeeded in collecting video of several of our Nome targets, including Northern Wheatear, Yellow Wagtail, Bluethroat, Rock Sandpiper, Bristle-thighed Curlew, Aleutian Tern, and most notably, Red Knot. Several of these are new species for the Macaulay Library collection.

Filming a Wheatear
Filming a Northern Wheatear. Photo by Benjamin Clock

Larry and I finally met up with our colleagues Mike and Gerrit in Nome on day three of our trip, near the end of their time there. (You can read about this audio-collecting trip in their travel log.) We were able to get details about the two sites where they had found Red Knots on the Teller Road. At the second site, Larry and I spent a long night searching, walking a three-mile circuit around the top of a flat, rocky, lichen-covered dome. Here we found Red Knots performing display flights and were extremely lucky to find a Red Knot nest—the real highlight of the trip so far. We got great high-definition footage of the nest, plus a few recordings of calls as the bird flushed off the nest. When we first stumbled upon the nest, I did a quick point-and-shoot and got video of the bird doing distraction displays.
Red Knot on Nest
A Red Knot sitting on its nest. Photo by Benjamin Clock

Our other colleagues, Tim Barksdale and Nick Meyer, have also had a good trip so far. I was in Anchorage for several days arranging logistics for the next leg of their journey, right after their return from Adak Island in the Aleutians. They told me that highlights of their Adak trip included great footage of Terek Sandpiper, Spot-billed Duck, and Tufted Duck, along with foraging footage of Kittlitz's Murrelet, Ancient Murrelet, and Marbled Murrelet. They also managed to collect some footage of Whiskered Auklet while bouncing around in a boat on very rough seas.
American Golden Plover
American Golden-Plover. Photo by Benjamin Clock

Tim and Nick traveled next to Barrow for five days, specifically targeting the three species of eider found there. They were in Barrow even before Gerrit and Mike, actually departing the day that Gerrit and Mike arrived. Tim had very good luck with Steller's Eider, another brand new species for the Macaulay Library video collection, King Eider, and limited success with Spectacled Eider, which were just arriving. They’ll have another chance at Spectacled Eider on their next stop.

Tim and Nick next departed for a very remote site on the tundra south of Teshekpuk Lake on the North Slope. It will be home base for the next month as they work on chronicling the breeding biology of several shorebird, duck, and loon species.

Larry and I next drive north on a trip very similar to Gerrit and Mike's journey last summer. We are driving north on the haul road to Deadhorse. Our main targets are Smith's Longspur, more Bluethroat, Arctic Warbler, and displaying shorebirds once we hit the North Slope coastal plain.
Tundra Flowers
Tundra flowers. Photo by Benjamin Clock