Excessive spring snowfall results in a non-breeding year for shorebirds in NE Greenland

Jeroen Reneerkens of the University of Groningen studies breeding Sanderlings, for the first time in 2003 and since 2007 annually. He works from the Danish Zackenberg Research Station (74°28’N 20°34’W) in NE Greenland that was established in 1996, and is the research base for various experts monitoring the biotic and abiotic environment of NE Greenland.

Jeroen reports about his remarkable 2018 field season:

I study how rising temperatures may affect the reproductive success of Sanderlings in Zackenberg, NE Greenland. Due to a disproportionate degree of climate warming in the Arctic, shorebirds that migrate to the Arctic to breed are strongly suspected to be negatively affected by ongoing climate change. Niels Martin Schmidt and his team have indeed established that the summer temperatures in Zackenberg have steadily increased during the last decades.

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One of the Sanderlings that is part of the long-term study on Sanderling reproduction in Greenland. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

The expected consequence of the warming Arctic summers are a mismatch in timing between arthropods (think insects and spiders), and their shorebird predators. Indeed, the emergence of crawly creatures in the pitfall traps in Zackenberg has advanced in the last two decades, but I learned that Sanderlings in Zackenberg did not adjust the timing of their incubation. Puzzling.

So to further study the ecological interactions between Sanderlings and their prey (and the predators of Sanderling eggs such as Arctic foxes), this summer of 2018 I visited Zackenberg for the 13th time. It turned out to be an exceptional season…

Snow, very much snow!

Sanderlings and other Arctic shorebirds start laying eggs when the snow melts, which usually happens in the first weeks after their arrival, around late May or early June. Shorebirds are so-called income breeders, which means that females produce their eggs from locally acquired food. Their food appears only as soon as the tundra soil becomes snow-free.

Snow melts quicker with higher summer temperatures but it’s not that straight forward because climate models also predict that the amount of winter precipitation (i.e. snow fall) will increase. If that is true, more snow may counteract the effects of warming summers on the timing of emerging of arthropods.

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The study area in NE Greenland: in mid-June 2018 the tundra surface was close to 100% covered in snow. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

Before I migrated north to follow the Sanderlings, my Danish colleagues who were in Zackenberg since early June had already reported that there was a lot of snow on the tundra and warned me that I should prepare myself for a late breeding season. On satellite images of mid-June 2018 the tundra surface was close to 100% covered in snow, and not only in Zackenberg but in the entire Northeast Greenland national park. After a delay of two days due to fog in Zackenberg in which the small chartered planes cannot land, I arrived in Zackenberg on 14 June.

In the last two weeks of June usually most Sanderling are on their nest while some late breeders, or birds whose first clutches fell victim to egg predators, can be found singing or foraging in pairs while the females gather insects to produce eggs. But not this year…

The amount of snow was so extensive, that the majority of the shorebirds in the Zackenberg valley had flocked together in the snow-free area around the field station. Very lean birds were walking between the wooden buildings in the research station and could be approached up to a few meters, probably because they were not willing to spend their last energy and the much needed time to forage on escaping from human researchers.

Zackenberg research stationas only snowfree shorebird haven
The near vicinity of the research station Zackenberg was the only snow-free area in the wide surroundings. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

Catching shorebirds within the research station

It was clear that no shorebirds were going to nest within the next few weeks, if at all this summer. This exceptional situation gave me the opportunity to document the effects of the large amounts of snow on the behavior of shorebirds and their condition.

Usually, food left-overs from the station’s kitchen are discarded via a hose into the nearby Zackenberg river, such that its smell will not attract Polar Bears to the station. However, the river also only started running on 20 June, which is 16 days later than the average date in 1998-2017; a new record. The researchers were forced to get rid of the grinded food remains onto the tundra close to the station. Luckily, it did not attract Polar Bears, but it did attract a flock of several tens of shorebirds, mainly Sanderlings, Turnstones and Red Knots.

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Turnstones, together with a Red Knot and a Sanderling, foraging at the end of the sewage hose, close to a strategically placed trap. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

This gave me and my Danish colleague Jannik Hansen (Aarhus University) the possibility to catch birds and assess their body condition. We managed to catch 31 Sanderlings, 23 Turnstones and 12 Red Knots. Several birds were recaptured 1-3 times within a few days.

Jannik Hansen ringing a Knot near the sewage of the research station
Jannik Hansen ringing a Red Knot caught in the snow free area around the Zackenberg research station. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

All individuals were in poor condition. Sanderlings weighed on average 44 grams (range: 33.6-54.6 grams). In comparison, Sanderlings in winter in the Netherlands weigh between 50-55 grams and incubating Sanderlings weigh on average 57 grams. It is good to realize that the incubating females have already produced a four-egg clutch weighing ca. 48 grams before they start incubation!

ringing shorebirds at the station
During the social Saturday evenings in the station, we continued catching and ringing shorebirds from the terrace. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

The locally colour-ringed birds were resighted daily near the sewage outlet and between the station buildings near snow edges. I daily woke up and went to bed with sightings of colour-ringed birds just a few meters from my bedroom window. The food waste close to the station was probably a unique opportunity for shorebirds, as there is only one village and a handful of stations in entire NE Greenland. The body masses of recaptured Sanderlings showed that they could maintain or even increase their body mass. But not all of them.

I found two dead Sanderlings near the station who seemed to have starved to death. One of them weighed 34 grams at first capture and only 32.6 grams when recaptured a few days later. It was found without head, weighing 26 grams. The other, un-ringed but intact, Sanderling weighed 31.8 grams which indicates that many of the Sanderlings were in very poor condition, indeed.

decapitated starved Sanderling
A Sanderling was found starved (and decapitated), weighing 26 grams. Its mass upon capture a few days earlier was 34 grams. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

I was delighted with the recapture of a Sanderling which I ringed in Zackenberg as a 7–day old chick on 14 July 2012 and was now almost 6 years old. Luckily, with a weight of 54 grams, she was among the few birds in a good condition.

The sewage near the station did not only attract hungry shorebirds, but also served as a feeding tray for the local Gyrfalcons. Jannik and I almost daily observed one of these large white falcons hunting shorebirds, often flying only a few meters over our heads! Although we did not witness a successful attack, prey remains and plucked feathers in the vicinity of the station indicated that either the Gyrfalcon or possibly Arctic foxes were preying on the starving shorebirds.

A non-breeding year?

During the two-week period that I was in Zackenberg, I did not hear a single singing Sanderling and only a few times I heard a singing Red Knot or Dunlin. I observed two Sanderling pairs, which however seemed to have broken up, or at least could not be found again, during the following days.

Also surprisingly few Sanderlings that were locally colour-ringed were observed. Because Sanderlings are very site faithful to their breeding territories, and given that the snow conditions were similar in the whole range of northeast Greenland, I think that the majority of Sanderlings never arrived in Zackenberg but stayed in more southerly regions with better feeding possibilities.

In recent years, Sanderling hatch dates in Zackenberg ranged between 27 June and 30 July (average 12 July). With an incubation duration of 22 days and four days to lay the clutch of four eggs, this implies that Sanderlings usually start laying around 16 June and at the very latest at 4 July. Given that on 27 June all of the Sanderling habitat in the Zackenberg valley was still covered under at least a meter of snow, it is very unlikely that Sanderlings and other shorebirds will breed this year in Zackenberg, or even entire Northeast Greenland.

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On 27 June 2018, the Zackenberg valley was still completely covered with ca. 1 meter deep snow. The vicinity of the research station visible in the middle of the photo was the only area freed of snow. Photo: Jeroen Reneerkens

Request to report the proportion of juvenile Sanderlings within flocks

What are the consequences of a non-breeding season for the Sanderling population? This will depend on the scale at which the snow cover has affected Sanderling reproduction. The Sanderling breeding area is larger than northeast Greenland only, and it is possible that outside the area affected by snow, Sanderling reproduction will be good this year.

I ask for your help to document the effect of snow conditions on Sanderling reproduction and to score the number of juvenile Sanderlings within flocks at your local beaches. I prefer you to repeatedly observe and score the percentage of juvenile birds in the same area between August and November, following a standardised protocol. You can find more information in the manual which can be downloaded below. Download the Sanderling Ageing Manual here.

References

Klaassen, M., Lindström, Å., Meltofte, H. & Piersma, T. (2001) Arctic waders are not capital breeders. Nature, 413, 794.

Reneerkens, J., Schmidt, N.M., Gilg, O., Hansen, J., Hansen, L.H., Moreau, J. & Piersma, T. (2016) Effects of food abundance and early clutch predation on reproductive timing in a high Arctic shorebird exposed to advancements in arthropod abundance. Ecology and Evolution, 6, 7375–7386.

Reneerkens, J., van Veelen, P., van der Velde, M., Luttikhuizen, P. & Piersma, T. (2014) Within-population variation in mating system and parental care patterns in the sanderling (Calidris alba) in northeast Greenland. The Auk: Ornithological Advances, 131, 235–247.

Schmidt, N.M., Mosbacher, J.B., Nielsen, P.S., Rasmussen, C., Høye, T.T. & Roslin, T. (2016) An ecological function in crisis? The temporal overlap between plant flowering and pollinator function shrinks as the Arctic warms. Ecography, 39, 1250–1252.

 

 

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