Slettnes: interesting but alarming results

Hans and I arrived back home last Friday, after a field season at Slettnes with very interesting but also alarming results.

Until this season, we hypothesized that as long as the food situation is good, the Arctic Skuas would be able to withstand the predation pressure by foxes: skuas would breed in higher densities and be more aggressive. However, this years’ results shows we were wrong. Food situation was obviously very good: huge feeding frenzies of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, Arctic Terns, other seabirds and marine mammals were feeding on pelagic fish just off the peninsula. Arctic Skuas were obviously taking advantage of this. To get an idea what this feeding activity at sea looks like, please have a look at this video of the near-shore gull activity (and a whale, see if you detect the blows!) and another one below showing four species of skua (both videos compiled by Hans).

Despite the good food situation, the number of breeding pairs did not increase relative to the preceding poor years. Also, aggression levels remained mediocre. And, as already reported in earlier posts, predation rates were high again. Most nests survived for only a few days before disappearing. Contrary to previous years however, many skua pairs produced a second clutch, but many of these clutches were also predated within a few days.

What could explain the high predation rate despite the good food situation? One hypothesis for these patterns is that one fox (or a few?) have specialized on finding Arctic Skua eggs over the past three years. Specialization is impossible to prove with the data available, but one expectation that we can verify is that the same individual fox should reappear in our nest camera pictures. If indeed foxes have specialized on skua eggs, shooting foxes would help decreasing the predation pressure at least until new individuals get specialized.


Fox caught red-handed / 27 years old male Arctic Skua / Logger retrieved of a tough phalarope

Lots of news to report from Slettnes! We are enjoying much activity at sea, where huge feeding frenzies of gulls (mostly Black-legged Kittiwakes and Herring Gulls) feast on pelagic fish together with Minke Whales and occasionally joined by White-beaked Dolphins, Humpbacks and Fin Whales. Many skuas (including migrating Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas, plus the locally breeding Arctic Skuas) join the party as well. The Arctic Skuas seem to do very well in obtaining food.

Fox caught red-handed

On land however, things are not going that great for the Arctic Skuas. As reported before, most freshly laid clutches disappear after one or two days. To find out who takes them, we deployed camera traps at skua nests. Although it seems that nests with cameras are less quickly predated as other ones, we managed to capture two Red Foxes in the act of taking skua eggs! See below…

27 years old male Arctic Skua

Yesterday, we captured a male with a somewhat worn metal ring and a ring number that clearly didn’t belong to the series we have used since 2014… It turns out this bird has been ringed on 3 July 1991 as a chick at Slettnes, by Karl-Birger Strann. Actually, it was amongst the very first Arctic Skuas ringed here by Karl-Birger. By coincidence, the next colour-ring on the string read ‘KB’!

Seabirds typically have a slow reproduction but can get pretty old. In fact, the oldest confirmed wild bird is a seabird – a Laysan Albatross of over 60 years called ‘Wisdom’. For Arctic Skuas, the longevity records for European birds lists a 31-year-old Finnish bird as the oldest known individual, with an Icelandic 26-year-old bird as a second. Hence, KB beats the Icelandic bird, and if it manages to survive some more years, maybe it will beat the Finnish as well? We’ll see…

KB – 27 years old and still going strong! Paired to CW – a light morph female wintering in West Africa. We hope to find out where KB winters as well.

Logger retrieved of a tough phalarope male

When Slettnes finally experienced a day with calm weather last week, Hans and I went out ‘phalaroping’: catching Red-necked Phalaropes using a mistnet. We captured several birds, and were surprised to even capture a male carrying a geolocator! To our surprise, this bird already carried a geolocator during 2015-2016, and got a new one in 2016 that we now retrieved. After three years, it was finally released of its 1.0g logger!

Virtually all geolocators of Red-necked Phalaropes were retrieved one year after deployment, with a few after two or even three years. Two or more years of data from the same individual allows us to study the consistency of individuals in their movements. In Red-necked Phalaropes wintering in the Arabian Sea, this is especially interesting because this area is known for its high variability in where and when food is available. Most Red-necked Phalaropes seem to respond to this variability by moving a lot, except a few – including this bird… The question is: are these movements individual strategies repeated every year, or are they flexible responses to current conditions, changing from year to year?

Unfortunately, after two years the battery of these geolocators is empty, which made it impossible for us (but not for the manufacturer) to download its data. While we wait for this, please have a look at this video (in Dutch) in which we take off the logger and show the track of this individual from 2015-2016.


Another failed breeding year for the Long-tailed Skuas in Ammarnäs, despite good Lemming numbers!

In Ammarnäs the Dutch/German/Swedish crew have had their first week of fieldwork. Summer came early this year and most of the tundra snow cover has melted. The first rumours of lemming presence and territorial Long-tailed Skuas observed by others at the field station made us eager to get out in the field. We were accompanied by journalists from Radio Sveriges who were keen on learning more on the research that is done at Ammarnäs. Peter gave an excellent interview that was aired on national radio on Friday the 15th.

Peter is explaining our projects to Jonatan Martinsson from Radio Sveriges.

However, a few moments after crossing the treeline for the first time in 2018 we saw that our worst case scenario had played out on the tundra. The pair of Long-tailed Skuas that traditionally breeds at the Geppejaure area had left their territory already. Two colleagues at the station had observed them showing aggressive territorial behaviour just 3 days earlier.

After entering the Raurejaure area and exploring some good skua spots we had to draw a most disappointing conclusion: it’s going to be yet another non-breeding year, again! This is the third non-breeding year in a row… The strange thing is: up at the tundra Lemmings are present. We found quite some winter nests and corridors, which betrays their presence, and Tim and Noel even caught one alive! We also observed other raptors that may rely on Lemmings, such as Rough-legged Buzzard, several Short-eared Owls, and Hen Harrier on the tundra, and breeding Tengmalm’s Owl is present in the village. However, number of waders are low which could indicate high predation pressure. We were surprised to find one skua nest with a single egg that was already hatching. This means an extremely early start from this pair, and possibly also most other pairs that have tried but already failed. The day after we could at least see the first Long-tailed Skua chick for most of us who have only been in Ammarnäs in non-lemming years. However, on Björkfjället a large flock of 77 Long-tailed Skuas is already present, which indicates that most individuals have given up their breeding attempts and will soon be out to sea.

On the bright sight, we have more time to spend on our new Dotterel project! We have seen several individuals displaying and found our first territorial birds up at Gájsátje, the mountain that we have nicknamed ‘Miracle Mountain’. First catching attempts failed, as a territorial female escaped from our net, but looked promising! Tomorrow we will continue exploring Björkfjället and try to find nests of Dunlin and Dotterel.

Morrison Pot & Tim van der Meer

First glimpse of breeding conditions at Slettnes

After a very windy first few days at Slettnes (without our luggage) weather somewhat improved. For the Arctic Skuas, improvement is however not (yet) apparent when it comes to the predation compared to last year: several eggs disappeared right after laying (also nests that we did not visit). This complicates the field work considerably, because our main aim, catching as many birds with geolocators, becomes difficult if the birds have no nest.

However, the good news is that food availability seems to be somewhat better than during the previous years. We deduce this from the foraging activity out at sea, where flocks of gulls and Razorbills were actively feeding over the past days. Also, the few skua eggs that we measured are slightly larger than in the past three years. A good food situation should also be reflected in the body mass of the skuas. From the two  individuals that we recaptured (one carrying a geolocator), the female ‘EU’ was indeed heavier than ever: she weighted 508g, 466g, 455g in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, and weighted 534g this Thursday! However, the other bird, ‘EY’ (a male, thus lighter anyway), had a weight similar as in the other years (391-428g in 2014-2016, and 412 this year).

EG in windy conditions.

In the coming days, we are hoping to retrap more birds with geolocators. As the batteries of the loggers are running out (most were manufactured in 2014-2015), they will stop recording soon, if they not already did so. Over the past years, we obtained multiple years of data from quite some individuals, and now they will finally be released from their loggers!

The new field season is approaching!

In less than a month, a new field season will start in Ammarnäs and Slettnes! We are all excited to get up there during what will be the last field season within my PhD project on the long-distance migration of Arctic seabirds, but hopefully/probably not the last one ever.

In Slettnes, our aim is to continue the work from previous years: retrap Arctic Skuas with geolocators and monitor their breeding activities. The geolocator tagging has revealed extreme migrations across the Atlantic and we are currently working on publishing these results. Very exciting stuff! Hence, we are hoping for a good breeding year, allowing us (Hans, Ingrid and me) to increase our sample size some more by recapturing many tagged individuals.

We have been concerned about the apparent large decline of the Arctic Skua colony over the past two decades (see this handout). Our hypothesisis is that the skuas suffer from the combined effects of an apparently bad food situation for seabirds and predation pressure by Red Foxes on the Arctic Skuas. Foxes do not only feed on skua eggs, but even manage to take adults, as was shown last year by a Red Fox photographed while holding a dead Arctic Skua (carrying a geolocator) presumably to its den. To better document the activities and prey spectrum of foxes, we will bring some camera traps that we plan to deploy at fox dens.

In Ammarnäs, Tim van der Meer, Christian Hoefs, Morrison Pot and Peter Antkowiak and others will take care of the work. They are preparing themselves for a busy year, as a lemming ‘increase-year’ is expected. This means lemming numbers are growing but not yet peaking. Lemmings were virtually absent during the last two years, causing Long-tailed Skuas to skip breeding. This year, skuas are expected to breed and the team will try to find as many nests, read colour-rings, and recapture birds with geolocators, as they can.

Otherwise, some interesting side-projects will be ran: Tim and Christian have the ambitions to start a study on Dotterel – a species so beautiful it is almost a miracle, and with an interesting migration. In addition, we are taking part in two circumpolar initiatives: one on migration of Dunlin (meaning some more geolocators should be retrieved) and the other on Arctic food web interactions (with nest predation of waders as a central theme).

The best bird of the season happened to be a mammal

This years’ field season has ended! Geert and Ingrid left Slettnes and Morrison and Rob left Ammarnäs on 2 July. Despite the poor breeding season for both skua species, some valuable data and observations have been collected. In total, 14 geolocators have been retrieved from Arctic Skuas, some with 1.5 years of data on some of them. The Long-tailed Skuas of Ammarnäs will have to wait another year before they can hand in their geolocators.

As I wrote in the previous blogpost, we have recaptured several Red-necked Phalaropes with loggers: 4 in Slettnes (1 female) and 4 in Ammarnäs (all females). One was deployed in 2014 and another in 2015 and they should have more than one year data. The high number of females is exciting (see my previous post).

Unfortunately, we have been unable to recapture any of the eight geolocators deployed last year on Dunlins, although we resighted three of them early in the season. High predation pressure, shown by both an artificial nest experiment (using quail eggs in fake nests to measure predation rate) and monitoring of Dunlin nests, is the likely explanation of this failure. Hopefully they return next year again!

On our last day in Ammarnäs, we went up to Björkfjället to finish the artificial nest experiment. We also wanted to see the Shorelarks, a species that has declined tremendously in the Swedish mountains. We were also hoping to catch a glimpse of the Wolverine that Martin saw a few days earlier. After a failed attempt to see this mysterious species, one of the large European mammalian predators, we didn’t really expect to find it. Then, at a distance of ca. 3km, I noted a Wolverine running downhill to a Reindeer carcass (with a White-tailed Eagle feeding on it)! We couldn’t believe our eyes! See the blurry video at long range below, where it is carrying a bone uphill. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better way to end the field season!

Phalarope females

In both Slettnes and Ammarnäs we have been successful in recapturing Red-necked Phalaropes carrying geolocators, including several females. Interestingly, one of these females from Ammarnäs carried a logger that Tim and I gave her in 2014. She has managed to escape our catching attempts for several years!

In previous years, we had more recaptures of males than females, which has everything to do with their breeding system: females ‘only’ lay eggs and leave the incubation and rearing of the chicks to the males. Males can thus be captured on the nest, which makes it easy to target a specific individual and allows several catching attempts, while females can only be captured by mist net. The increasing number of females in our sample allows us to have a first look at hypotheses pertaining to the earlier arrival at the breeding grounds of females compared to males, something we already hinted at in our JAB paper. Do they: 1) start spring migration earlier, 2) migrate faster or 3) winter closer to the breeding grounds than males? We haven’t analyzed the new females yet, but the tracks of our first three females (captured in previous years) confirm that females arrive – on average – five days earlier than males. They showed similar stopover and wintering areas as males, excluding option 3 (closer wintering grounds). Option 1 and 2 require more detailed analyses, but large overlap between the sexes in the timing of departure from the wintering area, suggest option 2 (faster migration) rather than 1 (early departure).

But how to (re)capture phalaropes? Ingrid compiled the video below, which Janne proudly presented at school!