Naknek River Spring Migration Waterfowl Survey
The Naknek River is often the earliest river on the upper Alaska Peninsula to open from the grip of winter ice. Although the river is not on the Refuge, it flows past the Refuge office in King Salmon and most of its length can be accessed by road. The river provides habitat for thousands of ducks, geese and swans that will later populate breeding lakes and ponds on the Alaska Peninsula or travel farther north for breeding. From mid March through mid May, Refuge biologists monitor waterfowl from established points on an “upper” route and a “lower” route that extend from the mouth of Naknek Lake to Kvichak Bay in Naknek. Biologists count waterfowl by species approximately four times a week. The same methods have been used since 1992. With this history, we have been able to establish an average first arrival date, an average peak date, and an average peak count for 13 species on the upper route and 8 species on the lower route. Commonly observed species include: common merganser, common goldeneye, tundra swan, greater white-fronted goose, mallard, northern pintail, American and Eurasian wigeon, American green-winged teal, Canada goose, greater scaup, northern shoveler, red-breasted merganser, black scoter, and long-tailed duck.
Christmas Bird Count
Refuge staff cooperate with the National Audubon Society to host an annual Christmas Bird Count. The count area includes the road corridor from the Kvichak Bay beach at Naknek to Lake Camp at the mouth of Naknek Lake. The Christmas Bird Count has been conducted every year since 1986. The count must occur in the window of December 14 – January 5 each year. Participants find 9 to18 species of winter birds including common and red-breasted merganser, common goldeneye, bald eagle, willow ptarmigan, glaucous-winged gull, gray jay, black-billed magpie, common raven, black-capped and boreal chickadee, northern shrike, snow bunting, pine grosbeak, and common redpoll.
North American Migration Count
To participate in International Migratory Bird Day, the Refuge has sponsored a North American Migration Count on the second Saturday in May since 1998. Local birders join Refuge staff to cover the area from Lake Camp at the mouth of Naknek Lake to the beach at Kvichak Bay in Naknek. Birds are counted by species and effort is tracked, similar to the Christmas Bird Count. In May species diversity can be quite high as the waterfowl peak is waning, the shorebird peak is building and many species of passerine and raptor have arrived and are displaying on territories. From 57 to 73 species have been observed on one day and counts range from 4400 to 8800 individual birds. In addition to the waterfowl named under the Naknek River Spring Migration Waterfowl Survey, and the resident birds named under the Christmas Bird Count, we add breeding and migrating shorebirds, and the breeding raptors, waterbirds, and most of the passerines common to the Alaska Peninsula (see Alaska Peninsula and Becharof bird checklist (pdf)).
Assist Public with Injured Raptors
Fish and Wildlife Service permitted activities include assisting with care of injured birds. The main focus is raptors and threatened or endangered species. Especially with large birds that have a good chance of being treated successfully, Refuge staff act as intermediaries between the public and rehabilitation facilities. Refuge staff collect injured birds from the public and see that they are transported to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage or to other facilities.
Assist Public to Report Bird Bands
The public can report bird bands to the U.S. Geological Survey – Biological Resources Division Bird Banding Laboratory at 1-800-327-2263. If they would like assistance, Refuge staff will collect the information and transmit it to the lab. Because we have had a comprehensive banding program at the Refuge, Refuge biologists are always interested in the fate of banded birds that are harvested or found by the public on the Alaska Peninsula.
In an effort to determine species presence, distribution, habitat use, and migratory patterns, comprehensive landbird studies were conducted from 1995 through 1998 at various locations around Becharof Lake. Breeding distributions and habitat use were studied using a mist net array to capture and band birds, and using off-road Point Counts following the Boreal Partners in Flight protocols. Breeding season studies were conducted at Island Arm (1995), Ruth Lake (1996), and Gas Rocks (1997) and migration patterns were monitored at Island Arm (1995) and Taquak Kuik (Bear Creek) Camp (1996-1998) using mist net arrays. Bible Camp, located on a peninsula on the north side of Becharof Lake, proved to be a productive location for migration banding. Over the 4-year period 19 point counts were conducted sampling over 200 points, approximately 1,170 birds were banded during the breeding season, and approximately 7,500 birds were banded during migration. A great deal was learned about the landbirds that use habitats around Becharof Lake.
Refuge biologists are active members in Boreal Partners in Flight, a working group that coordinates landbird conservation between government and private organizations. A new statewide monitoring scheme is currently being developed and will feature Off-road Point Counts. The new design includes random selection of point counts and repeating the counts on a biennial schedule. In addition, distance sampling will be employed at each point to try to estimate density for each species. Six point counts have been selected on the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuges and these will be surveyed in the summers of 2004 and 2005.
Wolf and Wolverine Sightings
The Refuge is collecting information about wolves and wolverines on the Alaska Peninsula. The public can call in their observations to the Refuge office, or fill in a wolf observation card found at wolf card boxes (usually in village council offices or at Peninsula Air and the Visitor Center in King Salmon). The Refuge will map these sightings and try to determine the number and distribution of wolf packs on the Alaska Peninsula.
Small Mammal Surveys
Small mammals provide a prey base for many larger mammals and birds that inhabit the Alaska Peninsula. Very little is known about the small rodents and shrews (insectivores) of the Alaska Peninsula. Biologists are still confirming the presence and distribution of some species, and know little about population trends. To fill this void, Refuge biologists often conduct small mammal surveys in conjunction with other biological projects. Usually a grid of 100 live traps spaced 10 meters apart is used to trap an area for three 24-hour cycles or five nights. These grids may be run for three different months during the summer. To date, small mammal trapping projects have been conducted around Becharof Lake at Island Arm, Ruth Lake, and Gas Rocks, and on the Pacific coast at Puale Bay. We have confirmed the presence of masked shrew, dusky shrew, Northern red-backed vole, tundra vole, Northern collared lemming, and meadow jumping mouse.
Bald Eagle Monitoring
Bald eagles are the most common raptor observed on the Alaska Peninsula. Because of their high position on the food chain and the relative ease of monitoring them, they have frequently been monitored to track health of their own population and as a general ecological indicator. In addition, bald eagle conservation is specifically named in the enabling legislation for the Alaska Peninsula. Bald eagles have been monitored at the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof Refuges using two methods. In 1989, 1990, and 1995 sections of the Pacific Coast within the Refuge boundaries were surveyed from the air and nest locations mapped in late April; in late July additional surveys determined the success of nestlings. This survey method resulted in a map of nesting locations and an estimate of nest productivity within the Refuge boundaries. In 1983 and 2000 bald eagle populations along the Pacific Coast (from Cape Douglas to Unimak Island) were monitored in late April using sample plots surveyed from the air. Nest locations were mapped within these plots. This work was conducted in conjunction with USFWS Migratory Bird Management office in Juneau. The result was a population estimate for the entire Alaska Peninsula coastline with confidence intervals. The population estimate increased between 1983 and 2000. Currently the Refuge plans to continue estimating population size every 5 years.
Although small compared with many of the seabird colonies on Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the three murre colonies at and near Puale Bay are some of the largest colonies on the Alaska Peninsula. Seabird conservation and habitat protection are named in the enabling legislation for Becharof National Wildlife Refuge. Although seabirds spend most of their time away from land in the open ocean, during their breeding season, their nests on cliff faces are relatively easy to observe and reproductive success can be monitored. In addition, because they are predators at the top of the marine fish and invertebrate chain, they act as indicators of the ocean ecosystem’s health.
Prior to 1989, seabirds drew little attention from the small and newly established staff at the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge. However, when the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill occurred and the oil spread to the Alaska Peninsula, it became imperative to learn as much about these three colonies as possible. Puale Bay was the most heavily oiled bay outside of Prince William Sound. From 1989 to 1992 seabird populations, reproductive chronology and reproductive success was monitored using standardized methods developing at the time and now well established by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The results of this work and for other seabird colonies affected by the oil spill is available in Dragoo et al. (1995). In short, murre reproduction virtually failed from 1989 to 1991 and was greatly depressed in 1992 at the Puale Bay colony.
Refuge biologists repeated the monitoring work in 2001 through 2003 using the same established methods. Results from 2001 and 2002 have been analyzed and indicate that reproductive success and reproductive chronology have returned to levels similar to other colonies in the Gulf of Alaska that were not affected by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Population data indicate improvement since the early 1990’s as well. The Refuge plans to continue monitoring the Puale Bay colony every two out of five years.
Shorebird Inventory and Monitoring
The bays and river estuaries on the Bristol Bay side of the Alaska Peninsula are well documented as important shorebird migration stopovers. All of the major bays have been nominated as Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network sites. In contrast, little documentation exists regarding the breeding distribution and habits of shorebirds of the Alaska Peninsula. In 1995 the Refuge assisted a graduate student with a study of the Alaska subspecies of Marbled Godwit in the Ugashik River drainage. In 2002 Refuge biologists joined with others in the Alaska Shorebird Group and with the Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (PRISM) to conduct some initial surveys of the Bristol Bay lowlands both on and off the Refuge. Refuge staff worked with US Geological Survey – Biological Resource Division staff from the Forest and Range Ecosystem Science Center in Boise, Idaho to design and implement this work following the PRISM protocols.
Six remote areas that are accessible by wheeled or float plane were chosen and random plots were selected around these access points. Five of the areas were in the Bristol Bay lowland area and one was an alpine area. We surveyed 49 plots (400 x 400 meter) from 15 May through 5 June, 2003. We focused on territorial males and nests. Ten species of shorebirds were found to be breeding on the surveyed plots. Five other shorebird species were noted on or off plots, but breeding status was not determined. The most common breeder was dunlin followed by least sandpiper. Other moderately common species included Wilson’s snipe, short-billed dowitcher, red-necked phalarope, and greater yellowlegs. Habitat associations were also determined, and regression models developed using habitat type (determined from the 1982 Bristol Bay Land Cover Map) to predict density of territorial males by shorebird species.
This initial study will be expanded in 2004. Additional plots will be surveyed to increase our knowledge of shorebird breeding distribution across the Alaska Peninsula. Additional information will be gathered regarding habitat associations. The Alaska Shorebird Group continues to work on methods to improve density estimation from various types of surveys.
Tundra Swan Monitoring
Tundra swans gained attention early on in the Refuge’s wildlife inventory and monitoring program. The first monitoring plots were established in 1983 on the Alaska Peninsula coastal lowlands (both inside and outside the Refuge boundaries). Tundra swans are highly visible on their nesting grounds making them relatively easy to monitor from the air. Tundra swans are a key indicator species because their production trends are highly correlated with other waterfowl. The Bristol Bay population is of particular interest because suitable habitat for nesting is available earlier than in most other nest areas of Alaska. It is estimated that 18% of the western population of tundra swans breeds on the Alaska Peninsula.
Refuge biologists designed a sampling scheme and began monitoring swans in 1983. Since that time, swans have been monitored using the same plot boundaries and similar methods in 1984-1987, 1991, and 2003. Populations can be monitored with surveys conducted in May and if the plots are resurveyed in August, estimates of cygnet production can also be made. In 2003, both population and production surveys were conducted; analysis of 2003 data is pending. The Refuge plans to survey tundra swans once every five years.
Refuge staff and staff of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) cooperate on two annual surveys that monitor the size and composition of the Northern Alaska Peninsula Caribou Herd (caribou herd). These are the post-calving herd count during June-July and the composition estimate in October. These surveys provide critical data that the ADF&G uses to determine the harvestable surplus of caribou. These data have become of greater interest to constituents of the Refuge such as local subsistence users, sport hunters, and commercial hunting guides since the herd began declining in 1994. In 1999 the Alaska Board of Game closed hunting to non-resident hunters, and instituted a Tier II hunt with a limited number of permits for those Alaska residents who can document the longest history of subsistence use and greatest dependence on the caribou herd. Concurrently, the Federal Subsistence Board closed federal public lands to hunters who were not local residents.
During the post-calving count, Refuge and ADF&G staffs use small airplanes to search the count area on the upper Alaska Peninsula for caribou. Radio-telemetry assists them in locating aggregations of caribou by leading them to caribou that previously have been collared with radio transmitters. Aerial photography allows for better counts, especially of calves. During the October composition estimate, agency staffs use small airplanes and radio-telemetry to find groups of caribou. Airplane crews direct the crew of a small helicopter to these groups, and the helicopter crew determines the composition of each group as cows, calves, and bulls by age class.
The Refuge also has been monitoring the range and seasonal movements of the caribou herd. Service and University of British Columbia botanists have surveyed the floristic composition and structure of plant communities, recorded lichen abundance, and classified plant communities in the upper Alaska Peninsula during 1998 through 2001. Refuge staff also established two fenced caribou exclosure plots on caribou winter range in Becharof Refuge. These exclosures will be monitored to document changes in vegetation composition and abundance in the absence of grazing by caribou.
Satellite telemetry has been used to document seasonal movements of caribou since 1998. Several caribou cows have been collared with transmitters that allow satellites to periodically locate them. This project has clarified the seasonal ranges and sub-groups of the caribou herd.
Refuge staff and the ADF&G staff also cooperate on annual surveys that monitor the composition and trend of moose on the upper Alaska Peninsula. ADF&G established several moose composition survey areas in the 1960’s; a few more have been established since. Observers in small airplanes intensively survey these areas in November and early December when good snow cover exists in order to classify moose into the categories of cows, calves, and bulls by age class. These composition data are important for determining seasons and harvest limits. The counts from these areas also provide an index to population trend when considered over several years.
Refuge staff initiated an effort to estimate moose density on the upper Alaska Peninsula in the winter of 2003-2004 after two winters with inadequate snow cover. Western EcoSystems Technology of Wyoming is assisting the Refuge in this effort. The survey method is a distance sampling line transect using a helicopter to fly the lines.
The Refuge is supporting a graduate student project with the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Cooperative Research Unit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The study area covers the drainage basin east of the Ugashik Lakes on the Alaska Peninsula Refuge. The objectives of the study are to document winter moose forage utilization and to describe the characteristics of preferred winter moose habitat. These characteristics of winter habitat will be used to develop a habitat map for the upper Alaska Peninsula, including the Becharof Refuge.