Pituffik/Thule Area, north­west Greenland

Pere­grine Fal­con and Gyr­fal­con Monitoring

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of project: Sys­tem­atic sur­veys for nest­ing Pere­grine Fal­cons and Gyr­fal­cons have occurred in the Thule area every year since1993, with our pri­mary study area of approx­i­mately 750 km of coast­line being estab­lished in 2001. Each year this coast­line is sur­veyed for breed­ing and non-breeding fal­cons. At loca­tions where nest­ing is observed, data are recorded on repro­duc­tion, nest­ing chronol­ogy, and nest site char­ac­ter­is­tics. When pos­si­ble, chicks are banded and sam­pled and molted feath­ers, egg shell frag­ments, and prey remains are col­lected, all to be used in other projects (e.g., adult turnover stud­ies, pol­lu­tant analy­sis, sta­ble iso­topes, genetics).

Pre­vi­ous results from this project include the doc­u­men­ta­tion of a recently estab­lished and increas­ing pop­u­la­tion of Pere­grines, and the first-ever long-term stud­ies on High Arc­tic pop­u­la­tions of both Pere­grines and Gyr­fal­cons.  High­lights from the Gyr­fal­con research include a sig­nif­i­cant advance­ment of lay date from 1993 to cur­rent (nest­ing ear­lier, likely asso­ci­ated with chang­ing envi­ron­ment) in addi­tion to the first-ever infor­ma­tion on diet and repro­duc­tion for a High Arc­tic population.    

Results from 2017:  In our pri­mary study area, 15 out of 16 (94%) known Pere­grine Fal­con nest sites and 17 out of 18 (94%) known Gyr­fal­con nest sites were sur­veyed for occu­pancy.  Pairs of pere­grines were observed at 11 of the 16 sur­veyed loca­tions (69%) while pairs of Gyr­fal­cons were observed at 4 of the 17 sur­veyed loca­tions (24%).  Two new Pere­grine and Gyr­fal­con nests were located in our study area bring­ing the total num­ber of occu­pied nests to 13 and 6, respec­tively.  This con­tin­ues the observed trend over the past five years of the num­ber of pairs of Pere­grines rapidly increas­ing, with dou­ble the num­ber of pair of Pere­grines ver­sus Gyr­fal­cons in both 2016 and 2017.  

Objec­tives for 2018:  Sur­vey all the coast­line and inland cliffs from 76.00°N to 77.0°N for Pere­grine Fal­cons and Gyr­fal­cons.  At occu­pied cliffs, deter­mine if fal­cons are breed­ing and if yes, par­tic­u­lar empha­sis will be placed on obtain­ing pho­tographs of young for the pur­pose of aging.


Peregrine Falcon chicks at the most northern known Peregrine nest in the world.

Adult female pere­grine and chicks. Pere­grine fal­con chicks at the most north­ern known Pere­grine nest in the world. 

Pere­grine and Gyr­fal­con Nest Cam­era Study

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of project:  We are work­ing on mul­ti­ple col­lab­o­ra­tive research projects with col­leagues study­ing fal­cons in other parts of the Arc­tic it has become clear that we need to col­lect bet­ter infor­ma­tion on annual repro­duc­tion and nest­ing chronol­ogy.  Sur­veys for breed­ing fal­cons in north­west Green­land occur from early July through early August.  Dur­ing this time period Gyr­fal­con young are usu­ally at a min­i­mum half grown, and in many instances have departed the nest by late July.  Pere­grines nest about one month later, and young fre­quently don’t hatch until mid-July at the ear­li­est.  In many instances our nest vis­its result in us find­ing pairs of Pere­grines incu­bat­ing eggs, or in some instance brood­ing small young.  Both of these sce­nar­ios pro­vide us very lit­tle infor­ma­tion on repro­duc­tion (and nest­ing chronol­ogy, since we don’t know when the eggs will actu­ally hatch), since not all eggs hatch and fre­quently a por­tion of young die before ever depart­ing the nest.  This left us with two poten­tial options, 1) extend the field sea­son by 2 to 4 more weeks, which greatly increases the bud­get, or 2) install nest cam­eras to record when young hatch and depart the nest.    

Faced with the above two options, we chose to begin inves­ti­gat­ing the option of installing nest cam­eras as they have the poten­tial to pro­vide the most infor­ma­tion.  We decided to take the approach of installing two types of cam­eras in many nests, short-term cam­eras, with a life expectancy of only two-to-three months, and long-term cam­eras, with a life expectancy of 12 to 16 months. 

Types of data to be col­lected from long-term cam­eras:  arrival time of adults at nest­ing cliffs in the spring, exact dates of egg lay­ing, time between arrival at nest­ing cliffs and com­mence­ment of egg lay­ing, incu­ba­tion fre­quency of females ver­sus males.

Results from 2017:  We placed cam­eras in seven Pere­grine Fal­con nests and three Gyr­fal­con nests.  At five of the Pere­grine nests we placed both short– and long-term cam­eras and at two Gyr­fal­con nests we placed both short– and long-term cam­eras.  Ini­tial tests of cam­eras in the field showed images of fal­cons to be of extremely high qual­ity (see two pho­tos below).  Addi­tion­ally, data col­lected over a three week period at a Pere­grine nest has already pro­vided sur­pris­ing results, doc­u­ment­ing the adult male spend­ing more time incu­bat­ing than the female.

Objec­tives for 2018:  Re-visit all fal­con nests that had cam­eras installed in 2017 and col­lect cam­eras and data chips and install new cam­eras if fal­cons are present.  Replace bat­ter­ies and data chips in cam­eras deployed in 2017, and if still func­tion­ing cor­rectly, rede­ploy.  Install cam­eras at an addi­tional three Pere­grine nests and two Gyr­fal­con nests.

Arc­tic Tern Colony Surveys

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  The Thule area is the north­ern limit of the Arc­tic Tern breed­ing range and over the past 15 years it appears that the rel­a­tively small pop­u­la­tion of terns in this area (150–250 pairs) has declined.  No his­toric data has ever been recorded on this pop­u­la­tion other than gen­eral esti­mates of colony size; how­ever, this was only based on the num­ber of indi­vid­ual birds observed fly­ing above colonies.  Start­ing in 2009 we began sys­tem­at­i­cally sur­vey­ing the seven known tern colonies (all on small islands) and all other suit­able nest­ing loca­tions along the 750 km of coast­line we sur­vey for nest­ing fal­cons.  When occu­pied colonies are found, we sys­tem­at­i­cally sur­vey the colonies and record infor­ma­tion on repro­duc­tion and breed­ing chronol­ogy (num­ber of nests, num­ber of eggs or chicks, age of young).  Using this infor­ma­tion, over the next 5–10 year period we hope to be able to deter­mine what changes are occur­ring in the pop­u­la­tion, be it a reduc­tion in the num­ber of pairs of terns or changes in nest­ing chronol­ogy (e.g., nest­ing ear­lier, a com­mon result of cli­mate change and a warm­ing High Arc­tic environment).

Results from 2017:  We vis­ited 11 pre­vi­ously known colonies and found 25 tern nests.  This is the low­est num­ber of nests found since our sur­veys began in 2009 and con­tin­ues an appar­ent rapid decline in the num­ber of nest­ing pairs in the area.  Addi­tion­ally dur­ing 2017, we sub­mit­ted and had accepted a man­u­script titled “Sig­nif­i­cant decline observed in Arc­tic Tern pop­u­la­tion in north­west Green­land” to the peer-reviewed jour­nal Seabird.  This man­u­script includes all pre­vi­ously col­lected data on the tern pop­u­la­tion in north­west Green­land and com­pares it with our find­ings from 2009 to 2017.  The key find­ings from the man­u­script show a steady decline from approx­i­mately 250 pairs in the late 1960 to late 1980s to an aver­age of ~50 over the past nine years.  Four pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied colonies have been extir­pated while three cur­rent colonies have under­gone sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tions in size.

Abstract from Seabird:  “Arc­tic Terns Sterna par­adis­aea are an under­stud­ied species in Green­land. Out­side of the largest colonies, lit­tle is known about their cur­rent pop­u­la­tion sta­tus and no long-term annual mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram has been estab­lished. Pre­vi­ous sur­veys
out­side of key breed­ing colonies have been lim­ited to a small num­ber of colonies for single-season stud­ies. This lim­its our under­stand­ing of pop­u­la­tion dynam­ics as terns have been shown to have a high degree of vari­a­tion in annual repro­duc­tion and read­ily move between nearby colonies. Here we present results of the first multi-year sys­tem­atic sur­vey for breed­ing Arc­tic Terns in the High Arc­tic of north­west Green­land. Sur­veys took place from 2009 to 2017 and iden­ti­fied eight islands where terns cur­rently nest. A total of 426 nests were counted and annual counts ranged from 25 to 92 nests. Com­plete repro­duc­tive fail­ure in at least one year was noted for seven of the eight colonies, and three colonies com­prised nearly 90% of the total pop­u­la­tion. Mean clutch size ranged from 1.4 to 1.7 eggs. When com­pared with his­tor­i­cal data from the late 1960s through late 1990s, the pop­u­la­tion has declined by over 50%, with the great­est decline occur­ring over the past two decades. Four pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied colonies have been extir­pated while three colonies have under­gone sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tions in size.”

Objec­tives for 2018:  Con­tinue sur­vey­ing all islands in our study area that have pre­vi­ously had or are suit­able for nest­ing Arc­tic Terns.  These islands are in loca­tions which are passed by while con­duct­ing sur­veys for fal­cons, and we are able to con­duct the sur­veys in a rel­a­tively short amount of time.  These are the only sys­tem­atic sur­veys for Arc­tic Terns con­ducted on an annual basis any­where in Greenland.   

Tern nest Bridger getting hit by tern
Arc­tic Tern nest with two eggs. Arc­tic Terns are extremely defensive.

Par­a­sitic Jaeger Geolo­ca­tor Study

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  Par­a­sitic Jaegers are a long-distance migrant that breed through­out the cir­cum­po­lar Arc­tic.  Although observed in the south­ern hemi­sphere dur­ing win­ter months, lit­tle to no infor­ma­tion is known regard­ing which migra­tory path­ways or win­ter­ing areas dif­fer­ent geo­graph­i­cal breed­ing pop­u­la­tions use.  In north­west Green­land, Par­a­sitic Jaegers are gen­er­ally uncom­mon, and dur­ing a given field sea­son we are likely to only observe a hand­ful of indi­vid­u­als at most.  That said, over the past 10 years we have located three breed­ing pairs, with the pairs return­ing to the same gen­eral areas to nest in suc­ces­sive years.  This pro­vides us with a unique oppor­tu­nity to cap­ture and tag the adults with geolo­ca­tors.  This infor­ma­tion will not only pro­vide the first spe­cific migra­tory infor­ma­tion on Par­a­sitic Jaegers breed­ing in Green­land, but the species as a whole.

Results from 2017:  We found two Par­a­sitic Jae­gar nests and were able to cap­ture and tag an adult at each nest.  Addi­tion­ally, found a col­lab­o­ra­tor in north­east Canada who has tracks from two Par­a­sitic Jae­gars and would like to pool our data together to speed up future pub­li­ca­tion of results.

Objec­tives for 2018:  Recover the two geolo­ca­tors deployed in 2017 and deploy up to five addi­tional geolocators. 

Parasitic Jaegar chick Paraitic Jaegar in flight
Par­a­sitic Jaeger nestling. Par­a­sitic Jaeger in flight.

Snow Bunting and Lap­land Longspur Monitoring

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  In recent years passer­ine pop­u­la­tions through­out the Arc­tic have been shown to be sig­nif­i­cantly influ­enced by rapidly chang­ing cli­matic con­di­tions.  For exam­ple, the recent increase in storm events dur­ing sum­mer months has been shown to have a detri­men­tal effect on fledg­lings, greatly increas­ing mor­tal­ity.  In Thule we have noted a sim­i­lar trend, with sev­eral large rain events in recent years lead­ing to numer­ous dead fledglings…to the point you sim­ply observe them lying dead when hik­ing the tun­dra.  Addi­tion­ally, changes in both the amount and type of pre­cip­i­ta­tion dur­ing sum­mer months (rain ver­sus snow his­tor­i­cally) may also be affect­ing insect abun­dance and veg­e­ta­tion growth, both of which passer­ines rely upon for food.  As a result of these observed changes in 2010 we began trap­ping both Snow Buntings and Lap­land Longspurs when weather con­di­tions pre­vented us from boat­ing.  Since then we have devel­oped a reg­u­lar trap-line and pro­to­col which we fol­low each sum­mer.  As of the end of 2017 we have cap­tured over 700 dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als, with a num­ber of them recap­tured in later years.  As pre­dicted, we have seen extremely large swings in the num­bers of juve­niles caught, with some years hav­ing 4–5 times more juve­niles than oth­ers.  Using this capture/recapture method­ol­ogy we should be able to look at annual sur­vival of both juve­niles and adults, juve­nile recruit­ment into the breed­ing pop­u­la­tion, and changes in the size of the pop­u­la­tion over time. 

Results from 2017:  We cap­tured 62 Lap­land Longspurs and 56 Snow Buntings, includ­ing a com­bined 24 re-traps. 

Objec­tives for 2018:  Dur­ing peri­ods when we can­not boat we will con­tinue to trap Snow Buntings and Lap­land Longspurs.  All indi­vid­u­als (includ­ing re-traps) will be banded, weighed, and measured. 

Adult male snowbunting 001 Longspurs in trap
Adult male Snow Bunting with orange color band. An adult male Lap­land Longspur and juve­nile longspur in trap.

Nearc­tic Pere­grine Fal­con Geolo­ca­tor and Migra­tion Study

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  Over the past 20 years much infor­ma­tion has been col­lected on migra­tory move­ments of Pere­grine Fal­cons through­out their West­ern Hemi­sphere Arc­tic range; how­ever, these stud­ies occurred inde­pen­dently of one another and a large amount of vari­a­tion can occur from year to year based on weather and prey.  Start­ing in 2012, researchers in South­ern Green­land, north­west Green­land, and Rankin Inlet (Nunavut, Canada) began a long-term and large-scale col­lab­o­ra­tive study tag­ging adult female Pere­grines with geolo­ca­tors.  By col­lect­ing data from through­out this large geo­graphic area researchers will be bet­ter able to make com­par­isons of migra­tory move­ments (tim­ing and rate of migra­tion) along with win­ter­ing areas between these pop­u­la­tions.  Fur­ther­more, by col­lect­ing data over a long time span, we will be able to deter­mine what changes if any are occur­ring in the tim­ing of migra­tion, along with poten­tially look­ing at how weather pat­terns may affect both the tim­ing and rate of migra­tion.  The pop­u­la­tion in north­west Green­land is of par­tic­u­lar inter­est since they appear to migrate far­ther than any other known Pere­grine pop­u­la­tion in the world, and are thus more likely to be influ­enced by annual vari­a­tion in weather patterns.    

Addi­tion­ally, data col­lected from geolo­ca­tors will be com­pared with data col­lected using satel­lite trans­mit­ters (his­toric data from 2001–2004) to deter­mine what effect, if any, satel­lite trans­mit­ters may have on Pere­grine migra­tion.  For exam­ple, do Pere­grines car­ry­ing satel­lite trans­mit­ters (12–20 g back­pack units) travel at a slower rate when com­pared to Pere­grines car­ry­ing geolo­ca­tors (1–2 g, attached to color band)? 

To date we have recov­ered geolo­ca­tors from five adult female Pere­grines.  Based on results from our study area, south­ern Green­land, and Canada it now appears that migra­tion dura­tion of Pere­grines wear­ing PTTs is sig­nif­i­cantly longer than those tagged with geolo­ca­tors.  While depar­ture dates are very sim­i­lar between indi­vid­u­als tagged with either type of unit, arrival dates at win­ter­ing areas are approx­i­mately 25 days later.  This is one of the first stud­ies of this type show­ing the poten­tial detri­men­tal effects, and bias, of using PTTs in migra­tion studies. 

Results from 2017:  We recov­ered a sin­gle geolo­ca­tor and deployed four new geolo­ca­tors on adult female Pere­grines.  Addi­tional geolo­ca­tors were also recov­ered and deployed in both South Green­land and Rankin Inlet by our colleagues. 

Objec­tives for 2018:  We will attempt to recover the four geolo­ca­tors deployed in 2017 in addi­tion to deploy­ing geolo­ca­tors on up to five addi­tional female Pere­grines.  Sim­i­lar stud­ies will con­tinue in South Green­land and Rankin Inlet. 



Adult female Pere­grine Fal­con with geolocator. A geolo­ca­tor on an adult female Pere­grine Falcon.

Methyl Mer­cury and Sta­ble Iso­tope Study

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  While not pro­duced in the Arc­tic, many pol­lu­tants (e.g., per­sis­tent organic com­pounds and heavy met­als) that orig­i­nate in mid-latitude indus­tri­al­ized nations are trans­ferred to the Arc­tic via water and atmos­pheric con­di­tions.  In par­tic­u­lar, methyl mer­cury has recently become a major con­cern, with a wide range of extremely neg­a­tive effects asso­ci­ated with ele­vated lev­els in many bird species (e.g., abnor­mal incu­ba­tion and feed­ing behav­ior, reduc­tion in hatch­ing suc­cess, etc.).  Fre­quently, species higher up the food web (higher trophic level) have sig­nif­i­cantly greater con­cen­tra­tions, in par­tic­u­lar marine-feeding bird species such as Thick-billed Mur­res and Black Guille­mots which feed on small fish which in turn feed on smaller zoo­plank­ton.  In order to bet­ter under­stand the food web dynam­ics you can addi­tion­ally use sta­ble iso­topes to iden­tify what type of organ­isms are being fed upon, and if the diet is more marine or ter­res­trial.  Lit­tle to no infor­ma­tion cur­rently exists on either methyl mer­cury con­cen­tra­tion in birds or on sta­ble iso­topes for north­west Green­land.  Mer­cury con­cen­tra­tions are fre­quently found to be higher at more north­ern lat­i­tudes and the Thule area is one of the most north­ern sites in the world where this type of data is being col­lected.  Since 2010 we have col­lected over 900 sam­ples from a total of 30 species, includ­ing both adults and juve­niles in many instances.  The major­ity of sam­ples have now been processed for methyl mer­cury con­tent and for sta­ble isotopes.

Results from 2017:  A man­u­script titled “Cor­re­spon­dence between mer­cury and sta­ble iso­topes in high Arc­tic marine and ter­res­trial avian species from north­west Green­land” was accepted for pub­li­ca­tion in Polar Biol­ogy.  

Abstract from Polar Biol­ogy:  “Birds are use­ful bioindi­ca­tors of envi­ron­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion around the globe, but avian stud­ies in the high Arc­tic have been pri­mar­ily lim­ited to a few abun­dant species. This study was designed to assess mer­cury (Hg) con­cen­tra­tions in both
abun­dant and less-abundant marine and ter­res­trial avian species on breed­ing grounds in north­west Green­land using blood sam­pling. Twenty-four migra­tory avian species (n = 625) were sam­pled over a three-year period (2010–2012) along 750 km of coast­line near Thule Air Base (77° N, 68° W). Whole blood sam­ples were ana­lyzed for total Hg along with δ13C and δ15N to esti­mate food web posi­tion. A sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion was observed between mean Hg con­cen­tra­tions and trophic posi­tion, with adult mean Hg con­cen­tra­tions rang­ing from 11.4 to 1164 ng g−1 wet weight. Eleven species exam­ined in this study had blood Hg con­cen­tra­tions sug­ges­tive of a low risk for Hg tox­i­c­ity. Some Pere­grine Fal­con (Falco pere­gri­nus), Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia), and Black Guille­mot (Cep­phus grylle) indi­vid­u­als had con­cen­tra­tions of Hg sug­ges­tive of medium risk for Hg tox­i­c­ity (Hg con­cen­tra­tions between 1000–3000 ng g−1 ww). Decreas­ing δ15N val­ues in birds from the cen­tral study area sug­gest a nonuni­form geo­graphic pat­tern of increased fresh­wa­ter influx and sub­se­quent changes in prey avail­abil­ity, which cor­re­spond to lower avian Hg lev­els. This study pro­vides strong evi­dence that marine and ter­res­trial feed­ing ecol­ogy of avian species in NW Green­land con­tributes to their mer­cury expo­sure; how­ever, intraspe­cific vari­a­tion in ecol­ogy and nest­ing loca­tions in the region may influ­ence those patterns.”  

Objec­tives for 2018:  Col­lec­tion of sam­ples will focus on bird species which we are han­dling while con­duct­ing other projects.  For Black-legged Kit­ti­wakes and Thick-billed Mur­res, which we have been band­ing and sam­pling at sev­eral study sites for 6+ years, between 15–20 sam­ples will con­tinue to be col­lected each year.  At both of these study sites birds are rel­a­tively easy to cap­ture and the sam­pling can be done in a mat­ter of hours. 

Kanger­lus­suaq Area, central-west Greenland

Pere­grine Fal­con Monitoring

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  We have mon­i­tored the Pere­grine Fal­con pop­u­la­tion in the Kanger­lus­suaq area from 1972–2006, 2008, and 2012–2013, result­ing in a large num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions.  While con­tin­ued large scale annual mon­i­tor­ing has not been pos­si­ble, we attempt to sur­vey the area every 3–5 years to col­lect data on repro­duc­tion, nest­ing chronol­ogy, and nest site char­ac­ter­is­tics.  Addi­tion­ally, sim­i­lar to Thule, when pos­si­ble chicks are ringed and sam­pled and molted feath­ers, egg shell frag­ments, and prey remains are col­lected, all to be used in other projects (e.g., adult turnover stud­ies, pol­lu­tant analy­sis, sta­ble iso­topes, genetics).

Objec­tives for 2018:  No sur­veys will be car­ried out in the Kanger­lus­suaq area in 2018.  We hope to revisit the area within the next five years..  

Peregrine chicks and egg
Recently hatched pere­grine fal­con chicks. An adult female pere­grine falcon.