Pituffik/Thule Area, north­west Greenland

Pere­grine Fal­con and Gyr­fal­con Monitoring

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  Sys­tem­atic sur­veys for nest­ing Pere­grine Fal­cons and Gyr­fal­cons have occurred in the Thule area each year from 1993 onward, with our pri­mary study area of approx­i­mately 750 km of coast­line estab­lished in 1999.  Each year this coast­line is sur­veyed for breed­ing and non-breeding fal­cons, and at loca­tions where nest­ing is observed, data are recorded on repro­duc­tion, nest­ing chronol­ogy, and nest site char­ac­ter­is­tics.  Addi­tion­ally, 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).

Results from this project include the doc­u­men­ta­tion of a recently estab­lished and increas­ing pop­u­la­tion of Pere­grines as a likely result of cli­mate change, 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.

Objec­tives for 2017:  Sur­vey all the coast­line and inland cliffs from 76.00°N to 77.3°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.  At Pere­grine nests that had eggs on the first visit we will attempt to re-visit these nests to deter­mine nest­ing chronol­ogy (hatch date).  Addi­tion­ally, we will begin installing game cam­eras at active nest sites to deter­mine the ulti­mate out­come of each indi­vid­ual nest site.  This will allow us to not only deter­mine the num­ber of young that sur­vive to leave the nest, but also causes of mor­tal­ity to young that die before depart­ing the nest.


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. 

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).

Objec­tives for 2017:  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.

Objec­tives for 2017:  Cap­ture and tag up to six Par­a­sitic Jaegers with 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 2016 we have cap­tured over 600 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.  Cur­rently we are ana­lyz­ing weather data from the area (pre­cip­i­ta­tion, wind, and tem­per­a­ture) to see what cor­re­la­tions may exist between num­ber of juve­niles and weather.

Objec­tives for 2017:  Dur­ing peri­ods when we can­not boat we will con­tinue to trap Snow Buntings and Lap­land Longspurs.  All cap­tured indi­vid­u­als will be banded (unless pre­vi­ously cap­tured), 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.

Com­mon Eider Duck Annual Survey

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  In 2009 we con­ducted a large scale sur­vey of all known and likely Com­mon Eider colonies in the Thule area.  Our results were stag­ger­ing, and showed the pop­u­la­tion in the Thule area had increased from approx­i­mately 5,000 pairs in 1997–98 (Chris­tensen and Falk) to between 25,000 and 30,000 in 2009, with one sin­gle colony hav­ing approx­i­mately 4,500 nests.  How­ever, since that time we have con­tin­ued to re-visit many of the colonies and on sev­eral occa­sions colonies have been vacant, likely either as a result of polar bears inhab­it­ing the nest­ing colony or sea ice con­di­tions pre­clud­ing breed­ing.  Unfor­tu­nately, actual counts of nests have not been pos­si­ble as a result of the amount of time needed for sur­veys, with large colonies tak­ing upwards of three days for a team of 3–4 peo­ple to sys­tem­at­i­cally survey.

Start­ing in 2017 we will begin test­ing a UAV (unmanned aer­ial vehi­cle) to con­duct sur­veys of these nest­ing colonies.  Using a large remote con­trolled heli­copter, it is our intent to use a high-resolution cam­era to either take color or infrared pho­tographs of the entire colony.  The colonies are mostly bar­ren, with the eider females nest­ing in the open and the vast major­ity should be obvi­ous from above.  Tests will pri­mar­ily entail at what height to fly the heli­copter for ideal res­o­lu­tion and how best to set up a grid search of the colony.  Using Pho­to­shop, or a sim­i­lar pro­gram, we will then piece together the pho­tographs into one extremely large photo/file, from which we can then count females on the nest.  Com­mon Eider females typ­i­cally do not leave the nest dur­ing incu­ba­tion, unless flushed by preda­tors, so it is likely we will get very accu­rate counts.  Ground truthing of small test plots will also likely occur to val­i­date accu­racy of aer­ial sur­veys and to deter­mine a cor­rec­tion fac­tor, if nec­es­sary.  The long-term goal of this project would be for us to develop a tech­nol­ogy and method­ol­ogy which would allow us to quickly sur­vey 5–10 Com­mon Eider colonies on an annual basis.

Objec­tives for 2017:  To date our UAV Com­mon Eider project has suf­fered a num­ber of set­backs.  Unfor­tu­nately, the prin­ci­pal inves­ti­ga­tor on the team we chose to part­ner with in 2016 suf­fered a sig­nif­i­cant hand injury shortly before the Green­land field sea­son and was unable to par­tic­i­pate.  We are cur­rently work­ing to deter­mine with whom we will part­ner in 2017 but this project remains a priority.

Hen Common Eider incubating eggs Common Eider nest with ducklings
Hen Com­mon Eider sit­ting on a nest. Com­mon Eider nest with duck­lings and a sin­gle egg.

Nearc­tic Pere­grine Fal­con Geolo­ca­tor and Migra­tion Study

His­tory, objec­tives, and pre­vi­ous results of study:  Over the past 15 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 through­out the Nearc­tic began a large-scale col­lab­o­ra­tive study with adult female Pere­grines being tagged with geolo­ca­tors in South­ern Green­land, the Thule area (north­west Green­land), and Rankin Inlet (Nunavut, Canada).  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.  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 ?? adult female Pere­grines.  Based on results from our study area, south­ern Green­land, and Canada it now appears that migra­tion dura­tion of Pere­grines tracked using 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.  

Objec­tives for 2017:  We are cur­rently con­sult­ing with our col­leagues regard­ing whether or not we want to con­tinue to tag addi­tional female Pere­grines with geolo­ca­tors in 2017.  If tagged female Pere­grines are observed we will attempt to recap­ture them and recover the geolocator.  



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.

Objec­tives for 2017:  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 2017:  A small team will visit Kanger­lus­suaq for 2 to 3 weeks and will sur­vey 15–25 pre­vi­ously known Pere­grine nest­ing cliffs.  Data on occu­pancy and nest­ing chronol­ogy will be col­lected in addi­tion to young being banded and sampled.  

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