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Yellowlegs are noisy, but we’d sorely miss them if they disappear…

By Chris Harwood, Wildlife Biologist, Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge

I’ve conducted literally thousands of songbird surveys in my almost 30 years with Alaska Refuges.  On Kanuti Refuge, the listening conditions at my survey count points are typically excellent—little to no wind and, of course, no car traffic.  Really, the primary aural challenge is filtering out the species and individuals I’ve already identified and counted from possibly new ones. 

In the boreal forest, however, there is one natural distraction that tests my ability to concentrate during surveys (and even tries my patience!).  Songbird surveys in the Interior often coincide with late incubation, hatch, or brood rearing of Lesser Yellowlegs…and nothing can ruin a songbird survey quite like a Lesser Yellowlegs vociferously defending its nearby nest or chicks. 

Breeding (especially, successfully hatching) yellowlegs have little competition where alarm-calling stamina (and volume) and defensive mobbing and distraction displays are concerned.  Just try and hear that distant, soft-singing Blackpoll Warbler with a yellowlegs flitting in front of your face and screaming in your ear because you’re too close to its chicks you’ll never see.


Well, it now seems that such survey distractions might be getting less common—and that’s not a good thing. The Lesser Yellowlegs population has declined by 70–80% over the past four decades across boreal North America. And it’s not just a Canadian yellowlegs problem. We believe Alaska yellowlegs are declining, too.

So, why the decline?  Well, there’s a team of Alaskan and Canadian researchers who are now looking into threats to yellowlegs throughout their annual life cycle, including legal and illegal harvest in the tropics. Click here to read their report. 

Through near-annual survey work from our administrative cabin along the Kanuti River, I have determined that Lesser Yellowlegs are still pretty common on a nearby study area.  Given that this major yellowlegs research project lacked a study site in interior Alaska proper, I proposed that Kanuti Refuge join the boreal-wide “Yellowlegs Team” in 2018.  So we purchased 10 GPS transmitters to track where some of our yellowlegs migrate and overwinter so possible threats along their annual route could be assessed. 

We invited Laura McDuffie with USFWS Migratory Bird Management to the cabin in June 2019 to help us capture yellowlegs and deploy our transmitters (Laura’s M.S. thesis includes analysis of yellowlegs movements).  The timing of Laura’s arrival was perfect—yellowlegs eggs started hatching that day!

We captured 13 adult yellowlegs over six exhausting days and marked them all with uniquely coded leg-flags (green with two white characters) and one blue band to denote them as “Kanuti” birds.  Ten adults also received GPS transmitters.  In the fall, we also contributed funding for the project’s genetics work.

Once they departed Kanuti Refuge, all but one of our 10 transmittered yellowlegs stopped initially and briefly on Yukon Flats Refuge before heading down the Central Flyway through the Great Plains of southern Canada.  As of 20 August 2019, six of the yellowlegs had fanned out to points farther south, including Florida, Mexico, Cuba (2 birds), Ecuador and Peru. 

Four of the 10 transmitters were still reporting as of 1 January 2020.  Two of our birds are wintering in southeastern Brazil, another in northeastern Argentina, and the fourth in western Mexico. 

This spring, a field assistant and I will return to the cabin with the hope of re-sighting any of the birds marked last June. After hatch, we will also attempt to mark new birds as part of an ongoing effort to study adult survival.  The Yellowlegs Team is currently assessing whether more transmitter work is needed in coming years. 

Kanuti Refuge hopes to remain an integral member of this amazing continent-wide research partnership as we strive to better understand what it takes to ensure Lesser Yellowlegs remain common.

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Tetlin Refuge’s Trumpeter Swans: A Comeback Story

By Poppy Benson

One of the delights of traveling on the Alaska Highway through the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge is spotting graceful trumpeter swans on refuge lakes and ponds.  The trumpeter, the largest waterfowl species in North America, is such an iconic Tetlin species that it was chosen for their logo used on their signs and publications.  It is hard to believe that at one time, no trumpeter swans could be found on what was to become the Tetlin Refuge. 

Trumpeter swans were nearly decimated from the United States for the skin and feather trade between 1600 and the 1800s.  In 1935 only 69 individuals were known to exist in the US although others may have survived in remote parts of Alaska and Canada.  No trumpeter swans were documented in the Upper Tanana Valley where the refuge is located until 1980.  In 1985, the aerial swan survey recorded just 97 swans and 13 broods on and around the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge
.  Since then the population has exploded.  In 2015, the last swan survey, there were almost 2000 swans!  This is consistent with swan recovery throughout the country.  Nation-wide swan populations have increased exponentially at a rate of 6.2% per year between 1968 and 2010.  Over half of North America’s trumpeter swans breed in Alaska.

Will this growth continue or has the swan population on the refuge peaked or is it about to peak?   The number of broods has been declining since it peaked at 147 in 2005.  The 2015 survey found that a greater proportion of adult swans are not breeding successfully. Could all the available wetland breeding habitat already be occupied by swans?   This year’s swan survey should help answer some of those questions.  The data presented here is from “Thirty Years of Swan Surveys at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge (1985-2015)” by Kristin DuBour.  You can access it here.

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Why Did the Moose Cross the Road?

By: Poppy Benson, Friends Board
Photo by: Mike Criss, National Wildlife Federation

Right through the middle of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge runs the Sterling Highway – lifeline and only road to the communities of the Kenai Peninsula, plus the only access for Anchorites and tourists to the rich fishing streams, beaches, trails and other natural playgrounds of the Kenai Peninsula.  Traffic in summer can be overwhelming with well over a million and a half vehicles a year.  When wildlife crosses highways it is dangerous for people and wildlife – all wildlife.   Moose, the most frequent victims, are as likely to die in vehicle collisions on Kenai Peninsula roads as to be harvested by hunters. Unlike in hunting, moose that die on the roads tend to be cows and calves needed to sustain the population.

When the Alaska Department of Transportation began planning  to upgrade the 22 miles of highway through the refuge, refuge staff knew they needed to address wildlife concerns.  This past summer highway construction was completed, including five highway underpasses for wildlife, one large bridge, and fencing in spots. These are the first wildlife highway structures in Alaska outside of Anchorage.   Kenai Refuge Supervisory Biologist John Morton recently gave a talk about these new wildlife improvements and the need.  You can view his powerpoint here. To learn more about this issue check out the Refuge Notebook article Morton wrote about this early this year.

The Kenai Refuge’s vision statement on its website states: “The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge will serve as an anchor for biodiversity on the Kenai Peninsula despite global climate change, increasing development, and competing demands for Refuge resources. Native wildlife and their habitats will find a secure place here.”  The refuge’s work in securing the wildlife underpasses is one example of refuge staff working to ensure that increased development did not take an unsustainable toll on wildlife.  Well done staff! 

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Did you know that Yukon Flats is a world-renowned breeding ground for waterfowl, or that it is the third-largest national wildlife refuge in the nation?

The staff focus much of their efforts on monitoring the status of animals and habitat that are important from both a local and national perspective. Through a diverse program of biology, education, outreach, and enforcement, Refuge staff work with partners to conserve these important resources. Here is a brief summary of staff activities and items of interest between October 2018 and September 2019.