Whimbrels Numenius phaeopus breed in tundra-like habitats, both beyond treeline and within the boreal forest of interior Alaska. Despite their widespread distribution and designation as a species of conservation concern, their ecology has been particularly understudied in Alaska. During 2008--2012, I initiated the first dedicated study of Whimbrel breeding ecology in Alaska, and the first such study of any boreal-breeding shorebird in the state. Within a habitat mosaic of forest, woodlands, muskeg, scrub, and ponds within the floodplain of the Kanuti River in north-central Alaska, Whimbrels bred in the three largest (of nine) patches of discontinuous tussock tundra. These Whimbrels exhibited a compressed annual breeding schedule with the first birds arriving about 6 May and nests hatching about 17 June. Evidence for clustered and synchronous nesting, which may aid in predator defense, was equivocal. Most (69%) Whimbrels nested in mixed shrub-sedge tussock bog. I modeled nest-site selection at multiple spatial scales for 39 nests; however, the only variables important in the models were at the finest scale around the nest, namely that nests tended to be located on hummocks and exhibited lateral cover. Model results for nest survival of 67 nests over 4 years revealed a considerable difference in nest success (92% vs. 41%) at the two largest patches studied; this site effect was largely unexplained. To investigate Whimbrel ecology more broadly in the boreal biome, in 2013 I designed and conducted a Whimbrel-specific survey comprising 279 point counts within 28 transects along the road system of interior Alaska. I detected Whimbrels on just 32% of transects and 11% of count points. Although I detected Whimbrels at 3 sites where they had not been reported previously, I failed to detect them at several historically occupied sites. Dwarf shrub meadow was the most commonly observed habitat for all points visited. I modeled Whimbrel presence based on coarse habitat and avifaunal community features; no models were well supported. Between the local and regional surveys, my results tended to reinforce several widespread, but not necessarily investigated, descriptions about the breeding ecology of Whimbrels. My studies supported the premises that Whimbrels are patchily distributed on the landscape and often breed in clusters. Breeding of individuals and occupancy of some patches may be annually variable. Despite analyses of multiple habitat features at multiple spatial scales, I mostly observed a lack of specificity in where they bred among tundra-like patches, and where they nested specifically within such patches. This suggests that Whimbrels are tundra habitat generalists on their breeding grounds. Such phenotypic plasticity may be particularly adaptive in the dynamic, wildfire-prone landscape of interior Alaska.
Thesis (M.S.) University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2016
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