Abstract

The Canadian Arctic and subarctic are the primary breeding areas of many species of North American water and land birds. Because of the remote location and the logistical difficulties of working there, wildlife biologists have not systematically surveyed most important areas for wildlife, nor have they surveyed these areas very frequently. During the summers of 2005–2011, various Joint Ventures, and U.S., Canadian, and state wildlife agencies and other partners funded exploratory fixed-wing aircraft surveys of migratory birds (excluding passerines and shorebirds) in important habitats in Canada's western and central Arctic. Our objectives were to provide access to the complete survey dataset (all bird and mammal observations and associated location data) and summarize information on several species. Thus, we produced maps of average relative density and estimates of abundance in the survey area for cackling geese Branta hutchinsii, greater white-fronted geese Anser albifrons, tundra swans Cygnus columbianus, king eiders Somateria spectabilis, long-tailed ducks Clangula hyemalis, white-winged Melanitta fusca and surf Melanitta perspicillatas scoters, and yellow-billed Gavia adamsii, red-throated Gavia stellata, and Pacific Gavia pacifica loons. We reviewed previous survey efforts in the area and, where possible, compared them with our results.

Introduction

The Canadian Arctic and subarctic are the primary breeding areas of many species and populations of North American geese, swans, sea ducks, cranes, loons, shorebirds, and other water and land birds. Wildlife managers and government agencies have long recognized the importance of these Arctic nesting grounds, and have designated many areas as Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance 2019), Migratory Bird Sanctuaries (Environment Canada 2019), Areas of Continental Significance (North American Waterfowl Management Plan Committee 2012), and Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (BirdLife International 2019). Because of the Arctic's remote location and the logistical difficulties of monitoring and inventorying wildlife there, wildlife biologists have not systematically surveyed many of its important areas, or they have surveyed these areas infrequently (e.g., Grieb 1970; Kerbes 1994, Hines et al. 2000, 2013; Alisauskas 1992, 2003, 2005, 2006; Raven and Dickson 2006). Wildlife biologists currently survey most Arctic-nesting geese, swans, sea ducks, loons, and other birds at very localized study sites in the Arctic (e.g., Ross's geese Anser rossii at Karrak Lake; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [USFWS] 2018), on their staging or wintering grounds, or do not survey them. For example, wildlife biologists have surveyed the midcontinent population of greater white-fronted geese Anser albifrons via a staging-area survey in Saskatchewan and Alberta during the fall (Central, Mississippi and Pacific Flyway Councils 2015), and derive the management index for the eastern population of tundra swans Cygnus columbianus from midwinter surveys of their wintering range in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways (Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyway Councils 2007).

Wintering- or staging-grounds surveys, while generally logistically pragmatic, suffer from several shortcomings. Commingling of similar-appearing species or populations, disturbance by hunting, and the difficulty of counting large aggregations of birds are potential sources of unmeasured error that reduce the inferences that wildlife managers can draw from these data (Eggeman and Johnson 1989). Therefore, assessing the status of migratory bird populations on their breeding grounds has been a goal in several management or strategic plans (e.g., Arctic Goose Joint Venture 2008, 2016; Sea Duck Joint Venture 2008, 2014). However, most Arctic migratory bird nesting grounds are out of the range of existing large-scale surveys for breeding migratory birds, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017) and the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey (USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service [CWS] 1987; USFWS 2018).

Joint Ventures are partnerships established under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan to help conserve the continent's waterfowl populations and habitats. In 2002, the Arctic Goose Joint Venture (AGJV) and cooperators initiated funding a series of projects to address the AGJV mission statement of “improving goose population management from a breeding ground perspective.” As part of these efforts, the CWS conducted systematic transect surveys by helicopter during 2002–2006 (Alisauskas 2003, 2005, 2006; Raven and Dickson 2006). During 2005–2011, the AGJV, Sea Duck Joint Venture, USFWS, CWS, and Central and Mississippi Flyway Councils funded exploratory fixed-wing aerial surveys of migratory birds throughout a large expanse of important habitats in the Canadian Arctic. The surveys had two main objectives: 1) to obtain breeding-ground abundance and distribution information on numerous Arctic-nesting bird species, including cackling geese Branta hutchinsii, greater white-fronted geese, tundra swans, king eiders Somateria spectabilis, long-tailed ducks Clangula hyemalis, white-winged Melanitta fusca and surf Melanitta perspicillatas scoters, and yellow-billed Gavia adamsii, red-throated Gavia stellata, and Pacific Gavia pacifica loons, and 2) to assess the logistic feasibility of using turbine-powered, fixed-wing aircraft to conduct an annual bird survey in portions of the western and central Canadian Arctic (herein, WCA).

One initial motivation for these survey efforts was to better assess the abundance of what wildlife biologists then called the short grass prairie (SGP) Canada goose population, which nests in the western Canadian Arctic (Grieb 1970; Central Flyway Council 1982, Alisauskas 2002). Wildlife biologists managed SGP geese separately from tall grass prairie population (TGP) Canada geese, which nest in the eastern Canadian Arctic (Mississippi and Central Flyway Councils 1985). Wildlife biologists now collectively manage these populations (and reference them as either Central Flyway Arctic-nesting Canada geese [Central Flyway Council 2013] or midcontinent cackling geese [Mississippi Flyway Council 2013]). At the initiation of this project, managers based the official monitoring index for SGP geese on data collected during the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey (Eggeman and Johnson 1989), and the trend in abundance of SGP geese had become difficult to interpret due to large annual fluctuations in the number of birds observed (USFWS 2005). In addition to concerns over SGP Canada geese, managers were also confronted with conflicting trend assessments for midcontinent-population greater white-fronted geese from the Fall Staging Survey and the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey (Central, Mississippi, and Pacific Flyway Councils. 2015). Because of these uncertainties, managers hoped to survey the SGP Canada goose and midcontinent greater white-fronted goose populations on their breeding grounds to better determine their status (Moser et al. 2009).

While the survey initially focused on cackling geese and greater white-fronted geese, it provided an opportunity to collect data on additional species present in the region. Field crews systematically and consistently counted swans, ducks, cranes, loons, gulls, and raptors (all birds except shorebirds and passerines) during all years, and recorded observations of large mammals as well. During the first few years of the survey, the project's selection of strata remained focused on areas important to geese, but in 2007 the Sea Duck Joint Venture joined the project as a partner, and managers subsequently included areas where king eiders and long-tailed ducks were thought to breed in substantial numbers (Sea Duck Joint Venture 2008). Our objectives for this manuscript were to provide 1) information on the distribution, relative density, and area-specific abundance of several important Arctic-breeding bird species; 2) access to survey data for all bird and mammal species recorded in formats that can be easily used by researchers and managers to help inform conservation and natural resource decisions; and 3) guidance on the design of future survey efforts.

Study Area

Survey strata were located in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, including the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, Banks Island, coastal portions of Victoria Island, King William Island, Rasmussen Lowlands, Kent and Adelaide peninsulas, Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary (hereafter Queen Maud Gulf), and in an area near Kugluktuk (Table 1; Figure 1). Total area of all strata combined was 225,046 km2, and the total combined length of all transects was 21,795 km. The survey area contained a variety of habitats including river deltas, coastlines, sand/gravel beaches, sheltered bays and lagoons, lowlands, marshes, shallow ponds, and lakes. Readers can find detailed descriptions of numerous sites within our survey area in Latour et al. (2008).

Table 1.

Survey effort by fixed-wing aircraft in western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011, by the proportion of segments covered in each stratum.

Survey effort by fixed-wing aircraft in western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011, by the proportion of segments covered in each stratum.
Survey effort by fixed-wing aircraft in western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011, by the proportion of segments covered in each stratum.
Figure 1.

Strata and transects surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 2. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of cackling geese Branta hutchinsii on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Figure 1.

Strata and transects surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 2. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of cackling geese Branta hutchinsii on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Methods

Survey procedures

The CWS had previously delineated most of our survey strata (Table 1, Figure 1) for bird surveys they conducted intermittently by helicopter beginning in 1989 (Cornish and Dickson 1996; Dickson et al. 1997; Hines et al. 2000; Alisauskas 2003, 2005, 2006; Raven and Dickson 2006; Hines et al. 2013). The strata were based on areas that CWS had identified as important habitats for cackling geese, greater white-fronted geese, king eiders, and long-tailed ducks, and that were within range (approximately 275 km) of a community that had aircraft fuel available. We also identified five new strata as areas worth exploring prior to designing a long-term monitoring survey in the region (Banks Island Northeast, Kugluktuk, Area C (on southeast Victoria Island), Central Victoria Island, and East Victoria Island). New survey strata were located largely in areas of marine sediment transgression and chosen in consultation with Arctic researchers. We chose a survey window of 15 June to 3 July to coincide with the midincubation period for geese, as well as the period when peak numbers of male king eiders have typically been present. Transects were systematically spaced at 10 or 20 km apart, depending on year and stratum (in some strata during some years researchers flew only every other transect). The proportion and distribution of the total survey area covered varied among years due to logistical constraints, weather, and available aircraft and personnel, but we made efforts to cover each stratum at least twice (Table 1).

Survey procedures followed USFWS–CWS protocol for waterfowl breeding population surveys (USFWS and CWS 1987). Crews were composed of a USFWS biologist-pilot and a right-seat observer and used either de Havilland Beaver or Quest Kodiak turbine-powered aircraft. A single unique pilot–observer crew conducted the survey in 2005, 2006, and the same crew surveyed during 2008–2010. In 2007, four observers participated as part of a single crew: two pilots, who alternated as pilot and right-seat observer, and two individuals as right-seat observers only. In 2011, two aircraft and two pilot–observer crews conducted the surveys, with the goal of surveying 22 of 23 strata (See Text S1, Supplemental Material, for additional details). However, bad weather grounded one crew for 10 of the 13 d in their survey window, and they were unable to survey six of their planned strata (Table 1; Groves and Mallek 2012). Flight hours devoted to surveying (on transect and ferrying to, from, and between transects) were variable, with 54 h reported in 2007, 72.1 h in 2008, 61.0 h in 2009, 48.2 h in 2010, and 74.5 h in 2011; additional hours required for ferrying to and from home duty stations to temporary survey bases varied considerably with survey location and other logistics (Groves et al. 2009a, 2009b; Groves and Mallek 2011a, 2011b, 2012).

Pilots and observers recorded all birds (excluding shorebirds and passerines) and large mammals within 200 m of the flight path, using these social-group categories: single = lone bird (or mammal), pair = male and female together (sexes were assumed if a monomorphic species), flkdrake (i.e., flocked drakes) = a group of two or more male ducks with no female present, open = optional alternative to “single” or “pair” for a monomorphic species, or any group of more than two animals that could not be split into singles or pairs. Crews flew each transect 30–45 m above ground level at a speed of 145–170 km/h, using a global positioning system (GPS) in the aircraft panel to navigate along transects to preprogrammed endpoint coordinates. They recorded each observation as an electronic WAV file, linked with simultaneous GPS coordinates, and stored via onboard computers, one for each observer.

Data processing

Multiple observers conducted the survey over several years and because they tested some supplemental methodologies, there was variation in how they recorded some bird and mammal species. For instance, to test for possible effects of behavior on detection probability, in some years, observers combined the species name with the bird's behavior as they made the observation (e.g., CAGOfly for a Canada goose in flight). In addition, species identification codes sometimes differed among observers (e.g., size class of Canada geese, see below). To simplify analyses, we standardized species names in the dataset. We retained the variable of the species as called by the observer (“species” field) from the transcribed raw data, but added a new variable in which we edited the species for consistency (“spedited” field), based on annual survey reports (Conant et al. 2006, 2007; Groves et al. 2009a, 2009b; Groves and Mallek 2011a, 2011b, 2012). Text S1 contains additional information about survey personnel, and the species and behaviors recorded. Table S1 (Supplemental Material) lists and defines species codes recorded in each year, and original and edited species names are annotated in the SAS (SAS Institute 2018, Version 9.4) code used to edit them (Text S2, Supplemental Material).

When observers flew the survey, some identified small, medium, and large Canada geese, while others identified only small and large classes. We combined the small and medium sizes and reclassified them as small Canada geese in the “spedited” field of the database. We refer to these birds as cackling geese in the text, tables, and figures, following the American Ornithologist Union's species guidelines (Banks et al. 2004). Birds that observers recorded as large Canada geese were likely molt-migrant Canada geese (Abraham et al. 1999; Dooley et al. 2019); we retained these in the observation-level database, but did not include them in any density maps or population estimates.

Following Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey protocols, we converted observation-level data to total indicated birds (TIBs). Single male ducks (except scaup; Aythya affinis and Aythya marilla), single cackling geese, single greater white-fronted geese, single black brant Branta bernicla nigricans, groups of 2–4 flocked male ducks (except scaup), and pairs of all species were multiplied by 2; all other observations were multiplied by 1. Singles and/or groups of 2–4 flocked drakes of most waterfowl species were doubled under the assumption that they represented breeding males whose incubating mates were not detected (USFWS and CWS 1987).

Mapping average total indicated bird density

We used ArcMap 10.3 (hereafter ArcMap; ESRI 2015, ArcGIS Desktop: Release 1, Redlands, CA) to 1) divide each transect into segments 20 km long, plus an additional shorter segment that comprised the remainder of the transect, and calculate the length of that segment in kilometers; 2) assign each segment a unique index code; and 3) join each bird or mammal observation with the appropriate segment index code where it was observed. We then standardized the species called by the observer, and created an additional species-edited (spedited) field (SAS Institute 2018; Text S1, Text S2, and Table S1). The resulting file contains all observations (and number of indicated birds or mammals observed) of all species observed during the WCA surveys; we have archived the file as Data S1 (Supplemental Material).

Because the survey coverage was variable among years, we summarized the results as species-specific, segment-level density maps for the entire WCA survey area, using data pooled across years and strata. We calculated segment area by multiplying segment length by transect width (0.4 km). For example, a standard 20-km segment had an area of 8 km2. We subsetted file Data S1 by the “spedited” field to produce separate files for each species of interest and merged each species file with a file that contained all segments in the survey, and a variable indicating the years each segment was flown. Zero values for total indicated bird counts indicate that crews flew a segment in a given year but observed no birds; “NA” values indicate that crews did not fly a segment in a given year.

We summed the number of TIBs, by species and segment, for all the years crews flew that segment. We calculated average segment-level densities for each species by dividing the total TIBs in each segment by the total segment area flown, for all years crews flew the segment. We plotted these weighted-average densities on the natural-log scale in ArcMap, overlaid on maps of the survey strata, and used the Jenks natural breaks optimization method (Jenks 1967) to classify the logs of the densities as low, medium, and high. This method minimizes each class's average deviation from its class mean, while maximizing each class's deviation from the means of the other groups. We presented the range limits in the map legends as back-transformed densities to make them easier to interpret. We did the Jenks optimization for each species separately, so average density range designations are not comparable among maps (e.g., “high” densities of cackling geese differ from “high” densities of yellow-billed loons). The files used to create the maps are archived as a Microsoft Excel file (Data S2, Supplemental Material), with a worksheet for each species, and a worksheet that explains the header rows. The SAS (SAS Institute 2018) code that we used for data processing are included as Text S2. An input file containing unique identification codes for all segments (including those with no observations, and the years in which crews surveyed them) is included as Data S3 (Supplemental Material).

Abundance estimation by species and strata

We estimated the abundance of cackling geese, greater white-fronted geese, tundra swans, king eiders, long-tailed ducks, scoters not identified to species, white-winged scoters, surf scoters, and yellow-billed, red-throated, and Pacific loons within strata during each of the years crews flew them, using the methods of Smith (1995), except that we did not correct for incomplete detection (following Raven and Dickson 2006). Thus, the estimated annual abundance (N) of each species within each stratum was  
,
formula
where A is the area of the stratum, and is the bird density (TIBs/km2),  
,
formula
yi is the number of TIBs on transect i, and xi is the area of transect i (total transect length multiplied by 0.4 km, the width of the transect). The estimated variance of the bird abundance in the stratum is the area of the stratum squared, multiplied by the variance of the bird density, ():  
formula
We estimated the variance of the observed bird density, as  
formula
where n is the number of transects in the stratum. We also present average abundance estimates and their standard errors for each species and stratum across all years crews flew the stratum (Table 2). Average annual abundance estimates () were calculated as  
formula
where (N)t = the abundance estimate in year t, and n = the number of years the stratum was surveyed. The standard errors (SE []) of mean abundance estimates were calculated as  
formula
where Var(N)t = the variance of the abundance estimate in year t, and n = the number of years that crews surveyed the stratum (Raven and Dickson 2006).
Table 2.

Average abundance estimates () and standard errors (SE) for 11 species, by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 200f5–2011. Strata were surveyed during 2–4 years over the course of the survey period.

Average abundance estimates () and standard errors (SE) for 11 species, by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 200f5–2011. Strata were surveyed during 2–4 years over the course of the survey period.
Average abundance estimates () and standard errors (SE) for 11 species, by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 200f5–2011. Strata were surveyed during 2–4 years over the course of the survey period.
Table 2.

Extended.

Extended.
Extended.

Results

From 2005 to 2011 in the WCA survey area, we calculated a total of 30,649, 17,307, and 5,225 cackling goose, greater white-fronted goose, and tundra swan TIBs, respectively, from observations made on survey transects. Observers found cackling geese in relatively high densities over most of the strata, except on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, and on the western portion of Banks Island (Figure 2). Cackling goose abundance estimates for the Queen Maud Gulf, King William Island, and East Victoria Island strata all averaged greater than 40,000 over the years those strata were surveyed (Table S2, Supplemental Material). The highest densities of greater white-fronted geese occurred in the southern portion of the survey area, including the Queen Maud Gulf, the Rasmussen Lowlands, and the Kent, Adelaide, and Tuktoyaktuk peninsulas (Figure 3), with observers recording very few on Banks Island or the Prince Albert Peninsula. Greater white-fronted goose abundance averaged more than 56,000 on the Queen Maud Gulf, and more than 30,000 in both the Rasmussen Lowlands and the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula strata (Table S3, Supplemental Material). Tundra swans were widespread and found in high densities on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula and moderate to high densities over most other strata, with the exception of Banks Island and the Diamond Jenness and Prince Albert Peninsulas (Figure 4). Tundra swan abundance averaged more than 8,000 per year on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula and the Queen Maud Gulf (Table S4, Supplemental Material).

Figure 3.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of greater white-fronted geese Anser albifrons on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 4. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of tundra swans Cygnus columbianus on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Figure 3.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of greater white-fronted geese Anser albifrons on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 4. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of tundra swans Cygnus columbianus on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Observers found king eiders (n = 8,371 TIBs) in their highest densities on Banks Island; in the central, eastern, and southeastern Victoria Island strata; and along the coast of the Queen Maud Gulf (Figure 5). The West Coast and Inland strata of Banks Island, and the Queen Maud Gulf all averaged more than 11,000 king eiders per year (Table S5, Supplemental Material). Densities of long-tailed ducks (n = 11,200 TIBs) were highest on the Queen Maud Gulf, and on the Adelaide and Tuktoyaktuk peninsulas (Figure 6), where abundance estimates averaged more than 42,000, 11,000, and 11,000 birds per year, respectively (Table S6, Supplemental Material). The lowest densities of long-tailed ducks occurred on Banks Island and on the Prince Albert and Wollaston peninsulas. Observers recorded nearly all (> 99%) of the total indicated scoters (surf, white-winged, and black scoters Melanitta americana) in the WCA on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula. Observers did not identify approximately one-third (34%, n = 1,531 TIBs) of the total indicated scoters recorded to species (Figure S7, Supplemental Material), and their average abundance estimate on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula was approximately 13,000 (Table S7, Supplemental Material). Of the total indicated scoters that were identified to species, 81% (n = 2,387 TIBs) were white-winged scoters (Figure 8), 17% (n = 507 TIBs) were surf scoters (Figure 9), and 2% (n = 58 TIBs) were black scoters. The white-winged scoter abundance estimate on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula averaged approximately 20,000; the 2011 estimate, which exceeded 37,000 birds, heavily influenced this abundance estimate (Table S8, Supplemental Material). Surf scoter abundance estimates were also variable; the highest estimate approached 8,000 in 2010, but annual standard errors were large (Table S9, Supplemental Material).

Figure 5.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of king eiders Somateria spectabilis on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 6. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of long-tailed ducks Clangula hyemalis on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Figure 5.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of king eiders Somateria spectabilis on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 6. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of long-tailed ducks Clangula hyemalis on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Figure 7.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of scoters not identified to species Melanitta americana, Melanitta fusca, and Melanitta perspicillatas on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 8. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of white-winged scoters Melanitta fusca on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Figure 7.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of scoters not identified to species Melanitta americana, Melanitta fusca, and Melanitta perspicillatas on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 8. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of white-winged scoters Melanitta fusca on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Figure 9.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of surf scoters Melanitta perspicillatas on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 10. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of yellow-billed loons Gavia adamsii on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Figure 9.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of surf scoters Melanitta perspicillatas on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 10. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of yellow-billed loons Gavia adamsii on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Yellow-billed loons (n = 407 TIBs) were distributed relatively evenly over most of the WCA (Figure 10); however, observers rarely recorded them on the Tuktoyaktuk or Adelaide peninsulas, or in the Rasmussen Lowlands. Observers recorded the highest average yellow-billed loon abundance estimate on the Wollaston Peninsula; it exceeded 700 in both years the stratum was flown (Table S10, Supplemental Material). Observers recorded red-throated loons (n = 894 TIBs) in low numbers over most strata (Figure 11). They observed the highest densities of red-throated loons on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula and the Queen Maud Gulf, where abundance estimates averaged more than 1,000 and 2,000, respectively (Table S11, Supplemental Material). These areas were also important for Pacific loons (n = 1,989 TIBs), where average abundance estimates were about 3,000, and 4,000, respectively (Table S12, Supplemental Material). However, observers also recorded high densities of Pacific loons on many portions of Victoria Island, and on the Kent Peninsula (Figure 12); they rarely observed Pacific loons on Banks Island, or on the Diamond Jenness Peninsula.

Figure 11.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of red-throated loons Gavia stellata on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 12. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of Pacific loons Gavia pacifica on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the eastern Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Figure 11.

Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of red-throated loons Gavia stellata on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011. Figure 12. Average densities (total indicated birds/km2) of Pacific loons Gavia pacifica on segments surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the eastern Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Discussion

An initial motivation for these survey efforts was to obtain updated breeding ground information on SGP and TGP Canada geese, which are now managed collectively (i.e., midcontinent cackling geese; Central and Mississippi Flyway Councils 2013; Mississippi Flyway Council 2013). During 1989–1993, Hines et al. (2000) found higher densities of SGP geese on western Victoria Island than on Banks Island, the Prince Albert Peninsula, or the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, consistent with our findings. However, whereas densities approached zero on Banks Island during some years of their survey, we found moderate densities on the easternmost portions of Banks Island, and on the Prince Albert Peninsula, as well as high densities in areas not covered by their survey, such as eastern Victoria Island and King William Island. Wildlife managers traditionally defined SGP and TGP geese by their wintering ground affiliations, and were uncertain about their breeding ground distribution (Central Flyway Council 1982; Central and Mississippi Flyway Councils 1985; Moser et al. 2009). Our maps of cackling goose average density indicated no clear “line” of lower density that would support a geographic breeding ground rationale for delineating them into two populations. The large Canada geese observed in some of our strata, mainly the Queen Maud Gulf, are likely molt-migrant Canada geese (Abraham et al. 1999; Mississippi Flyway Council 2017; Dooley et al. 2019).

Current management indices for midcontinent cackling geese are “Lincoln” estimates (Lincoln 1930; Alisauskas et al. 2009, 2014) derived from annual harvest rates (band-recovery rate adjusted for band reporting rate) and estimates of total harvest (from surveys of hunters; e.g., Raftovich et al. 2019). An important assumption in the estimation of band-recovery rates is that the banded sample is representative of the population as a whole, and this affects the utility of the Lincoln estimate. The current primary banding sites for midcontinent cackling geese are Perry River, Southampton Island, and Baffin Island, Nunavut. If managers desire to expand banding efforts on the breeding grounds, they could use results from this study to identify other high-density areas, particularly in the western portions of this goose's range, where there have been relatively few bandings (Central Flyway Council 2013).

Aerial surveys have some advantages relative to Lincoln estimates. The Lincoln estimate can provide information on abundance only for hunted populations that are banded, and it requires additional information from harvest surveys and estimates of band reporting rate. An aerial survey can also provide abundance estimates for nongame species, as well as information on relative distribution of birds across the landscape.

Our total average greater white-fronted goose abundance estimate (Table 2) for the WCA survey area (209,197) was lower than the 500,000–800,000 midcontinent population of greater white-fronted geese counted via their fall staging survey during the same time frame (2005–2011; USFWS 2018). Our abundance estimate represented only birds from a subset of the midcontinent greater white-fronted goose population range, which also breeds in northern and interior Alaska. Another potential reason for the difference is that that the TIBs in our survey represent only adults, whereas the fall staging survey also includes young.

However, the WCA survey identified areas with substantial densities of breeding greater white-fronted geese, such as the Queen Maud Gulf, Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, and Rasmussen Lowlands, which was consistent with prior research (Kerbes 1994; Hines et al. 2006, 2013). The extensive coverage of the WCA survey also better highlighted the relative importance of these areas, and managers could use this information to improve management of midcontinent greater white-fronted geese. The management plan for this population has used two thresholds to guide harvest: 1) the fall staging survey abundance estimate and 2) an adult harvest-rate threshold (based on band-recovery data and an assumed band reporting rate; Central, Mississippi, and Pacific Flyway Councils 2015). Our results could be used to identify additional banding sites (the current primary banding sites are Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, and the Perry River, Nunavut) that might provide a more representative banded sample (Central, Mississippi, and Pacific Flyway Councils 2015).

Improving knowledge about the distribution and relative abundance of sea ducks on their breeding grounds was another high-priority goal of this survey effort. Dickson et al. (1997) summarized data on king eiders for areas surveyed in the western Canadian Arctic from 1991 to 1994, and similar to our results, found high densities of king eiders near Tahiryuak Lake, in the Kagloryuak River valley, and on Banks Island. They stated the additional need to elucidate the range of king eiders to the north and east of the area that they surveyed (their survey only covered an area from the Kagloryuak River westward). Our survey found medium to high densities of king eiders throughout south-central and southeastern Victoria Island, suggesting that this area also is important for king eiders, perhaps more so than western Victoria Island. We also found high densities on King William Island and in the Rasmussen Lowlands. Based on the work of Alisauskas (1992), Dickson et al. (1997) estimated an abundance of 19,400 king eiders in the Queen Maud Gulf, consistent with the high densities observed there during our survey. Our average (Table 2) of 12,429 (10,432–14,426, 95% CI) is similar to their unadjusted 1990 abundance estimate of 11,949 (8,833–15,065, 95% CI), and to the 1991 unadjusted estimate of 17,674 (12,092–23,256, 95% CI).

Of the areas we surveyed, the Tuktoyaktuk and Adelaide peninsulas and the Queen Maud Gulf had the highest densities and abundance of long-tailed ducks. Similar to the results for king eiders, central and eastern Victoria Island contained higher densities of long-tailed ducks than did western Victoria Island. Researchers had previously surveyed western Victoria Island (Cornish and Dickson 1996; Raven and Dickson 2006) and estimated relatively low densities of long-tailed ducks in those strata. Within western Victoria Island, during 1992–1994, Cornish and Dickson (1996) found that the highest densities of long-tailed ducks occurred in the Diamond Jenness Peninsula, Tahiryuak Lake, and Kagloryuak River strata, consistent with our results. Raven and Dickson (2006) found relatively low densities of long-tailed ducks on western Victoria Island, with slight declines in abundance estimates, when they surveyed those same areas in 2004 and 2005.

Cornish and Dickson (1996) and Raven and Dickson (2006) observed yellow-billed, red-throated, and Pacific loons on western Victoria Island, and similar to our results, Pacific loons were their most commonly observed species. However, in our survey, the eastern half of Victoria Island had higher densities of Pacific loons than the western Victoria Island strata, with areas such as the Queen Maud Gulf and the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula having high densities of Pacific loons as well. Overall, the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula and the Queen Maud Gulf stood out as areas that hosted high densities of nearly all of our target species. The surveys of the Queen Maud Gulf augmented long-standing monitoring efforts and research presence in that region, and the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula was notable in that it accounted for nearly all of the scoter observations in the WCA survey.

The WCA is a very large area, and although crews were able to complete planned survey strata in most years, in 2011 they did not, due to an extended period of bad weather. A survey design therefore must accommodate the possibility of several down days for survey crews. Access to weather reporting was minimal, and large distances between landing strips and fuel limited options for dealing with suboptimal weather or potential aircraft mechanical issues. Therefore survey pilots should be experienced at surveying in remote areas and be familiar with the weather conditions that are typical of Arctic environments. The aircraft flight range was maximized to reach the transects farthest from fuel sources, so expanding the survey area beyond what was covered would likely require staging fuel in advance.

Our summarization of the data collected over all strata and years provides a means by which various cooperators can evaluate and choose among areas to design an overall survey, customize a survey to better evaluate species of interest, or identify areas for future research and monitoring efforts (e.g., augmenting current goose banding operations). Our results also provide baseline density information and abundance estimates, which researchers can compare to data from past or future survey efforts. In addition, researchers may wish to restratify the data, post-hoc, based on our maps, to obtain better estimates of relative abundance for species of interest.

We have archived and made available the complete survey dataset at the individual observation level (including observations of large mammals and of additional nongame birds), and in summarized form for selected species. The AGJV and the Sea Duck Joint Venture, and the Ecological Atlas of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas (Smith et al. 2017) have already used portions of the data for informational purposes. We hope more individuals and entities will make use of this important dataset.

Supplemental Material

Please note: The Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management is not responsible for the content or functionality of any supplemental material. Queries should be directed to the corresponding author for the article.

Data S1. Microsoft Excel file containing observation-level data for the western and central Canadian Arctic survey, 2005–2011. We edited species as originally called by the observer for consistency and included them as a new variable. Data are contained in one tab, and the column abbreviations are contained in the second tab. Species recorded during the survey are listed in Table S1 (Supplemental Material).

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S1 (6.40 MB XLSX).

Data S2. Microsoft Excel file containing data that were used to create the segment-level average bird density maps (Figures 212) for the western and central Canadian Arctic (2005–2011) survey area. Data are contained in tabs marked with the species (four-letter species abbreviation), and the column abbreviations are explained in a separate tab.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S2 (1.27 MB XLSX).

Data S3. Microsoft Excel file containing data that were used to create the segment-level average bird density maps (Figures 212) for the western and central Canadian Arctic (2005–2011) survey area. Data consists of an input file containing unique id codes for all segments (including those with no observations, and the years in which they were surveyed in one tab, and column abbreviations explained in a separate tab.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S3 (90 KB XLSX).

Text S1. Microsoft Word document with notes on the western and central Canadian Arctic survey (2005–2011), including an explanation of how species as called by the observer in the original observation files were edited for consistency to produce Data S1 (Supplemental Material).

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S4 (25 KB DOCX).

Text S2. SAS code used to process data for the western and central Canadian Arctic survey to create Data S1 (Supplemental Material) and to calculate the species-specific density files (Data S2, Supplemental Material) that were used to make maps of relative average bird density (Figures 212).

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S5 (48 KB).

Table S1. Microsoft Excel file with a list of the species codes recorded by observers during each year of the western and central Canadian Arctic survey (2005–2011), and a list of species code definitions in a separate tab.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S6 (24 KB XLSX).

Table S2. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of cackling geese Branta hutchinsii by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S7 (20 KB XLSX).

Table S3. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of greater white-fronted geese Anser albifrons, by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S8 (21 KB XLSX).

Table S4. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of tundra swans Cygnus columbianus by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S9 (21 KB XLSX)

Table S5. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of king eiders Somateria spectabilis by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S10 (21 KB XLSX).

Table S6. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of long-tailed ducks Clangula hyemalis by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S11 (21 KB XLSX).

Table S7. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of scoters Melanitta americana, M. fusca, M. perspicillatas not identified to species by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S12 (20 KB XLSX).

Table S8. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of white-winged scoters Melanitta fusca by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S13 (20 KB XLSX).

Table S9. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of surf scoters Melanitta perspicillatas by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S14 (20 KB XLSX).

Table S10. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of yellow-billed loons Gavia adamsii by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S15 (21 KB XLSX).

Table S11. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of red-throated loons Gavia stellata by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the western and central Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S16 (21 KB XLSX).

Table S12. Abundance estimates (N) and standard errors (SE) of Pacific loons Gavia pacifica by strata surveyed by fixed-wing aircraft in the eastern Canadian Arctic, 2005–2011.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S17 (21 KB XLSX).

Reference S1. Alisauskas RT. 1992. Distribution and abundance of geese in the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Unpublished progress report for the Arctic Goose Joint Venture. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: Canadian Wildlife Service, Prairie and Northern Region.Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S18 (484 KB PDF).

Reference S2. Alisauskas RT. 2002. Survival and recovery rates in shortgrass prairie geese from Queen Maud Gulf Bird Sanctuary. Unpublished progress report to Central Flyway, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: Canadian Wildlife Service, Prairie and Northern Region.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S19 (1.05 MB PDF).

Reference S3. Alisauskas RT. 2003. Surveys of Canada geese in Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary, 1990–1992 and 2002–2003. Arctic Goose Joint Venture unpublished progress report, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: Canadian Wildlife Service, Prairie and Northern Region, Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S20 (323 KB PDF).

Reference S4. Alisauskas RT. 2005. Distribution and abundance of wildlife from helicopter surveys on south Victoria Island and Kent Peninsula, June 2004. Unpublished preliminary report. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: Canadian Wildlife Service.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S21 (2.91 MB PDF).

Reference S5. Alisauskas RT. 2006. Distribution and abundance of wildlife from helicopter surveys on Adelaide Peninsula and King William Island, June 2005. Unpublished preliminary report. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada: Canadian Wildlife Service.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S22 (3.5 MB PDF).

Reference S6. Arctic Goose Joint Venture. 2008. Arctic Goose Joint Venture strategic plan: 2008–2012. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: AGJV coordination office, Canadian Wildlife Service.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S23 (2.99 MB PDF).

Reference S7. Arctic Goose Joint Venture. 2016. Arctic Goose Joint Venture strategic plan. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: AGJV coordination office, Canadian Wildlife Service.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S24 (4.64 MB PDF).

Reference S8. Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyway Councils. 2007. Management plan for the eastern population of tundra swans. Special report in the files of the Pacific Flyway Representative, Vancouver, Washington: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S25 (1.36 MB PDF).

Reference S9. Central Flyway Council. 1982. Management guidelines for short grass prairie Canada geese. Special Report in the files of the Central Flyway Representative. Lakewood, Colorado: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S26 (557 KB PDF).

Reference S10. Central Flyway Council. 2013. Management guidelines for the Central Flyway Arctic-nesting Canada geese. Central Flyway Council Technical Section. Special report in the files of the Central Flyway Representative, Lakewood, Colorado: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S27 (940 KB PDF).

Reference S11. Central and Mississippi Flyway Councils. 1985. Management guidelines for tall grass prairie Canada geese. Special report in the files of the Central Flyway Representative. Lakewood, Colorado: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S28 (180 KB PDF).

Reference S12. Conant B, Groves DJ, Moser TJ. 2007. Distribution and abundance of wildlife from fixed-wing surveys in Nunavut, Canada June 2006. Unpublished report, Juneau, Alaska: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S29 (2.11 MB PDF).

Reference S13. Conant B, Roetker F, Groves DJ. 2006. Distribution and abundance of wildlife from fixed-wing surveys on Victoria Island and Kent Peninsula, Nunavut, Canada June 2005. Unpublished report, Juneau, Alaska: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S30 (656 KB PDF).

Reference S14. Groves DJ, Mallek EJ. 2011a. Migratory bird surveys in the Canadian Arctic—2009. Unpublished report, Juneau, Alaska: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S31 (3.37 MB PDF).

Reference S15. Groves DJ, Mallek EJ. 2011b. Migratory bird surveys in the western Canadian Arctic—2010. Unpublished report, Juneau, Alaska: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S32 (2.06 MB PDF).

Reference S16. Groves DJ, Mallek EJ. 2012. Migratory bird surveys in the western and central Canadian Arctic—2011. Unpublished report, Juneau, Alaska: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S33 (3.09 MB PDF).

Reference S17. Groves DJ, Mallek EJ, MacDonald R, Moser TJ. 2009a. Migratory bird surveys in the Canadian Arctic—2007. Unpublished report, Juneau, Alaska: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S34 (3.66 MB PDF).

Reference S18. Groves DJ, Mallek EJ, Moser TJ. 2009b. Migratory bird surveys in the Canadian Arctic—2008. Unpublished report, Juneau, Alaska: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S35 (2.35 MB PDF).

Reference S19. Mississippi Flyway Council. 2013. Management plan for Mid-continent cackling geese in the Mississippi Flyway. Mississippi Flyway Council Game Bird Technical Section Special report in the files of the Mississippi Flyway Representative, Bloomington, Minnesota: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S36 (591 KB PDF).

Reference S20. Mississippi Flyway Council. 2017. A management plan for Mississippi Flyway Canada geese. Special report in the files of the Mississippi Flyway Representative. Bloomington, Minnesota: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S37 (7.45 MB PDF).

Reference S21. Moser TJ, Groves DJ, Dickson DL, Leafloor JO. 2009. Development of migratory bird surveys in the Canadian Arctic: a proposal, Unpublished report in the files of the Pacific Flyway Representative, Vancouver, Washington: USFWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S38 (1.97 MB PDF).

Reference S22. Sea Duck Joint Venture. 2008. Sea Duck Joint Venture strategic plan: 2008–2012. Anchorage, Alaska: USFWS; Sackville, New Brunswick: Canadian Wildlife Service.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S39 (831 KB PDF).

Reference S23. [USFWS and CWS] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service. 1987. Standard operating procedures for aerial waterfowl breeding ground population and habitat surveys in North America, revised. Laurel, Maryland: USFWS and CWS.

Found at DOI: https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082.S40 (4.83 MB PDF).

Acknowledgments

We appreciate the support of numerous organizations and individuals during the survey. The Arctic Goose Joint Venture, Sea Duck Joint Venture, Central and Mississippi Flyway Councils, and the USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management and Region 6 all provided financial support for the survey. The Canadian Wildlife Service; the Inuvialuit Final Agreement; Ekaluktutiak Hunters and Trappers Organization; Wildlife Management Advisory Council (Northwest Territories); Nunavut Department of the Environment; the Ulukhaktok community, the Gjoa Haven, Kugluktuk, and Olokhaktomiut Hunters and Trappers committees; Polar Continental Shelf Project; Northwest Territories Department of Environment and Natural Resources; and the Tuktoyaktuk and Sachs Harbor Hunters and Trappers committees supported the survey and provided logistical assistance. We also thank R. Alisauskas, B. Bartzen, D. Caswell, L. Dickson, K. Fleming, J. Hines, J. Ingram, J. Leafloor, R. MacDonald, G. Raven, and M. Robertson for advice and support on survey design and logistics. B. Conant, J.F. Dufour, D. Groves, R. MacDonald, E. Mallek, T. Moser, W. Rhodes, and F. Roetker flew and/or were observers during the survey. P. Devers, J. Dooley, J. Dubovsky, T. Sanders, three anonymous reviewers, and the Associate Editor made helpful comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript. Work on this project was done under Nunavut Wildlife Research Permits WL 000074, WL 000871, WL 000894, WL 2008-998, WL 2009-030, WL 2011-033 and Northwest Territories Wildlife Research Permits WL005587, WL055403 and WL007413.

Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Author notes

Citation: Garrettson PR, Kruse KL, Moser TJ, Groves DJ. 2020. Exploratory surveys of migratory birds breeding in the western and central Canadian Arctic 2005–2011. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 11(1):321–340; e1944-687X. https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-082

Competing Interests

The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Supplementary data