By Katrina Rossos
University of Florida graduate student Philipp Maleko, was a member of a research team over the summer that discovered the nest of an endangered Russian shorebird. This bird is not just endangered, it is elusive. No one had found a nest of the Nordmann’s greenshank in more than 40 years, until this year.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Maleko moved to Los Angeles, California at the age of six. He received his bachelor’s degree from University of California – Davis. After graduation, he spent three years doing field work across the country until he became a member of the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Florida. He is currently seeking a master’s degree in interdisciplinary ecology with the School of Natural Resources and Ecology (SNRE) under the advisement of Dr. Abby Powell.
Maleko joined expedition leader Dr. Vladimir Pronkevich of the Institute of Aquatic and Ecological Problems (Russian Academy of Sciences) on a two-and-a-half-month trip to eastern Russia.
This project was organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Pronkevich met members of the USFWS and WCS when he was hosting a workshop at a WCS conference in Russia that trains Russian ornithologists on the most modern methodologies of working with shorebirds. Pronkevich expressed interest to the two organizations about studying the Nordmann’s Greenshank.
Maleko found out about this research opportunity from Dr. Powell. He had initially contacted Powell as an undergraduate student to express interest in studying eiders, an Arctic sea duck that Powell had studied while living in Alaska. She informed him that while there were no current projects on the duck species, there was a project developing on an endangered shorebird that breeds in Russia and flies throughout China and southeast Asia.
“Since I know Russian fairly well, I figured I could use my abilities to work in that region because it is more underrepresented than a lot of other regions,” Maleko explained. “I got fortunate in being at the right place at the right time.”
Isolated Russian Living
This research trip was sponsored by WCS and the East Asian Australasian Fly Partnership and led by Pronkevich, who has studied birds in southeastern Russia for 30 years. The research team traveled to southern Russia, settling at a field site on Schaste Bay, a lagoon located on the southwestern corner of the Sea of Okhotsk. There is only one village near Schaste Bay that has a year-round population of three people; fishermen arrive in the summer, boosting the population to about 20. Traveling to this remote study site involved travel by plane, bus, car, and boat. The four-person team lived at the study site for 10 weeks, from mid-May until the end of July. Living at the camp site was difficult and every three weeks the team would make the trek into the village for water and food, which mostly consisted of canned meat.
In addition to Maleko and Pronkevich, there was an additional Russian ornithologist and one bear guard, who stayed alert with a hunting rifle to ensure that the prevalence of brown bears did not harm the team. During the trip, the bear guard had to kill two bears in self-defense.
“These were bears that were either getting really curious in our cabin, in our lodge, or bears that would get really curious to the mode of transportation we were using. We had a rubber boat that we use to get to and from the village where we would get our water and food. So, if the bear scratched up the boat we wouldn’t be able to leave the area. It was defense of life and property,” Maleko explained. The bears that did come close were typically younger bears that were several years old who were inquisitive and smelled food; the mature bears never came to the camp because they understood what was going on, according to Maleko.
A Look at the Nordmann’s Greenshank
The Nordmann’s greenshank is extremely endangered and it is thought that there is only a population of less than 1,000 to 2,000 alive. These birds only nest in Russia and scientists suppose that their populations have significantly declined as a result of illegal hunting and habitat destruction in the Yellow Sea and Southeast Asia, where they stage during their migration and overwinter.
“The species is not only in very low density, but also Eastern Russia is rather vast. All the areas around the Sea of Okhotsk where this species breeds are undeveloped, so it’s rather difficult to access any of the areas,” Maleko explained as to why the bird has been studied so little. “One of the reasons that we chose Schaste Bay was because it’s accessible in terms of getting food and water from a nearby village or Nikolayevsk, a nearby city.”
Since the greenshank has been minimally investigated, scientists are unsure of where else the birds may be distributed. Maleko said that several other expeditions reported seeing greenshanks occasionally, but there were never any in-depth studies conducted on the shorebird. In the future, this project team hopes to place satellite transmitters on the birds so they can track where the shorebirds winter in Southeast Asia and then travel to those concentrated wintering grounds to tag more birds. The transmitters will also show the scientists where the greenshanks travel within Russia. This information will provide the research team with previously unknown breeding distributions of the birds, which will offer them a better understanding about their population numbers and breeding ecology.
Tracking Down the Bird
Once at the study site, the research team was able to see the birds foraging on the mudflats of Schaste Bay. During migration, the team tracked approximately 40 greenshanks, and after migration ended they suspected that about six or seven pairs remained in the region to nest.
“We just had to walk to the shoreline to observe these birds, we got a lot of really great observations,” said Maleko. “I recorded mating behavior, foraging behavior, and preening behavior, but for the many hours observing them we’d also see two birds flying from the foraging area to the forest that is away from the shore.”
According to Maleko, the habitat area from shoreline to inland consisted of a mudflat on the lagoon, then a seaside meadow, then a small band of forest about 15 meters wide, and finally a hummocky bog that included patches of larch forest. It was in these patches of forest that the research team believed the greenshanks were nesting. The team set out into the bog where they observed the birds flying into the forested areas. “You’d take a step and you’d be knee high in moss, it really was exhausting to walk in it,” Maleko said.
The team did this trek over the course of two weeks, each time traveling further and further into the bog to get a better idea of exactly where the greenshanks were flying. The large expanse, dense trees, and rich foliage made it difficult to pinpoint the birds; the team had to “search every nook and cranny,” according to Maleko. Once the team discovered that the birds were heading to a specific part of the larch forest, they were able to approach closer and saw a Nordmann’s Greenshank perched on a snag of a dead tree. Since it is typical of the Tringa genus of sandpipers to perch when guarding a nearby mate who is nesting, the team thought this greenshank was likely protecting something nearby.
“We decided to start combing every tree in its vicinity, in a 30 meter radius, and we all simultaneously approached this one tree that looked like it had a nice gathering of small twigs on a branch and, lo and behold, the greenshank was sitting on it,” Maleko described with enthusiasm.
On observation alone, the team could not tell which bird was female and which bird was male of the pair because the species is visually monomorphic. Furthermore, no researcher has ever observed these birds’ nesting behavior at length so it is unknown if one flies out to forage while the other sits on the nest, or if both take off on the nest together. When mating, however, the scientists could decipher the biological sexes of the birds based on mating displays and calls.
The Nordmann’s Greenshank is the only shorebird currently known that builds their own nests in trees. Two other species of shorebird nest in trees, the solitary sandpiper and the green sandpiper, but they choose to occupy abandoned robin or shrike nests.
“The first individual to study these birds back in the 1970s—he actually observed these birds jumping on larch trees and breaking off branches, or little twigs, and then hopping back to their chosen nesting location and filling the nest and lining the nest with lichen,” explained Maleko. “In Russia just a few days ago we had a lichenologist look at the lichens in the nest, because we collect the nest to be put into a museum, and they said that they identified five different species of lichen in the nest and that it’s possible that these shorebirds actually use these nests year after year, but it’s not conclusive.”
To further determine if the birds use the same nests multiple times, the research team will have a local resident travel around the forest on a snowmobile, when there’s still snow on the ground and no foliage in the trees, to physically search for what might be greenshank nests and take GPS points of these locations. With this information in hand next summer, the team can travel out to those nests and see if the greenshanks are using them again.
Capturing the Birds
In addition to discovering the nest, the team also captured and released seven adult greenshanks and eight of their chicks. Once the nests hatch, the birds lead their chicks into better foraging areas because the bog is not a suitable foraging environment for chicks, but the meadow or mudflat is. When the greenshanks enter the meadow or mudflat, they worry about their young, so they send out alarm calls. These calls tell the team that a set of chicks are nearby.
The team captured the birds in two ways. To capture the chicks, they would lay down and allow the birds to forget that they were present. Then, the greenshanks would lead the chicks out onto the mudflat and the researcher would pop up and capture them. They’d place the chicks in their face-covering bug nets, loose enough so the chicks could walk around and peep. Then, they would place the chicks under a mist net and when the adults came to incubate their chicks they would get caught in the net and the researchers would tag them and take feathers and blood samples. The second method in which they caught the chicks involved using bow nets that are typically used to capture ground nesting birds. This net is made of two half-circles attached at the joints by a spring. When you tighten the spring and when you let go of the net, it will spring closed quickly. The team secured these nets to the top of 2-meter high wooden platforms that they staked into the mudflat. After letting the birds get familiar with the new platforms for a few days, the birds began perching on the platforms to oversee their young. They prefer high perspectives so they can alarm call if there are avian predators or foxes nearby, Maleko explained. When the greenshanks sat on the bow net on the platform the team would pull a rope and trap the bird for tagging and sampling.
Looking to the Future
There is an effort to diminish some of the threats facing the Nordmann’s Greenshank. Currently, a number of conservation organizations are working with rural communities in Southeast Asia, where the birds overwinter, to give them a different type of sustainability other than hunting and consuming shorebirds. Additionally, there are other conservation organizations working on habitat conservation throughout the East Asian Australasian Flyway. A big portion of the threat is in the area of the Yellow Sea between China and the Koreas, which the greenshanks use as a stopover and staging site between their breeding and wintering grounds. This area is currently undergoing a great deal of land reclamation that is reshaping the habitat of the foraging grounds in those areas.
“We’re optimistic that the work from studies like mine that identify these kind of vital areas can focus conservation efforts on the most important regions,” Maleko said. “Obviously with limited funding, limited work power, and limited resources we can’t focus on the entire region but hopefully we can focus on particular sites for protection.”
The team is currently submitting proposals for funding to receive the satellite transmitters that they can hopefully place on the birds next summer to monitor their migration routes and where they overwinter.
Reflecting on the Experience
Maleko said the results they achieved on the pilot project surpassed what the research team had expected. But beyond doing the scientific work, research, and writing, his most memorable experiences were simply taking pleasure in watching the Nordmann’s Greenshanks in their natural habitat. In fact, on one occasion he laid in the grass for four to five hours just watching the birds. He said he wanted to leave because it was getting dark, but he sensed that they were about to do something significant. He decided to stay for another two hours—and in that time he observed them breeding.
“There are so many times we’re sitting in the office reading some paper and the birds all seem so far away. You do so much work just to get out there, you have all these objectives: you have to worry about capturing them, or what you’re going to do in the future, or how are you going to publish everything. So, it’s really nice to just sit and look and kind of just enjoy the moment,” Maleko contended. “That’s definitely the best part of it. It’s kind of why you start doing it in the first place. Those moments are too rare.”