Scientists Examine Bird Population Trends in Western Greenland

Kurt Burnham with adult female Peregrine Falcon. All photos courtesy: High Arctic Institute For a few months every year, thousands of birds fill the skies, rocky cliffs and grassy landscapes of Greenland’s west coast to nest and hatch their young. Here nesting birds find abundant food sources and shelter. And here is where scientists come to study them.

Kurt Burnham has studied populations of Peregrine Falcons and Common Eiders in Greenland since the early 1990s. Burnham is the president and CEO of the High Arctic Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to research and conservation of Arctic avian species. The group also offers educational resources to the public.

Peregrine Falcon young await their mother.

“Our work is a continuation of research that originally started in Greenland back in the early 1970s with Peregrine Falcons and Gyrfalcon in the Kangerlussuaq area,” says Burnham. “We’ve expanded now to not just work with falcons, but working with water fowl, seabirds and all different avian species in the Thule area.”

Kangerlussuaq’s Peregrine Falcons

Earlier this summer, Burnham and a team of researchers from the High Arctic Institute and partnering universities traveled to Kangerlussuaq in central-western Greenland to study the area’s Peregrine Falcon population. This work is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Peregrine Falcons are found on every continent on earth except Antarctica. Once fully grown, these falcons can measure up to two feet tall. They prefer to nest on high structures like a city skyscraper or, in Greenland, on cliffs or ledges with patches of grass and sand where the female will lay up to four eggs.

Burnham and his team spent a week surveying Kangerlussuaq’s rolling tundra looking for Peregrine Falcons, counting and documenting the location of their nests, and recording if eggs or hatchlings were present. This year’s population surveys add another layer of data to a body of research that is more than four-decades old and includes everything from population counts to behavioral studies.

“Since our work started in the early 1970s--and through to the late 1990s—the population of Peregrine Falcons in Kangerlussuaq has steadily increased,” Burnham said. “Now we’re starting to get indications that the population peaked in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and now it might actually be leveling off and decreasing a bit.”

Population Upswing in Thule

The researchers also spent three weeks in Thule (northwest Greenland) adding contributing to Peregrine Falcon observations Burnham began in 1993. Data suggest an increase in the Peregrine Falcon numbers in Thule due in part to climate change.

“The increase in Thule is likely the result of climate changes—basically, the breeding window is becoming longer so they are able to arrive a little earlier and stay later. And there is also a larger number of birds from the south pushing north to look for more open and suitable habitats, expanding their range,” Burnham said.

The researchers will typically see seven or eight pairs of Peregrine Falcons during their surveys. This may not sound like many, but scientists believe Peregrine Falcons are new to the Thule area. Burnham points out that they first appeared in Thule just 20-30 years ago.

In addition to making detailed observations this summer, Burnham also gathered information on nesting chronology, as well as collected genetic and pollutant samples.

Common Eider Population Boom

Common Eiders gather on the ice.

Earlier work completed by Burnham focused on the Common Eider population of the islands around Thule. Common Eiders spend nearly their entire life in Greenland where massive colonies of birds build their nests in patches of grass on the ground.

Their nesting habits made them easy prey for hunters over the last hundred years. Hunters would harvest their eggs by the thousands and shoot adult birds in equally large numbers. The results were catastrophic. Today, laws in Greenland limit egg harvesting and hunting. And because of this the population is now increasing.

“We set up a grid search on the island. We have to come up with a way of not counting a nest twice, so we put a sugar cube in the nest so we know we counted it. Once it rains the sugar dissolves and goes away.” Burnham explained. “We work our way through each island and, in some cases, a relatively small island will have upward of 3,000-4,000 nests. It’s an incredibly high density. The nests can even be touching one another.”

Tracking Bird Migrations

In addition to studying bird population trends in Greenland, Burnham and his university partners are interested in studying and mapping the migration patterns of different species. Two years ago, they began tagging certain species in the Thule areas with geolocators. These tiny devices are only the size of the tip of your pinky and weigh up to 1.5 grams. Despite their small size, they are packed with technology that can approximate a bird’s location based on when the sun rises and sets at a given location.

Unlike satellite transmitters, which continually beam data back to the researcher, the geolocators Burnham is using record the data internally. This means that Burnham will have to return to Greenland periodically to recapture the tagged birds, retrieve the geolocator and download the data.

An adult male Lapland Longspur.

Though there’s a bit more work involved for the researchers, the units are considerably cheaper than satellite transmitters. Burnham began this tracking project by tagging Black-legged Kittiwakes in the Thule area. This year, they expanded tracking to include Atlantic Puffins, Lapland Longspurs, and Red-necked Phalaropes. They also tagged Peregrine Falcons with geolocators and gathered data from birds tagged in 2012.

“These are birds in the Thule area for which very little is known about where they winter. For instance, for the Atlantic Puffin there’s nothing known about where the puffins in the Thule area migrate in the wintertime. The same is true for the Red-necked Phalarope in general,” Burnham said.

A Red-necked Phalarope with a geolocator attached to its leg.

Some of the tracking units have a lifespan of several years, which will—for the first time-- shed light on where the Atlantic Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake, Lapland Longspur and the Red-necked Phalarope travel during their migrations to and from western Greenland.

Researchers capture and remove geolocators from Black-legged Kittiwakes.

For more information on Kurt Burnham’s research and the High Arctic Institute, visit: To watch a video about the High Arctic Institute’s 2013 field season in Thule, Greenland, visit: (4:48). —Alicia Clarke