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Breeding habitats and new breeding locations for Ross's gull (Rhodostethia rosea) in the Canadian High Arctic.

(Received 5 December 2011; accepted in revised form 10 January 2012)

ABSTRACT. Published accounts list only four breeding sites for Ross's gull (Rhodostethia rosea) in North America, but the discovery of additional breeding sites in Queen's Channel, Nunavut, adds to growing evidence that this species is established as a regular breeder in the Canadian High Arctic despite its current status as a Threatened Species in Canada. We present nine breeding records of Ross's gull in Canada. Five are from Queen's Channel alone, and these include two new breeding records from 2011. The geographic proximity and similarity in topography, microhabitat, and interspecific nesting associations that characterize Ross's gull nesting sites in the Canadian High Arctic suggest that additional surveys of surrounding suitable habitat would confirm a stable and globally significant breeding population of this very poorly known species in North America.

Key words: Ross's gull, Rhodostethia rosea, breeding site, High Arctic, threatened species, polynya, biogeography

RESUME. Mon des donnees deja publiees, il n'existe que quatre lieux de reproduction de la mouette rosee (Rhodostethia rosea) en Amerique du Nord. Cependant, la decouverte de nouveaux lieux de reproduction dans le chenal Queens, au Nunavut, vient renforcer les preuves selon lesquelles cette espece est etablie en tant qu'oiseau nicheur regulier dans l'Extreme-Arctique canadien, meme si elk fait actuellement partie de la liste des especes menacees au Canada. Nous presentons neuf enregis-trements relatifs a la reproduction de la mouette rosee au Canada. Cinq de ces enregistrements sont relatifs au chenal Queens, dont deux nouveaux enregistrements de reproduction qui datent de 2011. La proximite geographique et les similitudes sur le plan de la topographie, du microhabitat et des associations de nidification interspecifiques caracterisant les lieux de reproduction de la mouette rosee dans l'Extreme-Arctique canadien laissent entendre que des leves supplementaires d'habitats environnants convenables permettraient de confirmer une population d'oiseaux nicheurs stable et generalement importante de cette espece tres peu connue en Amerique du Nord.

Mots cies: mouette rose, Rhodostethia rosea, lieu de reproduction, Extreme-Arctique, especes menacees, polynie, biogeographie

Traduit pour la revue Arctic par Nicole Giguere.

INTRODUCTION

Although the type specimen of Ross's gull (Rhodostethia rosea) was secured in Foxe Basin, Nunavut, in 1823, the breeding grounds of the species remained unknown for more than 80 years until a few small colonies were discovered scattered across the Kolyma River Delta in Siberia (Buturlin, 1906). Other colonies were subsequently discovered in the deltas of the Alazeya, Yana, Indigirka, and Lena Rivers (Dementiev and Gladkov, 1969; Degtyarev et al., 1987). Breeding has also been recorded on the Taimyr Peninsula (Pavlov and Dorogov, 1976; Yesou, 1994) and the Chaun River Delta (Pearce et al., 1998). Several breeding records from Greenland and Canada have also been described, but were assumed to represent opportunistically nesting vagrant or nomadic birds rather than a stable and self-sustaining population (Blomqvist and Elander, 1981; Bechet et al., 2000). Egevang and Boertmann (2008) collected and presented an extensive list of previously unpublished or poorly documented breeding records from Greenland, suggesting that this species is a rare but regular breeder there. In Canada, Ross's gull is listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada as a threatened species (COSEWIC, 2007), but considerable evidence supports the hypothesis that a stable and possibly reproductively isolated breeding population of Ross's gulls exists in northern Canada. Known and suspected breeding sites are remote and difficult to access, and even casual surveys have been infrequent.

The Ross's gull is the least known of all Lands, and even basic information concerning the life history and general ecology of the species is largely lacking. It is still unknown where Ross's gulls spend the winter, and even descriptions of the breeding range of this species are highly speculative. The most recent and qualified estimate puts the Russian breeding population of Ross's gulls at a minimum of 45 000-55 000 adults, but less than 1% of this estimated population can be accounted for in known breeding colonies (Degtyarev, 1991). The geographic range and number of birds breeding in the Nearctic is unknown.

A better understanding of where Ross's gulls breed and what their habitat requirements are is a necessary first step in generating accurate population estimates and developing practical and relevant management plans in areas of their range where they may be susceptible to disturbance. Here, our objectives were to summarize previously known breeding records in the Nearctic, describe recently found breeding sites, and define a suite of specific habitat conditions characterizing all High Arctic breeding sites of Ross's gull that should be used as a basis for future surveys.

METHODS

Records of Ross's gulls breeding in the Nearctic were collected from a variety of sources, including unpublished material, personal communications, and museum specimen histories.

In the field, we conducted targeted aerial and ground surveys in an area of suitable nesting habitat in Queen's Channel and Penny Strait, Nunavut (Fig. 1). Two aerial surveys were made from a Bell 407 helicopter, one on 26 June and the other on 3 July 2011. On 26 June, two of the authors (M. Maftei and S.E. Davis), assisted by another biologist, surveyed Crozier, Milne, Kalivik, and Emikutailaq Islands. Crozier and Milne Islands were surveyed from a height of approximately 50 m in parallel transects approximately 200 m apart. An area of Milne Island where Ross's gulls had been reported breeding in 1981 was surveyed on foot. No Ross's gulls were seen on Crozier Island or Milne Island. Kalivik and Emikutailaq Islands were surveyed from the air, but only partially surveyed on foot because of time constraints. Ross's gulls were observed on both islands. On 3 July, M. Maftei and four other biologists surveyed South Cheyne, Middle Cheyne, and Seymour Islands. South Cheyne and Middle Cheyne Islands were both surveyed on foot. An aerial survey of Seymour Island was curtailed on account of dense fog, and this island was only partially surveyed on foot in the area near a known ivory gull colony. No Ross's gulls were seen on any of the three islands.

RESULTS

To summarize breeding records of Ross's gull in the Nearctic, we retrieved information on 32 records from nine Canadian breeding sites, as well as 15 previously described Ross's gull records from nine additional breeding sites in Greenland (Table 1).

TABLE 1. Summary of Ross's
gull (Rhodostethia rosea) breeding records in the Nearctic.

Country         Site         Year  # Adult      Source
                                     birds

Canada

           Churchill          1978        1  S. MacDonald,
                                             in Chartier and
                                             Cooke (1980)

                              1980        6  Chartier and
                                             Cooke (1980)

                              1982      10+  R. Koes in EC
                                             (2007)

                              1992       4+  R. Koes and B.
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              1993        4  R, Koes and B.
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              1994        6  R. Koes and B.
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              1995        3  R. Koes and B,
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              1997        2  R. Koes and B.
                                             Chartier. in EC
                                             (2007)

                              1998        ?  R. Koes and B,
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              1999        1  R. Koes and B.
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              2000        2  R. Koes and B.
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              2001        3  R. Koes and B.
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              2002       10  COSEW1C (2007)

                              2004        2  R. Koes and B.
                                             Chartier, in EC
                                             (2007)

                              2005        5  COSEWIC(2007)

           Middle Cheyne Is.  1974       1+  Mallory and
                                             Gilchrist
                                             (2003)

                              1976        6  MacDonald
                                             (1978)

                              1978       12  MacDonald
                                             (1978)

                              2006        8  Mallory et al.
                                             (2006)

           South Cheyne Is.   2006        2  M. Mallory,
                                             unpubl. data

           Milne Is.          1981        7  M. Mallory,
                                             unpubl. data

           Seymour Is.        1974        3  M. Mallory,
                                             unpubl, data

           Prince Charles     1997        2  Bechet et at.
           Is.                               (2000)

           Nasaruvaalik Is.   2005        9  EC (2007)

                              2006        2  Mallory el al.
                                             (2006)

                              2007       12  EC (2007)
yes

                              2008        6  This paper

                              2009        6  This paper

                              2010        5  This paper

                              2011        8  This paper

           Emikutailaq Is.    2011        4  This paper
           Kativik Is.        2011        1  This paper

Greenland
           Henrik Kroyer      1993        2  Egevang and
           Holme                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
                              2003        2  Gilget al.

                                             (2003)
           Kilen              1984        2  T. Jensen, in
                                             Egevang and
                                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
                              1993        2  M. Elander, in
                                             Egevang and
                                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
           Kap Eiler          1979        2  Hjort(1980)

           Rasmussen
           Godthaabsfjorden   1927        1  Egevang and
                                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
           Qasigiannguil      1880        ?  Egevang and
                                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
           Ikamuit            1885        ?  Egevang and
                                             Boertman (2008)

           Nuussuaq           1973        ?  Egevang and
                                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
           Kitsissunnguit     1979        2  Kampp and
                                             Kristensen

                                             (1980)
                              1996        2  A.S. Frich. in
                                             Egevang and
                                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
                              2004        2  L. Witting, in
                                             Eaevane and
                                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
                              2006        6  C. Egevang, in
                                             Egevang and
                                             Boertman

                                             (2008)
                              2007        1  S. Hoist and P.
                                             Larsson,
in         confirmed
                                             Egevang and

                                             Boertman
                                             (2008)
           Aavertuut          1984        1  Egevang and
                                             Boertman
                                             (2008)

    Notes         With
              arctic
               terns

breeding      yes
unconfirmed

breeding      yes
unconfirmed

5 nests       yes (1)

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

1 nest        yes (1)

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

breeding      yes (1)

unconfirmed

1 nest, I     yes (1)
juvenile
seen

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

breeding      yes (1)
confirmed

1 nest, 1     yes (1)
juvenile
seen

breeding      yes
unconfirmed

breeding
unconfirmed

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

breeding      yes (1)
unconfirmed

breeding      yes
confirmed

breeding      yes
unconfirmed

breeding      no
unconfirmed

1 nest        yes

5 nests       yes

1 nest        yes

2 nests, 1    yes

chick

2 nests       yes

1 nest        yes

2 nests       yes

1 nest        yes

1 nest        yes
breeding      yes

suspected

1 nest        yes

breeding      yes

suspected
breeding      unknown
unconfirmed

breeding      unknown
unconfirmed

I nest, I     no

chick
breeding      unknown
unconfirmed

breeding      unknown
confirmed

breeding      yes
confirmed

breeding not  yes
confirmed

1 nest        yes

breeding not  yes
confirmed

nest          yes

1 nest, 3     yes
chicks
hatched

breeding not

breeding      unknown
unconfirmed

(1)Assumed "yes" based on previous records.


On 26 June 2011, while conducting an aerial survey for breeding Ross's gulls in Queen's Channel and Penny Strait, Nunavut, we discovered two pairs of Ross's gulls, one of which was associated with a nest, on Emikutailaq Island (75[degrees]29' N, 97[degrees]14' W), and we saw a single Ross's gull on Kalivik Island (75[degrees]32 N, 97[degrees]12' W). Eight individuals including a nesting pair were also observed on Nasaruvaa-lik Island (76[degrees]49' N, 96[degrees]18' W), at a known breeding site that has previously been described in detail (Mallory et al., 2006). Emikutailaq and Kalivik Islands had never before been surveyed.

Emikutailaq Island is small (1 k[m.sup.2]) and supports a lush, abundant substrate of mosses, sedges, and herbaceous vegetation. The name of the island is derived from the Inuktitut word for "tern," reflecting a long-term recognition of this site as an important arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) colony. Extensive vegetation as well as Thule tent rings and scattered whale bones evince the historical importance of Emikutailaq Island as a base from which humans and birds alike could exploit the rich marine resources nearby.

After surveying about half of the island on foot, we observed a Ross's gull hovering, flying slow, tight circles in one spot, and subsequently alighting on a nest that contained three eggs. The nest was constructed on a gentle slope of gravel running up from an expanse of deep green moss to a low ridge that dropped abruptly off into a small pond on the far side. The substrate consisted of gravel interspersed with scattered pieces of dry, dead moss. The nest was lined with grass, feathers, and small fragments of lichen, consistent with other Ross's gull nests in the High Arctic (Mallory et al., 2006; Egevang and Boertmann, 2008). While on Emikutailaq Island, we also observed a second pair of Ross's gulls that were bathing, preening, and displaying to each other in a pond close by the first nest, but because of time constraints, we were unable to search the island to locate more birds or nests.

Kalivik Island (9 k[m,sup.2]) is mostly unvegetated gravel, but a small (0.5 k[m,sup.2]), sparsely vegetated gravel dome is connected to the main island by a very narrow isthmus. This part of the island contained a dense colony of arctic terns, Sabine's gulls (Xema sabini), and at least single pairs of long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) and red-throated loon (Gavia stellata). One breeding plumage Ross's gull was seen exhibiting nest defense behaviour, but despite a brief search, we were unable to find a nest or a second bird.

We have surveyed the Cheyne Islands each year since 2002 and observed one nesting pair of Ross's gulls in 2006 (Table 1). None were observed when we visited the islands on 3 July 2011. Similarly, Ross's gulls were observed nesting among terns on Milne Island in the 1980s, but we saw none on the island on 26 June 2011, although terns still nested there.

Ross's gulls have been observed nesting on Nasaruvaalik Island every summer since 2005, when the island was first surveyed, and up to five pairs have nested there in a given year (EC, 2007). In 2008, two male Ross's gulls were trapped during the breeding season and marked with unique colour bands. One of these birds has been seen every year since it was banded. In 2011, it was observed mating with a female while on Nasaruvaalik Island, and presumably it nested nearby, as it returned to Nasaruvaalik Island in August. The second bird was not seen in 2009 or 2010, but it returned to breed in 2011.

DISCUSSION

Throughout their range, Ross's gulls nest in remote areas that receive little attention from biologists, and prior to our discovery of breeding birds on Kalivik and Emikutailaq Islands, every North American nesting site had been discovered opportunistically during surveys for other species. Although determining the breeding distribution and habitat requirements of this species is a recognized conservation science priority in Canada, where Ross's gull is listed federally as a threatened species (COSEWIC, 2007), the high cost and considerable logistical difficulty inherent in flying aerial surveys in the High Arctic pose a great challenge. Our observations of returning, colour-marked birds on Nasaruvaalik Island indicate that individuals are annual breeders and faithful to nesting islands, although we speculate that they may nest on neighbouring islands in response to yearly fluctuations in snow and ice cover or the presence of arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus) early in the season.

Ross's gull breeding sites in the High Arctic are characterized by several notable similarities. On a large scale, all breeding sites in the High Arctic in both Canada and Greenland are located near polynyas or consistent leads in the sea ice (Stirling, 1995). Ross's gulls breeding on Nasaruvaalik Island and Emikutailaq Island make extensive use of a small polynya in Crozier Channel for up to two weeks before breeding, during which time they engage in extensive courtship displays, mating, feeding, and nest-site prospecting (M. Maftei, pers. obs.).

The association between Ross's gulls and arctic terns has been well documented in the High Arctic (Mallory et al., 2006; Egevang and Boertmann, 2008). Even in Siberia and Churchill, Manitoba, where Ross's gulls nest inland, they are invariably found in association with terns (Buturlin, 1906; Chartier and Cooke, 1980; Densley, 1999). In North America, this nesting association extends to a guild of species that includes Sabine's gulls, red phalaropes (Phala-ropus.fulicarius), red-throated loons, and common eiders (Somateria mollissima borealis) (e.g., Mallory and Gilchrist, 2003), which most likely reflects the general paucity of favourable nesting sites in the High Arctic and the lack of territorial and resource competition between these species.

All known Ross's gull nests in the High Arctic are situated on near-level ground, usually in mossier areas of islands (COSEWIC, 2007). The apparent association of Ross's gulls with moss may be an artifact of their habit of nesting within the outer periphery of arctic tern colonies, which are invariably characterized by such vegetative growth, fertilized through biotransport of nutrients in droppings and food waste (Michelutti et al., 2010). Proximity to freshwater does not seem to be a major factor affecting nest placement. Ross's gulls nesting in the High Arctic do not appear to feed in freshwater ponds, and they apparently feed exclusively on marine invertebrates during breeding. In contrast, Ross's gulls breeding near Churchill nest in a wet and boggy area of inland coastal taiga (Chartier and Cooke, 1980). This site closely resembles the nesting habitat used by Ross's gulls in Siberia, where they form small colonies in areas of polygon ponds in taiga floodplains and feed almost exclusively in freshwater during the breeding season (Buturlin, 1906; Densley, 1999).

Ross's gulls seem to prefer nesting on small islands surrounded by mostly ice-free waters. This is true for most sites in Greenland (Egevang and Boertmann, 2008) and Canada (MacDonald, 1978; Chartier and Cooke, 1980; Bechet et al., 2000; Mallory et al., 2006). Mammalian predators such as arctic fox and polar bear (Ursus maritimus) are purportedly less likely to pose a risk to ground-nesting birds breeding on smaller islands. However, in five years of monitoring breeding birds at Nasaruvaalik Island, we noted frequent visits from bears, which swam considerable distances across open water before they came ashore and subsequently ate significant numbers of eggs and fledglings, mostly of common eiders. Although nesting on islands may reduce the risk of predation by mammalian predators like foxes (Clark and Shutter, 1999), an alternative explanation for the general preference Ross's gulls and many other species show for nesting on small Arctic islands is that they offer the greatest available area for foraging within a minimum radius around a nesting site. Our observations of arctic terns, Sabine's gulls, and Ross's gulls at Nasaruvaalik Island indicate that the vast majority of individuals of all three species forage within a few hundred meters of the colony. Minimizing commuting time between feeding areas and nesting sites is especially important for arctic terns, since their inability to swallow and regurgitate food for their chicks makes them particularly susceptible to klep-toparasitism. Ground-nesting arctic Lands show a preference for nesting on peninsulas and points, even when better or safer alternatives are available farther inland on the same islands. This preference suggests that the benefits of a nest site with access to the ocean in multiple directions and a larger area of shallow water with abundant prey within a minimum radius outweigh the cost of nesting on low-lying and exposed areas, which are almost invariably where predators make landfall.

Indirect support for this theory can be inferred from the primary defensive strategy of terns and small Arctic gulls, which consists of colony-wide mobbing of predators and is most effective if a large number of birds are present at all times. This advantage is quickly lost if much of the nesting population of a colony and many non-breeding birds, which also participate in defensive mobbing, are foraging too far from the colony to be able to react quickly to a disturbance.

Typically, Ross's gulls arrive at breeding sites up to two weeks before all other species except common eiders and king eiders (Somateria spectabilis), and they subsequently lay their eggs approximately 7 to 11 days ahead of Sabine's gulls and arctic terns. Why Ross's gulls arrive and start nesting so far in advance of other species is unclear, but their early arrival may result from a shorter travel distance from nearby Arctic wintering areas (K. Boadway and M.L. Mallory, unpubl. data).

Given that all currently known Ross's gull nesting sites in the High Arctic exhibit a suite of conspicuous and easily assessed physical and ecological characteristics, we propose that future surveys of appropriate habitat within the currently known range of this species in the Canadian High Arctic should be undertaken with the confidence that they will reveal a significant breeding population. The two areas that show the greatest potential to host significant numbers of breeding Ross's gulls in the Canadian Arctic are the islands in Foxe Basin and the islands in Queen's Channel, Penny Strait, and McDougall Sound (Fig. 1). Within these areas, surveys should focus on small islands that arctic terns are known or suspected to use, particularly those that are located in or around polynyas or consistent leads in the ice.

To maximize chances of detecting Ross's gulls, surveys should be conducted in the early season (25 May-15 June) to exploit the gulls' early arrival at breeding sites. During this time, they are among the few birds present and perform conspicuous aerial and ground-based courtship displays. While Ross's gulls are easily observed at a distance from the air, they are susceptible to disturbance caused by fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters (Degtyarev, 1991; K. Boadway and M.L. Mallory, unpubl. data). They react by flying away a considerable distance, and they return only after the engine noise has subsided. We recommend ground-based surveys on foot as a more reliable and less disturbing method of locating Ross's gulls at nesting sites.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Financial support for this project was provided by Environment Canada (Canadian Wildlife Service and Interdepartmental Recovery Fund), the Canadian Wildlife Federation, the Polar Continental Shelf Program (Natural Resources Canada), the Northern Scientific Training Program (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Equipment was graciously supplied by Canada Goose Inc. We thank S. Lodge, J. Akearok, and M. Pelletier for their assistance in the field.

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(1.) High Arctic Gull Research Group, Department of Biology, Memorial University, St. John's, Newfoundland AlB 3X9, Canada

(2.) Corresponding author: mark.maftei@gmail.com

(3.) High Arctic Gull Research Group, Department of Biology, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia B4P 2R6, Canada

[C] The Arctic Institute of North America

MARK MAFTEI, (1), (2) SHANTI E. DAVIS, (1) IAN L. JONES (1) and MARK L. MALLORY (3)
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Author:Maftei, Mark; Davis, Shanti E.; Jones, Ian L.; Mallory, Mark L.
Publication:Arctic
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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