“Will I see caribou on Kanuti Refuge?”

This was one of the many questions my young British volunteer, Dylan Smith, asked me that first day we arrived at the Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge’s field cabin during breakup in early May 2012. I had to tell Smith it was “very unlikely” because, in my previous four springs working there, we had only seen one caribou.

That was okay, given that our focus was to study the breeding ecology of the whimbrel, a large migratory shorebird. And, after all, caribou are primarily an animal of the tundra. Kanuti Refuge is primarily boreal forest and wetlands.

Still, most winters we occasionally see a few caribou wander onto the refuge from the small Ray Mountains Herd to the south, and once or twice a decade we see larger groups from the Western Arctic Herd wintering at the refuge. Indeed, in the winter of 2011–2012, at least 2,000 caribou arrived from the north in late fall, foraged on lichens in the old–growth black spruce woodlands and departed in early spring.

Little did I know that Smith had a bit of the “luck of the British” in him.

Only four days into our two–month stint and just one mile from our cabin, we saw three caribou, including one with antlers. During May, almost all caribou that still have antlers are pregnant females. A photograph of this group suggested that all three were females. One week later we saw two groups of two caribou each with antlers—likely all pregnant females. Then, for a week beginning in late May, we observed a female with a tiny calf beside her near our bird study area.

This was the first time refuge personnel had documented calving by caribou at the refuge. After our sighting, we interviewed caribou biologists, local hunting guides and Alaska Native hunters about caribou calving at the refuge. None had ever observed it, although some suspected it has occurred occasionally before. Sometimes, documenting such phenomena is merely being at the right place at the right time—especially in a place the size of Kanuti Refuge.

At 1.6 million acres, the refuge is about as big as Delaware. It sits atop the Arctic Circle, with approximately a third of the refuge above that parallel and two–thirds below. Protecting breeding habitat for migratory birds is central to its mission. Nearly 130 species of birds spend part or all of the year on refuge lands. Still, the refuge’s boreal forest is home to 37 species of mammals.

Before our stint was complete, Smith saw all of the other big mammals that reside on the refuge: moose, black and brown bears, lynx, river otter and even a curious wolf that approached within 20 yards. Observing these animals for the first time seemed pretty special to him.

While seeing these elusive and rare mammals is always a thrill for me, too, this stuffy old avian biologist was most excited about spotting my first Kanuti Refuge newborn caribou.

Chris Harwood is an avian wildlife biologist at Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.