Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Fest

Arctic Birds on the Fly

The awe and obstacles of migratory birds from Arctic Refuge

U.S.Fish&Wildlife Alaska


A version of this article as an interactive Arc GIS story map can be found here.

Migration is an amazing feat.

Many species undergo yearly migrations, from caribou traveling to safe and nutritious summer calving grounds, salmon returning to their natal rivers to spawn and die, to the thousands of bird species throughout the world that depend on a safe journey between breeding and wintering areas.

Caribou 📷 Danielle Brigida/USFWS; Shorebird flock 📷 Carla Stanley/USFWS

Migration can be a dangerous feat.

Many migratory bird species found throughout North America are in steep decline, particularly landbirds, shorebirds, and seabirds. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Early investments in habitat protection, restoration, and enhancement have increased most migratory waterfowl (ducks and geese) numbers — a North American conservation success story.

Though habitat loss is the biggest driver for most bird declines, there are several other direct threats that migratory birds face during their yearly journeys. Luckily, there are also solutions.

A small brown and white shorebird stands on tundra with one wing pointing into the air.
A semipalmated sandpiper lifts a wing in a breeding display in the Arctic. 📷 Peter Pearsall/USFWS

Join us as we traverse the diverse breeding landscape of Arctic Refuge, from the famous coastal plain, to the boreal forest and the steep peaks in between. We’ll connect with several bird species, learn about the threats they face during their journey, and how each of us can help them overcome those obstacles.

Coastal Plain

Yellow tundra grass and calm ponds with a cloudy sky
Wetlands dot a flat expanse of tundra on the Arctic coastal plain. 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Between the Arctic Ocean and the Brooks Range, the grassy tundra of the Arctic coastal plain provides an incredible northern nursery for baby birds from all five North American flyways. Abundant water, fairly few predators, and a thriving insect population create a productive breeding ground for many species of waterfowl and shorebird — including the Black-bellied Plover, a species we’ll meet later in our tour.

Subalpine and Brooks Mountain Range

Mountains on either side of a river valley.
Jagged peaks lift up from the foothills and lead into the Brooks Mountain Range. 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

You can encounter many shrub-loving and alpine-dependent birds in the mountainous areas of the refuge along the Brooks Range. Breeding Smith’s longspurs, golden eagles, and gray-crowned rosy finches are just a few species to watch for.

Boreal Forest

A river curves through a forest of spruce trees.
A river winds through spruce boreal forest in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 Callie Gesmundo/USFWS

Southern areas of the refuge are blanketed in the greenery of the boreal forest spruce trees. These forests are a summer home to numerous species of migratory songbirds, several of which we’ll soon encounter.

Wilson’s Warbler

Scientific Name: Cardellina pusilla

Arctic Refuge Biome: boreal forest

Collage of three images: a small yellow songbird with black cap, a map of North America with red, yellow, and blue to show summer, migration, and wintering abundance, and a bank of windows with reflective designs and birds outside.
Wilson’s warbler 📷 Zak Pohlen/USFWS, migration map by eBird, window mural 📷 HungLiu/Flickr Creative Commons

The first species on our tour is a common, though declining bird. Wilson’s warblers breed throughout most of Alaska, Canada, and mountain ranges and coastal areas of western United States. During migration, this species can be spotted in most U.S. states, before arriving to their wintering areas in Mexico and Central America.

Wilson’s warblers migrate over land covering broad swaths of the country, including over and through urban environments. Unfortunately, window collisions are a common source of mortality for small migratory birds like warblers.

We can make windows safer during the day by breaking up the reflection with window film, string, murals, or other patterns spaced no more than 2 inches apart. At night, help birds avoid building collisions by supporting lights-out campaigns in your hometown.

Smith’s Longspur

Scientific Name: Calcarius pictus

Arctic Refuge Biome: forest-tundra transition

Collage of images: a tan, black and white songbird on grassy tundra, a map of North America with red, yellow, and blue to show summer, migration, and wintering abundance, and a logo with a ladybug and text that reads: Pesticide Free Zone.”
Smith’s Longspur 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS, migration map by eBird, sign by Seattle Parks and Recreation/Flickr Creative Commons

Smith’s longspurs are dependent on shorter vegetation, from shrubby or bare tundra on their breeding grounds, to the grasslands of U.S.’s southern Great Plains where they spend the winter.

Longspurs are a type of sparrow, noticeable by their bill shape and brownish colored plumage. They enjoy a diet of insects throughout the summer and seeds with some ground invertebrates in the winter.

Over 1 billon pounds of pesticides are applied throughout the U.S. each year. Both largescale insecticides and common weed killers used around the home can directly harm birds when they eat contaminated seeds and insects, or indirectly through an overall reduction of insects. Reducing pesticides used around the home and garden, and purchasing pesticide-free food are ways we all can help birds like Smith’s longspurs continue to prosper.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Scientific name: Setophaga coronata

Arctic Refuge Biome: boreal forest

Collage of images: a black, white, and yellow songbird in a spruce tree, a map of North America with red, yellow, and blue to show summer, migration, and wintering abundance, and a cat with a blue leash.
Yellow-rumped warbler 📷 Zak Pohlen/USFWS, migration map by eBird, kitty (Milo) on a leash 📷 David DeHetre/Flickr Creative Commons

The yellow-rumped warbler is a wide-ranging species that breeds throughout the boreal forest and mountainous western regions of the United States. Similar to Wilson’s Warblers, it also uses large swaths of the U.S. throughout its yearly journey.

You can often find yellow-rumped warblers gleaning insects and picking small berries off trees in rural to urban environments. Outdoor cats pose a threat to birds like yellow-rumped warblers, because they kill billions of birds each year, even if well fed.

We can help keep birds safe by keeping cats indoors, on a leash, or in a fully enclosed outdoor space like a catio. In return, cats benefit by living longer, healthier lives away from danger and disease.

Blackpoll Warbler

Scientific name: Setophaga striata

Arctic Refuge Biome: boreal forest

Collage of images: a black and white songbird on a branch, a map of North America with red, yellow, and blue to show summer, migration, and wintering abundance, and a landscaped yard with native plants.
Blackpoll Warbler 📷 Zak Pohlen/USFWS, migration map by eBird, garden 📷 USEPA

This near-threated species travels up to 2,000 miles between its boreal breeding grounds and South American wintering grounds. Weighing no more than a AAA battery, these birds make an incredible cross-oceanic leap from the eastern seaboard, over the Atlantic Ocean, to northern South America, where they will spend their winter.

Before departing their migratory stopover, blackpoll warblers must double their body weight in order to survive this strenuous flight over the ocean.

Along the way, they will encounter inhospitable landscapes of lawns and pavement, which don’t provide adequate safe rest and refueling during this incredible migration. By replacing lawn with native plantings, we can help provide shelter and food for species like the blackpoll warbler and help it continue its yearly journey.

Black-bellied Plover

Scientific name: Pluvialis squatarola

Arctic Refuge Biome: coastal plain tundra

Collage of images: a white and specked shorebird on a beach with litter, a map of North America with red, yellow, and blue to show summer, migration, and wintering abundance, and a beach with a lot of plastic trash covering the sand.
Black-bellied plover during southerly migration 📷 Zak Pohlen/WCS, migration map by eBird, beach by📷 Callie Gesmundo/WCS

The black-bellied plover is a wide-spread migratory shorebird that breeds along the Arctic coastal plain within its U.S. range. This species also breeds in Arctic Canada and Russia, while it winters on coasts of North, Central, and South America, Western Europe, Africa, southern Asia, Indonesia, and Australia.

Species that rely on our oceans and coastlines are faced with the growing problem of plastic pollution. Species either become entangled or ingest plastic, both of which often lead to death.

We can help birds, and other ocean-dependent species, by using less plastic, avoiding single-use plastics, recycling, or choosing reusable items.

Swainson’s Thrush

Scientifc name: Catharus ustulatus

Arctic Refuge Biome: boreal forest

Collage of images: a tan, black and white songbird on a branch, a map of North America with red, yellow, and blue to show summer, migration, and wintering abundance, and a cup of coffee with coffee beans.
Swainson’s thrush 📷 Zak Pohlen/USFWS, migration map by eBird, coffee by📷 Marco Verch/Flickr Creative Commons

The Swainson’s thrush is an unassuming species with a beautiful flute-like song. Though it’s considered a common bird of northern-spruce forests, it has experienced widespread population declines.

Swainson’s thrush is one of many long-distance migrant birds most likely to be negatively affected by tropical deforestation. Agriculture has caused much of the habitat loss, including tropical deforestation for crops such as full-sun coffee plantations.

To combat this loss of habitat we can drink certified bird-friendly coffee. Bird friendly coffee is the only certification that guarantees coffee is shade-grown. Certified farms provide good, forest-like habitat, second only to undisturbed forests. With the highest standards for canopy cover, canopy height, and insect biodiversity, bird friendly coffee is a delicious way to help birds thrive. Always check for the official Bird Friendly seal.

Gray-headed Chickadee

Scientific Name: Poecile cinctus

Arctic Refuge Biome: forest-tundra transition

Collage of images: a tan, black and white songbird on a stump, a map of North America with red, yellow, and blue to show summer, migration, and wintering abundance, and a group of people looking through scopes and binoculars.
Gray-headed chickadee 📷 Francesco Veronesi/Flickr Creative Commons, basemap by eBird with range sourced from Booms et al. 2020, bird watchers 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

The last species on our journey is a non-migratory, resident bird, but deserves just as much (or more) attention. At one point this species was reliably found breeding along rivers within the refuge. Sadly, there have been no confirmed sightings of this species in North America since it was last photo-documented in 2017.

It is likely this species is undergoing steep population declines and range restrictions, but due to its remote occurrence in low densities, no formal avian monitoring programs have been able to address its population status.

We can help birds like the Gray-headed Chickadee when we participate in citizen science programs like eBird and iNaturalist. Submitting current and historic records of bird sightings or going out and looking in unexplored areas are invaluable ways we can help scientists tackle our growing conservation issues.

Let’s go the way of the duck.

North American waterfowl are an example of a thriving group of migratory animals. Because of conservation investments by hunters and billions of dollars from the government for wetland protection and restoration, this group of birds has increased by 56% over the past 50 years (Rosenberg et al. 2019)

Left: 2015/2016 Federal Duck Stamp Winner. Federal Duck Stamps are conservation revenue stamps that directly contribute to the conservation of waterfowl and wetland habitats. Right: Waterfowl conservation graphic: 35 million waterfowl gained thanks to conservation efforts, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Unfortunately, many non-waterfowl species, like the birds we met on our migration tour, have not fared as well . . .

A graph showing a brigh yellow line steeply declining to show the loss of 3 billion birds since 1970. The background graphic is a map of the U.S. and Canada with bird shapes. Text reads 2.7 billion birds gone since 1970.
Graphic showing the steep decline of bird populations since 1970. Courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Across North America we have nearly 3 billion fewer birds than we had in 1970 (Rosenberg et al. 2019). Many migratory bird species are declining at alarming rates, with common species in decline as well.

A dead white throated sparrow on a brick sidewalk.
White-throated sparrow. 📷 John Donges/Flickr Creative Commons

These species need all our help in order to become the conservation success stories we’ve seen with other groups and species once on the brink of extinction.

View looking up at a bald eagle soaring
The bald eagle, one of the first species to receive protections under the precursor to the Endangered Species Act in 1967, has been removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. 📷 Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Fortunately, there is still hope and ways each of us can help our feathered friends.

Graphic image with a bird photo and 7 graphic icons, with text of 7 Simple Things. The icons depict the text for each tip, listed in the image caption.
Graphic displaying 7 Simple Actions to Help Birds: drink shade grown coffee, reduce plastic use, do citizen science, make windows safe, keep cats indoors, use native plants, avoid pesticides. Courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Learn more:

Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Festival #ArcticBirdFest

3 Billion Birds — 7 Simple Actions to Help Birds

Road to Recovery — Developing the process of recovery for North American Birds

Decline of North American avifauna (Science, Rosenberg et al. 2019)

Callie Gesmundo is a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Migratory Bird Division. She specializes in avian biology, surveys and monitoring, project planning, and logistics. In addition to her field pursuits, Callie is involved in several outreach and education initiatives and enjoys using her experience as a field biologist to engage with and teach others.

In Alaska we are shared stewards of world renowned natural resources and our nation’s last true wild places. Our hope is that each generation has the opportunity to live with, live from, discover and enjoy the wildness of this awe-inspiring land and the people who love and depend on it.

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