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Meet the Flockers: Arctic Edition

Migratory birds connect us to the wider world. In spring, when birds arrive from hundreds or even thousands of miles away, we marvel at the distances they’ve traveled, the places they’ve been. Birds don’t heed borders or language barriers. They transcend them in every sense, soaring beyond the confines of the human-built world and showing us — when we take the time to look — how interconnected we are as inhabitants of this planet.


Dunlin in the Arctic. 📷USFWS/Peter Pearsall


Spring migration brings birds from around the world to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to breed. Many of the birds migrating through the lower 48 eventually make their way here; birds from all four major flyways travel incredible distances to find food, mates, and safety from predators. Each fall, the annual Virtual Arctic Refuge Bird Festival, organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Audubon Alaska, provides an online glimpse into this far-off phenomenon. Many of the festival’s stars can be seen migrating north right now. Meet a few of the standouts:


Blackpoll Warbler. 📷 Scott Heron via Flickr



Blackpoll Warbler (Gwich’in: DaahÂuu)

The tiny blackpoll warbler breeds in the boreal forest of Alaska and Canada, feeding on tiny insects while flitting from branch to branch. The male’s high-pitched staccato song strains the limits of human hearing; “nature’s hearing test” is how some researchers referred to it. “Blackpoll” references the neat black cap of the breeding male; the Yupik name, kuikaman’ayaaq, describes the type of habitat this warbler uses when breeding: near a creek or river, amid alders and spruce trees.


Blackpoll Warbler. 📷 USFWS/Zachary Pohlen


Blackpoll Warblers undertake one of the most remarkable migratory journeys of any North American songbird. Despite weighing about as much as a single AAA battery, Blackpoll Warblers will fly from their wintering grounds in South America all the way to breeding areas in Canada and Alaska, covering between 4,000–6,000 miles one-way. This flight includes a nonstop transit over the Atlantic Ocean that takes them three days and covers more than 1,500 miles.

In addition to this arduous annual journey, Blackpoll Warblers face an uncertain future, partly due to habitat loss and declines in insect prey related to climate change. In the past 40 years, blackpoll warbler populations have dropped by as much as 90 percent.


Savannah Sparrows. 📷 USFWS/Peter Pearsall


Savannah Sparrow (Inupiaq: Aanaruin suliiķpa)

A widespread bird of open spaces, Savannah Sparrows broadcast their buzzy song from the tops of shrubs, fence posts and other prominent perches across much of North America. Their ability to adapt to a variety of habitats has given rise to at least 28 recognized subspecies; Savannah Sparrows can be found breeding in agricultural fields, marshes and coastal grasslands as well as in desert and tundra.


A Savannah Sparrow singing. 📷 USFWS/Peter Pearsall


In Alaska, you’ll find them arriving in early May to nest across nearly the entire state, from alpine meadows to coastal marsh, shrubby bogs, and Arctic grasslands. Savannah sparrows have a strong nest site fidelity and often return to where they hatched, similar to the way salmon migrate back to their natal spawning grounds.


Semipalmated Sandpiper. 📷 USFWS/Peter Pearsall


Semipalmated Plover (Inupiaq: Ķurraķuraķ)

A small, short-billed shorebird, the Semipalmated Plover breeds on tundra from Alaska east across Canada to Nova Scotia. In breeding plumage the adults sport a black mask and black band across the neck; the Yupik name, uyarruyuaq, refers to this distinctive “necklace”. Its common name “semipalmated” is an ornithological term referring to the plover’s webbed front toes; “palmate” means hand-shaped.


Semipalmated Sandpiper. 📷 USFWS/Peter Pearsall


Semipalmated Plovers winter along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to South America. This shorebird rests and eats on sandy beaches, mudflats, and salt marshes. Unlike sandpipers, the Semipalmated Plover does not probe the sand or mud for food. Its shorter bill is instead adapted to plucking mollusks and crustaceans from the beach’s surface.


Black-bellied Plover. 📷 USFWS/Peter Pearsall


Black-bellied Plover (Inupiaq: Tulli’uiķ)

The Black-bellied Plover is the most wide-ranging shorebird in the world. They are a circumpolar species, breeding in the high Arctic around the globe and wintering in such disparate places as South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Their large size and ability to employ different feeding strategies allows them to spend winters further north than any other plover species. Adults in breeding plumage on the Alaska tundra are a striking contrast of black belly, white cape and mottled back.


Black-bellied Plover. 📷 USFWS/Peter Pearsall


As they leave for Alaska, look for them foraging on shorelines across the continent, scurrying after prey in short bursts of speed. They’re often found feeding and roosting with other shorebirds in mixed flocks.


Projected temperature increases due to a changing climate will likely shrink the breeding range of black-bellied plovers in Alaska. Human development could also potentially threaten this species in the near future.


Townsend’s Warbler. 📷 USFWS/Peter Pearsall


Townsend’s Warbler (Gwich’in: DaahÂuu)

The beautiful Townsend’s Warbler darting through the overstory of a spruce forest is a flash of color in an otherwise shaded, evergreen environment. These small insect-eating birds breed in mature coniferous forests of the Northwest, spending their non-breeding season along the Pacific Coast all the way down into Mexico and Central America.


Townsend’s Warbler. 📷 USFWS/Zachary Pohlen


Of fifty warbler species regularly found throughout the U.S. and Canada, 11 make their way to Alaska each summer to breed. Like many other migratory birds, warblers take advantage of abundant insects and prime nesting habitat to raise young in the U.S. and Canada, before traveling to warmer areas like Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean to spend the winter.


The mature conifer forests that Townsend’s Warblers depend on during the breeding season are threatened by logging and, increasingly, wildfires: Climate change brings longer, hotter, drier summers to the Northwest, and with these conditions comes the increased risk of devastating wildfires.


Due to a range of factors, from habitat loss or degradation at wintering and breeding grounds, to delayed prey abundance as a result of climate change, bird populations across the continent have declined by an average of 70% since 1970 — a loss of at least 3 billion birds. Species that breed in the Arctic are among the hardest hit.


That’s one of the reasons why places like Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are so important — they provide reliable resting, breeding and nesting habitat for hundreds of migratory bird species and other wildlife.


Learn More

Wandering Warblers: Tiny Migrant Songbirds with Arctic Aspirations

Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Fest #ArcticBirdFest


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