Get Connected to Arctic Birds

11/23/2021

Birds connect us all. They connect water, land, air and us to other people, cultures and countries far away. Arctic birds have ranges that reach all 50 states and span six continents.

To learn about arctic birds and how they connect us, here are a few birds who migrate to and from the Arctic and some of the many ways we protect them.

Red-necked Phalarope

Female red-necked phalarope on a tundra pond.

Red-necked phalaropes are one of the smallest and most eccentric of shorebirds. Like the closely related red phalarope, this Arctic-nesting bird spends most of its time on the open ocean, feeding on plankton at upwellings and other convergences for up to nine months at a stretch.

To monitor numbers of migrating red-necked phalaropes and provide critical data for management of this species of federal and international concern, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has explored the effectiveness of using aircraft to conduct surveys.

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated sandpiper and chicks in arctic grasses.

Semipalmated sandpipers migrate thousands of miles from South America to spend their summers breeding and nesting on the Arctic coast, joining many other bird species that rely on this northern nursery for abundant food and a relatively low number of predators.

Many shorebirds, like sandpipers, undertake long-distance migrations and have experienced sharp population declines, partly from loss of migratory stopover sites. During stopovers, shorebirds are thought to need a regional network of wetlands, with connections among local wetlands and large-scale connections among wetland clusters. Wetland and wildlife managers and policymakers need the scientific data and information on climate change impacts to wetlands and wetland-dependent wildlife that USGS provides to help them prevent or mitigate future consequences of climate change.

Red-throated Loon

A pair of red-throated loons in the late Arctic evening light.

The smallest and lightest of the loons, the red-throated loon breeds in coastal areas throughout Alaska and winters along the Pacific coasts of North America and Eurasia. They are the only loon that can take off directly from land and off from water without a running start which enables them to take advantage of smaller bodies of water. These loons are declining in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on the Arctic Coastal Plain, where they nest in freshwater lakes, but primarily rely on marine fish prey to feed themselves and their chicks.

If you see a loon rise out of the water, run and splash across the surface (a display known as the "penguin dance"), you are too close. The penguin dance indicates severe stress from your presence and that the loon is trying to distract you from its nest or young. If you see a loon display this behavior, you should leave the area. To learn other ways you can help loons, read Loons in Alaska.

Scientists at the USGS Alaska Science Center have conducted research on Alaska’s loon species since the late 1970s. Loons rely on freshwater lakes for nesting habitat and fish and invertebrates inhabiting lakes and marine ecosystems for food. Research by the USGS is informing distribution and abundance of loons in northern Alaska and how they may respond to environmental and human changes to the northern landscape. To learn about the red-throated loons’ patterns of migratory movements and seasonal use of different regions of Alaska, read Tracking Data for Red-throated Loons.

King Eider

Male king eider in a lake near arctic tundra.

King eiders nest in the arctic tundra usually close to salt or fresh water. Once the young fledge, they move to salt water. King eiders may cover over 9,000 miles a year flying between breeding, molting and wintering grounds. King Eiders are susceptible to at-sea oil spills because of their broad distribution throughout coastal and off-shore areas of Alaska during all months of the year. 

USGS Alaska Science Center research on king eiders began after the 1996 M/V Citrus oil spill in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska. In May 2019, USGS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists published a paper that includes over 60 maps showing the distribution, abundance, population trends and important areas for 20 waterbird species breeding on the Arctic Coastal Plain of Alaska, including the king eider. Biologists at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have also researched king eiders by using time-lapse cameras and field research along the coast.

American Golden Plover

A black, gold, and white colored shorebird in breeding plumage among the white and gold flowers of the Arctic tundra.

The American golden plover famously migrates in an elliptical pattern. After a final stopover in Canada or New England, many make the trip south to their wintering grounds in a nonstop trans-Atlantic flight and return to the arctic in spring along North America’s Central Flyway.

Some plovers, like the semipalmated plover, have been known to travel extraordinary distances. Traveling roughly 5,000 miles away from its breeding grounds in Alaska, this Semipalmated Plover is the USGS Bird Banding Laboratory’s fourth record of a North American banded bird encountered in the Galapagos, Ecuador. 

Semipalated plover, a small shorebird with only one black band across the breast, stands among grasses.

Over the last 50 years, the population of North American birds has declined by an estimated three billion birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of our first environmental laws, represents more than 100 years of America’s commitment to protecting migratory birds and restoring declining bird populations. The impacts of climate change coupled with loss and degradation of habitat are pushing more and more wildlife species to the brink.

Many of the 1,093 species of birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act are experiencing population decreases due to increased threats across the continent. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the Birds of Conservation Concern 2021 Report with 269 bird species considered to be in greatest need of conservation attention. To learn about the Interior Department’s recent actions to conserve and protect birds today and into the future, read Interior Department Ensures Migratory Bird Treaty Act Works for Birds and People.