The Giant Easter Basket of Baby Birds

Northern Nursery in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Snowy owlets!! On the cover a sandpiper chick (by Lisa Kennedy for USFWS)

Nest of lapland longspur chicks

We are crouched carefully around a tiny dent in the tundra, barely visible beneath the short brown grasses shaking in the Arctic wind. Less than a mile away, a mirage shimmers on the horizon: a towering white wall of sea ice that rises like a high glacial cliff. Biologist Lisa Kennedy casually dismisses it as an optical illusion — “it’s not actually a wall, just floating pieces of ice in the lagoon on the edge of the Beaufort Sea.”

She turns over a small speckled egg in her gloved hand, looking for signs that a baby semipalmated sandpiper is trying to emerge into the edge of this vast northern landscape. Her brief field research season gives a glimpse into the world of Arctic nesting birds that not many people see.

A sandpiper stands on the rolling swells of tundra grassland. The green band on its leg identifies it as one of the study birds in the area, and a monitored nest is nearby.

Goose tracks in the mudflats around a pond

Wetlands and the distant Beaufort Sea under a midnight sun

The Brooks Range rising in the background of the Canning River study area

Look closer: webbed tracks trace through the mud, snowy owls glide and hunt under a sun that doesn’t set, and thousands of eggs lie hidden in their tundra nests — a giant Easter basket filled with the future of shorebirds, waterfowl, and birds of prey.

Explosion of Life For birds from all over the western hemisphere, as well as parts of Asia, the high Arctic is a summer destination location, sometimes many thousand miles from their winter homes. “Why are they flying for a week without stopping, just to get to this freezing cold place?” muses Shiloh Schulte biologist for Manomet, a partner non-profit research organization. “One of the amazing things about these shorebirds is that they’ve timed their arrival and the hatch of their young perfectly to match this explosion of life that happens here in the Arctic, right about the end of June and early July.”

A sandpiper with newly hatched chick on a tundra nest. Photo by Lisa Kennedy for USFWS

“The birds have essentially unlimited food for the babies to grow, and so they can fatten up and fly in just a few weeks after they hatch,” says Schulte. This bottomless feast combined with a relatively low number of predators creates a vital nursery for baby birds.

Your Backyard Birds Maybe you’ve seen them. The incredible flocks of 300,000 semipalmated sandpipers, landing after a week of non-stop flight to fuel up along the beaches of New York. You may have spotted graceful groups of tundra swans paddling on a wintery lake in Oregon, hunted a long-tail duck or a cackling goose during the crisp Michigan fall, or met the silent gaze of a snowy owl in Minnesota. Whether your state is in the Pacific, Atlantic, Central, or Mississippi flyway, you have a connection to birds that nest in Arctic.

A nest of cackling goose eggs & down Previous photo: Tundra swan in flight by Shiloh Schulte for USFWS

For Arctic Refuge bird biologist, Chris Latty, this connection is one of his favorite things about coordinating research at the Canning River Bird Camp. “The birds that are occurring here are the same birds that people are seeing in their backyard ponds in the fall, that hunters are harvesting to feed their families, and that’s something that’s important to me, as a hunter and biologist— to know that this nursery up on the coastal plain gives so much to people who might never see this place.”

Arctic Refuge biologist Chris Latty scans the tundra for birds, and previous photo holds a cackling goose that he has just collared with a GPS transmitter.

A pectoral sandpiper on the tundra.

Where Do They Go? This year, Schulte placed a backpack on a slightly larger shorebird, the pectoral sandpiper, that is able to bear a device that will transmit location in real time. He’s interested to learn more about where the bird goes right after the breeding season, where it fuels up before leaving the Arctic and precisely where it travels on the long-distance journey through the western hemisphere. The results will help guide where biologists survey the birds in the future:

In previous photos: Lisa Kennedy carefully places an aluminum number band on a semipalmated sandpiper, followed by green alpha and sight tags. A semipalmated sandpiper with an alpha flag, aluminum band, and sight bands. You can help monitor shorebird movements: if you see a bird with bands, identify the species and location and note the colors and letters. With a zoom camera, you can take photos that will be very helpful to researchers! Learn more about the bands and how to submit your sightings here.

Leaving the Nest Even though we might not have all the answers about where Arctic birds go after they leave their nests, the birds themselves have an expert sense of navigation and destination. “These little sandpipers never having flown anywhere before, no parents, they just get up in the air in these flocks and they fly in a certain direction for a certain length of time, then turn and fly in a different direction for a certain length of time, for days and days and then find a place to land, refuel, and then do that again and sometimes a third time before they get to the wintering grounds in mid September or October.”

Sandpiper chicks in the nest by Lisa Kennedy for USFWS Coming soon to a beach, field, or lake near you: feathered fliers from the far north of Alaska, finding their winter home.

A lone snowy owl feather caught in the tundra grasses.

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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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