Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists studying shorebirds in western Arctic Alaska recently made a serendipitous discovery when they spotted a bar-tailed godwit with a small orange flag and aluminum band harmlessly attached to its legs. Further research revealed that scientists in Australia had banded the bird and attached the flag near Victoria – more than 8,000 miles away.
While banded birds are sometimes seen in the area where they were originally released, it is very rare to see them so far from a release site. The observation was made by WCS biologists Dr. Steve Zack and Joe Liebezeit.
“It’s extremely unusual to find a banded bird that has flown literally thousands of miles from where it was released,” said Steve Zack. “While we know that birds from all over the world come to the Arctic to breed, to see a living example first hand is a powerful reminder of the importance of this region.”
Zack and Liebezeit also sighted a banded dunlin and semipalmated sandpiper both of which were originally marked and released by WCS scientists three years ago in nearby Prudhoe Bay, Alaska for a study testing to see if birds that winter in Asia are carrying highly pathogenic H5N1 Avian Influenza to North America. Semipalmated sandpipers migrate from South America, and dunlins migrate from Asia . So far, shorebirds have not been detected to carry H5N1 into North America .
“These sightings represent direct examples of the importance of Arctic Alaska as an international gathering place for migratory birds,” said Jodi Hilty, Director of WCS’s North America Programs.
“Birds from every continent and every ocean come to Arctic Alaska to breed during the short summer,” said Zack “The immense wetlands of western Arctic Alaska, encompassed almost entirely by the National Petroleum Reserve, are particularly important to migratory birds and worth conserving.”
Zack and Liebezeit have been conducting studies of breeding birds in the Arctic since 2002 for WCS.
“We have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, governmental agencies in the Republic of Korea , and with WCS Global Health staff in capturing shorebirds in Arctic Alaska and in the Republic of Korea to test for the presence of avian flu” said Liebezeit. “It was exciting to see birds we captured three years ago again in the Arctic . Knowing that they have made six long flights back and forth during that time really makes you appreciate their incredible life history.”
Migratory shorebirds of many species are in decline. Both climate change and expanding energy development are affecting these birds, as are habitat loss and other changes to their wintering wetland habitats around the world. The Wildlife Conservation Society is working to understand how best to conserve these international migrants in changing times. There is also a need to create more protection of key wildlife areas in advance of oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve and a need for funding to help highlight and understand those areas.
“Shorebirds like bar-tailed godwits from Australia , dunlin from Asia, and semipalmated sandpipers from South America are affected by different threats in their wintering and summering grounds,” says Zack. “The conservation of this highly migratory group of birds is truly a challenging worldwide issue.”
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