Alaska's migrating birds inspire awe
May 1, 2022 | View PDF
Alaska is a place of endless sky, steep mountains, rolling tundra and miles of coastline. It is a place of climatic and geographic extremes, dynamic and diverse habitats, and abundant resources. Each year millions of birds make the journey from their wintering grounds to this state that we call home. They include over 300 different species from petrels and loons, sandpipers and plovers, hawks and eagles, to hummingbirds and swallows. They depart from six different continents and travel north using one of six different flyways.
Alaska's immense size and small human population offer prime habitat to the millions of birds that migrate here each breeding season. Long summer hours and the short summer make for intense breeding efforts, but the rich and varied ecosystems support the millions of birds that fly thousands of miles to nest here. And for those species that forage on invertebrates, Alaska is the place to be.
Tens of millions of seabirds and waterfowl make use of the 46,000 miles of cliffs and protected islands of Alaska's coast, which has some of the world's most biologically productive marine ecosystems. Millions of shorebirds nest along the coastal habitats and inland in the tundra, marshes and bogs that provide a plethora of invertebrates.
This is the time of year when we start seeing spring migrants arriving. Some species have flown non-stop, others in short hops, and many have stopped for layovers along the way to rest, refuel and seek shelter from inclement weather. More than half of the birds that migrate to Alaska come from South America, Oceania, Africa and Asia. Some species make long-distance flights like the Arctic Tern, which travels over 24,000 miles from Antarctica, and the peregrine falcon, which can cover over 15,500 miles from their wintering grounds in Argentina. Other species come from Oceania, like the pectoral sandpiper and black-backed sandpiper, which can cover over 18,000 miles along their migration route. Birds such as the northern wheatear and pomarine jaeger will travel from Africa while tundra swans travel from eastern North America, migrating over 7,000 miles to arctic Alaska.
Witnessing the arrival of these birds who have made extraordinary journeys is humbling. If you time your birding right, you can feel the wind whisper across your cheeks as a flock of western sandpipers fly by or hear the calls of flocks of snow geese whilst in formation far overhead, or even do a double-take when you see a bird in the periphery and realize it's an eastern yellow wagtail slightly off course but singing loudly atop a tree.
Bird migration is an integral part of avian life, and we are connected to these incredible species when we welcome them to Alaska each spring.
The Bird Treatment and Learning Center cares for injured, ill and sick wild birds from across Alaska. Through March 31 we've taken in 49 birds, some of whom have come to us from Dutch Harbor, Kodiak and Fairbanks. Visit us at http://birdtlc.org and follow us on Facebook and Instagram (@birdtlc).
2022 Birding activities around Alaska
Stikine River Birding Festival, April 22 to May 8, Wrangell
Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, May 4-8, Homer
Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, May 5-8, Cordova
Yakutat Tern Festival, June 2-5, Yakutat
Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival, August 19-21, Fairbanks
Sitka Whale Festival, Nov. 3-6, Sitka
Alaska Bald Eagle Festival, Nov. 10-13, Haines
Lisa Pajot is an ornithologist and volunteer at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.