About the author: Dessi Sieburth, an avid birder, photographer, and conservationist, is a 9th grader at Saint Francis High School in La Canada, California. He is a member of the Pasadena Audubon Young Birder’s Club and Western Field Ornithologists (WFO). This year, Dessi attended the ABA’s Camp Colorado and his third Conference of Western Field Ornithologists. At the WFO conference he presented his research project on Golden-cheeked Woodpeckers, which he conducted at the specimen collection at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Des was one of the overall winners 2015 ABA Young Birder of Year and this year he received one of the Gloria Barron Honoree awards for his bird conservation efforts.
From June 4 to June 13, 2016, I went on a birding trip to Alaska. Alaska, with its beautiful mountains, tundra, and vast glaciers, is a spectacular birding location. I went with my birding friends from Pasadena Audubon Society. We birded Saint Paul Island, which is one of the four Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, and Nome, which is on the tip of the Seward Peninsula in far Western Alaska. Many birds found in these locations during the summer migrated all the way from places like Asia and South America. I was particularly interested in the Bar-tailed Godwit, a summer resident in Nome, because of its remarkable migration over the Pacific Ocean. Like many other shorebirds, Bar-tailed Godwits are declining because of habitat loss. To learn more about the Bar-tailed Godwit’s migration and the challenges it faces, I interviewed biologist and executive director of Audubon Alaska, Nils Warnock. He has studied Bar-tailed Godwits and their extraordinary migration route by using satellite tags. But before I get to my interview with Nils, first I will tell you more about my trip.
Our group first went to St. Paul Island. It hosts a great variety of birds because seabirds nest on the island, and Asian birds sometimes come to the island for food and to rest. Grassy tundra, wildflowers, lagoons, and cliffs make up most of the Island. The seabird cliffs at St. Paul were absolutely breathtaking. At the cliffs, I was able to get just a few feet away from nesting Horned and Tufted Puffins. I could compare hundreds of Thick-billed and Common Murres to each other side by side, and Least, Parakeet, and Crested Auklets sat just a couple feet away on the cliffs. The Red-legged Kittiwakes, a Pribilof near-endemic, were also a highlight, as I was able to get about five feet away from one of them. My favorite birds on the island were the Red-faced Cormorants because they were very beautiful and we got close views of them on the cliffs. Only four songbirds breed on St. Paul: Lapland Longspur, Snow Bunting, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, and an endemic subspecies of Pacific Wren. Some other highlights at St. Paul included Slaty-backed Gull, Wood Sandpiper, King Eider, two Yellow-billed Loons, and two Snowy Owls.
After St. Paul we went to Nome, a small coastal town surrounded by rocky tundra, willows, and mountains. Nome is a very unique birding location. Short-eared Owls and Long-tailed Jaegers were everywhere you looked, and Semipalmated Sandpipers were sitting on top of houses. In the willows outside of town, birds were singing everywhere. Northern Waterthrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Blackpoll Warbler were common. We saw many shorebirds displaying including snipe, Whimbrel, and Semipalmated Sandpipers. Red Knots in breeding plumage were very cool to see, and I was especially happy when I saw three Bar-tailed Godwits in breeding plumage distantly feeding on the shoreline. Other highlights in Nome included Bluethroats and Arctic Warblers singing and displaying, and Bristle-thighed Curlew, Northern Wheatear, Spectacled Eider, and a friendly Rock Ptarmigan in courtship plumage. Birding at St. Paul and Nome was an amazing experience that I will always remember.
Interview with Dr. Nils Warnock
Dr. Nils Warnock has published over 75 scientific articles in peer-reviewed books and journals, as well as articles in popular magazines such as Natural History and Birding. He has studied many shorebirds and waterfowl including Spectacled Eiders, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwits, and Bristle-thighed Curlews. Nils lives with his family in Anchorage, Alaska and is currently the executive director of Audubon Alaska.
Q: How did you get involved with Bar-tailed Godwit research?
A: As a shorebird researcher, I have spent much of my career understanding how shorebirds use space. I started off using radiotelemetry to look at how Dunlin used a local lagoon (Bolinas Lagoon) in California and then began working on a larger spatial scale, tracking migrating Western Sandpipers from Mexico up to the breeding grounds in Alaska. In 2007, Bob Gill (from US Geological Survey) and I received a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to study the migration of the group of shorebirds called the Numeniini (basically the godwits and curlews), species which we knew little about how they migrated and where they migrated to and from. We went to New Zealand and Australia and began putting satellite tags on Bar-tailed Godwits.
Q: What can you tell us about the population of the Bar-tailed Godwit?
A: Bar-tailed Godwits are large shorebirds that breed in tundra areas of the Arctic (or subarctic) from Alaska to northern Europe to eastern Russia (you can see a nice map of their global distribution here). There are 5 recognized races of Bar-tailed Godwits totaling about 1 million birds. Main wintering areas of Bar-tailed Godwits include the western coast of Europe and Africa, coastal sites along the Indian Ocean and coastal areas in southern Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. In North America, we have one race of Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica baueri, that breeds mainly in western and northern Alaska and winters in New Zealand and eastern Australia.
Q: What is the migration pattern of the baueri Bar-tailed Godwit? How do you track the migration patterns of the Bar-tailed Godwit? Do the Godwits take the same route both on the way south and the way north?
A: To track baueri godwits, we flew down to New Zealand during our winter (their summer), caught birds (using mist nets and cannon nets), and fitted them with match box sized satellite tags. These tags allowed us to track the birds through their entire migration. We found that in March, the godwits flew north for 7 days (non-stop) to the Yellow Sea region of China and the Koreas. The birds spent a month there before flying non-stop to Alaska where they breed. After breeding, these birds do not go back to the Yellow Sea, instead most of the baueri fly non-stop (almost 9 days!) back to New Zealand. You can see an image of their flight path here.
This is the longest non-stop, flapping flight migration of any bird in the world.
Q: What are the threats that Bar-tailed Godwits face today?
A: Aside from our changing climate, including sea level rise, which is swamping coastal habitat that godwits use, the biggest threat to Bar-tailed Godwits today comes from the loss of habitat due to human development, especially along their migration flyways. One key migration area we are especially concerned about is the Yellow Sea. In the last 50 years or so, over 65% of the tidal flats where godwits stop to feed on have been filled in and developed. This is leading to serious declines in the birds that use the Yellow Sea, including the baueri godwits.
Q: How can we protect the Bar-tailed Godwit? Is there anything we can do to help these Godwits?
A: One of the immediate things that we can do to help protect godwits and other birds is to protect the habitats that they rely on. Even here in Alaska where there is a lot of habitat, there is also a constant pressure to develop parts of the godwits breeding habitat for things like oil development. Sometimes, these types of development should not happen because the risk to animal populations is too great. We also need more scientists to continue to study birds like the godwits. The more information we have, the better we are able to manage their populations and deal with threats as they arise in our rapidly changing world.
Q: How does the future look like for the Bar-tailed Godwit population?
A: Many of the world populations of godwits appear to be in decline and our world human population is rapidly increasing in many of the places that godwits live, so Bar-tailed Godwits face a difficult future. That said, with wise conservation and management led by our younger generation, I am confident that we will continue to be amazed by the migration of godwits far into the future.
Special thanks to Nils Warnock for the fascinating interview about the Bar-tailed Godwit. My goal is that many people learn about these incredible birds, become more aware of them, and therefore they will be more willing to protect them.