A Lot of Eggs in One Arctic Basket

March 10, 2011

A four-year WCS study finds the Teshekpuk Lake region within the National Petroleum Reserve to hold the highest breeding bird density in Arctic Alaska—one solid reason for its permanent protection from energy development.

Pectoral sandpipers from South America. Long-billed dowitchers from Mexico. Long-tailed ducks from New England. What do these birds have in common? They all summer in Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake region. Here, the migrants mate, build nests, lay eggs, and rear chicks.

WCS scientists have been summering here on the North Slope, too. Over a four-year period, they’ve found the region to hold the highest density of breeding birds in Arctic Alaska.

“Teshekpuk Lake is in the middle of the world’s biggest Arctic wetland, and thus at the heart of an international migration of shorebirds, waterfowl, loons, and songbirds that nest in this highly productive region during the short summer,” said WCS conservation zoologist Steve Zack. “This study makes clear how valuable this region is to breeding birds.”

The area is remote, but these birds aren’t alone. About 70,000 caribou come to deliver their next generation here, too. Tens of thousands of geese also flock to the North Slope during the warmer months so they can molt.

In addition to comparing the Teshekpuk breeding area with six other sites in Arctic Alaska, WCS monitored nests 150 miles to the east in the Prudhoe Bay region. Here, where the birds share their nest sites with energy development activities, fewer chicks survived compared with the Teshekpuk site.

The Bureau of Land Management is currently evaluating ways to balance wildlife protection and future energy development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). For the last decade—anticipating the arrival of oil and gas interests—WCS has been identifying areas where wildlife protection would be most effective.

Last summer, the Teshekpuk Lake Special Area caught a lucky break. The Bureau of Land Management withdrew considerations for allowing oil and gas extraction there for the next decade. WCS conservationists and other scientists familiar with the region are urging for its permanent protection. The results of the study will help inform BLM’s decision-making process.

“This is the first study to investigate breeding bird densities and measure how well birds are able to produce young in this remote and important region near Teshekpuk Lake,” said the study's lead author, WCS’s Joe Liebezeit. “We found that the density of nesting birds was markedly higher compared to many other sites in Arctic Alaska.”

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