Winged Odyssey

August 7, 2009

WCS scientists working in northern Alaska spot a shorebird originally tagged 8,000 miles away, in Victoria, Australia. The bar-tailed godwit flew the length of the Pacific in an epic journey that underscores the importance of this northern breeding ground.

To a bar-tailed godwit, the Tour de France is child’s play. Tour d’Earth is more like it. Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) scientists studying birds in western Arctic Alaska recently spotted one of the long-beaked, plump shorebirds at their study site, 8,000 miles from where it took off.

The bar-tailed godwit that showed up in Alaska carried a small orange flag and an aluminum band around its legs. WCS biologists Dr. Steve Zack and Joe Liebezeit examined the bird and discovered that it had been banded by scientists in Victoria, Australia.

“It’s extremely unusual to find a banded bird that has flown literally thousands of miles from where it was released,” said 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 found two other long-distance flyers, a banded dunlin and semipalmated sandpiper, which were originally marked and released by WCS scientists three years ago in nearby Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Those birds had been part of a study to test whether 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.

Arctic Alaska is an international gathering place for migratory birds, which come from every continent and every ocean to breed here during the short summer. Zack added that this fact makes the wetlands of western Arctic Alaska, which are part of the National Petroleum Reserve, a vastly important conservation site.

Zack and Liebezeit have been conducting studies of breeding birds for WCS in the Arctic since 2002. They have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, governmental agencies in Korea, and with WCS-Global Health staff to test shorebirds for the presence of avian flu.

“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,” said Liebezeit.

Migratory shorebirds of many species are in decline. Both climate change and expanding energy development, as well as habitat loss and degradation pose serious threats to birds in their winter and summer grounds. WCS is working to understand how best to conserve these international migrants in changing times. Protecting and raising funds for key wildlife areas in advance of oil development in the National Petroleum Reserve would help the birds weather the changes.

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