Visiting the Arctic – Shorebirds

My last post was entitled “Arctic Bound” and was about shorebirds migrating thru Iowa on the way to their nesting grounds. In June, I had the opportunity to visit the Arctic. I headed to Utqiagvik, Alaska; formerly known as Barrow, AK. It is the northern-most town in the USA. The opening image is of me in chest waders standing in the Arctic Ocean; no polar plunge for me.

Barrow has been on my bucket-list of places to visit since my early boyhood years. I was not disappointed. And, I loved the 24 hours of daylight every day.

Since Barrow cannot be reached by driving, I arrived on a 737 jet. These jets also supply the town with most of their needs. Therefore, a little town of less than 5,000 people has a runway to accommodate a 737.

Driving the few short roads that lead out of town, a person could get the impression that the tundra is just a vast wasteland. At least that is how it might appear from the road. But a walk across the tundra reveals a large number of birds that depend on it to raise their young. Birds abound. Without this vital habitat, multiple bird species would perish.

Shorebirds do indeed nest on the tundra. With careful searching, eggs can be found hidden under a clump of grass. Even though the vegetation is very short, I never did see a shorebird setting on a nest. Only when they moved off the nest was I able to detect them.

I saw two of the three shorebird species I wrote about in my last post; the Long-billed Dowitcher and the Pectoral Sandpiper. The Ruddy Turnstone, however, eluded me.

The Pectoral Sandpiper surprised me from the standpoint of its general appearance. The male appears to be much larger on the breeding grounds.

The male Pectoral Sandpiper has a large air sack in its throat that is inflated during the breeding season, making the bird appear much larger. Sony a9 + 600mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 840mm, ISO 1000, f/5.6, 1/3200. ©Stanley Buman.

The Long-billed Dowitchers tend to stay closer to water when nesting. They prefer low wet meadows, laying their eggs on a small tussock or hummock.

Long-billed Dowitchers are easy to distinguish from other shorebirds around Barrow due to their long bill. And their rich color patterns really stand out. Sony a1 + 600mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 840mm, ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/2000. ©Stanley Buman.

Two other shorebird species that I see during migration are the Dunlin and the American Golden Plover. I have seen considerably more of the former than the latter. Both have bold color patterns when in their breeding plumage.

Dunlins in breeding plumage have a black belly patch, a bright rusty back and matching cap. They are fairly easy to identify from other shorebirds. Sony a1 + 600mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 840mm, ISO 1250, f/5.6, 1/1600. ©Stanley Buman.
The black and white coloration on the American Golden Plover is quite striking by itself. Further, the backs are a mottled gold, black, and white. The females are similar to the male but the colors are more muted. Sony a9 + 600mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 840mm, ISO 640, f/5.6, 1/1000. ©Stanley Buman.

The overall species vulnerability due to climate change for all of the above shorebirds is listed as “HIGH”. Their nesting habitat will sharply decline. The impacts are being observed earlier in the Arctic and there are more immediate and severe consequences.

12 thoughts on “Visiting the Arctic – Shorebirds”

    1. Thank you Don. It was a great trip. It was a lot of long hours and hard work, but well worth it. My first day was 27 hours long. Most nights, I did not get to bed until about 5:00 – 6:00 a.m. I slept for about 1 1/2 hours and then went back out to the field until about noon, slept until about 5:30 p.m., and then headed back out to the field for the night. It was well worth the effort.

    1. Linda, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Utqiagvik, AK. No doubt my love of Alaska was passed down from Grandpa Will and from my parents. I understand why it is your favorite state. It is beautiful. I am already planning another trip to Alaska next year.

  1. Looking forward to a visit! Always love the photographs you have to share. The background information you provide is so inspiring.

    1. Thanks Joel. I had a wonderful trip. I look forward to talking to Jess and you about your trip to Alaska. I am glad the whole family is back safe and sound.

  2. Great representation of the area and the shore birds Stan. Your work documenting these birds is so important. The migration of these birds and others are great bio-indicators to climate change and the different environmental challenges we currently face. Thank you so much for your work.
    Hank Miller

    1. Thank you Hank. It was great to meet you on the plane to Utqiagvik. Let me know if there is any way I can collaborate with your tribal colleges and climate change efforts.

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