Birds Keep Us Connected to the Arctic

Let’s Celebrate Migratory Marvels That Nest in the Arctic

We are all interconnected. And birds that travel far can help remind us that even remote places affect us more than we realize. So, for a change, we’re celebrating the birds that bring us closer to the Arctic.

Pectoral Sandpiper by Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

The inspiration for an Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Fest

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska may sound barren and distant, but to a surprising number of birds, it’s their ideal nursery and the place they raise their young. On Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, over 201 bird species have been recorded. The Refuge holds a unique position because it sits at the intersection of the four North American flyways, or main migration routes, as well as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.

Finding the nest of a semipalmated sandpiper on the tundra is tricky business — the eggs are tiny and well camouflaged, and the nest is a shallow cup, well-hidden in the grass. Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

However, because so few people get to visit Arctic Refuge and see birds nesting in person, what is a real and critical life event is reduced to a simple line in our field guides — this bird “breeds in the Arctic.”

The tundra and places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge may seem distant, but really they are some of the most connected places in the world.

The Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Fest

RSVP virtually if you’re interested in learning more about birds that help bring the Arctic to your backyard, the research we’re doing, or other information.

>>> What birds do you see that also are spotted in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?

5 Arctic Bird Wonders

We thought we’d kick off the celebration by talking about five species that are marvels and found on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

1. Snowy Owl

Snowy owl in flight. Photo by Shiloh Shulte/USFWS.

Ukpik (Inupiaq)
Vatthaaivee (Gwich’in)
Harfang des neiges (French)

The quintessential Arctic resident, snowy owls are uniquely adapted to life on the tundra. Since the Arctic summer means 24-hour light, snowy owls must hunt by daylight. This differentiates them from most owls, making them diurnal instead of nocturnal. Snowy owls are master hunters and will go after lemmings, hares, mice, ducks, and seabirds, always swallowing them whole.

Snowy owlets are among the first birds to hatch from Arctic tundra nests. These birds are just a few days old. Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS.

2. Common Eider

Common eider pair. Photo by Shiloh Schulte/USFWS.

Amauligruaq (Inupiaq)

Known for their insulating down (eiderdown) that has been used by humans for centuries, this impressive sea duck is an excellent diver and mussel hunter. The female common eiders make their nest along spits on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and will go without food and stay near the nest the whole time their eggs are incubating- which is about 26 days!

Common eider ducklings. Photo by Danielle Brigida/USFWS.

3. Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper. Photo by Bill Thompson/USFWS.

Livalivaq (Inupiaq)
Chuu dizhaa’ (Gwich’in)

These birds undergo a remarkable odyssey, starting their life in the far north but wintering in South America. Their long and impressive journey depends on a number of key stopover points along the way. Semipalmated sandpiper chicks rapidly gain independence, feeding themselves and learning to fly after 2 weeks.

Semipalmated Sandpiper chicks. Photo by Lisa Kennedy/USFWS.

4. Red-throated Loon

Red-throated loon. Photo by Shiloh Schulte/USFWS.

Kiiteegwiluk (Gwich’in)
Qaqsrauq (Inupiaq)

Red-throated loons that breed in the coastal areas of the far north make shallow nests called “scrapes.” Though loons have a difficult time on land, this fact even earned them their name “loon”, the red-throated loon can take off from land if needed and needs less space for take-off.

Loon nests are called “scrapes”. Photo by Casey Setash/ USFWS.

5. Tundra Swan

Tundra swans in flight. Photo by Tom Kerr/USFWS.

Qugruk (Inupiaq)
Daazhraii (Gwich’in)

The tundra swans are among the earliest spring migrants, arriving in late May and early June. Breeding birds fly in as pairs. They build their nests in upland tundra areas near river deltas along the northern coast. The widely-scattered nests are large mounds of grasses, sedges, lichens, mosses, and feathers.

Tundra Swan on Nest. Photo by USFWS.

We are all interconnected. But it can be easy to forget when a place is remote. We hope that by making connections to the birds in your backyard that also live part-time in the far north, we can bring everyone a little bit closer together and show that the Arctic is not as distant as it may seem.

What Arctic Birds are in Your Backyard? Check out the list to get ideas and share your photos and sightings on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Facebook Page.

Learn about how the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge contributes to world bird migration.

Written by Danielle Brigida, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Arctic Refuge Virtual Bird Fest is a group effort between US Fish & Wildlife Service, Audubon Alaska, Manomet, and Friends of the Alaska Wildlife Refuges.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.