Southeast Alaska wetlands part of international shorebird study

Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002

This spring U.S. Forest Service biologists in Juneau, Yakutat, Wrangell and Cordova plan to continue their participation in an international shorebird-tracking project for which they earned a national "Taking Wing" award last year.

"Taking Wing" is a National Forest System program for the management of waterfowl and wetland habitat. The focus of the shorebird project is to track migration along the Pacific Flyway, the birds' route from coastal Mexico to their breeding grounds in Alaska. It is a wide-ranging collaboration between biologists from federal and state agencies, universities and private groups.

Migratory birds cross so many legal jurisdictions that it is only through such widespread collaboration that they can be effectively studied. More information on migration strategies is being sought because of conservation concerns for shorebirds. Loss of wetland habitat and pollution of wetlands have lead to declines of many species.

Because large portions of the populations tend to flock during migration, they are highly vulnerable to coastal disasters such as oil spills. Alaska has global importance as the primary breeding grounds for many shorebird species.

Researchers on the wintering grounds trap the birds in fine nylon "mist" nets, attach tiny radio transmitters, and let the birds continue flying north. Biologists farther up the flight path check estuaries and tidal mudflats each day from the air or on foot using specialized receivers tuned to record each individual frequency. They record any detection of the radio-tagged birds, and the results will be published.

Scientists hope to learn more about the timing of migration and the time spent at various stopovers, places where the birds rest and feed along the way. Locally, the Mendenhall Wetlands, Eagle Beach, the mouth of the Taku River and Berners Bay will be checked.

Last year the species studied were long-billed dowitcher, short-billed dowitcher, and dunlin. There were 52 radio-tagged birds detected at Copper River, five at Yakutat Forelands, five at the Stikine River, and one at the Mendenhall Wetlands. The Juneau bird was a short-billed dowitcher that was banded at San Francisco Bay, recorded at Gray's Harbor in Washington State and nine days later at the wetlands

This year about 90 birds will carry tags. Operations have begun in Sinaloa, Mexico. The species under study are western sandpiper, and the two species of dowitcher.

Western sandpipers, like most shorebirds, make epic journeys for their size. They winter anywhere from Washington state south to Peru and nest on the tundra near Alaska's North and West coasts. An individual only weighs about an ounce, yet can achieve flight speeds of over 50 mph.

Flocks of all the study species, as well as a variety of other shorebirds can be seen locally at the Mendenhall Wetlands in April or May as they refuel on invertebrates on the mud flats.

The best time to watch is a couple hours before high tide in silty areas near the river mouth. Every day is likely to have a slightly different mix of birds as migration progresses. The birds should be approached slowly and viewed from a respectful distance. Dogs should be kept under control so the birds' feeding is not disrupted. The typical layover time is only one to seven days, so the birds have a short time to accumulate fat to fly the remainder of their long journey.

Saturday, May 11, is International Migratory Bird Day, a time when bird enthusiasts attempt to raise public awareness of the wonders of bird migration and the conservation challenges that they face. There will be a Juneau Audubon Society guided bird walk at the Mendenhall Wetlands starting from Radcliffe Road at 9 a.m. A free program on birds with Bob Armstrong is planned 7-9 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

Gwen Baluss is a wildlife technician, for the Juneau Ranger District, U.S. Forest Service. Juneau Audubon Society sponsors Saturday spring migration bird walks into June. Jack Hodges will present a slide show about his epic 44-day trip by water bike from Seattle to Juneau at the monthly meeting 7:30 p.m. Thursday (May 9) at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

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