Alaska birds on their flights of fancy

Call Jim Johnson immediately if you spot a Hudsonian godwit

Posted: Sunday, May 27, 2007

ANCHORAGE - If you happen to see a slender-billed Hudsonian godwit hopping along Westchester Lagoon sporting a red flag on one leg and a yellow ring on the other, you've hit the jackpot.

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Actually, all you've really done is gotten very lucky. But the spotting could be quite helpful to scientists from Alaska to Chile who are researching the habits of these graceful-looking birds.

Across Alaska, the influx of migratory birds making their way from southern locations to the far north is under way. For birders, it is an excellent time to see new birds or welcome old friends back to the state.

But for scientists, the birds' arrival is a flying laboratory, brought on the wings of species that can tell them how they cope, how their populations survive, and what, if anything, wildlife managers can do to conserve them.

Jim Johnson is one such biologist, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a study of the Hudsonian godwit and the whimbrel, two common Alaska migratory birds.

Last winter, Johnson traveled to Chiloe Island in southern Chile to help band wintering Hudsonian godwits along with whimbrels to track the birds' traveling and breeding patterns.

"A large portion of the global population of Hudsonian godwits winters there," said Johnson, who is hoping to extend the research project into a doctoral thesis. "We're trying to figure out where they go in the nonbreeding season so we can help inform management decisions."

While in Chile, 100 of each species of birds were captured in rocket-propelled nets. Blood samples were drawn. Leg bands and rings were applied. Scientists from Canada, England, Alaska and Chile worked together for weeks.

Anyone spotting the birds should call Johnson immediately with such information as location, date and time - and, if possible, the identifying codes listed on the red tag on each bird's lower left leg.

Bob Gill with the U.S. Geological Survey has studied migratory birds for 30 years. His most recent project involves surgically implanting bar-tailed godwits with radio transmitters that track the birds' travels from Alaska to wintering grounds across the Pacific Ocean. It's unprecedented work because, for the first time, the transmitters are small enough to fit on such small birds.

The scientists' work is tedious because installing the tracking devices is especially challenging on such slender-bodied species as the godwit and curlew.

"The surgery takes about two hours from capture to release," said Gill, who is working with colleague Lee Tibbitts on the project. "Just like anything you or I would go under in a surgery, the bird is draped, prepped, we monitor its heart rate and provide it with fluids. When they recover, in about two hours, all you can see is 8 inches of antenna sticking out under the wing."

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