How to Protect Birds at the End of the Earth

Audubon Alaska's executive director talks to us about the wonders of migration, and how to make the Arctic safer for birds.

A decade ago, a group of biologists made an astounding discovery: By tracking Bar-tailed Godwits, they found that the one-pound shorebirds—that have bills longer than their heads—were flying non-stop for up to 7,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean, from their wintering grounds in New Zealand to their breeding grounds in Alaska.

One of the biologists behind the grand reveal was veteran shorebird scientist Nils Warnock, who had already spent decades researching migration mysteries. He was one of the first ecologists to deploy micro-technologies on smaller species, using radio trackers and satellite tags to see how Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, and other winged marathoners move about the world.   

After studying rattlesnake and cobra behavior as a college undergrad, Warnock got a job at the Point Blue Conservation Science, a wildlife research center on the coast of California. There he started working with shorebirds, and decided to never go back. He stayed at Point Blue for 20 years, before spending a few seasons as an oil spill response scientist at the University of California. In 2012, Warnock took the helm at Audubon Alaska, moving closer to the vital breeding grounds he had once followed his study subjects to. Nowadays, he doesn’t spend as much time in the field, though he does bird every morning as he walks to the office in Anchorage.

We caught up with Warnock to talk about his milestone discoveries, and to see what new and exciting ventures he’s up to with Audubon Alaska.

Audubon: In the 30-plus years you’ve spent studying shorebirds populations, what patterns have you noticed?

Nils Warnock: For a lot of North America, we still don’t have enough monitoring efforts that let us detect statistically valid trends. Threatened and endangered species like Snowy Plovers are studied closely because of federal or state regulations; but in general, we still lack the information we need when we’re trying to put the big picture together. The data that we do have though, suggest that many more shorebird species are declining than increasing. So overall, we can tell that they’re not doing very well.

A: Is monitoring up in the Arctic and Alaska a problem, too?

N: Yes, it’s tough up here. The shorebird breeding grounds are vast, and we don’t have many access roads. There are some nice efforts, like the Alaska Shorebird Demographic Network. But it comes down to sample size and logistics, and moving around in the Arctic is just expensive and hard.

A: Given the gigantic scale of Audubon Alaska’s conservation work, is there any kind of technology that makes it easier?

N: We’re using GIS-ESRI to synthesize data, map out complex scientific information, and try to make sense of it all. GIS is the backbone of what we do and how we work with scientists. When really concentrated areas of importance are threatened, we go in and say, “Hey, here are all of our maps of IBAs and seabird colonies.” We work with industries, showing them the information, helping them to avoid these key areas. And we do that all over the state: the Bering Strait, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Tongass, and now the boreal forest. It’s a similar approach for all of these places.

A: Your latest GIS project involves working with the Coast Guard to develop shipping routes in the Bering Strait. How do you gauge whether one of these routes is safe or not?

N: We anticipate that shipping is going to go up dramatically through the Bering Strait as the sea ice melts, so we’re trying to get ahead of the game. The Bering Strait is the narrowest point between the United States and Russia—just 60 miles wide. All the marine mammals in this part of the world go through there, and right in the middle of the strait is one of the sites of the world’s biggest seabird colonies: Little Diomede Island. We’re working with the industry to design routes that minimize environmental disasters, like ships going down, oil or other fuel spilling into the water. For instance, the entire world’s population of Spectacle Eiders is focused on the strait's polynyas—holes of water in the middle of the ice. You don’t want ships going through that area.

A: So it’s important to know how Arctic species use these types of spaces?

N: Yes, that’s one of the things I’ve always been interested in. What do birds do at night? Where do they sleep? Where do they go? To study that you need to be able to track birds, which is why I got involved in some of the earliest research using transmitters and tags.

The Bar-tailed Godwit ended up being the rockstar of the species that I studied; it generated the most excitement and really captured people's imaginations. The first year, we went down to New Zealand in late January and tried a few tracking harnesses on the godwits. Then we implanted satellite tags on more than a dozen birds with the help of a USGS veterinarian. It was a phenomenal success. We found that the birds fattened up in the estuaries of New Zealand, and that in mid-March they took off and flew non-stop for five to seven days to get to the Yellow Sea in China. They spent a month there, and then flew non-stop to their breeding grounds in Alaska. We were able to follow one female, which we called E7, the whole way in real time because her tag didn’t run out of battery.

A: Is there anything about birds that still strikes you as mysterious?

N: There’s still a lot left to learn about how birds use the world. Every day we’re learning more fascinating things about where birds go to between breeding and wintering areas, how they fly these incredible distances, and how they respond to the elements. That continues to intrigue me.

A: So birds are a good way to teach people that distant places like the Arctic are still very important?

N: Yes, at Audubon Alaska we emphasize this all the time. The Arctic holds breeding grounds for all four North American flyways; birds connect Alaska to every other state in the country, and to every other continent on the planet. That just shows you how interconnected we all are.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.