7 Birds That Breed in the Arctic

The long Arctic summers provide a rich habitat for many migratory birds. Get to know seven common species that love to spend time up north.

Many of the birds that can be found throughout North America during winter spend at least part of their lives in the Arctic Circle. Most of them use the Arctic's tundra scrub, tundra pools, and boreal forest edge during breeding season, where seasonally warm temperatures and long hours of sunlight provide ideal habitat for raising young.

Unfortunately, one of the last wild places within the Arctic—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where birds from all 50 states and six continents come to breed—is imminently threatened by oil and gas development. 

Read on to explore the Arctic and learn about seven common species that visit every year to forage and nest in this special place. Then take action by asking Congress to restore long-standing protections to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

1. Long-tailed Duck

Photo: William Wingfield/Audubon Photography Awards

In the winter, large flocks of this duck dive for mollusks and crustaceans in the Great Lakes and along America's coasts, stopping in Oregon on the west coast and the Carolinas in the east. Long-tailed Ducks are some of the first to arrive in the Arctic around April or early-May, where they scrape out nests near tundra pools.

2. Snow Bunting

Photo: Fabiola Forns/Audubon Photography Awards

As the name may suggest, the Snow Bunting breeds in the high Arctic tundra, making nests in cavities between rocks. But in the wintertime, these birds travel as far south as Colorado, foraging in fields and short-grass prairies, and along shorelines.

3. American Tree Sparrow

Photo: Jen St. Louis/Audubon Photography Awards

This little brown bird is a common winter sight at feeders across the northern United States, especially on the ground foraging for any spilled seeds. In the summer, these sparrows fly north to the tundra, nesting close to the ground in low bushes or grass at or above the tree line, where scrubby brush habitat meets thickets of trees.

4. Glaucous Gull

Photo: Allan Hopkins/Flickr CC (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

This light-colored, large gull can be spotted on both coasts as far down as California and Virginia in the winter, but it chooses to breed in the high Arctic, nesting among sea grass on shoreline cliffs. When the gulls migrate for the winter, records show that immature gulls will move the furthest south.

5. Rough-legged Hawk

Photo: Peter Brannon/Audubon Photography Awards

This raptor is a common sight, perching near marsh or pastureland throughout southern Canada and most of the United States, save the southeast. When it's time to breed, though, the Rough-legged Hawk heads to the Arctic tundra, where its cliff-side nests are bathed with hours of sunshine and have ample amounts of lemming nearby for dinner.

6. Common Redpoll

Photo: Susan Drury/Great Backyard Bird Count

Though flocks of these buzzy finches can be found as far south as Kansas and Missouri in the winter, Common Redpolls spend their summers breeding in open woodland shrubs throughout the Arctic. These seedeaters visit backyard feeders in winter months, but they are most commonly found gleaning tree branches and shaking out catkins and seedpods for a meal.

7. Red-throated Loon

Photo: Ken Archer/Audubon Photography Awards

The smallest of the loons, the Red-throated Loon can commonly be found diving for fish along both coasts in winter, and in shallow bays and estuaries all the way south to Mexico and Florida. But during summer, they disappear deep into the Arctic to breed in ponds and lakes on the tundra.

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