In June 2023, several American Golden-Plovers were equipped with 3.5-gram PinPoint GPS Argos tags while nesting at Teshekpuk Lake Special Use Area on the North Slope of Alaska. It was the first step of Tullik’s Odyssey: The American Golden-Plover Migration Project—a study overseen by Manomet, Inc. and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-Alaska Region with assistance from Audubon Alaska, Audubon's Boreal Conservation Program, Audubon Americas, and the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative.
As the birds start to embark on their epic journey southward, we find them flying across Canada. We talked with Jeff Wells about the significance of the Boreal’s varied landscapes to the birds and what their role is within these ecosystems.
Tell us a little about your history with Boreal conservation and Audubon?
I lived in Bangor, Maine in my teen years which is when I first became enamored with birds and bird watching. One rainy day in September I heard from some of the older ladies at the local Audubon chapter that some flocks of American Golden-Plovers had been seen on several of the open fields near the airport. The next day the rain stopped, so after school I rode my bike several miles out to the airport and searched through the close-cropped fields with my old beat-up binoculars. Sadly, I did not see any American Golden-Plovers that day, but I read a lot about them and absorbed the sense of wonder and mystery of birds that were flying from the Arctic to South America. To know that I had come so close to seeing these amazing birds that had apparently stopped off to rest and feed until the rain stopped made me feel connected and excited to learn more. Years later I finished a Master’s and then a Doctorate at Cornell University studying birds and began a career working in bird conservation. Twenty-five years ago, I had the opportunity to devote my work to the conservation of the Boreal Forest where billions of birds breed including American Golden-Plovers. It is also where Indigenous leaders are moving forward new protected areas that are among the largest in the world. A few years back, I was able to bring this Boreal-centered work to Audubon. I am proud to see it grow and be supported by an amazing team, which now includes five additional Boreal team members.
What is the American Golden-Plover's role within the Boreal?
American Golden-Plover flocks use the wetlands, heathlands, and coastlines across the western part of the Boreal as stopover sites during spring migration in May and early June. During fall migration—August through October—they are found across much of the Boreal with particularly high numbers in the Hudson-James Bay Lowlands and coastal area, as well as in Newfoundland and Labrador. In the fall, the birds often fuel up for the long migration ahead of them to South America by gorging on abundant berries that grow low to the ground in bogs, heathlands, and barrens in parts of the Boreal. Although American Golden-Plovers have an extensive Arctic breeding range (including where the birds in this study were tagged), they also nest in parts of the Boreal including along the Hudson-James Bay coast, in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, in northern British Columbia, and in parts of interior Alaska.
Why is it important to protect locations throughout a bird's migratory journey?
While breeding locations are understandably important places to add more young birds into the population, migration stopover and wintering areas are the places where these birds spend more of their lifecycle. Their migration is famously perilous involving movements from the far northern part of the hemisphere (Arctic and Boreal) to the far southern part of the hemisphere (grasslands and coastal wetlands as far south as Chile and Argentina). Because of the very long distances and myriad threats and challenges that they face along the way, ensuring there are lots of safe places where they can find food and water to refuel and rest is essential for their survival. The Boreal region hosts lots of critical stop-over locations for American Golden-Plovers during spring and fall migration. In fall migration, stop-over locations are particularly important for the birds to put on enough extra fat to fuel the multi-day non-stop journeys that they undertake to get to their South American wintering grounds.
How does that play into an effective bird conservation strategy?
Maintaining healthy and resilient bird populations can only be accomplished by ensuring there is active habitat conservation work and work to ameliorate threats at all the places that the birds need or may need throughout their migratory cycles. To be successful at the hemispheric scale requires many partners working together on large-scale conservation actions across virtually all the geographies of the Americas. For American Golden-Plover, there will be certain geographic focus areas that are crucial to significant portions of their population that will require major investments of resources to ensure that the habitats remain able to support the birds that are relying on them. Migratory tracking work like that being done in this project helps to find those particularly critical bottleneck areas that are a particularly high priority for conservation action.
What would be the perfect result of this American Golden-Plover project?
My hope would be that more and more people become aware of the fact that the birds they see in fall migration in their own regions may have hatched in far-away places like the Arctic and Boreal of Alaska and Canada and that they will spend the winter in southern South America. We hope that awareness of those migratory connections would translate into the knowledge that the only hope for ensuring the full suite of bird species is around for future generations of us humans is to implement habitat protection and conservation and restoration in all the places they need. The ultimate result would be that everyone raises their voices to push policymakers and funders into supporting a significant increase in conservation efforts and the removal of threats to the survival of American Golden-Plovers and other species.
What do you think is the most attainable task followers of these individual birds could do to support the project?
There are and will continue to be many opportunities for followers to weigh in on policy decisions that impact the future of these birds and many others through conservation organizations, including Audubon. I would encourage all followers to commit to participating in at least one “take-action” letter every month through Audubon or a partner conservation non-profit on an issue that impacts one or more of the regions that American Golden-Plovers need for their survival across the Americas.
More on Tullik’s Odyssey here.