white swans flying with a brown background
Tundra swans flying over the tundra during the spring migration.

NPS Photo/Dave Smith

During the long, dark winters, Cape Krusenstern National Monument lays quietly under a thick blanket of snow, but as the days grow longer, life returns to the tundra. No sign of spring is quite as dramatic or loud as the arrival of the thousands of migratory birds who fly to Northwest Alaska every summer to breed. While summers in the Arctic are short, the endless sunlight and still lakes on the tundra make food incredibly abundant. Every year, 150 species of birds flock to Cape Krusenstern National Monument’s unspoiled tundra, lagoons and coastline to lay their eggs and raise their young.

black and white bird sitting on a branch
Arctic terns fly 24,000 miles every year.  That's roughly the distance to the moon every ten years.

NPS Photo

Mighty Travelers

Birds travel from all over the world to breed in Cape Krusenstern National Monument. The Arctic tern is a slim, graceful seabird that is a common sight throughout Alaska in the summer. Every year, it flies between Antarctic and the Arctic – 12,000 miles each way. The 24,000 mile yearly migration is the longest of any species on earth. Because the Arctic tern sees both the Arctic and Antarctic summer each year, it experiences more sunlight than any other animal.

Only slightly less dramatic is the migration of the American Golden Plover, a small shorebird that crosses almost all of North and South America on its route from its winter grounds in southern Argentina to its breeding grounds high on the Arctic tundra. Plovers are strong, fast flyers and can make the several thousand mile non-stop flight over the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Hawaii and other Pacific islands in just a few days.

black and white bird floating on blue water
Yellow-billed loons are one of the rarest birds in the United States.  Half of the world's population migrates to Northwest Alaska in the summer to breed.

NPS Photo

Only in the Arctic

Some of Cape Krusenstern National Monument’s summer visitors can only been seen in Northwest Alaska. Common, Spectacled, King and Steller’s Eiders, large sea ducks that are rarely seen outside of the Arctic, make their nests on the tundra at Cape Krusenstern in the summer. They spend their winters on the open ocean where they dive for mussels, crabs and small fish, then migrate to shore once the sea ice breaks up.

All five species of loons, including the rare Yellow-billed loon, can be found at Cape Krusenstern National Monument. The Yellow-billed loon – the largest of the five loon species – only nests on the low, Arctic tundra near large, clear fish-filled lakes. They dive both to find fish and aquatic plants and to escape danger. It is one of the rarest birds in North America. The worldwide population is only about 10,000 birds, half of which come to Northwest Alaska to breed.

Loons, which spend most of their life in the water, have been impacted by increased water pollution and have disappeared from many of their traditional breeding grounds. Known as the “spirits of the wilderness,” their haunting cry over the tundra is a testament to the undisturbed wilderness of Cape Krusenstern National Monument.

brown bird with blue throat on a branch
Every year, a few Bluethroats fly all the way from India on their annual migration.

USFWS Photo/Brian McCaffery

Visitors from Asia

The spectacular diversity of birds at Cape Krusenstern National Monument isn’t just due to its ideal conditions. Two major flyways (the traditional migration path stretching between breeding and nonbreeding grounds) converge in Northwest Alaska, bringing birds from throughout the Pacific and North and South America. It is also located at the edge of a third flyway, which brings the occasional bird from Asia and Europe.

Bluethroats, which are common throughout Asia and Europe, are almost never found in North America. Only 1% of the population flies to Northwest Alaska to breed. They are best known for their distinctive blue and red throats, but are difficult to spot unless they are singing. The Yellow Wagtail is another visitor from Asia. This small yellow and olive bird is common in Cape Krusenstern National Monument, but almost nowhere else in North America.

Not Just Fair Weather Friends

Not all birds leave when the weather gets cold. Willow ptarmigans, the state bird of Alaska, live at Cape Krusenstern year round. During the summer, their feathers are brown, allowing them to hide among the grass, but in the winter, they turn white, blending in with the snow.

Cape Krusenstern National Monument’s unique location make it a haven for birds from around the world. For a few short months, the tundra becomes an avian menagerie as birds from all seven continents arrive to take advantage of the endless sunlight. It’s remote and difficult to reach, but it is a rewarding journey for birds and birders alike.

Last updated: August 8, 2016

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