"Globe Trotters": Migratory Birds

Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern.

Tom Mangelson

Many of the birds that breed in Denali travel thousands of kilometers each year to return to their nesting areas. These are the true "globe trotters" of the bird world and they connect Denali to global ecosystems.

Many of the 21 species of shorebirds that breed in Denali are long-distance migrants. Shorebirds nesting at higher elevations include the American golden plover, upland sandpiper, surfbird, and Baird’s sandpiper. Shorebirds nesting at lower elevations include the semipalmated plover, greater and lesser yellowlegs, solitary sandpiper, wandering tattler, spotted sandpiper, whimbrel, least sandpiper, long-billed dowitcher, common snipe, and red-necked phalarope. Birds with intriguing names, like the wandering tattler, attract bird watchers by the score. The American golden plover has exquisite plumage, an evocative voice, and a globe-spanning reach (they winter in South America). Surfbirds, who spend most of their lives along coastal areas in the "surf", nest in the mountainous regions of Denali. George Wright made the first scientific observation of a surfbird nest on a rocky ridge in Denali on May 26, 1926.

Two elegant species, the long-tailed jaeger and the arctic tern grace the summer skies of Denali. The beautiful long-tailed jaeger nests on the tundra and these lithe aerial hunters patrol the northern landscape in search of prey. Their wintering areas are not well-documented, but they probably spent most of the winter at sea. Equally as agile and elegant as jaegers, arctic terns nest near the numerous lakes and ponds in Denali where they seem to hover effortlessly over the water in search of prey. The arctic tern is probably the most famous long distance avian migrant in the world, traveling between breeding grounds in the arctic and wintering habitat on the waters near Antarctica.

Several species of passerines are true globe trotters and these species attract much interest from bird watchers and scientists alike. Northern wheatears are summer visitors that nest in the tundra in Denali and spend their winters in sub-Saharan Africa. Arctic warblers commonly nest in willow thickets and their harsh calls are difficult to ignore. This Old World warbler winters in southeastern Asia (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Borneo) but returns to Denali and arctic regions to breed. (Adolph Murie, one of the first scientists to work in Denali, documented the first two nests of this species for North America among the tall willows of Igloo Creek in 1955.) Blackpoll warblers breed across the boreal regions of North America. This tiny bird is a celebrity in the migration world. Their annual journeys between North America and South America are among the longest of passerine birds.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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