A male Smith’s Longspur singing, a small sparrow with a black capped head topping a white eye band, a golden chest and multicolored white, brown and black wings and back
A male Smith’s Longspur establishes his territory on the tundra of Gates of Arctic National Park and Preserve with his song.

Jared Hughey/NPS

Birds, like people, come from all over the world to visit Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Each spring, birds make extraordinary journeys, from distant places, to return to the Arctic to access the summer’s bounty of food resources and a super abundance of daylight— both enhance their ability to provision and care for chicks. The mostly mountainous and vast area of the park provides ample space for alpine species to breed. Long stretches of Wild and Scenic rivers, that originate in perennial snow fields high in the mountains and carve their way down steep slopes into broad valleys, provide other species with riparian habitat along the river to nest and raise young.
Positioned entirely above the Arctic Circle, the park’s warm, productive summers bathed in sunlight are mirrored by dark, cold winters with typical temperatures ranging from 0 to -50°F. Although the vast majority of Gates of the Arctic’s birds are migratory, a small group of hardy residents remain throughout the year, even during the coldest and darkest winter months. Regardless of their winter strategy, all the birds are important members of the park’s ecosystems. The long-awaited arrival of migrants marks the end of food scarcity for many animals and the beginning of a short summer that burgeons with life once again. Predators like arctic and red foxes, short-tailed and least weasels, and arctic ground squirrels feast on bird eggs and chicks in order to feed their own young. Avian predators include Long-tailed Jaeger, Common Raven, and several raptor species including Short-eared Owl, Northern Harrier, and Merlin.

Willow Ptarmigan male after its spring molt before he acquires the all-brown plumage during his summer molt after courtship. In this image, the male’s head and neck are brown and his body is mostly white still some brown feathers on his wings.
Willow Ptarmigan male after its spring molt before he acquires the all-brown plumage during his summer molt after courtship.

Jared Hughey/NPS

People too, across the Arctic, depend on birds as a source of food and celebrate the return of migrant birds. The Nunamiut people of Anaktuvuk Pass, residing within the northern portion of Gates of the Arctic, relied on Willow and Rock ptarmigan (year-round residents) in times of food scarcity as well as migratory waterfowl in spring and early summer. Nunamiut hunter, Simon Paneak, kept detailed notes about the birds in and around Anaktuvuk Pass from 1950-1975 in collaboration with Arctic scientist Laurence Irving. Simon’s journals became the first in depth understanding of migratory birds in this part of Alaska’s Arctic. The arrival of migratory birds is also welcomed by the Koyukon people living in the boreal forest that spans the southern portions of Gates of the Arctic and interior Alaska. Saanh ggaagga, the Koyukon word that refers collectively to birds and means “summer animals”, are woven into the cultural fabric of the Koyukon people and their stories. Koyukon and Nunamiut knowledge of birds in the central Brooks Range is intimate and extensive and reflects their spiritual connection to and role as active stewards of this northern land.

Over the last half century, populations of birds in North America have experienced dramatic declines due to human activities. Though the park affords protection for all of the birds (over 100 species) that inhabit Gates of the Arctic, a rapidly warming Arctic is affecting many species, and bird communities of the park are expected to change in the coming decades as rising temperatures support an increase in deciduous shrub cover, especially in tundra and riparian habitats. Likewise, a warmer Arctic will lead to continued thawing of permafrost, changing the chemistry of streams and rivers as well as the structure of landscapes, which will ultimately reshape floral and faunal communities. Additionally, because most birds migrate to the park and spend a larger portion of their lives elsewhere, they are also affected by environmental change on their wintering grounds and along their migratory routes. Critical stopover and wintering sites are physically altered or lost altogether to human development; man-made structures like buildings cause window strikes, light pollution from cities disrupt nocturnal migration, and domestic cats kill 1.3 - 4.0 billion birds in the United States each year. For some species, the disruption of their nonbreeding areas may be the main cause for their decline.


A map of the world showing spring migration routes to Gates of the Arctic  for Northern Wheatear from Sub-Saharan Africa, Bluethroat from Central Asia, Eastern Yellow Wagtail from South Asia, Arctic Tern from Antarctica, Golden Eagle from Mexico
A few of the amazing journeys migratory birds undertake from across the world each spring to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. Migratory routes for each of these species tend to be more complex, broader, and varied than shown here.
Migratory birds are the only other beings, apart from park visitors, that connect Gates of the Arctic with the world. Migratory birds are the feathered ambassadors of our planet; they connect water, land, air, and us to other people, cultures, and countries far away. Their journeys are staggering and, unlike those of park visitors, they are made entirely under their own power, wing beat by wing beat. The longest journey, roughly 15,000 miles from Antarctica, is made by the Arctic Tern but even the shortest, made by the Lapland Longspur, is thousands of miles. The Northern Wheatear, a small songbird (18-30 grams), makes an epic 9,000-mile trip across Asia from their wintering grounds in Sub-Saharan Africa to arrive at Gates of the Arctic. The American Golden-Plover will make non-stop transoceanic flights from the grasslands of Argentina to the Gulf of Mexico before continuing to the Arctic. The Eastern Yellow Wagtail migrates from southeast Asia across deserts, resting in sparse oases, to return to Gates of the Arctic. All of them encounter numerous dangers along the way. Storms and headwinds force them to expend extra energy on flights. Places where they once refueled and rested on past migrations may be modified by humans such that they provide little refuge and food. At some stopover locations, they may be hunted for food or captured for exotic animal markets. All these challenges underscore the importance of Gates of the Arctic—a large Arctic wilderness that countless generations of birds have relied on to raise offspring and perpetuate their species.

A Montane Bird Community

Many birds that migrate to the park breed in the mountains —a dominant feature that covers more than 50% of Gates of the Arctic. These montane birds include songbirds (passerines, e.g. Northern Wheatear), near-passerines (e.g. woodpeckers), birds of prey (raptors, e.g. Golden Eagle), and heavy-bodied, ground-feeding birds (Galliformes, e.g. Willow Ptarmigan). Several species have a large part of their breeding range within the park. The Northern Wheatear, American Pipit, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, and Smith’s Longspur breed exclusively in montane habitats. Only a few birds live in the park all year such as Common Ravens, chickadees, American Dippers, and ptarmigan.

Resident Species

  • A small brown songbird perched on a rock in a river.
    American Dipper

    North America's only truly aquatic songbird.

  • A pair of ebony common ravens.
    Common Raven

    This cultural icon and highly adaptable bird is found virtually everywhere in Alaska, from the urban environment to remote wilderness.

  • Willow Ptarmigan male after its spring molt before he acquires the all-brown plumage during summer
    Willow Ptarmigan

    Alaska's State Bird and architects of the tundra.


Migrants from North America

  • A golden eagle in flight.
    Golden Eagle

    Golden Eagles that spend the breeding season in the Brooks Range complete some of the longest migrations for the species.

  • A common loon on the water
    Common Loon

    The calls of the common loon symbolize the vast, pure, undiminished wildness of the North Country.

  • a pair of songbirds on the tundra, the male has a black throat and cap with a rufous neck
    Lapland Longspur

    An unforgettable song in the tundra soundscape.


Migrants from South America


Migrants from Asia and Africa

  • a small songbird with striking blue feathers on its throat perches in a willow

    A must see in Alaska for North American birders.

  • a small songbird with a gray head and back, a black eye band, black wings and white belly
    Northern Wheatear

    Makes an amazing 9,000-mile journey from Sub-Saharan Africa to reach Alaska.


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    Last updated: September 16, 2021

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