This is the time of year when Alaska’s migratory birds uproot and move to warmer places. But one shorebird in particular made history this past week after it was tracked flying thousands of miles nonstop to the southern hemisphere, drawing international attention and potentially giving scientists new insight into the future of a declining population of shorebirds.
Earlier this week, a bar-tailed godwit, tagged as “B6″, completed its migration from the Western Alaska coast to Southern Australia, a non-stop journey of nearly 8,500 miles completed in 11 days.
“Good godwit! Bird flies 8,425 miles NON-STOP from Alaska to Australia ...” read a headline in the Daily Mail.
The center of attention: a four-month-old shorebird weighing just 600 grams — a little more than a pound, or slightly heavier than a can of beans. The journey, tracked for the first time using a real-time solar-powered transmitter, is being described as a world record.
Lee Tibbitts, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Science Center, has been researching these birds for decades and was part of the team that began observational studies about 40 years ago, before technology enabled satellite tracking.
Prior to this work, nobody really believed that nonstop migration across the Pacific Ocean was possible, said Dan Ruthrauff, a USGS research wildlife biologist who helped tag B6.
B6 is the first tagged Alaska-breeding bar-tailed godwit chick whose migration was successfully tracked. Not only did it complete its migration, but it flew nearly 1,600 miles farther than its species’ typical migration route from Alaska to New Zealand –– something Ruthrauff hypothesizes could have been a result of strong easterly winds.
“They don’t land on the water. They don’t glide. This is flapping flight for a week and a half,” he said. “It’s crazy and I think is just tangible enough that we can appreciate it and have our minds properly blown.”
Ruthrauff and Jesse Conklin, a researcher with Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, set out in Nome in late June to find and follow bar-tailed godwit chicks at their breeding grounds. Jim Johnson, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, supported the project from Nome.
“It seemed like a great plan and we should have known better,” Ruthrauff said. “Nobody’s tried this before because it was bloody difficult.”
Ruthrauff’s hope for this project was to figure out why some subspecies of godwits are experiencing a tanking population while the godwits that breed in Alaska are doing OK. He guesses the population declines can be attributed to severe habitat loss and destruction of important migratory stopover sites, primarily in the Yellow Sea region of China.
According to an article on shorebird population by The Wildlife Society, shorebird populations have declined by about 40% across North America over the last 50 years, despite receiving federal protections in the U.S. and Canada.
While there are 100,000 bar-tailed godwits that breed in Alaska, they occur at such low densities and have incredible camouflage –– which only added to the project’s difficulties Ruthrauff said. He and Conklin spent weeks hiking in the tundra east of Nome trying to capture chicks for their study and B6 was a part of their “Hail Mary” brood.
“They go from a little teeny puffball that fits inside a golf ball-sized egg to flying to Tasmania in four months,” Ruthrauff said. " I mean, that’s another crazy phenomenal thing.”
The chick was just one of three that was fitted with a transmitter this summer. The other two transmitters are still sending signals from the tundra on the Seward Peninsula. Ruthrauff guesses that they were too loose and fell off the birds before their migration.
The transmitter, attached using surgical-grade silicon tubing, weighs just five grams and fits like a fanny pack, Ruthrauff said. The antenna trails off from the bird’s tail and is fitted with a solar panel.
Once fitted with the transmitter, all that was left for Ruthrauff and his team to do was to wait.
During that time, B6 moved to its staging area on the Kuskokwim Delta and stayed there for about six weeks, fattening up on clams, worms and berries for the trip –– much like a bear getting ready for hibernation.
“It’s pretty crazy how much bigger they get,” Ruthrauff said. “It’s mostly just fat –– little butter balls.”
In preparation for the trip, these birds increase the size of their gizzard, stomach, kidney, liver and length of their intestine in order to metabolize the foods that they’re eating, Ruthrauff said. As they approach time to migrate, the digestive tract begins to atrophy while their heart and pectoral muscles increase in size.
Bar-tailed godwit chicks migrate without their adult counterparts and are known to take advantage of weather systems along their route.
Set up with a “smokin’” tailwind, B6 departed Alaska on Oct. 12.
After learning of the godwit’s arrival to Australia on Oct. 23, Ruthrauff poured a scotch to toast B6 and sent the picture to his colleagues.
For Milo Burcham, a wildlife photographer and retired wildlife biologist, migratory birds help connect Alaska with other communities around the world.
“What this illustrates is that we’re all connected and it all matters,” he said. “They’re adaptable to some point but if you take away some of these stepping stones that they need to do these epic migrations, we’re gonna lose them, we’ll lose this.”
Ruthrauff hopes this year’s study will help conserve migratory shorebirds.
In New Zealand, people are celebrating the return of their beloved shorebirds. Last year in Nelson, a city on the South Island of New Zealand, church bells rang and cathedral staff read prayers of thanks upon their arrival, according to the Guardian.
B6′s rise to fame has also given new momentum for the godwits in their quest for New Zealand’s coveted Bird of the Year crown. (Hurry, voting ends Monday.)
“People in New Zealand really love their migratory birds because they don’t have that many species that migrate there,” Tibbitts said.
Around 2007, a bar-tailed godwit known as “E7″ was tagged in New Zealand via an implant. E7 was the first tracked godwit to make the complete flight cycle between New Zealand, China and Alaska.
“We always joked that she should have had her own agent, because she had so many books written about her and articles and it was just remarkable, she was so famous,” Tibbitts said. “(This chick) kind of rekindled the whole thing.”