Notes on the Alaska Bird Conference

Retired ornithology professor offers details on December gathering in Cordova

Commentary By Pete Mickelson

For The Cordova Times

(Editor’s note: Mickelson offers highlights on the conference Dec. 6-8, which attracted nearly 100 people to the Cordova Center. Organized by Mary Ann Bishop and Kristen Gorman, with the help of many others, the event featured 26 poster presentations, including several by Cordovans, and 41 oral reports on birds in Alaska. In addition, Cheryl Rosa presented an overview of climate change impacts on birds and the role of arctic research and policy during the first full day of presentations in the North Star Theater. )

First of all, climate change is real.

Rick Lanctot of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage found that six out of eight shorebird species were changing their spring arrival times to take advantage of earlier springs at Barrow, Alaska. Rick has been instrumental in hosting a number of Cordovans to Barrow, including River Gates, Milo Burcham, Sarah Hoepfner, and myself. Barrow is home to a great variety of nesting shorebirds, some waterfowl species including the endangered Steller’s eider, and various predators such as jaegers, snowy owls, and arctic foxes.

Shrubs and trees are encroaching on tundra in northern and western Alaska. Molly McDermott, the daughter of one of my master’s students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks found an increase in species such as tree and golden-crowned sparrows on the Seward Peninsula. She noted a decline for tundra-nesting Lapland longspurs and savannah sparrows (savannahs are the most abundant songbird on the outer Copper River Delta.)


The North Slope is home to several Arctic nesting geese. Snow geese nesting pairs are on the increase, just as they have been along the shores of Hudson’s Bay. With less snow cover along the coast, snow geese grub down for roots of sedge and cottongrass and arrive earlier and earlier on the nesting grounds. White-fronted geese also nest on the coastal plain. Other than fox predation on eggs and sometimes on adults, nest success is high. Surprisingly, on average the female takes a 10-minute break to feed every other day during their 26-plus days of incubation. If a human visits the nest to check for stage of incubation and notes any depredation, the female goose won’t return for an average of 40 minutes. Females sit very tight, sometimes even with a large aircraft landing on a runway within 30 yards or so of the nest. Likewise, they sit tight with helicopter traffic only 100 feet overhead based on 2 days of helicopter traffic at an old Distant Early Warning site west of Prudhoe Bay.

Besides papers on banding birds at Creamer’s Field in Fairbanks, studies of the migration of songbirds at the Toolik research camp operated by UAF and at Fairbanks, several papers were presented on breeding biology of birds. Audubon Alaska was represented by two presentations on compiling bird and habitat data along the Arctic Ocean and on the Kenai Peninsula.

Of particular interest was the migration of rough-legged hawks from the Seward Peninsula nesting sites (mainly cliffs) and of golden eagles from central Alaska to wintering areas in the Inland Empire, grasslands of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nevada.

Those of us who take winter road trips often note raptors perched on fence posts in the plains of the western states. Some of these birds breed in Alaska. Golden eagles have a problem with lead poisoning and I don’t mean that they get shot. Instead, they are picking up lead bullets and fragments from rifle-shot ground squirrels and prairie dogs. Golden eagles are tough birds, but a lead level of 1.2 ppm in their blood is lethal (the lethal level in California condors is 0.5 parts per million).

Chris Barger of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game did the study and displayed an X-ray photo of a deer hit in the shoulder by a lead bullet. Tiny lead fragments were scattered for over a foot back from the shoulder. We who eat wild game are ingesting some of that lead and so are our pets that get fed the bloody pieces of meat and fat from these game animals. It’s time to start using copper bullets for hunting–both from a human, pet, and wildlife safety standpoint.

Finally, another take-home message: put up tree swallow nesting boxes spaced as close as 60 feet apart. Cliff Collins put up boxes along his Long Lake airstrip more than 30 years ago and they have been monitored every year since. Swallows love mosquitos and midges. I have plans to put up half a dozen at Whitshed.

Pete Mickelson is a wildlife biologist who studied geese on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta for his doctorate, then worked for the Chugach National Forest in the 1970s before teaching and supervising graduate students at UAF for 10 years. He watches birds in the Whitshed area and helps with the Christmas bird count in addition to being the mayor of Whitshed.