Migratory birds take long flight to Alaska

Tundra swans in flight. Courtesy USGS.

It’s a long airplane flight from Baltimore to northern Alaska. But what if you were a tundra swan? This time of year, these birds head off from their wintering grounds in the Chesapeake Bay, flying about 4,000 miles to their breeding grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other spots across Alaska’s Arctic coastline.

Typically, they fly through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, stopping at national wildlife refuges and other suitable spots.

Migrating tundra swans are a magnificent sight. Featuring wing spans of six feet, they generally form V’s or oblique lines of 25 to 100 birds. The wing-beat is slow and steady, yet these swans move across a marsh or even a landscape in less time than seems possible. Biologists say that this species can maintain a speed of 51 miles per hour.

Formerly known as “whistling” swans, tundra swans are among the earliest migrants to reach the Arctic Refuge, arriving in late May and early June. These birds, which can live 20 years, mate for life, and breeding birds fly into the refuge as pairs. They often reuse nests from the previous year.

Young swans usually can’t fly until early September, and not long after that, the birds begin the long journey back to the Chesapeake Bay and other areas in the vicinity. They are back just before Thanksgiving. 

When most of us think about the Arctic Refuge, our first images may be polar bears, muskoxen, or caribou. But there are millions of birds that depend on the refuge and other nearby coastal lands to nest and raise their broods, perpetuating the species. These species have been making the trips for thousands of years.

If the refuge’s coastal plain (its biological heart) is turned into an oil field, tundra swans and other species are going to be in serious trouble. Unfortunately, other places in Alaska that are important to migratory birds also have been proposed for drilling, mining, and other development. The list includes Teshekpuk Lake, Bristol Bay, and Izembek and Yukon Flats national wildlife refuges.

With climate change threatening wildlife habitat — by drying up lakes, for example — birds face enough challenges as it is. The Wilderness Society, led by its eight staff members in Alaska, is trying to protect each of these areas.

In fact, birds are up against it in a lot of places. The New York Times cites a recent report that found that 39 percent of bird species that depend on American coastal waters are in decline.

There’s a lot to love about spring. One of those things is the flight of migrating birds, and it’s even more special when you’re watching them overhead and think about how far they may be going.

Tundra swans in flight. Courtesy USGS.
Tundra swan cygnets. Courtesy USGS.