04 Jan 2018 Story Ecosystems

Avian adventures

“In early May, the tidal flats of [Alaska’s] Copper River Delta shimmer with the activity of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds. As many as five million shorebirds rest and feed here during spring migration.”

So says the Audubon Alaska website, which details a number of bird-watching festivals in Alaska.

Some of the species that breed here have exotic names like red knot, dunlin, black oystercatcher, greater yellowlegs, western sandpiper, and Wilson's snipe.

Red know
The red knot is a priority species for the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative. (Photo by Peter Prokosch)

These Arctic-breeding shorebirds are some of the world’s best travellers. Bar-tailed godwits are considered the migration champions, flying from Australia or New Zealand to Alaska to breed and rear their young. The 7,000-mile journey over the Pacific Ocean is the longest nonstop bird migration measured by ornithologists.

But these and other Arctic-breeding shorebirds are declining in alarming numbers. For example, scientists estimate that the population of the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper has dwindled to 100 breeding pairs, down from over 2,000 in the 1970s.

The 2013 Arctic Biodiversity Assessment noted that “many Arctic migratory species are threatened by overharvest and habitat alteration outside the Arctic, especially birds along the East Asian flyway.”

The Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), the biodiversity Working Group of the Arctic Council, initiated the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative (AMBI) to secure the long-term sustainability of declining Arctic-breeding migratory birds and protect Arctic lifestyles and peoples through migratory bird conservation.

"It’s a kind of `transboundary institutional mechanism’, or arrangement for the governance of shared natural resources and transboundary environmental issues. Birds don't respect jurisdiction or borders, so we need tools that help us work across them, to protect species wherever they are found," says CAFF Communications Manager Courtney Price.

Eight Arctic flyways

Arctic-breeding birds use as many as eight different flyways to move from Arctic breeding grounds to overwintering or stopover sites at lower latitudes. Many bird populations are declining at an unprecedented rate due to:

  • destruction of coastal wetlands for land reclamation and drainage
  • habitat degradation
  • trapping/poaching
  • unsustainable harvesting
  • climate change

Migratory birds are an important indicator of ecosystem health, as they travel and feed in various ecosystems and tend to convene in large numbers on specific sites, therefore making them easier to monitor. The abundance, or dearth, of such birds can indicate much about the health of the oceans, as well as land habitats in the Arctic and beyond.

Migratory birds are shared by countries all over the globe, highlighting the interconnectedness of ecosystems, so research and conservation activities cannot be undertaken solely by Arctic Council countries.

Harvesting rights

Birds are harvested by many people on Arctic breeding grounds, along migratory routes, and on overwintering grounds. Seabirds, for example, are used for their meat, eggs and down in all Arctic countries. 

In Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, indigenous peoples have more extensive harvest rights in recognition that subsistence harvest of seabirds is essential to maintaining traditional lifestyles. The annual take of seabirds is significant, ranging from about 4,000 in Norway to 260,000 in Canada. The traditional harvest of seabird eggs is known to be in the tens of thousands in Canada.

Prioritizing species and conservation issues

The AMBI project prioritizes specific species, habitats and activities for conservation across four main flyways – the Americas, African Eurasian, East Asian-Australasian, and Circumpolar.

Migration champion – the bar-tailed godwit (Photo by Richard Chandler)

“Focusing on species that are at risk of extinction, good indicators of the environment, umbrella species, and those that are important to Arctic peoples, AMBI details activities that address bycatch, habitat conservation, overharvest and illegal killing as well as climate change. Activities include further studies, additional cooperation and concrete conservation measures such as habitat securement or improved harvest regulations,” says Price.

AMBI is led by Canada, Norway, the United States and Russia. The project requires close cooperation among Arctic countries and non-Arctic countries that host Arctic birds during the non-breeding season, such as the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, China and Singapore to name a few. Key to AMBI efforts have been the excellent participation of these AMBI observer states, and additional organizations. 

UN Environment raising profile of Arctic birds

UN Environment has provided vital support to AMBI in its capacity as an Arctic Council observer, primarily to date for the Americas flyway, which covers South and North America.

UN Environment is working with CAFF to translate AMBI priorities, projects, and results into infographics for project partners to utilize across various channels.

Effective outreach materials are essential to successfully engage stakeholders both inside and outside the Arctic, with a special emphasis on visual communications to cross language barriers and maximize the use of the products across different media to benefit various partners.

This project is expected to raise the profile of AMBI and the priority conservation issues for Arctic-breeding migratory birds.


Further resources

See our story for World Migratory Bird Day 2017

Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna

Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative

For further information, contact [email protected] or [email protected]