After Two Years, Biologist is Still Trying to Count Alaska’s Migratory Shorebirds

Two years ago, one biologist set out to try and count the number of shorebirds that migrate to and from Alaska each summer. The data collected in conjunction with the National Park Service the will help wildlife managers track bird reproduction and survival rates. It may also be useful as off shore oil and gas development moves ahead.

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It’s not quite clear how many birds flew north to Alaska this summer, or any other summer prior.

“I would have absolutely no idea now, to give you a total for the whole migration period. I could give you like a daily total,” says Audrey Taylor. She is a bird biologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. For the last two summers, she’s flown over parts of the Seward Peninsula in Late July and Early August.

“So we were trying to capture what we think is the peak of birds moving along the Seward Peninsula from points further north and also some of the local birds that were breeding on the tundra on the Peninsula there,” says Taylor.

She says she’s counted up to 15 thousand birds in one day during the survey period. But she’s still analyzing her data so she doesn’t know for sure what her total count might look like.

“It’s sort of a shifting target, but I counted a whole lot of them, so that was good to see that there are lots of birds out there,” she says. “The goal primarily there is to get a baseline inventory so that if something were to happen, some kind of spill or a natural catastrophe, we’d have some place to start for a natural resource damage assessment or something like that.”

The standard procedure for counting wildlife over large areas of land involves aerial photos, but Taylor is using a different method and one she doesn’t think has been used anywhere else.

“We did it a little bit differently this time,” Taylor explains.  “So, we have these blocks of habitat that we have delineated ahead of time and we know what proportion of that habitat I surveyed compared to what proportion I didn’t survey and now we need to do this fairly complex modeling process where we look at detectability and how much habitat I surveyed compared to what’s out there and then try to project from that to how many birds might actually be there.”

This was the last year for the kind of survey Taylor is doing. Next year, the National Park Service will take aerial photos of the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve to count the birds and then compare their results with Taylor’s work.