Synchronized Flight

The Journey of the Small

Each year, approximately five million shorebirds flock to the Copper River Delta in Southern Alaska. The spectacle also draws many humans to the nearby city of Cordova, where birders, scientists and many others gather for the annual celebration.

The Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival marks the penultimate stop for the birds on the journey north to their arctic breeding grounds. In refuges like Hartney Bay and the Alaganik Slough, they can rest their tiny wings and feed on the abundant supply of nutrients.

Western sandpipers (Calidris mauri) are the most common of the many species that land in the area, and with an average weight of only 28 grams and a body length of 15 centimeters, it is also the smallest. By the time they reach the delta, their breeding plumage is in full effect. Little copper-colored bodies jet around the beach just above the tideline, poking in the sand in search of the Baltic macoma clam, a primary food source.

The migration of the shorebirds is not a display unique to the coast of Alaska. Long before their arrival to the delta in early May, many of the shorebirds begin their journey far below the equator, some as far as the southern tip of South America. The Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network was enacted in 1986 to help protect key sites that the shorebirds utilize during their migration. There are three different designations for the sites’ importance: regional, international, and hemispheric.

The Copper River Delta receives the largest of these because it meets the criteria of hosting at least 500,000 shorebirds annually and at least 30% of the biogeographic population of a certain species. The preservation of the region is vital; annually, 80% of the entire population of western sandpipers can pass through Cordova.

Although the significance of maintaining specific locations is ever present, the bigger picture must not be forgotten either. If one link on the environmental chain is irrevocably harmed, the shorebirds’ migration pattern could be drastically altered as well. Habitat destruction as a result of industrialization and pollution stands as one of the largest threats to this delicate balance. In turn, the number of birds can serve as a gauge for the health of the network of ecosystems these species inhabit.