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“A blessedness of life” – the importance of migratory birds to our planet’s health

Louis Dorémus

Story by GRID-Arendal May 10th, 2017

“But by the open waters of the lake there was an incessant chattering among the gulls and terns and ducks who cannot make out why the loon should always utter such a mournful cry in its happiest moments. There was a blessedness of life and growth here in the spring, when the long-frozen earth at last breathed warm and soft and moist, and plants could stretch their roots in the soil and their branches above. The sand by the river bank gleamed white; showing clearly the footprints of the cranes as they moved. All the birds were talking at once, heedless of what was going on around them, until a flock of wild geese came swooping down, raising a mighty commotion in the water as they alighted. And in face of these, the smaller fry were silent and abashed. But who can paint the sounds of spring? The nature lover will not attempt it, but be content to breathe its fragrance with rejoicing.”

Extract from Knud Rasmussen’s Across Arctic America Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition

Everywhere on the planet, migratory birds mark the arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere by their long migrations to the breeding grounds where they will spend the summer.

Today, World Migratory Bird Day, is dedicated to celebrate this great journey. Approximately 1800 of the world’s 10000 bird species are long-distance migrants, some of them travelling over thousands of kilometres. Recently, here in Arendal, we saw the arrival of the Arctic tern, the distance record-breaker with some individuals flying more than 70,000 kilometres every year from Antarctica to the Arctic and back.

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea). Taken by GRID-Arendal/ Peter Prokosch

In the Arctic, migratory birds have a particular importance due to their economic, ecological and cultural value. The region receives the most migratory birds on Earth with over 270 species breeding there every summer, bringing life and sound back to the land after the cold and silent winter.

Migratory birds are an important resource for Arctic communities which harvest them, their eggs or their down. Seabirds are important to coastal peoples’ traditional lifestyles and special harvest rights have been gained by communities all over the Arctic. Bird watching provides a valuable opportunity to develop small-scale ecotourism which, in addition to diversifying the local economy, fosters the conservation of species and their environment.

Migratory birds are ecologically essential in the Arctic where the food web structure is relatively simple. They contribute to ecosystem functioning because of their role in moving seeds and nutrients from one place to the other. And since they travel thousands of kilometers, they link ecosystems in different parts of the world. Protecting or restoring the natural areas on which they depend for breeding and resting, such as wetlands and coastal areas, also brings numerous benefits to humans by improving the quality of the environment and providing ecosystem services. For example, wetlands contribute to flood control and water purification.

Common Eiders (Somateria mollissima) - Vestman Islands, Iceland. Taken by Louis Doremus

The populations of many Arctic migratory species have been declining at an unprecedented rate over the past decades due to habitat degradation, over-harvesting and poaching. Climate change is also exacerbating existing threats and bringing new ones (e.g. increased frequency of extreme weather events, earlier onset of spring). Species such as the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, which flies from South East Asia to breed in the Chukotsk and Kamchatka peninsulas, has experienced a population decrease of 88% since 2002, the number of individuals being estimated today at 242-378 (IUCN Red List).

While Arctic migrator populations are declining due to threats inside the region, the main effects are being felt all along their flyways. In addition to the important summer breeding and wintering grounds at each end of their journey, most migratory birds depend on a network of stopover sites, some of which are crucial ‘hubs’ where large numbers of birds stop to rest and refuel before completing their journey. These sensitive sites are vital. For example, the Yellow Sea, a major hub for East-Asian shorebirds migrating to the Arctic, is facing habitat degradation due to land reclamation along the coastline. This is putting at risk important species such as Knots, Red Knots or Bar-Tailed Godwit.

Red Knot (Calidris canutus) Sterlegova, Taimyr, Siberia, Russia. Taken by Peter Prokosch
GRID-Arendal/ Riccardo Pravettoni
Spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) on its breeding site in Chukotka (Northeast Siberia)Taken by Christoph Zöckler

Measures to protect migratory species taken at the national level are likely to be inefficient if the threats are not tackled along the entire migration route. This is why strengthening international collaboration between all range states is essential to reduce the pressures inside and outside the Arctic. The global Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and other species or flyway-dedicated initiatives such as the Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative (AMBI), the East-Asian Migratory Bird Flyway Partnership or the Wadden Sea Flyway Initiative promote coordinated action for the conservation of the flying migrants.

World Migratory Bird Day not only reminds us of the amazing journeys these small travelers make every year. It also points out the fact that their continued migrations are an important indicator of the health of our planet.

Footnote: Header photo: Flock of Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) flying over their wintering ground around Malmö, Sweden. Taken by Louis Doremus