I travelled to Nome this summer to combine a little work with a lot of pleasure. I wanted to photograph the animals in the area along with some landscape and time lapse photos that I could use to show my students what the Arctic Tundra looks like. To make sure I got the birds I wanted I went with Mathew Studebaker (StudebakerStudios.com) and I was able to get almost everything I wanted and many many more. I highly recommend him as a guide, check out his images and you will really be impressed.
Three of the species I really wanted to see and photograph were ones that I talk about in my classes I teach on Avian Migration, the Arctic Tern (above), the Bar-Tailed Godwit, and the Northern Wheatear (below). I just missed the Northern Wheatear but my new friend Angela McCain lent me one of her excellent photos she got as I chose to go photograph muskox the morning they had one "pose".
My reason for wanting to see these birds and get good images is that they are the "true olymipians" of bird migration. What these animals do over the course of their lives is truly amazing, and almost unbelieveable. The more I read about what these animals could do compared to a human made it a "bucket list" item for me to see them for myself.
The Arctic Tern could be called a constant migrator. This pair above fly almost non stop throughout the year, as the travel from pole to pole, only stopping to breed before they get going again. In one year, the pair above will leave the northern arctic for Anarctica, then fly back again to travelling 50,000 miles in one year!!!!! Terns are long lived birds and if they live to 30 (not abnormal) it is estimated they have flown 1.5 million miles in their lives. That's 3 times around the moon and back. Below is a figure taken from birds with satelite transmitters showing their annual routes.
I got exhausted riding a jet airplane riding in a seat from Phoenix to Nome, these guys don't have that luxury. Metabolic physiologist estimate flying takes 4 - 5 times the energy humans can produce at high exertion, so 4 X that of a Tour De France athelete while they are competing. Birds are kind of like Race Cars with a 1 gallon gas tank. With respect to metabolism the tern is an Indy race car and a mammal is a Chevy Impala at best. It's no wonder they have to eat all the time. Above the male is feeding the female as she sits on an egg (s). They pair bond throughout life, only taking a new partner if one dies.
The third species I really wanted to see was the Northern Wheatear. I call them the non stop traveller. This small 25 g bird (less than on ounce) has one of the largest ranges in the world, certainly for it's size. Although they breed in the northern and western hemisphere (North American Arctic), they choose to winter in sub saharan Africa, the eastern and southen hemisphere. A short 14,500 km away!!!!!!! This journey lasts up to 3 months and they average 290 km a day. This is the only known North American bird with links to Africa. Their route was determined from a new technology known as geolocaters as they are way too small for satelite transmitters. Why this species evolved such a long route is unknown, but they certainly are the smallest long distance migrator.
Many of the species I saw there have impressive journeys, particularly when I think of the physiological and energetic problems all of these species face. Why do they fly all the way to the Arctic to breed???? Well that one is easier to explain, the same reason humpback whales and many other species go to the seas there, an overabundance of food enabled by a 24 hour day of light. As long as there is light, algae and plants will continue to produce energy benefiting every species up the food chain. Many of the species that nest there only need to spend a couple months because they can replenish spent fuel supplies and/or grow so fast. If the plants and algae are growing, the insects, small fish, and crustaceans are also increasing and that's a good thing for breeding birds. But the breeding bird travels certainly are amazing and it was special for me to witness these bird species I have read about, wondered about and lectured about in person and capture their beauty on digital (can't say film any more can I)
I hope to post much more about the arctic and it's species but like the Northern Wheatear I'm off the African next week. I'm going to let Delta do the flying and I'll still complain about the 27 hour trip!!!