Chugach Corner: Shorebirds of a feather flyway together

The Copper River Delta hosts up to 5 million shorebirds during the annual spring migration. Nearly 90% of Pacific Dunlin and 80% of Western Sandpiper use the Copper River Delta as a stopover site before heading to their breeding grounds. It is one of the most important places in the Western Hemisphere for shorebirds.

A group of Forest Service biologists, in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., and Ducks Unlimited biologists recognized the importance of the Delta and began discussing the idea of how to connect the Copper River Delta with other key stopover sites along the Pacific Flyway. These discussions led to the formation of the Copper River International Migratory Bird Initiative, or CRIMBI. Rumor has it that much of the discussion took place at a local watering hole in Cordova, Alaska, with these biologists writing their ideas on cocktail napkins!

The creators of this initiative knew that if they were going to have success at protecting migratory shorebirds and waterbirds that used the Copper River Delta, they would need to work with governmental agencies and non-governmental groups throughout the flyway.

Jim Chu, natural resource specialist of Forest Service International Programs and CRIMBI coordinator, said that during the past 20 years, the initiative has grown and now includes representatives from Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Canada, the United States and most recently Chile.

The group shares experiences and lessons about how to celebrate, educate, and protect shorebirds and their habitat throughout their range. The CRIMBI members understand the importance of the Copper River Delta as a key stopover site during migration. Over the years, most of the CRIMBI partners have been invited to Cordova to witness the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival.

“The Forest Service has had a unique opportunity for our CRIMBI representatives to come and learn about the excitement and energy of the Copper River Delta Festival,” Chu said. “It is a successful model of ecotourism and involvement by the local businesses. There is such community pride associated with this festival. All our visitors can see this. Every one of our visitors has told me that they have brought back a lesson from the Copper River Festival to their community.”

One of the great CRIMBI success stories is the Migratory Shorebird Project. Roughly a decade ago, a nongovernmental organization, Point Blue Conservation Science, began a shorebird monitoring project to have all CRIMBI partners use the same standard protocol for monitoring shorebirds during November-January. As a result, biologists and citizen scientists in 13 countries are counting shorebirds “all the same way, up and down the Pacific Flyway. It’s amazing what has come out of the project,” stated Chu, who’s noted that several students are now using the data for graduate studies, and there have been several peer reviewed articles that have been published in scientific journals.

Mentoring and getting conversations started about shorebirds with the younger generations is important for CRIMBI members. “We want to build capacity and get younger people involved and provide resources, opportunities and education,” said Chu.

Diego Luna Quevedo, Senior Specialist in Policy and Governance for the WHSRN executive office, is boots on the ground in Santiago, Chile in the quest to conserve shorebird habitat.

Shorebirds, Quevedo shared, rely on a large network of sites vital in their migration journey. Identifying those sites is equally as important for us. The Copper River Delta, for example, is considered one of the “key” western hemispheric sites, and the first shorebird habitat in Alaska to be recognized by the network.

“Shorebirds depend on networks of critical migration stopover and wintering sites, whereby changes at any one location can threaten the whole population; so, knowing the most important sites would be critical,” said Quevedo. “At the flyway scale, Manomet/WHSRN is currently helping to build coalitions for shorebird conservation, summing local actions to achieve hemispheric impact, linking projects, initiatives, partners and donors. We are helping to build partnerships that work across the Pacific, Atlantic and Midcontinent flyways, connecting diverse cultures, nationalities and languages in the Americas to deliver full lifecycle conservation for imperilled shorebird species.”

The plethora of habitats, including mudflats and wetlands along the Pacific north/south flyway are critical in the health and successful shorebird migration that happens around the same time every year.

Rosabel Miro, Executive Director of Sociedad Audubon de Panama, shared their efforts in shorebird conservation, and highlighted that being part of an “international team” makes their quest that much more effective. The Panama Audubon Society has been promoting their passion and love for birds for the past 50 years through its work programs.

“People work more effectively as part of a team and an international team is required to solve an international problem–protecting the entire route of migratory shorebirds,” Miro said.

Miro beamed that as far away as the Copper River Delta is from Panama, you can still make a connection through the type of bird that visits both places, inciting curiosity and wonderment. It may be hard to imagine how far these small, mighty birds fly in just 365 days, many traveling over 6,000 miles one way.

“For Panamanians, the Copper River Delta in Alaska is a far away and exotic location,” Miro said. “To be able to tell people in our presentations that the very same bird, especially Western Sandpipers, have just visited those freezing mudflats on their voyage south inspires great interest.”

These critical partners are making a difference in shorebird conservation. Through education, festivals and awareness outreach efforts, the word is getting out along the flyway about these incredible birds, their perilous journey, and the connections they make for people that live thousands of miles apart.

Amanda Williams is a VetsWork intern working for the Forest Service as a public outreach specialist on the Cordova Ranger District. Williams is a Navy veteran who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom.