Refer: Connie Barclay, Anchorage, Alaska - 907/786-3487
Susan Saul, Portland, Oregon - 503/231-6121
April 30, 1996
Each year, millions of northbound, migrating shorebirds journey from wintering grounds in South America to breeding grounds in Alaska, signaling the arrival of spring in the coastal communities they pass. This spring, as International Migratory Bird Week approaches on May 4-12, students and other wildlife enthusiasts are tracking these northbound birds--in cyberspace-- with the help of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
International Migratory Bird Week is an annual celebration of the return of millions of migratory birds from their wintering grounds in Central and South America to their breeding grounds in North America. This year, the Shorebird Sister Schools Program on the Internet provides a new way for students to get involved.
The Shorebird Sister Schools Program web site (http://www.fws.gov/~r7enved/sssp.html) differs from other programs in that participants cannot only get the latest migration information from stop-over locations along the Pacific Flyway, but they can also help biologists and other participants by reporting shorebird sightings in their communities. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the program, which was designed by Federal biologists and school teachers to help students and others learn about Arctic nesting shorebirds, their migrations, and the ecosystems they depend on.
"The Shorebird Sister Schools Program gives young people a chance to become actively involved in biology -- learning about wildlife migration as it actually happens, contributing their own observations, and using computers on the Internet, a medium they enjoy," says Dave Allen, the Service's Alaska regional director. "This program links the Service to schools and the schools to one another along the entire flyway in a grand partnership."
Students who live near shorebird habitat learn about shorebirds by watching not only for flocks of shorebirds but also for individually tagged shorebirds. Biologists in various study areas attach color-coded leg bands to shorebirds, such as dunlins, sanderlings, and plovers, with small metal flags representing where the bird was banded. A student who observes a flag-banded bird checks the country code indicated on the band against information on the Internet web site, and sends a message to the banding laboratory. This information helps biologists determine the migration patterns of the Arctic nesting shorebirds.
The Shorebird Sister Schools Program started in Homer, Alaska, with 14 schools along the Pacific Flyway. The program was the brainchild of Homer Junior High school teacher Dave Brann, working with the staff of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. This year for the first time, the Service linked the program to the World Wide Web to involve students and others from around the world.
"Since its beginning, the Shorebird Sister Schools Program has just exploded. We are getting interest from students all over the western hemisphere who are tracking hundreds of thousands of shorebirds to their nesting grounds in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic," said Heather Johnson, biologist and education specialist with the Anchorage office of the Service. "This program provides valuable information that really reinforces the concept of migration for students, as they learn from both biologists and one another."
According to Johnson, the students learn about shorebird ecology, wetlands, and research techniques, while developing computer skills. She says that it's a "win-win-win" situation where students, biologists, and migrating shorebirds all benefit. So far, she has received letters and computer messages sent from around the country by excited teachers, students, scout leaders, and other agencies interested in setting up similar programs or joining the Service's Shorebird Sister Schools Program.
Shorebirds often congregate in the hundreds of thousands during their migrations each spring from Central and South America to their northern nesting grounds in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. These birds log up to 20,000 miles on their annual flights, clock in at speeds of 40-60 miles per hour, and may reach flight altitudes approaching 20,000 feet. With wetlands disappearing all over the country, shorebirds increasingly compete for diminishing food supplies. Programs like the Shorebird Sister Schools Program enable biologists to engage students and citizens in a partnership that strives to gain a better understanding of how to help all kinds of bird species and the ecosystems on which they and humans depend.