Every summer, clouds of shorebirds scatter across the coastal plain of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge like leaves fluttering across the tundra.


The chilly windswept plain, where northeastern Alaska meets the Arctic Ocean, nurtures these delicate birds as they raise their young. Many species use the refuge: turnstones and dowitchers, phalaropes and plovers, and scores of sandpipers.


But the arctic environment, resilient in so many ways, is shifting. Climate change, being seen all over the globe, is moving twice as fast in northern Alaska. With less sea ice and more open water, the coast is more vulnerable to storm surges and erosion. In the mountains south of the coastal plain, the glaciers are ebbing, which could change the character of the riverside and delta habitats many shorebird species favor. Oil and gas exploration near the refuge could have an impact, too.


For David Payer, supervisory ecologist at the 19.3-million-acre refuge, the potential for major environmental change in the future makes baseline research crucial now. Only by establishing a clear understanding of shorebird populations and ecology can the refuge staff know how habitats are changing and how to react.


Many shorebird species are declining, so biologists are working to learn the birds’ distribution, required habitats, abundance, food, breeding success and seasonal movements. “It’s vital for us to understand what habitats are important for these birds, what drives their use of habitat,” Payer says.


Getting that information is challenging. The refuge is about the size of South Carolina, with no roads or marked trails. Everything researchers need—from tents to solar-powered computers—must be flown in (and out). Finding nests can mean walking miles through tussocks and boot-sucking muskeg. The weather is often cold and damp. Snow can show up, even in summer. Bears—both polar bears and grizzlies—can show up, too.


Despite the obstacles, field studies over more than a decade have begun to get a statistical picture of many species. This summer, scientists conducted two major research efforts: a demographic survey of shorebirds’ breeding success and nest distribution near the Canning River delta; and a survey of birds, their habitat and prey during the crucial feeding period just before the grueling migration south. An earlier study looked at whether human development might inadvertently help arctic nesting birds’ predators.


The refuge’s scientists say it’s critical to work with other groups, that only a cooperative effort can succeed.


“As vast as the Arctic Refuge is, it’s not an island unto itself,” Payer says. “These species, whether they be shorebirds or grizzly bears or caribou or whatever, don’t see the borders that we put on a map.”


Over more than a decade, partners have included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field office in Fairbanks, the Service migratory bird management division, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, the Wildlife Conservation Society, U.S. Geological Survey, University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Texas Marine Science Institute, Kansas State University, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, BP Exploration (Alaska), ConocoPhillips Alaska, Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, the North Slope Borough and the Canadian Wildlife Service.


Stephen Brown, director of shorebird science at the Manomet Center and a key collaborator, explains: “Many species of arctic nesting shorebirds are in significant decline, and we need to devise conservation strategies to reverse those declines if we want healthy populations of wildlife to persist. We don’t know what is causing the declines for most of the species, so there is a lot we need to learn.”


John Pancake is a freelance writer who lives in Goshen Pass, VA.