Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
SELAWIK: Surveying Birds Under the Midnight Sun
Alaska Region, July 12, 2012
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Volunteer Randy Meyers scanning for birds at one of the stops along Kotzebue's Breeding Bird Survey route.
Volunteer Randy Meyers scanning for birds at one of the stops along Kotzebue's Breeding Bird Survey route. - Photo Credit: Tina Moran/USFWS

Perhaps you’re already familiar with the North American Breeding Bird Survey – a comprehensive effort in Canada and the US to monitor the population status and trends of North American bird populations. It started in 1966 and includes over 4,000 survey locations. The Breeding Bird Survey that takes place annually in the remote Arctic town of Kotzebue, Alaska puts a different twist on the usual survey. Although observers here follow the strict international protocols to collect the data, they have to overcome some unique challenges to do so.


Dedicated birdwatchers are accustomed to waking up early, as many birds are most active around dawn. However, as Kotzebue is north of the Arctic Circle, we don’t have dusk, darkness or dawn during the summer months when bird breeding peaks. Thus the survey is timed to coincide with the closest approximation, when the sun is lowest in the sky, which is around 3:00 am. That’s a pretty early start, meaning observers have to be both dedicated and capable of fighting off drowsiness.

Breeding Bird Survey routes typically follow roads, allowing for more efficient coverage of the 25-mile routes. Anyone who has been to Kotzebue knows that roads aren’t one of the resources we’re rich in, and some of what we call “roads” might be considered “trails” to others. This is especially true of some of the “roads” along the Kotzebue survey route that have become neglected and overgrown, washed away by erosion, or are really just gravel beaches. Each year observers make it to all the points along the route, although they may have to resort to other means of transportation as necessary, including hiking, biking and/or driving an all-terrain vehicle.

Other arctic “wildlife” can pose a challenge as well. Twice in recent memory the survey crew has encountered caribou on their way to their count sites, and mosquitoes can be an annoyance. Some jokingly call the mosquito “Alaska’s state bird,” but this is one flying creature the observers are not looking forward to seeing. Light winds and warm temperatures during the survey create good bird detection conditions, but make for an increased mosquito load. When the day is brisk, there may be fewer mosquitoes, but it is also harder to hear bird songs, especially along the beach where the waves are breaking.

Conducting a Breeding Bird Survey combines the allure of documenting less common species, plus the solid satisfaction of recording successive years of bird numbers and diversity for a repeated route. Despite the obstacles, the Breeding Bird Survey has been conducted annually in Kotzebue since 2001. Earlier versions of the survey were conducted in Kotzebue in 1983-87, 1994, and 1996-97, but did not follow the prescribed 50-stop route. You can view the data from this route, or learn more about the program at the Breeding Bird Survey website: https://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBS/.

Contact Info: Brittany Sweeney, (907) 442-3799 ex.16, brittany_sweeney@fws.gov
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