Bay Nature magazineOctober-December 2014

Ask the Naturalist: Which Bird Migrates Farthest to Get to the Bay Area?

October 1, 2014

Which of our overwintering bird species travels the farthest to spend the season with us in the Bay Area? —Patrick, San Francisco

My first thought was “that’s easy—snow geese.” One hundred thousand of these beautiful birds migrate more than 3,000 miles from Wrangel Island in northern Siberia to the continental United States. However, it’s rare to see them in the Bay Area; the closest they get is the Central Valley.

So I posed this question to some of my hard-core birding friends, which engendered quite a discussion. But there were three long-distance travelers that everyone agreed on.

Lapland longspurs are midsize sparrows that breed in northern Canada, many on remote Melville Island. One of the most abundant breeding songbirds in the Arctic, they spend summers feeding almost exclusively on arthropods and in winter they subsist on seeds. Flocks of over four million have been counted migrating south to spend the winter in the middle part of North America. Yet a handful of them make it to the Bay Area, a trip of 2,500–3,000 miles. They are difficult to find, but they are regular wintering visitors. The best place to look for them is plowed fields on the Point Reyes peninsula.

The brant is a small goose that nests way up in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska and in the Russian Arctic. When the breeding season ends and the days get shorter these dark-plumaged geese fly along the coastline to the Aleutian Island chain. Almost the entire Pacific population (some 130,000 birds) gathers in Alaska’s Izembek Lagoon before taking off on an epic open ocean crossing, eventually making landfall in British Columbia or California. The majority continue south to Baja California, but quite a few of them hang out in San Francisco, Tomales, and Drakes bays, where they feed on eelgrass and other marine plants. Their winter journey could be well over 4,000 miles!

Finally, we have the easy-to-find long-billed dowitcher. These shorebirds nest in Arctic Russia, and tagging studies show that most of the Siberian ones winter in North America. After a trip of up to 3,500 miles, they show up in very large flocks in San Francisco and Tomales bays, and their constant probing in the mudflats for invertebrates has earned them the moniker “sewing machine birds.” The tips of their bills are full of nerve endings that help them find food buried in the mud.

So as you can see, we have some fantastic contenders for long-distance travel champion. And what a great life—long days of summer in the far North followed by relatively temperate, snow-free winters in San Francisco Bay. And all it takes is a self-propelled journey of at least 3,000 miles … twice a year!

About the Author

Send your questions to atn@baynature.org.Santa Rosa-based naturalist Michael Ellis leads nature trips throughout the world with Footloose Forays (footlooseforays.com).

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