Although a few hardy species-including ptarmigan, ravens, snowy owls, and redpolls-remain year-round in the tundra, the bulk of arctic birds are migrants. One of the most dramatic moments in the tundra year is the springtime arrival of these travelers. In a matter of a few weeks, quiet landscapes are swept by a storm of wings, and the spring air echoes with the cries and songs of millions of swans, terns, geese, ducks, loons, shorebirds, phalaropes, and songbirds.
They come from wintering areas in nearly every state in the United States, and lands beyond: snow geese from Mexico, Pacific golden plovers from Argentina, tundra swans from Maryland, arctic terns from the waters off Antarctica.
Why do they come? It's the food! The brief northern summer's long daylight hours prompt an explosion of growth as plants, insects, and fish race to complete their life cycles before autumn sets in. Migratory birds make journeys of thousands of miles each year to take advantage of this ephemeral bounty. They depend on the summer abundance to supply them enough food to nest, raise young, and equip themselves with the fat reserves they will need for their long journeys back to wintering latitudes.
In August and September, millions of snow geese descend on the cottongrass fields of the Arctic Coastal Plain, where they feed voraciously on the nutritious roots of sedges. After increasing their body fat by some 400% in just a few weeks, they fly 1200 miles non-stop to southern wintering areas.
Bar-tailed godwits make the longest known non-stop overwater migration in the world: over 6,000 miles from Alaska to New Zealand and Australia..in only 4-5 days.
Arctic loons nest in tundra wetlands and winter along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia.
Lapland longspurs winter in central North America.
Golden Plovers journey each year between the tundra and Central America. Like certain other Alaskans, some plovers winter in Hawaii.