Critical Connections

On This Page Navigation

Illustration of bird migration paths

NPS Image


About Migratory Birds

Many of the birds that breed in Denali travel thousands of kilometers each year to return to their nesting areas. These are the true "globe trotters" of the bird world and they connect Denali to global ecosystems.

Many of the 21 species of shorebirds that breed in Denali are long-distance migrants. Shorebirds nesting at higher elevations include the American golden plover, upland sandpiper, surfbird, and Baird’s sandpiper. Shorebirds nesting at lower elevations include the semipalmated plover, greater and lesser yellowlegs, solitary sandpiper, wandering tattler, spotted sandpiper, whimbrel, least sandpiper, long-billed dowitcher, common snipe, and red-necked phalarope. Birds with intriguing names, like the wandering tattler, attract bird watchers by the score. The American golden plover has exquisite plumage, an evocative voice, and a globe-spanning reach (they winter in South America). Surfbirds, who spend most of their lives along coastal areas in the "surf", nest in the mountainous regions of Denali. George Wright made the first scientific observation of a surfbird nest on a rocky ridge in Denali on May 26, 1926.

Two elegant species, the long-tailed jaeger and the arctic tern grace the summer skies of Denali. The beautiful long-tailed jaeger nests on the tundra and these lithe aerial hunters patrol the northern landscape in search of prey. Their wintering areas are not well-documented, but they probably spent most of the winter at sea. Equally as agile and elegant as jaegers, arctic terns nest near the numerous lakes and ponds in Denali where they seem to hover effortlessly over the water in search of prey. The arctic tern is probably the most famous long distance avian migrant in the world, traveling between breeding grounds in the arctic and wintering habitat on the waters near Antarctica.

Several species of passerines are true globe trotters and these species attract much interest from bird watchers and scientists alike. Northern wheatears are summer visitors that nest in the tundra in Denali and spend their winters in sub-Saharan Africa. Arctic warblers commonly nest in willow thickets and their harsh calls are difficult to ignore. This Old World warbler winters in southeastern Asia (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Borneo) but returns to Denali and arctic regions to breed. (Adolph Murie, one of the first scientists to work in Denali, documented the first two nests of this species for North America among the tall willows of Igloo Creek in 1955.) Blackpoll warblers breed across the boreal regions of North America. This tiny bird is a celebrity in the migration world. Their annual journeys between North America and South America are among the longest of passerine birds.

Why Study Bird Migration Paths

  • Nearly 80 percent of bird species in Denali National Park are migratory. In spring, these birds arrive from locations around the world to nest and raise their young.
  • Scientists know that certain birds breed in one place and spend the winter in another place. However, little is known about the path between these locations.
  • Birds’ health is affected by conditions outside of Denali – specifically along their migration path and at wintering areas.
  • Studies show decreasing numbers of migratory birds. Death or injury during migration may be a major factor threatening populations.

Research in the Park

Park scientists work with the Denali Education Center and Alaska Geographic to run the Critical Connections Program. The Critical Connections Program aims to understand and communicate the year-round needs of Alaska’s migratory birds. Program researchers attach location devices to birds in Denali National Park. Upon retrieval, these devices help identify migration routes, wintering locations, and the effect environmental conditions have on bird survival.



Gray and black bird held by researcher Researchers set up basket trap Researcher holds small song bird Researcher takes notes Researchers releases captured bird
Click on an image to open it in full size.

Peer-reviewed Publications

Phillips LM and Others. 2015. Critical connections program for migratory birds in Alaska: 2015 program activities. Natural Resource Report. NPS/DENA/NRR—2015/1087. National Park Service. Fort Collins, Colorado


Science Stories

Loading results...

    Last updated: June 3, 2019

    Contact the Park

    Mailing Address:

    PO Box 9
    Denali Park, AK 99755


    (907) 683-9532
    A ranger is available 9 am—4 pm daily (except on major holidays). If you get to the voicemail, please leave a message and we'll call you back as soon as we finish with the previous caller.

    Contact Us