Swans, cranes, robins, tourists — this time of year brings migrants of all kinds to Alaska. The richness of summer life on land and in the sea surrounding Alaska is a draw for many species. Migration is an integral part of survival for many and impacts the life of even those not on the move.
It is with great anticipation that Fairbanks area residents watch for the first Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) to arrive at Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in the spring. We keep our ears tuned to the skies for the rattling bugles of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone Canadensis). The distinctive calls can be heard up to 2.5 miles away and herald the return of warmer weather along with the birds. Migration defines the seasons. The museum is hosting hands-on family programs to explore migration during May.
For good reason, birds come to mind when discussing migration. There are many remarkable migratory record holders in the bird world. The Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) flies for eight days from New Zealand to Alaska without stopping. The 6,835 mile (11,000 km) non-stop flight is the longest of any bird. Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) breed in the Arctic and winter in the Antarctic. The distance between the Arctic and Antarctic Circle is 18,641 miles (30,000 km) and terns fly it twice a year. That is the equivalent of looping around the earth two times, with 10,000 miles more to go. Many mounts of migratory birds can be seen in the museum’s Gallery of Alaska.
In the Gallery of Alaska, museum guests can also see the life cycle of salmon from eggs to alevins, fry, parr, smolt, and finally adult. Salmon migrations take them from home streams of freshwater out to the saltwater of the ocean for the bounty of food available there. Different species of salmon spend different amounts of time at sea. Alaska’s state fish, the chinook or “king” salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) may spend up to five years at sea. All salmon migrate back to their home streams to spawn. The predictability of salmon migrations has allowed subsistence activities and cultural traditions to develop connected to harvesting and processing the fish.
Human activities and migrations in Alaska have also been tied to the movements of caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti). In Alaska, caribou are divided into 32 herds. Animals from the herds may mix in winter but each has their own distinct calving areas. Caribou calves must keep up with the herd and are able to run within a few hours of birth.
Whales are a charismatic representation of migratory ocean life. Species spotted in Alaska may have spent much of their life far from our shores. Orca whales (Orcinus orca) follow food all around the world’s oceans. Unlike some other whale species, they do not have a regular migration route each year. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrate annually. Most winter in temperate or tropical waters around Mexico, Hawaii, and Japan. While humpbacks may be seen any time of year in Alaska, they are more abundant during the summers. For thousands of years, Inupiat and St. Laurence Island Yupik whalers have regularly taken bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus). Cultural traditions are tied to this northern migratory mammal. Bowheads, agviq in Inupiaq and aghveq in Siberian Yupik, do not move to temperate waters to calve. Instead, calves are born in the Bering Sea and then the whales move northward to the Arctic Ocean.
People’s migrations to Alaska and around the state are documented in the museum’s archaeological collections. The first Alaskan people are thought to have arrived through the Bering Land Bridge 14-16,000 years ago. Movements of people continue today. Nearly 8% of Alaskans were born in another country and 9% of the state’s U.S.-born residents have at least one immigrant parent. The life stories and experiences of Alaskans are held in the museum’s collections. Artworks and everyday objects reflect our connections to migratory animals — a bag made from a swan’s foot, ivory carvings of whales. The collections, such as archaeological artifacts and contemporary artworks, also reflect our own heritage of migration.
Movement seems a part of the arrival of spring and frenzy of activity into summer. Animals are arriving and passing through. Guests visit and locals plan and prepare trips of their own. Some to go birding, camping, or to check on fish camp. Migration is a part of our human nature, highlighting our ties to the world around us. In the words of author and naturalist Scott Weidensaul: “Migrations speak to us, not just as observers, but as integral parts of nature.”
Jennifer Arseneau is the education and public programs manager for the UA Museum of the North. She can be reached at 474-6948.