ARTICLE: Waterfowl Phenomenon Sparks Passion for Wetlands on Alaskan Peninsula

A NAWCA funded project preserves 70,000 additional acres of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Complex

“I thought I saw a swirling cloud of smoke in the distance the first time I visited Izembek National Wildlife Refuge,” says Brad Meiklejohn, Alaska state director for The Conservation Fund. “I lifted my binoculars and realized it was thousands of birds.” 

As the gyrating mass of birds approached, their beating wings sounded like an impending storm. Meiklejohn wondered, for a moment, if he would be sucked up into the tornado of birds like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz

 “To see tens of thousands of birds, it felt like something primordial that I thought had vanished from the planet,” Meiklejohn says. Meiklejohn moved to Alaska from New Hampshire in the early 90’s because he wanted to live someplace unspoiled, a place where salmon still swim in rivers and bears still roam. 

Though the bird encounter happened nearly 30 years ago, it remains one of the most powerful experiences of Meiklejohn’s life and became the catalyst for a decade of work leading to the preservation of 70,000 additional acres of Izembek. 

Few places on earth are as alive with animals as Izembek National Wildlife Refuge Complex on the Alaskan peninsula. From caribou and brown bears to salmon and gray whales, Izembek teems with animals, not only in the air but on land and in water.

Izembek is a boon for birds—185 species of them. “Birds are the glue that holds the ecosystem together,” Meiklejohn says. “It’s as if the place were created for birds.” 

Waterfowl are drawn to the area by the eelgrass that flourishes in the nutrient-rich Izembek Lagoon flanked by the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Every autumn upwards of a quarter of a million migratory birds feast on the caloric-rich eelgrass, many gaining the energy to sustain them for migrations spanning several thousand miles. Black brant migrate to Baja California, Mexico from Izembek and bar-tailed godwits head to New Zealand. Arctic terns fuel up at Izembek’s wetlands for the world’s longest migration from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. 

In the early 90’s when Meiklejohn first visited Izembek, the area was only partially protected. “Looking at a map showed a Swiss cheese-like pattern in land ownership,” he explains. “Many of the holes represented privately owned land in need of preservation.” Private land scattered among parks and refuges leads to vulnerability in conservation lands.