A video produced by Andy Johnson with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology highlights collaborative research conducted on St. Matthew Island, in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The video features research by the USGS Alaska Science Center and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska in 2018 - 2019. The research team focused on surveying McKay's Bunting and the Pribilof Rock Sandpiper.
St. Matthew and Hall islands provides breeding habitat for ~140 species of birds, but in 2018 a research team was focused on studying the populations and nesting habits of the Pribilof Rock Sandpiper and McKay's Bunting. It had been 15 years since anyone had been to out to the remote islands to study these birds. Nests for these birds can be difficult to find—the Pribilof Rock Sandpiper nests are camouflaged and blend into the tundra to help protect their young from predators. The McKay’s Bunting, previously known as "snowflakes" due to its flight display and pure-white feathers, nest in rock crevices along talus slopes.
Researchers at the USGS Alaska Science Center (USGS-ASC) are collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Division of Migratory Bird Management to reassess the population status of these two birds restricted to Alaska. McKay’s Bunting and Pribilof Rock Sandpiper breed solely on the isolated islands in the central Bering Sea and winter along the Bering Sea and Cook Inlet coasts, respectively. Previous work in the early 2000s found McKay’s Bunting (31,200 birds) and Pribilof Rock Sandpipers (19,800 birds) to be among the continent’s rarest and most range-restricted breeding birds, making them particularly vulnerable to extinction and a conservation priority at regional to continental scales.
From 2018–2021, scientists from USGS-ASC and USFWS have been replicating surveys of these rare birds originally conducted from 2001–2003 with the goal to monitor changes in their population size and reproduction, identify important habitats for their breeding, and assess their risks to local extinctions from changes in climate and recent range expansions by red foxes.