Arctic Biodiversity: Where is it heading?
Birds without borders need protection everywhere

Flyways and wetlands

Arctic migratory birds fly through dozens of countries on their way to and from the North—so whose birds are they, anyway? For example, if a bird migrates from southern Africa but breeds in the Arctic, is it a South African bird or an Arctic one? For the bird, it really doesn’t matter: what matters is being adequately protected from climate-related threats along the entire flyway. To that end, WWF–Sweden has launched the Tavvavouma Arctic Flyways project to study and protect an important wetland used by wading sandpipers.

EVERY SUMMER, MILLIONS of birds migrate to the Arctic to take advantage of the 24/7 daylight and enormous quantities of insects. Threatened by overharvesting and habitat destruction outside the Arctic, many of these birds are decreasing in number—and unfortunately, the effects of the climate crisis are also starting to take a toll on them. To safeguard Arctic migratory birds, we must reduce threats to them in their wintering areas and where they rest on their way to and from the Arctic.

© WWF Arctic Programme, The Circle

The ruff is a medium-sized, longnecked wader that breeds in marshes and wet meadows across northern Eurasia. Ruffs are decreasing in number in northern Sweden and Finland. The reason for their decline is not known for certain, but it is likely because of habitat destruction along their migration routes as well as hunting of the birds during their migration and at their overwintering grounds in western Africa.

The ruff is one of several bird species in Sweden that participate in a lek—that is, a large mating party where males put on a show to attract females. In Tavvavouma, Sweden, these leks take place on large peat hills—known as palsas—from which the birds can easily detect predators.

Tavvavouma is a 55,000 hectare wetland in northern Sweden. In the 1970s, it was renowned among birdwatchers for its large numbers of bird species. Two Saami villages that engage in traditional reindeer herding rely on this wetland. One important explanation for Tavvavouma’s wealth of biodiversity is likely the presence of palsas—peat mounds with permanently frozen peat and mineral soil cores. Palsas push the peat upward, creating small hills that rise six to seven metres above the surrounding mires. This phenomenon creates many different micro habitats, including small pools with insects that serve as food for birds. But palsa landscapes are threatened by the climate crisis because higher temperatures are thawing permafrost.

© Tom Arnbom, WWF-Sweden
© Tom Arnbom, WWF-Sweden

In summer 2021, WWF launched the Tavvavouma Arctic Flyways project to better protect the area, discover where the waders overwinter, and study how climate change is affecting both reindeer herding and breeding for birds. The focus was originally on taking a census of birds and insects and studying how climate change is affecting the area. To our surprise, the number of birds was still unusually high—as high as it was in the 1970s.

In 2022 and 2023, we will focus on tagging and tracking migratory waders to find out more about their migration routes. From 2024 onward, our aim will be to restore, strengthen and protect the waders’ overwintering and resting areas (in Africa and Asia) by working with local people to reduce stressors in those areas.

The Tavvavouma project is a collaboration between WWF–Sweden and Birdlife Sweden together with scientists from Stockholm and Lund universities. We are also working closely with the Saami village in Lainiovuoma and the County Administrative Board of Norrbotten. By working together, we hope to find ways to protect this important wetland—and the birds that depend on it.

To safeguard Arctic migratory birds, we must reduce threats to them in their wintering areas and where they rest on their way to and from the Arctic.

© Tom Arnbom, WWF-Sweden