Fall migration begins early for shorebirds that summer on the Arctic shore.
We had spent a week on the tundra near the Alaskan native village of Chevak, 17 miles inland from the Bering Sea. Three of us were there with guide Ulric Ulroan to look for shorebirds.
Our final meal before flying out was at Ulroan's home. After a dinner of fresh-caught salmon, he showed us a video taken earlier at our birding site.
On the small screen of his camera, thousands of emperor geese swarmed. The sound of those birds was as loud as the flock was large. The dominant sound, though, the scary sound, was the hum of mosquitoes. If there were thousands of geese, there were millions of mosquitoes.
That's why the shorebirds were there, not necessarily for mosquitoes as much as the other insect species that also flourish during the brief summer. For a few weeks when the ponds are free of ice and the tundra has softened, bugs rule.
The shorebirds we were watching came to Alaska for the feast, for the bounty that would fuel migration and fatten chicks ASAP.
Consider the pectoral sandpiper, a common Minnesota migrant. In late April and May they head for the Arctic shore. The birds appear again as early as mid-July, with fall migration already underway, and southern South America as the destination.
This is a round trip of about 18,000 miles. The birds don't make the flights for the scenery.
Food is needed to replenish energy consumed during the journey north. Male and female pecs arrive in late May and early June. Courtship, defense of nesting territory and nest building can extend to mid- or late June. The birds must fuel these activities.
After three weeks of incubation, the chicks hatch. They're precocial, on their feet and hunting for food hours after leaving the egg.
Adult males will be fueled for migration by late June. In two more weeks, they're gone. Females off the nest will fatten themselves for migration that begins in early to mid-August.
The chicks eat constantly to mature to flight status four to six weeks after hatching. That's zero to 60 in a few seconds.
Supplying the nourishment for all of this are plentiful fly larvae, beetles, spiders and other insect species. The birds could forgo migration and breed in South America, but they don't because competition for food with resident bird species would be too intense.
The long flights let these and other migrant species fit into a welcoming environment.
I looked at it as less welcoming. You can admire the hardiness of the people who live where cold and darkness wrap them for half the year. I admire them for enduring those mosquitoes for even a few weeks. That video was a horror movie for me.