The Copper River Delta Shorebird Reserve Unit near Cordova, Alaska, is an area of great diversity that offers essential habitats for shorebirds and other wildlife from early spring through late fall. The site comprises tidal and submerged lands in Orca Inlet and extensive intertidal and freshwater wetlands, extensive marsh adjacent to tidal channels, and delta and barrier islands near the mouth of the Copper River. Wetland habitats extend from the foot of the Chugach Mountains to the tidal flats inside the barrier islands. Between the mountains and the estuarine area is a belt of sedge meadows, ponds, willow and sweetgale shrubs, and vegetated wetlands bordered with alder and cottonwood along streams.
As many as 1.1 million shorebirds have been observed at one time using the Copper River Delta during the peak migration (April 25 - May 15). Western Sandpipers and Dunlin, the two most abundant species of shorebirds on the Pacific Coast, stop here each year before flying further north and west to their breeding grounds. Their presence on estuarine mudflats behind the barrier sandbar islands is, by far, the most impressive use of Copper River habitats by shorebirds. Obtaining the necessary energy reserves on the Delta greatly influences their reproductive success elsewhere in Alaska and/or Siberia. Important too are the upland marsh wetlands for other shorebird species breeding here.
In addition to stopover habitat, the wetlands on the Delta provide a variety of shorebird nesting habitat. Nesting species include: Short-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, Greater Yellowlegs, Common Snipe, Red-necked Phalaropes, Spotted Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers. Less common Delta breeders include Dunlin and Lesser Yellowlegs.
Ecology & Conservation
Protection and Management
The Copper River Delta Cooperative Agreement was signed in 1962. In 1978, the State of Alaska legislature designated much of the tidal, submerged, and adjacent uplands as the Copper River Delta Critical Habitat Area, to be protected and conserved by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. A five-party Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in 1986 established the Copper River Delta Fish and Wildlife Management Area, enlarging the former agreement and facilitating cooperation between State and Federal agencies in research and management programs for the area. In 1990, an MOU established the Copper River Delta Shorebird Unit (CRDSU), reflecting a combined concern for shorebirds by public agencies, private corporate land managers, and local city government. The CRDSU focuses attention on the Delta as a key staging area for shorebirds.
Much of the site is managed by the U.S. Forest Service (Chugach National Forest ) through the Cordova Ranger District for the conservation of fish and wildlife and their habitats, in accordance with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA, passed in 1980). Remaining lands are managed by the City of Cordova, State of Alaska, Eyak Corporation, and the Chugach Alaska Corporation.
-- Natural phenomena, such as earthquake uplift and tsunamis.
-- Current and future development of natural resources, where associated debris or leached chemicals can potentially harm intertidal shorebird feeding areas.
-- Oil spills in the Gulf of Alaska or within Prince William Sound, where prevailing winds and tidal currents could sweep contaminants onto the flats of the Copper River Delta.
-- Excessive local air traffic and airboat use, and heavy, repeated ATV and concentrated foot traffic on the mudflats, that can adversely affect invertebrates and interfere with/discourage shorebird use.
Research and Management Activities
The USFS Cordova Ranger District staff members and a broad base of cooperators conduct plant association and ecology work, management studies, and fish and wildlife research, and habitat improvement projects throughout the Delta.
The Copper River Delta is part of the U.S. Forest Service's Key Coastal Wetlands network in Alaska. Managers and researchers are tracking habitat changes occurring at coastal wetlands, which are so susceptible to effects of glacial rebound, earthquake uplift, and climate change, to better understand and manage for these pressures. The Copper River International Migratory Bird Initiative (CRIMBI) links the Copper River Delta with a variety of partners within the United States and Latin America. This initiative strengthens conservation, research, education, and funding for the Copper River area’s migratory bird resources through effective international partnerships, outreach, and on-the-ground action.
The Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival is a highlight each spring, typically the first weekend in May. Since 1990, the Copper River Delta Institute (CRDI) has sponsored this event in cooperation with the Chugach National Forest, Cordova Chamber of Commerce, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and other supporters. The festival includes field trips, community events, and fair, and workshops taught by Alaskan ornithologists familiar with shorebird biology and identification. For more information, visit the Cordova Chamber of Commerce website.
Copper River Delta Shorebird Unit boundaries do not include Controller Bay, located at the far east end of the Delta that includes the Bering River Delta. According to telemetry and surveys by Dr. Mary Anne Bishop, this bay marks the first landfall for many migrant Pacific Flyway shorebirds arriving to the Copper River Delta; it further supports nearly 25% of the site's shorebirds each spring. It is recommended by the Copper River Delta Institute (CRDI) that Controller Bay be included in the Copper River Delta Shorebird Unit boundaries.
U.S. Forest Service, Chugach National Forest
Cordova Ranger District
PO Box 280
Cordova, AK 99574