Nunaluk Spit to Herschel Island

Site description (2001 baseline):

Site location and context
Nunaluk Spit and Herschel Island are remote areas on the Beaufort Sea along the Yukon coast. The site encompasses about 45 km of coastline extending from the base of Nunaluk Spit at the west end, to Calton Point at the east end. Nunaluk Spit and the four islands east of the spit are long and very narrow pieces of land that lie parellel to the coast. The site also includes the open waters of Workboat Passage, which lie between Herschel Island and the coast. The site extends inland approximately 1 km (and occasionally up to 4 or 5 km) to the higher coastal plain. Low arctic tundra vegetation is typified by dwarf shrubs, sedges, and herbs. The coast is composed of sandy spits and deltaic wetlands.

Key biodiversity
This site is significant for staging and migrating shorebirds, waterfowl, and gulls. It is an important staging point for Red-necked Phalaropes. In 1986, 54,020 Red-necked Phalaropes staged here in mid-August, mostly along the Nunaluk Spit, with lesser numbers along the south coast of Herschel Island. This represents about 2% if the North American population of this abundant species. Other shorebird concentrations of note were: 10,100 birds of mixed species in the fall of 1972; and 600 Lesser Golden Plovers in August, 1973, on Hershel Island.

Migration watches at the base of Nunaluk Spit in the early 1970s recorded 2,630 Glaucous Gulls flying east, and 3,010 flying west over a one month period. Its unclear how many individuals in total this represents as there is thought to be some overlap, but if 3,000 individuals had passed by then this would represent 1% of the global population and 5% of the North American population. Tens of thousands of Lesser Snow Goose, have also been recorded on these counts. In 1972, 42,738 were recorded flying eastward and 79,457 flying westward (the latter number is 16% of the current Western Central Flyway population).

Many other species use the area for moulting or for staging in fall migration. Black Brant have been recorded in numbers as high as 1,050 (August, 1974), and moulting scoters have reached 8,700 birds consisting of all three species. Greater White-fronted Geese (3,485 in August/ Sepember, 1972) and Northern Pintail (4,223 in July/August, 1972) utilize the area during fall migration. In 1974, 6050 Oldsquaw congregated in Workboat Passage along with 5,000 Red-necked Phalaropes.

Birds that breed in the area include Common Eider, Arctic Tern, Short-eared Owl (nationally vulnerable), Red-throated Loon, Snowy Owl, Rough-legged Hawk (Herschel Island has the highest density ever reported), Peregrine Falcon (nationally vulnerable), Glaucous Gull, Tundra Swan, Black Guillemot (Herschel Island only; largest colony in the western Arctic), and numerous species of ducks and shorebirds.

Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
The massive fan deltas of the Firth and Malcolm Rivers, which empty into the Beaufort Sea within this site, are encompassed by the northern part of Ivvavik National Park. The park was established in 1984 as a result of legislation stemming from First Nations land claims and a desire to legally protect the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd from industrial development. Nunaluk Spit is within the park, but Herschel Island is just outside the park boundary. Herschel Island is completely within a territorial park, however. Coastal waterways receive no protection.

Oil and gas exploration, along with the associated infrastructure development, is still a concern in the area. There are currently ongoing exploration activities on the Alaska coastal plain, and in the Beaufort Sea. Much of this part of the Beaufort Sea coastline is threatened due to rapid erosion. Many spits, cliff areas and low-lying lands have dramatically decreased in size over the past 20 years.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2024) Important Bird Area factsheet: Nunaluk Spit to Herschel Island. Downloaded from on 21/02/2024.