Until recently, Whimbrels have proved to be somewhat of a mystery to scientists. Noting a decline among the long-distant migrants, which typically breed up in arctic Canada, scientists set out to better understand the everyday life of a Whimbrel and what might be leading to their decline.
Credit: James Robinson
Part of the difficulty in understanding Whimbrel behavior was simply the remoteness and wide-ranging nature of their geography. Their typical summer breeding grounds in the Mackenzie River Delta and Hudson Bay coastline in northern Canada are not close to many people, much less research facilities. And although some do winter along the coastlines of the United States, the majority head down to the tropical coastlines of the Caribbean and South America. The East Coast of the US and Canadian Maritmes, has been known as a stopping ground for some time. But where they went after that was less known.
This prompted a satellite tagging study in which some birds were fitted with small transmitters, allowing scientists to follow their movements. Led by the Center for Conservation Biology along with numerous partners, the program officially launched in 2008.
This great study has helped us to understand much more about Whimbrels and how they migrate (and we’ve blogged several updates throughout the process). Hope has lived up to her name, avoiding several tropical storms while successfully flying back and forth between northern Canada and her wintering grounds on St. Croix for three straight years since being tagged in 2009. She even dabbled in acting, playing lead role in a short film about the program.
Machi and Goshen were not so fortunate, as both were killed by hunters on the island of Guadaloupe in fall of 2011. Although the shootings were legal according to local laws, it prompted a significant global response and outcry, leading to a renewed pressure to better regulate bird hunting in the Caribbean.
Although the program is still relatively new, much has been learned about Whimbrel migrations and where they might be sensitive to issues that could impact their survival.
Thanks to the continuance of the study we gained even more vital information this past week. Three Whimbrels were tagged this summer up in the Mackenzie River Delta of Canada (others had previously been being tagged on stopover locations in the US). Mackenzie, Akpik and Taglu surprised everyone not when they stopped in eastern Canada to fuel up for the big trip south, but when they jutted way out over the open Atlantic on a non-stop flight all the way to the eastern coast of South America.
Whimbrels previously tracked in the program had stuck much closer to North America, often stopping in places like Virginia and the Caribbean before finding their eventual winter home. This new route began in Atlantic Canada and strayed way out over the heart of the Atlantic. This route was known to be used by several sea birds, which can roost and rest by landing on the open sea, and some famously long-distance non-stop migrant shorebirds like American Golden Plovers and the now probably extinct Eskimo Curlew—a smaller cousin of the Whimbrel. But this was the first documented use of this route by a Whimbrel. The individual with the longest route actually flew for what must have been an exhausting six straight days (!) without stopping for a total of 4,355 miles (7,000 kilometres).
It’s no wonder they stopped to build up energy and fat reserves for two weeks prior at stopover habitat in eastern Canada before embarking on this marathon journey.
Each year it seems like we learn something completely new about Whimbrels through this program. Let’s clink our glasses to the success they’ve had and the success we hope they continue to have!