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Tracking Whimbrels from Virginia's Eastern Shore

By Madeline Breen 

The Nature Conservancy and the Center for Conservation Biology have teamed up again to track the migratory routes of tagged whimbrels from Virginia ’s Eastern Shore. Meet the birds and follow along on their journey! 

November 10, 2009 — A Changing Climate for Whimbrels

Over the past few months, we’ve been following the migration progress of Hope as she made her memorable journey from Virginia to two locations in Canada and now St. Croix. I sat down with Nature Conservancy scientist Barry Truitt for one final update on this jet-setting shorebird.

Madeline Breen: What has Hope been up to since September?

Barry Truitt: For the past few months, Hope has been at Great Pond, St. Croix, an Important Bird Area site that unfortunately is being threatened by resort development. She’s become a local celebrity during her stay there — Hope’s presence at Great Pond has been covered twice by the local Virgin Island press and used to point out the value of the wetlands at Great Pond to migratory birds.

Breen: Can you tell us where Hope is headed next?  Will she stay in St. Croix until the breeding season next spring?  

Truitt: Hope could either stay at St. Croix all winter, or move to northern South America. The coastal areas of Guyana south to Brazil and the mouth of the Amazon are the major wintering territories for whimbrels on the Atlantic coast. We have had so many surprises in this research that I would say that your guess is as good as mine!

Breen: Are you worried about the threat of climate change on these migratory birds? Have you already begun to see changes firsthand?

Truitt:  Definitely. Biologists have already documented changes to historically important nesting habitat in Canada. Just over the past two decades, whimbrels have abandoned former breeding grounds near Churchill, Manitoba, because wetlands are drying up and giving way to shrubs and trees. These birds have evolved to migrate and nest according to the availability of food in certain places during certain periods. So climate change could greatly affect their breeding success by throwing off that timing, which is what we suspect happened to Hope in Canada. Rising seas may also shrink the intertidal habitat that shorebirds need. So the worries about climate change are definitely there.

Breen: What’s next for your team at the Virginia Coast Reserve?  

Truitt: We’re keeping our eye on Hope, the only bird still transmitting from the group tagged last spring, while also monitoring the migration routes of four whimbrels tagged this fall as they travel south for winter.

Conservation of highly migratory species, such as the whimbrels, presents a tremendous challenge at regional, national and international scales, as the birds depend on networks of wetland and coastal habitats for food and resources at different times of the year.

The continued existence of whimbrels depends on the health of wetland and coastal ecosystems throughout their migratory range. We hope to work through the framework provided by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network for collaboration and communication among shorebird conservationists throughout the Western Hemisphere.

September 2, 2009 — Destination: St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

From Virginia to Canada to the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hope the whimbrel has acquired a lot of stamps in her passport this summer. The latest leg of this shorebird’s journey has taken Hope and her 9.5 gram satellite transmitter on a nonstop 3,200-mile flight to sunny St. Croix.

After an unsuccessful summer breeding season in chilly central and western Canada, Hope departed South Hampton Island in Canada’s upper Hudson Bay on August 10. Her route took her east across the interior of Canada and New England, until she hit the open Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine and flew 100 hours south to Great Pond, St. Croix.

Mangrove trees and rich mudflats make the Great Pond wetlands a popular staging location for many migratory birds, like the threatened white-crowned pigeon. Great Pond is also recognized as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

Scientists from the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) and The Nature Conservancy believe Hope will spend two-three weeks in St. Croix, resting and stocking up on crabs before heading to South America for the winter.

While Hope explores the Great Pond wetlands, the CCB continues their important whimbrel research in Virginia with the deployment of four newly tagged birds. The team has “hope” that, with enough tagged birds and research, they’ll continue to uncover more valuable information about migration routes and staging areas for whimbrels.

Read about the four newly tagged whimbrels in The Virginian-Pilot »

August 14, 2009 — Hope Headed Home?

If you haven't checked Hope's latest progress online, we encourage you to do so! Visit Wildlife Tracking for a map of Hope's route and check back in soon for more details on Hope's journey home.

July 20, 2009 — Breeding Is a Bust for Our Whimbrels

We have some disappointing news to share today.

Due to a record-breaking late spring in the eastern Arctic, Nature Conservancy scientists now believe that four out of the five tagged whimbrels failed at breeding this year, or didn’t even attempt to nest.

The eastern Arctic hasn’t witnessed a late spring like this one since 1983. Snow and ice have partially covered the breeding grounds of many shorebirds and waterfowl – as of mid-June, James Bay in central Canada had virtually 100 percent snow cover and conditions at Churchill, Manitoba, were worse. Whimbrels have a very short breeding season, so when the area doesn’t thaw out, they simply miss their window to breed.

According to the Winnepeg Free Press, “Prolonged cold snowy conditions in the Hudson Bay are expected to obliterate the breeding season for migratory birds and most other species of wildlife this year.”

A later report from Erica Nol of Trent University notes that some shorebirds have started to nest – just very late. Overall nesting success should be below average, but if there are enough bare spots, the season won’t be a complete bust for shorebirds.

Boxer and Hope are just two of the birds affected by the troublesome weather. After touching down in central Canada, Boxer immediately headed back to Box Tree Farm in Virginia, the exact location where he was captured and tagged earlier this spring.

After a brief staging stop with Boxer in central Canada, Hope unexpectedly continued her flight northwest. Unfortunately, she also didn’t find what she was looking for and is headed back east.

What Does This Mean?

The good news first: whimbrels are fairly long-lived creatures and only have to produce one chick during their lifetime that lives to adulthood to maintain the population.

However, if climate change and more frequent annual oscillations and late springs continue, the impacts will be devastating to populations of whimbrels and other migratory birds.

“Such major oscillations are part of a bumpy ride toward global warming," said Thomas Karl of the National Climate Center. "For awhile at least this will be the shape of things to come."

With that warning, scientists from the Conservancy and Center for Conservation Biology will continue their important research this summer by deploying satellite transmitters on four more whimbrels in early August as the birds make their way south for the winter.

Will these curious creatures bring up more surprises when they embark on the next leg of their journey? Check back soon.

July 1, 2009 — Whimbrel Takes a Turn

My fingers can barely move fast enough across the keyboard today. As soon as we broke the news on the whereabouts of our five tagged whimbrels, I received an urgent and excited email from my colleague Barry Truitt: 

“This just in — Hope has departed James Bay in central Canada and is en route to (drum roll, please) the MacKenzie River in northwest Canada!”

Could this be true? Last week, we reported that the tagged whimbrels from Virginia’s Eastern Shore appeared to have touched down at their expected breeding grounds around the James and Hudson bays in Canada.

But now it looks like Hope, the largest whimbrel of the bunch, isn’t quite ready to settle down. Hope’s satellite transmitter shows us that, after a brief stop in central Canada, she’s moving towards Pacific breeding grounds in northwest Canada.

For years, shorebird biologists have assumed that all the whimbrels that stop over on the Atlantic coast are from the Hudson and James Bay population. Hope’s continued journey northwest shows us that we had a Pacific coast whimbrel (an outsider!) in Virginia.

At 688 grams, Hope takes the cake (pun intended) as the second largest whimbrel ever recorded, beating out Winnie, last year’s 640-gram Pacific coast whimbrel. Researchers initially reported strong physical similarities between the two birds — so it almost seems fitting that Hope is keeping us on our toes this time around.

Where will Hope end her big migration? Check back soon. . . .

June 17, 2009 — Whimbrels Twitter from Canada

After much anticipation, the chatty shorebirds we introduced last week — Boxer, Fowler, Elki, Indi and Hope — have touched down at their breeding grounds.

I spoke with Barry Truitt, chief conservation scientist for The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, to get the scoop on where our whimbrels landed.

Madeline Breen: I’m dying to know . . . did our whimbrels end up in central Canada as expected, or did they find a new flight path like Winnie?

Barry Truitt: No, there’s been no repeat Winnie flight to Alaska this year. This spring’s five whimbrels are following our expectations.

After a short pit stop on the eastern Great Lakes, three of the tagged birds — Hope, Indi and Boxer — are currently at their breeding grounds along the western shoreline of James Bay and the interior lowlands west of Hudson Bay in Ontario. 

Fowler and Elki appear to have been blown east by a strong cold front but successfully made correction flights and are now in Manitoba, along the western side of Hudson Bay. 

Breen: So is it correct to assume this year’s whimbrels are from the Eastern population, unlike Winnie?

Truitt: That’s right. In the Western Hemisphere we have two subspecies of whimbrels: the Eastern population birds that breed around Hudson Bay in central Canada and the Western population that breeds in Alaska/northwest Canada.

Boxer, Fowler, Elki, Indi and Hope are all right on track to confirm the anticipated connection between the lower Delmarva Peninsula and the Eastern breeding population of whimbrels.

Breen: What’s next for our tagged whimbrels once they’re done nesting in Canada?

Truitt: The birds’ satellite transmitters can transmit data for up to three years, so I’m hoping for a late July or August reunion back at Virginia’s Eastern Shore. I expect them to stage here before heading south for winter. Ultimately, they will likely head to warmer weather in northern South America.

You can still follow the progress of the whimbrels online!

June 3, 2009 — A Whimbrel’s Wild Ride

In spring 2008, introduced readers to Winnie the whimbrel, an unforgettable shorebird who left researchers and readers scratching their heads.               

After lifting off from her salt marsh migratory stopover site on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Winnie and her tiny satellite transmitter were expected to head to breeding grounds in the lowlands of Hudson and James bays in central Canada. Instead, this shorebird took a 3,200-mile nonstop flight to Alaska. In just six speedy days! 

This year, researchers from The Nature Conservancy and the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) have tagged a new crop of whimbrels. You can follow along using Wildlife Tracking's online maps as the whimbrels journey from their wintering grounds somewhere presumably in Central or South America to their summer breeding destinations.

Will these five whimbrels — Boxer, Fowler, Elki, Indi and Hope — follow expectations and head to Hudson Bay or James Bay? Or will they find a new flight path like Winnie?    

Fueling Up

For more than a decade, researchers have believed the seaside of the lower Delmarva Peninsula plays a significant role in the life cycle of the whimbrel. Here, they documented the densest concentration of whimbrels ever recorded in the Western hemisphere.

The salt marshes and mud flats on the seaside of the peninsula are home to overwhelming numbers of fiddler crabs, which provide fuel for the birds to build up enough fat reserves for their long flights to their breeding grounds.

Until Winnie, however, scientists assumed that the birds staging on the Delmarva Peninsula were exclusively from the Hudson Bay population. Winnie’s unexpected transcontinental flight to Alaska has forced researchers to rethink the origin of whimbrels using this particular stopover site. 

Protecting Coastal lands

This spring, scientists from the Conservancy and CCB are continuing their research and looking to a new team of whimbrel recruits for answers

Tagged with lightweight solar-powered satellite transmitters, five whimbrels will be monitored by researchers via satellite telemetry from their liftoff on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, along their migration route and all the way to their final destination. And hopefully beyond.

Once these whimbrels land at their breeding grounds – at Hudson Bay, James Bay or possibly elsewhere like Winnie — the information will teach us more about their migration ecology and the origins of the whimbrels that rely on the lower Delmarva Peninsula as their stopover site.

One thing is certain: No matter the ultimate destination, it is critical that coastal lands in the lower Delmarva Peninsula, like the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, are protected and remain intact to support the thousands of whimbrels and other migratory shorebirds that depend on them for survival.

Meet the Team

And so the journey begins for our five new friends. 

Named after landmarks along the Eastern Shore, Boxer, Fowler, Elki, Indi, and Hope (Winnie’s big sister), have taken off and reached their cruising altitudes.

You can follow along, watch their progress online and receive daily updates at Wildlife Tracking. Happy tracking!

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