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Tracking Whimbrels on VA's Eastern Shore


Get to know Boxer, Fowler, Elki, Indi, and Hope

In an attempt to fill information gaps about the migration of whimbrels along the Atlantic Coast, the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), joined with The Nature Conservancy to use state-of-the art satellite transmitters to track birds during their migration.

Since 2008, CCB has successfully tracked over 25 shorebirds from their breeding grounds in the Arctic to their wintering grounds in the Caribbean and in South America.

The tracking data has revealed previously unknown migratory routes which link breeding populations to migratory stopover sites throughout North America. These stopover sites, including the lower Delmarva Peninsula and Virginia Coast Reserve, provide critical staging areas for whimbrels and other migrating shorebirds to refuel before the next leg of their journey.

Meet five whimbrels - Boxer, Fowler, Elki, Indi, and Hope - as they begin their journey.

Boxer poses for the camera. Whimbrels have long decurved (or down-turned) bills that nicely match the shape of fiddler crab burrows, their main source of food.

The salt marshes and mud flats on the seaside of the Lower Delmarva 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.

A large migrating flock of whimbrels departs the lower Delmarva Peninsula on an afternoon sea breeze for the long flight to their breeding grounds in the low Arctic, along the western shoreline of James Bay and the interior lowlands west of Hudson Bay in Ontario.

A western population of Whimbrels breed in Alaska/Northwest Canada. Satellite data has shown that some of these Pacific coast birds stop over on the Delmarva Peninsula during their migrations.

Researchers on Virginia's Eastern Shore prepare Fowler for his flight by adjusting the harness that holds the satellite transmitter on his back.

Fowler and his satellite tag are ready to fly!  Whimbrels are fairly long-lived creatures.  During their lifetime, they only have to produce one chick 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.

Fletcher Smith, CCB research biologist, measures the bill length of a whimbrel while Julia Kelso, CCB research field tech, holds the bird.

Fletcher applies a USFWS metal band to a whimbrel's right leg. 

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.

Biologists from the Center for Conservation Biology release Fowler and two radio tagged whimbrels.

Master bird catcher Clive Minton (left) from Australia, along with companions Robyn Atkinson, Susan Taylor and Dick Veitch, assist CCB research field tech Dave Curtis (second from left) on the placement of the rocket net used to capture the whimbrels. Clive had come to Virginia for three days before heading to Delaware Bay to capture red knots.

The sun sets over Ramshorn Bay.  The birds’ satellite transmitters can transmit data for up to three years.  Follow along, watch their progress online, and receive daily updates at Wildlife Tracking. Happy tracking!

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