She Did Not Die in Vain…

Written by The Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB)

Machi being fitted with satellite transmitter in August, 2009. © Bart Paxton.
Machi being fitted with satellite transmitter in August, 2009. © Bart Paxton.
When “Machi,” a Whimbrel carrying a satellite transmitter, was shot and killed in Guadeloupe in September 2011, the international bird conservation community had a rude wake-up call about what was happening to migrating shorebirds in the French West Indies. The fact was that tens of thousands of shorebirds representing several species were being shot by hunters each fall. Swift action by the Society for the Conservation of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB) and its members and partners, including AMAZONA (the local bird conservation organization), has resulted in significant progress on the issue of shorebird hunting.
Tracking map of Machi’s migration (2009-2011)
Tracking map of Machi’s migration (2009-2011)
Whimbrels are amazing long distance migrants. Machi had been tracked for over 27,000 miles (44,000 km) back and forth between the breeding grounds in the Hudson Bay Lowlands of Canada to wintering grounds on the coast of Brazil. In 2011, we had learned from the satellite tracking study being conducted by the Center for Conservation Biology that Machi, after hunkering down in Montserrat during Tropical Storm Maria, flew to Guadeloupe where she met her end. Ongoing tracking studies have shown that Whimbrels like Machi and other shorebirds utilize the Caribbean islands to rest and refuel, take refuge from dangerous storms, or spend the winter. However, the journey ends for many that attempt to stop in Guadeloupe, Martinique, or Barbados, where sport hunting of shorebirds remains a popular tradition.
At the time when Machi and a second satellite-tagged Whimbrel named Goshen were killed, there were no daily bag limits in the French West Indies, and no protection for species of conservation concern, such as the Red Knot. Thankfully, due to proactive advocacy, there have been some positive changes in hunting regulations since Machi’s death.
Following the shooting of the two shorebirds and in light of the fact that populations of many shorebird species are declining in the Americas, SCSCB organized a letter writing campaign targeting decision makers in environmental departments of the French government as well as other key authorities and international organizations. Many SCSCB members and partners sent letters to these officials, urging them to take actions in support of a more sustainable and responsible harvest. They also wrote about the issue in their local newspapers, websites, and blogs (see links to some of these below).
As a result of this international campaign and months of dedicated work by the National Hunting and Wildlife Agency (ONCFS) together with other departments and local hunters, there has been a change in policy which benefits migratory shorebirds that rely on these islands’ mangroves and wetlands as wintering and critical stopover sites during their long migrations.
The Ministère de l’Environnement and the Fédération Départementale des Chasseurs de la Guadeloupe and Fédération Départementale des Chasseurs de la Martinique have acted to place some restrictions on shorebird harvest: First, the Red Knot (beginning in 2012) and Solitary Sandpiper (2013) were closed to hunting on Guadeloupe and the Red Knot was closed to hunting on Martinique in 2013. The Ministère de l’Environnement in Paris is also considering long-term removal of the Red Knot from the list of hunted species. Second, a bag limit of 20 birds per day per hunter was instituted in Guadeloupe in 2013. This action of setting bag limits, initiated by an Overseas Department, is a rare action for the French hunting community and regulatory agency. Finally, a three-year moratorium on the shooting of Whimbrels and Hudsonian Godwits was put in place in Martinique in 2013.
The SCSCB community is encouraged by these outcomes. Lisa Sorenson, Executive Director of SCSCB commented, “Machi’s death drew attention to the fate that awaits hundreds of thousands of other shorebirds that pass through the Caribbean in the future, and provided an opportunity to encourage these governments to adopt more sustainable hunting regulations. There is still much work to be done, but we consider the change in hunting laws to be a very important and significant conservation outcome. Machi did not die in vain.”
“We applaud the French government’s and the Fédérations des Chasseurs of Guadeloupe and Martinique actions on this issue, and we want to thank our members and partners for their help in bringing about this positive change.” – said Howard Nelson, President of SCSCB
“We all need to remain vigilant about issues like this throughout the region as we continue to work to conserve resident and migratory birds for future generations to enjoy.” – he added
Nelson remarked that the Society supports broader social and ecological values of shorebirds and that in the longer term, he was hopeful that this would support meaningful behavior change on the islands.
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Goshen, a shorebird tracked by scientists, becomes second study bird to be lost on Guadeloupe

Written by Dr. Bryan D. Watts/Center for Conservation Biology, College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University

Scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology have determined that a second whimbrel they had been tracking as part of a long-term migration study has been lost in a shooting swamp on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Goshen was lost in a heavily hunted swamp just north of the town of Port-Louis almost immediately upon arrival on the island. Although the transmitter has not been recovered the last satellite signals place the bird in the center of the shooting swamp. It now appears that both Machi and Goshen were shot in the morning of 12 September shortly after arriving.

Goshen and Machi were not migrating together but both stopped on the island after encountering different storm systems. Goshen flew through the east side of Hurricane Irene, landed on Montserrat, spent a week on Antigua and then flew to Guadeloupe. Machi flew through Tropical Storm Maria, landed on Montserrat and then flew directly to Guadeloupe. The two whimbrels were the first birds during the four-year tracking study to stop on Guadeloupe and both were lost within hours suggesting that the hunting pressure on this island is extremely high. This island has several isolated mangrove swamps that serve to concentrate the shorebirds for shooting. An estimated 3,000 hunters participate in the shorebird hunt annually. Currently, shooting parties on the island are not regulated and no information is available on the number of shorebirds taken. Without such information it is not possible to assess the potential relationship between hunting and ongoing population declines.

Whimbrels migrating along the western Atlantic coast have declined by 50% since the mid-1990s. The collaborative tracking study has successfully tracked 17 whimbrels via satellite since the spring of 2008.  The focus of this study has been to collect information that is vital to the long-term conservation of this population. Only 4 birds were being tracked during the 2011 fall migration season and half of those were lost in a single morning on Guadeloupe. The relationship between hunting pressures within the Lesser Antilles and population declines for the whimbrel and other shorebird species is unknown.

Most of the hunting activity conducted in the Lesser Antilles appears to be recreational. A video produced by a hunter on Guadeloupe within the same swamp where Goshen was lost illustrates the habitat, the shorebirds, and the shooting activity.

The tracking project is a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology, The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.