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.

Machi a shorebird tracked by scientists survives tropical storm only to be killed by hunters on Guadeloupe

Written by Fletcher M. Smith/Center for Conservation Biology, College of William and Mary, Virginia Commonwealth University

Scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology learned today that a whimbrel that they had been tracking via satellite for 2 years as part of a migration study had been shot by a hunting party this morning on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe (French West Indies). The bird named “Machi” had just flown through Tropical Storm Maria and made landfall on Montserrat before flying to Guadeloupe. Machi had been tracked for over 27,000 miles (44,000 km) back and forth between breeding grounds in the Hudson Bay Lowlands of Canada to wintering grounds on the coast of Brazil. The bird was tracked on 7 nonstop flights of more than 2,000 miles. During the spring of 2010, Machi flew more than 3,400 miles directly from Brazil to South Carolina. Machi serves as an example of birds that interact with many landscapes and cultures throughout the year and a reminder of how international cooperation is required for their continued existence.

Img_0314

Machi being fitted with satellite transmitter in August, 2009. © Bart Paxton

Machi-4-22-10

Machi after release. © Bart Paxton

Guadeloupe, Martinique and Barbados continue to operate “shooting swamps” some of which are artificial wetlands created to attract migrant shorebirds for sport shooting during fall migration. It is estimated that tens of thousands of shorebirds continue to be taken annually by hunting clubs on just these three islands. This practice is a throwback to more than a century ago when gunners hunted shorebirds throughout the Americas. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, in part, to protect dwindling numbers of birds that migrate across country borders. Operated as a French overseas department, both Guadeloupe and Martinique are part of the European Union and are not party to the Treaty. Barbados, once a British colony is now an independent state and also not party to the Treaty. The last Eskimo Curlew known to science was shot on Barbados in 1963. Shorebird hunting within these areas continues to be unregulated to the present time. Conservation organizations continue to work toward some compromise that will reduce pressures on declining species.  

Machi-on-mudflat

Machi is at Box Tree Creek where the bird it was captured on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in August 2009. © Barry Truitt

Worldwide, many shorebird populations are experiencing dramatic declines. Most of the migratory shorebird species breeding in eastern North America and the Arctic pass over the Caribbean region during the late summer and early fall on their way to wintering grounds. When they encounter severe storms the birds use the islands as refuges before moving on to their final destinations. Hunting clubs take advantage of these events and shoot large numbers of downed birds following the passage of these storms. During the 2009 and 2010 fall migrations, Machi did not stop on any of the islands but flew directly from Virginia to Paramaribo, Suriname before moving on to winter near Sao Luis, Brazil. It appears that the encounter with Tropical Storm Maria caused the bird to stop on Guadeloupe. 

Machi-map

Tracking map of Machi (2009-2011).

Machi contributed a great deal to what we know about whimbrel migration along the western Atlantic. Satellite tracks of this bird over 4 full migrations (http://www.ccb-wm.org/programs/migration/Whimbrel/whimbrel.htm) linked breeding and wintering areas, defined migration routes, identified important migration staging areas, and demonstrated how these birds interact with major tropical systems. This 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.