Timekeeping birds unlock early migration mystery

Written by Planet Earth Online
The remarkable timekeeping of birds could finally explain how some bird species are able to respond to climate change by migrating earlier and earlier each year.
Black-tailed Godwit. © Andreas Trepte
Black-tailed Godwit. © Andreas Trepte
According to a new study, individual Black-tailed Godwits migrate at more or less the same time every year. But the migration of the population as a whole seems to be happening progressively earlier.
Dr Jenny Gill of the University of East Anglia, who led the research, explains:
The only explanation that’s left, is that new birds are hatching and migrating earlier. As the older birds die off, the population fills up with early migrators.
Climate change is likely to be driving this change because Black-tailed Godwits nest earlier in warmer years. Birds that hatch earlier are likely to have more time to gain the body condition needed for migration, and to find good places to nest in the winter.
The team have monitored a population of Black-tailed Godwits for over 20 years. The citizen science project relied on the help of more than 2,000 bird-watching volunteers across Europe.
In winter, the wading birds can be found in estuaries all the way down the west coast of Europe, as they flee the harsh Arctic conditions of their Icelandic home.
It’s long been known that birds tend to return to the same place each time they migrate: that’s why many of the characters in your garden will be familiar to you.
But the new study, published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is the first to show they also return at the same time, within just a few days. Dr. Gill says:
They can tell the time. I have no idea how, but they can.
We thought that individual birds might migrate earlier or later in response to the weather. But it seems that, whatever the weather, they migrate at almost exactly the same time every year; it’s quite remarkable.
If you think about it from the bird’s point of view, it makes sense. You know that the place you’ve been to before will be available, and you know that it will be available at that time.
Other studies have shown that birds which migrate over longer distances have found it difficult to adapt their migration cycles to a changing climate. Many of those species are also suffering rapid decline. The study could explain why those birds are struggling to respond. Dr. Gill also added:
Many long-distance migrants arrive so late on to the breeding grounds that they only have a short time in which to mate and nest. They simply don’t have time to respond to warming conditions by nesting earlier.
Reference: Jenny Gill, Jose Alves, William Sutherland, Graham Appleton, Peter Potts and Tomas Gunnarsson, ‘Why is timing of bird migration advancing when individuals are not,’ Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2013

Spring shorebird surveys continue to count

Written by Bryan Watts/Center for Conservation Biology

On 6 June, Bryan Watts from CCB and Barry Truitt from The Nature Conservancy along with pilot Carter Crabbe completed their 6th week of aerial shorebird surveys for the spring of 2013. Documented along the barrier beaches were peak numbers of Dunlin (12,900), Red Knots (6,200), Ruddy Turnstones (820) and several other species. Together the crew has flown more than 75 aerial surveys of the study area and documented the location and identification of more than 1.5 million shorebirds since 1994. Consistency in approach, coverage, and surveyors has allowed for the evaluation of long-term trends in the number of shorebirds staging within the area, the timing of passage for the various species, the distribution of birds within the study area, and the use of foraging substrates. Over the years, several species have declined dramatically, concentrations have moved throughout the landscape, and substrates used for foraging have fluctuated widely.
Crop duster and long-time survey pilot Carter Crabbe flying over the Delmarva Peninsula toward the survey’s starting location on Assateague Island. Carter has flown the shorebird survey since its initiation in 1994. © Bryan Watts.
Crop duster and long-time survey pilot Carter Crabbe flying over the Delmarva Peninsula toward the survey’s starting location on Assateague Island. Carter has flown the shorebird survey since its initiation in 1994. © Bryan Watts
The survey was established in April of 1994 during a time when shorebirds were emerging as a bird community of global conservation concern. Information was needed to document population trends and to identify important staging sites to focus conservation efforts. The survey was designed to cover the active beach zone of all Virginia Barrier islands, one of the most pristine chain of barriers remaining in the Western Hemisphere. A set of 10 transects was also established across the vast mudflats within the lagoon system. Weekly aerial surveys have been flown during the period of primary spring migration from the last week of April through the first week of June. The Cessna 172 is flown below 50 feet along the surf zone to flush birds for identification and estimation.
A small flock of dunlin flushed from a patch of intertidal peat on Cedar Island. Peat is a critical foraging substrate along the barrier islands and appears in the surf zone when the island roles back over the marsh during major storm events. © Bryan Watts
A small flock of Dunlin flushed from a patch of intertidal peat on Cedar Island. Peat is a critical foraging substrate along the barrier islands and appears in the surf zone when the island roles back over the marsh during major storm events. © Bryan Watts
Watts and Truitt initiated the survey to learn more about how shorebird species were using the mid-Atlantic Coast during spring migration and to understand how this unique landscape fits within the broader Atlantic Flyway. Information from the survey has been used widely within the conservation community and has led to many follow-up ground projects focused on moving shorebird conservation forward.
Partners over the 20-year effort have included the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Eastern Shore Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and The Center for Conservation Biology.


(Book) Arctic Shorebirds in North America: A Decade of Monitoring

Arctic Shorebirds in North America
A Decade of Monitoring

Jonathan Robert Bart & Victoria Helen Johnston
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN: 9780520273108
September 2012
University of California Press
Price: $80.00, £55.00


Each year shorebirds from North and South America migrate thousands of miles to spend the summer in the Arctic. There they feed in shoreline marshes and estuaries along some of the most productive and pristine coasts anywhere. With so much available food they are able to reproduce almost explosively; and as winter approaches, they retreat south along with their offspring, to return to the Arctic the following spring. This remarkable pattern of movement and activity has been the object of intensive study by an international team of ornithologists who have spent a decade counting, surveying, and observing these shorebirds. In this important synthetic work, they address multiple questions about these migratory bird populations. How many birds occupy Arctic ecosystems each summer? How long do visiting shorebirds linger before heading south? How fecund are these birds? Where exactly do they migrate and where exactly do they return? Are their populations growing or shrinking? The results of this study are crucial for better understanding how environmental policies will influence Arctic habitats as well as the far-ranging winter habitats used by migratory shorebirds.
“This is a massive coordinated effort to gain a robust understanding of the population dynamics and trends of arctic nesting shorebirds. Highly recommended.” — Choice
“This volume represents a major milestone for the monitoring of wader populations in the Western Hemisphere. . . . It will serve as a point of reference for those developing new monitoring initiatives in North American Arctic and elsewhere.” — British Trust Ornithology (BTO)
Arctic Shorebirds in North America represents a study that is one of the remarkable achievements of wildlife fieldcraft, like those done by Aldo Leopold in the 1930s and by the Craighead Brothers in the 1960s. To conduct a study of this scientific caliber in the great expanse and harsh climate of the Arctic makes it one of the great wildlife investigations whose value will only grow with time.” – Larry Niles, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey
“It is most timely that Jonathan Bart and Victoria Johnston have gathered information on shorebirds that breed in the Arctic regions of North America. Data on these birds is generated at a wide range of locations by many different individuals and teams, and this book puts it into perspective. It is particularly valuable to have this treatise when so many shorebird species worldwide are in marked decline.” — Clive Minton, Australasian Wader Studies Group
“When the PRISM program for pan-Arctic shorebird monitoring was introduced, everyone agreed with its laudable aims, but it seemed impractical. How could shorebird biologists with limited time and resources acquire robust data on the size and trend of shorebird populations across the American Arctic? Now, the credibility gap has been bridged. Arctic Shorebirds in North America presents the rigorous, practical methods that will be the foundation of Arctic shorebird monitoring for years to come. I look forward to Arctic PRISM becoming the keystone of shorebird conservation in the Western Hemisphere.” — Humphrey Sitters, editor of Wader Study Group Bulletin

A new breeding season: Time to map shorebirds

Nesting Piping Plover. Image courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Nesting Snowy Plover in Florida. Image courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
In some regions of the Northern Hemisphere breeding season is well under way. Shorebirds started to build nests and incubating eggs while further south chicks have already hatched. The WorldWaders Breeding Shorebird Mapping Project aims to map every shorebird species of the world by adding historical as well as actual data. This citizen science project is supported by hundreds of volunteers which has to grow for a better coverage on species as well as on geographic level.
No complicated information requested. After an easy registration data submission could be started straight away by finding the location on the map and filling out some data fields in the online form including the number of pairs. The result is immediately visible on the map!
In the next couple of months the website will be refreshed by new features. Users will be able to see the records for any species on the map and statistics will be available for each species even on location level.
Submitted breeding sites of Piping Plovers in North America. © WorldWaders.org
Submitted breeding sites of Piping Plover in North America. © WorldWaders.org
Distribution of one of the most abundant breeder, the Northern Lapwing in Europe based on the submitted records to the WorldWaders Breeding Shorebird Mapping Project. © WorldWaders.org
Distribution of one of the most abundant breeder, the Northern Lapwing in Europe based on the submitted records to the WorldWaders Breeding Shorebird Mapping Project. © WorldWaders.org
All time data submissions of breeding shorebirds on a global level. © WorldWaders.org
All time data submissions of breeding shorebirds on a global level. © WorldWaders.org
By looking at the maps you can see what the coverage is around your hometown or in your region. You probably know about shorebird breeding sites which you cannot see on the map. Think about login now and submit those records to get a better coverage.
Small Pied Avocet breeding colony in northwest Hungary. Breeding numbers have been submitted to WorldWaders Breeding Shorebird Mapping Project. © Gyorgy Szimuly
Small Pied Avocet breeding colony in northwest Hungary. Breeding numbers have been submitted to WorldWaders Breeding Shorebird Mapping Project. © Gyorgy Szimuly

Tragedy strikes Critically Endangered New Zealand shore plover population

Shore Plover chick. Image courtesy of DOC
Shore Plover chick. Image courtesy of DOC
Written by Wildlife Extra
World population of just 200 birds
When Helen Jonas, New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) team leader for the Shore Plover recovery on Portland Island visited late last year, she discovered the island population had been reduced to a quarter of what it was, and now just 20 birds remain. The total world population has been reduced to about 200 birds. “This has a huge impact on the viability of the species” said Ms Jonas, as Waikawa was considered to be a safe and stable population.
The privately owned island has been a safe sanctuary to the shore plover for the past thirteen years. The numbers had built up to a point where the population was contributing eggs to other predator free islands. This season’s planned egg translocation turned into a rescue attempt.
Unknown cause
We didn’t know what the issue was and unfortunately we still don’t know” Ms Jonas said. It could have been disease, predation by gulls or hawks, mustelid, rat, cat or even a dog that’s come over with a visitor to the island. As a precaution 12 Shore Plover eggs were removed from the island and taken to Mount Bruce Pukaha in Wairarapa and Isaac’s Wildlife Centre in Christchurch for incubation. The juveniles are planned to be released on Mana Island next month.
We are throwing everything we possibly can at the island to ensure this does not happen again” she said. “We’ve undertaken disease screening, and have sent dead birds over for autopsy and DNA testing. We have had specialised stoat tracking and rat tracking dogs and have put cameras in place. Nothing has turned up so far.”
Just 1 chick fledged
The remaining birds on Waikawa, including the sole fledged chick from this season, are now being protected by more regular pest monitoring and control efforts by Onenui Station owners. It is hoped that the island will be safe for Shore Plover again soon“, Ms Jonas said.
The remaining Shore Plover on the island appear stable and are still nesting and successfully producing chicks. Visitors to the island are reminded to check their loads to ensure they haven’t got any unwanted travellers with them.

Protecting Sociable Lapwings in Iraq

Written by BirdLife International

In September 2010, Nature Iraq (BirdLife International’s Affiliate in the country) undertook a combined monitoring and advocacy exercise in several areas of Iraq where Sociable Lapwings have previously been found on passage. The work was led by Iraq’s ???leading ornithologists: Omar Fadhil, Mudhafer Salim and Korsh Ararat and built on previous studies conducted by Nature Iraq in the autumn of 2009 and spring of 2010.



Here you can see a group of school children holding up posters that explain the rarity of the species and urge local communities to participate in their protection. © Nature Iraq

The planned monitoring entailed conducting a series of surveys that searched for Sociable Lapwings that might be passing through the country on their autumn migration.  Its primary purpose was to locate large flocks of birds at previously undiscovered stopover sites that could be subsequently protected.

Like all the country teams now participating in international conservation action for Sociable Lapwings, Nature Iraq was on standby, hopeful they’d receive news of a satellite-tagged birds passing through, like in spring 2010 when one of the birds was located in central Iraq near lake Tharthar. When this information is available it makes searching for flocks much simpler as without specific location information huge areas need to be covered.

Despite the plan, no new tracking information was available to pass on, so the sites the team actually surveyed last autumn were primarily locations Nature Iraq had found birds at before and some others that the species had been recorded at historically.

Read more…


International Shorebird Project

Posted by Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey

We work with the International Shorebird Team to monitor, research and recover species of shorebirds including the red knot. Our work takes us to the Delaware Bayshore and beyond to Florida, Texas and Chile.


Red knots and ruddy turnstones gorge themselves on horseshoe crab eggs on a beach along the Delaware Bay. ?? Bill Dalton

The Delaware Bayshore in New Jersey is site an annual amazing spectacle of nature. Every spring thousands of shore birds including the red knot, semipalmated sandpiper, ruddy turnstones and sanderlings, visit the bayshore on their long migration flight from their wintering grounds in South America to the Canadian Arctic where they will breed. Today, the annual arrival is a mere shadow of what it once was due to declining numbers of birds returning every year with some species, like the red knot, teetering on the brink of extinction.

Conserve Wildlife Foundation and the Endangered and Nongame Species Program has partnered for many years on the International Shorebird Project designed to halt the decline of these beautiful birds and start them on the road to recovery.

Every year, the shorebird season starts in a small house on Reed???s Beach on the Delaware Bay. A team of experts, led by ENSP’s Amanda Dey and CWF’s Larry Niles, come from across the globe to gather and focus its skills and expertise on learning as much as it can about the populations of shorebirds passing through the bay and on determining ways to recover the populations.

This work is a fundamental component of the International Shorebird Project. It was through the research of the International Shorebird Team that the plight of one particular species of shorebird was highlighted and elevated.


The red knot is one of the species of birds that arrive on the Bayshore. Red knot numbers have declined from a population of over 150,000 birds to today???s population estimate of only 15,000 birds.


During the spring migration through Delaware Bay, the International Shorebird Team monitors the arrival and departure of shorebirds, counting their numbers and weighing a subset of birds that are trapped by the Team. When the birds are trapped, they are also banded with colorful flags, each with a unique identifier. The information on these flags, which can be read with a decent spotting scope, is used by the Team to understand where the birds are wintering, migrating and breeding. Anyone along the birds??? flyway can submit the flag information through the website of the Shorebird Project.


A red knot and a horseshoe crab on a Delaware Bay beach. ?? Bill Dalton

Investigations carried out by the International Shorebird Team helped to build a connection between the decline of horseshoe crab eggs on Delaware Bay beaches and the decline of the shorebirds that depend on the eggs for food and to fuel the final leg of their migration that will bring them to the Canadian Arctic to breed. This research showed that declining numbers of horseshoe crabs were causing serious declines in the amount of horseshoe crab eggs on beaches which in turn was causing fewer birds to gain eough weight fast enough to allow them to reach the Arctic to breed successfully.

This research caused limits to be placed on horseshoe crab harvests and in recent years, an outright ban on horseshoe crab harvesting in New Jersey. Because the horseshoe crab takes upwards of seven years to mature, it will take some time for the birds to reap the rewards of the New Jersey ban. Because other states along the range of the horseshoe crab have not taken such actions, the populations of birds remain in peril.


Some models have predicted that the red knot could become extinct in 10 – 15 years if an aggressive recovery plan is not put in place soon.


Conserve Wildlife Foundation plays an active role in the International Shorebird Team on the Delaware Bayshore and during its expeditions to Tierra del Fuego, Chile to monitor and research the birds in their wintering areas.

The Team is responsible for many publications and articles on shorebird populations, their recovery needs and what we need to do from a policy point of view to further their protection. The Team worked to advance the cause of the red knot through the Department of Interior???s listing process. The red knot is now a candidate species for federal listing. It is the hope of the Team that federal protection will be soon forthcoming and recovery efforts can start along the entire range of the bird.