CCB collaborates with Canadian Wildlife Service on Arctic shorebirds

Written by Fletcher Smith/The Center for Conservation Biology

Fletcher Smith with Hudsonian Godwit after transmitter attachment. © CCB
Fletcher Smith with Hudsonian Godwit after transmitter attachment. © CCB
In mid-July, Fletcher Smith returned from a 6-week stint in the Canadian Arctic where he was assisting in operating a shorebird base camp on the Mackenzie River Delta in collaboration with the Canadian Wildlife Service. The camp is part of both the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network (ASDN) and the Arctic Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (Arctic PRISM) The overarching objectives of these programs are to measure demographic parameters of breeding shorebirds, such as adult survivorship and productivity, to estimate population size and trends in Arctic shorebirds. This information is extremely hard to gather for shorebirds and the network of sites gathering this information spans the entire Arctic. The focal species in the Mackenzie River Delta include Red-necked Phalarope, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Whimbrel. During the 2013 season, the Mackenzie Delta crew was able to find and monitor over 100 shorebird nests, capture and band nearly 100 shorebirds, deploy all 6 satellite transmitters on Whimbrels and Hudsonian Godwits, and deploy 15 geolocators on Semi-palmated Sandpipers, adding up to a successful season by any measure.
The collaborative satellite tracking project has been a tremendous success in providing useful information to conservation. Prior to the tracking of the Mackenzie River Delta Whimbrels, very little was known about the broader life cycle of these birds. A Whimbrel named “Hope” was the only previous connection from the Atlantic coast stopover areas to the Mackenzie Delta. “Hope” was tagged in Virginia and migrated to the Mackenzie Delta for four breeding seasons, using Virginia as a staging ground both in spring and fall migrations. During the 2012 breeding season, four Whimbrels were tagged in the Mackenzie Delta and all four migrated to eastern staging grounds before wintering in Brazil. The three Whimbrels tagged in 2013 took the same basic route, flying from the Mackenzie Delta to Atlantic Canada. They staged within in Atlantic Canada for approximately 2-3 weeks before undertaking the non-stop 4,000 plus mile flight to northern South America where they will spend the winter. The majority of Whimbrels winter in or near the Gulf of Maranhao in Brazil.
Hudsonian Godwit with 5-gram satellite transmitter. © Fletcher Smith
Hudsonian Godwit with 5-gram satellite transmitter. © Fletcher Smith
No Hudsonian Godwits have ever been satellite tagged, so the movements of these birds will be particularly interesting to scientists involved in the study. One of the Hudsonian Godwits has migrated from James Bay/Hudson Bay staging grounds to the Orinoco River in Venezuela. This was a 3,900 mile non-stop journey. The Whimbrels and Godwits can be tracked at Wildlifetracking.org.
Whimbrel with transmitter in flight. © Fletcher Smith
Whimbrel with transmitter in flight. © Fletcher Smith
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Satellite-tagged Sociable Lapwings are on the move again

Written by BirdLife International Amazing Journey Project
With a lack of trackable Sociable Lapwings to report on over the last year, we are delighted to now reactivate the Amazing Journey website to bring you news about the migrations of three new birds that scientists from RSPB and ACBK fitted with satellite tags earlier this year.
The lapwings – a male and two females – are breeding adults that were caught at the nest and satellite-tagged at separate colonies near to Lake Tengiz, in central Kazakhstan, this summer. Each successfully fledged young before leaving their small nesting colonies to gather together with birds from other nearby colonies in readiness for their autumn migration. This gregarious behaviour is why the species is called ‘Sociable’ Lapwing.
RSPB's Professor Rhys Green and Dr Rob Sheldon fitting a satellite tag in June 2013. Image courtesy of RSPB
RSPB’s Professor Rhys Green and Dr Rob Sheldon fitting a satellite tag in June 2013. Image courtesy of BirdLife International

Since mid August we’ve been anticipating the newly-tagged birds’ migration would soon begin. As days passed with no movements and then days turned into weeks, our monitoring team started to become increasingly concerned. While signals received from the tagged lapwings seemed very good, no changes in the birds’ locations were detected.

Most years Sociable Lapwings depart from their breeding areas in mid to late August. Was something up? Were the new satellite tags working properly? Could our birds really still be in the Kazakh Steppe, OK, and just waiting to depart?
We were all immensely relieved when the action finally began, confirming that all was well with the lapwings and that their tags were working properly. Remarkably all three of our tagged birds departed on the same day – Tuesday 17th of September.
A post-breeding flock of Sociable Lapwings gathering before migration. Image courtesy of BirdLife International
A post-breeding flock of Sociable Lapwings gathering before migration. Image courtesy of BirdLife International
Ruslan Urazaliev, who leads the Sociable Lapwing study for ACBK in Kazakhstan, comments “Throughout late August and most of September the wind has been mainly from the south and conditions here have remained warm. This probably delayed the birds migration. Although we searched all the areas where the satellite signals suggested our birds were gathering, we couldn’t find any Sociable Lapwings during the last few weeks. However, we did find large numbers of Ruff still present in the Steppe and they usually depart long before this. The wind patterns appear to have changed in recent days which may have allowed the Sociable Lapwings to finally begin their migration.”
To help report on the migration of the three tagged birds individually we have followed tradition and given each local names again. Boris, who was fitted with his satellite tag on June 5th 2013, carries the tag ID 123086 and a colour ring combination; green blue, orange blue. His coordinates and path are marked in blue on our map. Irina, who was fitted with her satellite tag on June 4th 2013, carries the tag ID 123088 and the colour ring combination; green blue, orange white. You can see Irina in the main picture at the head of this post. Her coordinates and path are marked in green. Ainur who was also fitted with her satellite tag on June 4th, carries the tag ID 123087 and the colour ring combination; green blue, green white. Her coordinates and path are marked in Red.
You can see the first stage of the tagged birds’ migration below and can click to enlarge the map.
Boris (blue), Irina (green) and Ainur's (Red) initial migration routes - September 17-23 2013. Click to enlarge.
Boris (blue), Irina (green) and Ainur’s (Red) initial migration routes – September 17-23 2013. Click to enlarge.
Boris nested at a colony close to the Sociable Lapwing main study site at Korgalzhyn but has now moved nearly 1,800 km west in two days and at the time of writing is near Stavropol in south-western Russia. Irina has taken a slightly more southerly course west from her breeding site, some 60 km south east of Korgalzhyn, with an initial flight of just over 1,000 km. She then paused briefly to the East of the Caspian Sea before taking a second flight to a stopover close to Boris in Russia. Whether she crossed the Caspian Sea or took a route around its northern shores is, of course, unknown. Ainur who had nested in a separate colony close to Irina, has headed about 1,400 km south to a location near to the southerly borders of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Expert Sociable Lapwing tracking analyst Johannes Kamp comments
Boris has travelled to a new area between Volga and Kalmykia which is very interesting. If coordinate detail is accurate, it suggests that some birds do cross the North Caspian semi-desert. Previously there has been no evidence for this, with all our other satellite-tagged birds going around the North side of this area.
“Irina has taken a non-classical route that is mostly used in spring (along the Emba valley). She is following in the footsteps of Erzhan, our first tagged male that transmitted for four years bringing us the most comprehensive information of all our tracked birds.”
“Ainur has almost certainly headed for Lake Talimarzhan in Uzbekistan where the big Sociable Lapwing stopover site was discovered by UzSPB last year.
Where the birds head next can be predicted but discovering their exact routes and stopover sites is a vital part of protecting these Critically Endangered birds on their migrations.
The ongoing Sociable Lapwing conservation action that multiple national BirdLife Partners are taking for the species through this BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme project is funded by Swarovski Optik, RSPB and Mark Constantine. Without their support, vital research, monitoring, hunting intervention and conservation action would not be possible.
If you would like to sign up for email alerts so you can stay in touch with the progress of our three tagged birds please follow this link.
If you have seen any Sociable Lapwings recently or encounter any in the coming months we’d like to hear from you. You can submit your own sightings here.
We look forward to bringing you more news of the next stage of the Sociable Lapwings amazing journey shortly.

American Oystercatcher Tracking Project pairs advance technology, social media and research to further wildlife conservation efforts

Written by Audubon North Carolina

One of the project birds, Arnie in July, after his chick had fledged. © Audubon North Carolina
One of the project birds, Arnie in July, after his chick had fledged. © Audubon North Carolina
Thanks to a mix of wildlife tracking technology paired with an interactive website and some social media savvy birds, individuals are being given a first-class ticket to take flight and share in the life of the American Oystercatcher.
Groundbreaking Research
A new research program developed by Audubon North Carolina (ANC) will further our understanding of coastal bird migration and habitat use. The American Oystercatcher Tracking Project was created as a tool to study the movements of six American Oystercatchers over the course of one year, while engaging and educating an online audience through social media engagement that allows birds to tweet online and off.
Currently, scientists know where American Oystercatchers breed and winter, but little is known about how they move between these sites, and where they may stop along the way.  To better understand the mystery of their habits, ANC has equipped six birds with advanced tracking technology in the form of small satellite devices that fit on the birds like a small backpack. The devices will detail their movements allowing scientists to better study individual birds over an extended period. With the trackers, scientists will be able to study the birds’ migratory pathways, habitat choices, and much more.
Travel with the Oystercatchers All Year Long
There is plenty of activity happening this year that goes beyond a bird with a backpack. On the website, each of the birds has been given a name and personality to tell their migration story. Website visitors can follow the birds individually on a digital map and through their Twitter account – where the birds will be tweeting to keep fans updated as they travel. The site is also a rich resource of in-depth information about oystercatcher biology, habits and habitats. Conservation scientists will also contribute to a blog as well, providing a firsthand account of their work on the project.
Adopt an Oystercatcher
Once visitors have chosen their favorite Oystercatchers, there are even more ways to connect with the birds as they take flight. ANC is giving supporters the opportunity to adopt an American Oystercatcher of their own, contributing to ongoing conservation efforts for the priority species. New parents will receive a certificate of adoption and photo of their bird, and proceeds from the Adopt an Oystercatcher program will go to support on-the-ground fieldwork in North Carolina.
Lindsay Addison, Audubon North Carolina coastal biologist says:
The AMOY Tracking Project is unique in the way it incorporates the research of coastal bird migration, while also engaging the public through social media. Our team is excited to participate in such an exciting project, expanding knowledge of coastal birds for science, conservation and the public.
The American Oystercatcher Project was developed through a partnership with Toyota Together Green, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and North Carolina State University. For more information about the Tracking Project, visit nc.audubon.org/american-oystercatcher-tracking-project.

Whimbrels completed 3rd leg of unknown loop migration route

Written by Bryan Watts & Fletcher Smith/The Center for Conservation Biology
Scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology have tracked 3 Whimbrels from wintering areas on the coast of Brazil on a nonstop, 4,000 mile (6,400 kilometer) flight to the Gulf of Mexico. This flight represents the third leg of a previously unknown loop migration route and connects four widely scattered locations in the conservation of this declining species.
The three birds named Mackenzie (for the river where they breed), Akpik (named for the cloudberry that the birds feed on in the fall) and Pingo (named for an arctic formation caused by permafrost) left their wintering grounds near Sao Luis, Brazil between 9 and 13 April. The birds flew nonstop for 95 to 100 hours averaging 40 miles per hour (67 kilometers per hour) before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Originally captured and marked on the breeding grounds along the Mackenzie River in far western Canada in June of 2012, the birds took a bold fall migration route flying 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometers) to the east coast of Canada in mid-July to stage for 2 weeks before embarking on a marathon 4,300-mile (6,900-kilometer) flight out over the open ocean to the northern coast of South America. All three birds have spent just over 7 months in the extensive tidal system of the Gulf of Maranhao before initiating their migration north.
Map of migration route for 3 whimbrels marked on breeding ground in western Canada. Recent flight from Brazil to Gulf of Mexico was previously undocumented. Photo by CCB.
Map of the migration route for 3 hombres marked on breeding grounds in western Canada. A recent flight from Brazil to Gulf of Mexico was previously undocumented. Photo by CCB
All three birds are currently staging in different locations. Akpik is staging in Laguna Madre within the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico a site known to be a critical wintering area for the closely related long-billed curlew. Mackenzie is near the Demieres Isles in southern Louisiana. Pingo is in and around Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge south of Houston, Texas the site of a recently discovered spring staging area of hemispheric importance to Whimbrels. Understanding the connectivity of this site to breeding areas has become a high priority for the research community. The bird appears to be using farm fields that have been managed over the winter for migrating shorebirds.
Mackenzie, Akpik and Pingo, all from the same breeding location, have now linked sites in far-flung, unexpected regions in their orb of conservation. Important in their own right, each of these sites must be considered collectively for conservation efforts to be effective. Mackenzie, the bird fitted with the recycled transmitter of Machi (a bird shot on Guadeloupe in September of 2011) is now staging in the heart of the area impacted by the Deep Horizon Oil Spill. The spill began on 20 April, during the time of Whimbrel staging in 2010. Such events highlight the fragility of conservation networks and the importance of locations and cultures working together toward common goals. Through these birds we now know that an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico may impact a breeding population on the Mackenzie River, or a staging area in Nova Scotia, or a wintering area around the mouth of the Amazon. Understanding these linkages is a critical step in protecting these networks and the species that depend on them.
Fletcher Smith with Akpik on breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic. This bird is now staging in Laguna Madre. Photo by CCB.
Fletcher Smith with Akpik on breeding ground in the Canadian Arctic. This bird is now staging in Laguna Madre. Photo by CCB.
The three Whimbrels are part of a larger project that has included 20 additional birds that have been tracked to better understand migratory pathways and locations that are critical for this declining species. The study has tracked Whimbrels for more than 200,000 miles (322,000 kilometers) since 2008. The broader tracking project is a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology, The Canadian Wildlife Service, 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.
Follow the migration routes of these Whimbrels and others at the Seaturtle.org Wildlife Tracking page.

Hope returns to the Delmarva Peninsula

Written by Dr. Bryan D. Watts/Center for Conservation Biology, Virginia Commonwealth University & Barry Truitt/The Nature Conservancy

The odyssey of Hope, a whimbrel carrying a satellite transmitter, continues to amaze scientists. Hope was originally captured on 19 May, 2009 on the southern Delmarva Peninsula of Virginia. She left Virginia on May 26 and since that time has logged more than 21,000 miles (33,000 kilometers) flying between a breeding territory on the MacKenzie River near Alaska and a winter territory on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. On Friday (8 April, 2011), Hope returned to Virginia following a 75 hour, 1,850 mile (2,900 kilometer) flight out over the Atlantic Ocean.

During the course of two full migration cycles, Hope has clearly demonstrated how distant locations are interconnected in the life of migratory species and how their conservation requires collaboration on a multi-national scale. For three consecutive springs, Hope has returned to the same creek in Virginia where she has fed on fiddler crabs preparing for a transcontinental flight to her breeding grounds. The creek, located in the  the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, is part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, a network of international sites considered critical to populations of declining shorebirds. Hope’s breeding grounds on the MacKenzie River are part of an International Important Bird Area and one of the areas of highest conservation value in Canada. Efforts are ongoing to protect the area considered by many to be one of the most pristine watersheds remaining in North America. For the past 2 years, Hope has wintered at Great Pond, a Birdlife International Important Bird Area on St. Croix. Protection of long-distance migrants like Hope requires that countries recognize the importance of vulnerable populations and work together toward effective conservation solutions.

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Tracking map – Map of Hope movements from May of 2009 through April of 2011. She has been tracked using a 9.5-gram, solar-powered satellite transmitter.

Hope is one of several birds that have been fitted with state of the art 9.5-gram, satellite transmitters in a collaborative effort by the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary – Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia Coast Reserve of The Nature Conservancy to discover migratory routes that connect breeding and winter areas and to identify en route migratory staging areas that are critical to the conservation of this declining species.

Updated tracking maps may be viewed online at
http://www.ccb-wm.org/programs/migration/Whimbrel/whimbrel.htm

Satellite tracking represents only one aspect of a broader, integrated investigation of whimbrel migration. During the past 4 years, the Center for Conservation in partnership with The Nature Conservancy has used conventional transmitters to examine stopover duration, conducted aerial surveys to estimate seasonal numbers, collected feather samples to locate summer and winter areas through stable-isotope analysis, and has initiated a whimbrel watch program. Continued research is planned to further link populations across staging, breeding, and wintering areas. Funding has been provided by The Nature Conservancy, the Center for Conservation Biology, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Toronto Ornithological Club, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and the Northern Neck Audubon Society.

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Hope fitted with satellite transmitter. © Barry Truitt