Tracking Hope will help map migration routes

Posted Aug. 28, 2009, at 9:05 p.m.

Earlier this month a celebrity passed by the coast of Maine on her way to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. She is accustomed to travel, having already flown from Alaska to the Hudson Bay in eastern Canada, before resuming her southbound flight.

By the time she’d reached St. Croix, she’d been flying nonstop for six days and had traveled 3, 500 miles. She flew nearly half of that distance out over the open ocean — where a storm or a loss of energy reserves would have meant certain death.

She is Hope, a shorebird known as a whimbrel. She is smaller than a mallard duck and weighs little more than a pound.

Hope was first caught and fitted with a satellite transmitter in May on the Delmarva Peninsula of Virginia. She traveled from Virginia to James Bay, in Canada, where she spent three weeks “staging” — feeding and building up energy reserves — and then went on to the MacKenzie River near Alaska. She continued on to the Beaufort Sea where she spent an additional two weeks of staging.

Whimbrels breed and raise young in the high Arctic, but this summer turned out to be a poor year for many birds in the far north. As described in the Virginia News and Advance, reports of a late thaw and 100 percent snow coverage into the month of June in some portions of the Arctic meant reproductive failure, and Hope apparently did not stay to breed. Instead, she continued on to Hudson Bay, where she stayed for more than a month before beginning her marathon migration southward.

Hope’s journey is likely not over — whimbrels winter along the coasts of central and South America. She may have at least several hundred more miles to travel yet.

The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, along with the Nature Conservancy in Virginia, hopes to establish migratory routes and identify key staging areas by fitting Hope and other birds with the satellite transmitters and tracking their movements.

According to the CCB, Hope has traveled more than 13,000 miles since late May. Another whimbrel, nicknamed Winny, was fitted with a transmitter in spring 2008, initially making the trip from Virginia to the MacKenzie River. This “documented an entirely unexpected migration route between the mid-Atlantic coast and the northwestern Arctic.”

Winny made the 3,200-mile-plus flight in 146 hours, setting a distance record for the species. This also “highlighted the hemispheric importance of the Delmarva Peninsula as a staging area for migratory shorebirds,” according to the CCB.

Staging grounds are areas that provide a super abundance of food within a very short period of time for thousands, even millions, of shorebirds all at once. They time their migrations to arrive at these sites just as this high rate of productivity is beginning. Examples of such areas across the United States are Alaska’s Copper River Delta, Gray’s Harbor in Washington, eastern Canada’s Bay of Fundy, the Cheyenne Bottoms of Kansas, and areas of the Delmarva Peninsula, to name a few.

However, any exposed sandflats or mudflats along the coast or the banks of rivers, lakes or ponds provide foraging ground for small numbers of migrating shorebirds. In fact, for the last few days I’ve been seeing spotted sandpipers along the mud margins of the drainage pond behind where I work.

Whimbrels are intertidal foraging specialists. Their long, slender, decurved bills are adept at probing the soft sand for invertebrates such as marine worms, mollusks and crabs. Interestingly, according to the “Birds of North America” species account, the whimbrel’s decurved bill matches the curve of fiddler crabs’ burrows of Panama and, to a lesser extent, Cape Cod, Mass.

Shorebird migration has been ongoing for several weeks now, having started in July. At the time of this writing, Hope presumably is still in St. Croix. Hopefully she survived Hurricane Bill and tropical storm Danny.

For more information, go to the Center for Conservation Biology Web site, at: www.ccb-wm.org/programs/migration/Whimbrel/whimbrel.htm. There are also articles available on the College of William and Mary Web site: www.wm.edu/news/stories/2009/center-for-conservation-biology-tracks-flight-of-hope-123.php.

Also, for more information on conserving breeding, wintering and staging grounds for migratory birds, visit the Important Bird Areas Program Web site at www.audubon.org/bird/iba/.

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