Hope's transmitter falls silent, but Crucians spot the whimbrel in good condition in her winter home
Published: October 4, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - Hope the whimbrel's transmitter is no longer transmitting, but bird watchers on St. Croix have spotted her alive and well at Great Pond Bay.
Virgin Islanders and bird lovers from around the world have tracked Hope as she makes amazing nonstop migration flights halfway around the globe and back.
Fletcher Smith, research biologist at the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University, said that photos taken by local birder Lisa Yntema indicate the antenna on Hope's transmitter has snapped off.
He said the transmitter still is working, but without the antenna, the satellite cannot pick up her location.
"The bird is doing fine. The transmitter, not so much," Smith said.
Yntema said she has seen Hope twice since her transmitter went silent Sept. 20.
Hope's winter feeding ground is on the mudflats at Great Pond Bay, St. Croix where she is currently fattening herself up for the return flight to her breeding ground in the Arctic Circle.
She arrived on St. Croix on Sept. 4 after a two-day, 1,600 mile, nonstop flight from her staging ground in Virginia.
Hope was one of seven whimbrels tagged in 2008 and 2009 as part of a joint project between the Nature Conservancy and the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. She is the only one of her group that is still alive and - until last month - transmitting data.
Since she was tagged in May 2009, bird watchers and biologists have been tracking Hope online via the specialized satellite transmitter.
Smith said the research team tracking Hope - and a number of other whimbrels - have several options. They can do nothing; they can try to catch her and remove the transmitter "backpack" and let her go; or they can catch her and put a new transmitter on her.
"That is what we're hoping to do," Smith said, referring to replacing Hope's transmitter.
He said the team must find funding for a new transmitter package, which costs about $5,000 and includes the satellite tracking service. If they can get the project funded, the researchers most likely will come to St. Croix to catch the bird. Smith said they would like to remove the broken transmitter, refurbish it and put it on a new bird.
Scientists are on a deadline though. Once Hope leaves St. Croix in March, it will be very difficult to find her again - until she returns to St. Croix the following winter.
"St. Croix is the place to try to catch that one bird," Smith said.
In the three-and-a-half years Hope has been tracked, she has flown about 47,000 miles to migrate between St. Croix and her breeding grounds in the Mackenzie River Delta in the Arctic Circle. During the trip, Hope stops in coastal Virginia and Southampton Island, Nunavut, Canada.
Nature Conservancy Chief Conservation Scientist Barry Truitt has said that the transmitters were supposed to work only for about 18 months, but Hope's transmitter continued to work for more than twice as long. As a result, scientists have gathered a wealth of information about the migration patterns of the whimbrel.
"This is definitely the longest that any shorebird has carried a transmitter, so we were very luck to get this much data out of this transmitter," Smith said.
A whimbrel is a small, brown, speckled shorebird that flies thousands of miles at a single stretch. The birds find wetland areas to feed - called staging grounds - in between very long migratory flights.
The birds have extremely high site-fidelity, returning not just to the same state or region, but to the exact same section of shoreline or mudflat - something the science world did not realize until the whimbrel tracking study began.
Smith said Hope does not stray outside of about 1 acre of the Great Pond wetland, which will make her easier to catch.
In addition to satellite tracking, researchers are conducting aerial surveys to estimate seasonal numbers and collecting feather samples to locate summer and winter areas through stable-isotope analysis, and they have initiated a whimbrel watch program.
Great Pond has been designated an "Important Bird Area" by BirdLife International and is home to more than 75 species of birds, as well as fish, crabs and other animals. It also is the site of the endangered least tern's breeding ground.
Hope weighs 14 ounces, is 17 inches long from the tip of her bill to her tail and has a 32-inch wingspan. A bright green tag on her leg identifies her.
See Hope's past journeys online at http://ccb-wm.org/programs/migration/Whimbrel/maps.htm.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.