Tiny bird amazes scientists as she returns to St. Croix
Published: September 8, 2012
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ST. THOMAS - Hope the whimbrel has returned to St. Croix to spend her fourth winter feeding on insects and crabs in the Great Pond mudflats.
"She's an amazing bird," Nature Conservancy Chief Conservation Scientist Barry Tuitt said.
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 transmitting data.
Since she was tagged in May 2009, bird watchers and biologists have been tracking Hope online via a specialized satellite transmitter as she flies from her breeding ground in the Arctic Circle to St. Croix's mud flats, where she rides out the winter.
In the three-and-a-half years Hope has been tracked, she has flown about 47,000 miles to migrate between St. Croix, stop-over sites in Southampton Island, Nunavut, Canada, and in coastal Virginia, and her breeding grounds in the Mackenzie River Delta.
Hope left the eastern shore of Virginia in the early morning hours on Sunday and arrived on St. Croix just after midnight on Tuesday, completing the 1,600 miles in just more than 48 hours.
Unlike in past years, she did not have to fly through any hurricanes, although she did skirt the edge of Tropical Storm Leslie on her way south.
The small shorebird has provided scientists with important data about the migration patterns of whimbrels and the dangers they face as a species. 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.
"What she's showing us about migration is extraordinary," Tuitt said.
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.
"It's amazing, I never would have thought that ever about migrating birds," Tuitt said. "I never thought on a daily basis you're seeing the same bird over and over again, but that's what you're doing."
"It's the best $3,500 that the Nature Conservancy ever spent," Tuitt said.
The Center for Conservation Biology has documented a 50 percent decline in the whimbrel population since the mid-1990s, which was why the tracking project began. The transmitters, which are solar powered, were expected to stay on the birds for only a little more than one year, but Hope has given researchers almost four years of information. Most of the other birds have been lost to predators, storms or hunters, or their transmitters simply stopped working or fell off.
Hope's site-fidelity is providing crucial information for future conservation efforts. Scientists can make better recommendations to preserve the species by protecting all legs of the bird's journey.
The staging grounds whimbrels use in Virginia and Georgia are in protected areas, but the wintering sites whimbrels use - throughout the Caribbean and South America - often are not.
Last year, two of the tracked whimbrels - Machi and Goshen - were killed in traditional shorebird hunts on Guadeloupe.
This year, the team tagged four new whimbrels in their breeding grounds in northeast Canada. The birds flew non-stop from Canada to Brazil in four days, Tuitt said. It was a previously unknown migratory pattern.
"At one point, they were closer to Africa than they were to North America," he said. "I think those birds set a record for Atlantic flights."
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.
Track Hope's journey online at http://ccb-wm.org/programs/migration/Whimbrel/maps.htm.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email email@example.com.