A Migratory Superfood

superfood 1Wild, lowbush blueberries in New Brunswick, Canada. Photo by Monica Iglecia

Blueberries are a human superfood. Those little blue orbs represent summer, are high in antioxidants, go well in pies and smoothies, and are downright delicious. It turns out that blueberries are another type of superfood – each July and August in Atlantic Canada, they help fuel a shorebird’s 6,000 km (3,700 miles) nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

superfood 2_whimWhimbrel. Photo by Brad Winn

Whimbrel are a beautiful, large, brown shorebird species with a striking downward-curved bill. Whimbrel are long-distance migrants –nesting in subarctic areas like bogs, tundra, and heathlands in Alaska, the Mackenzie River Delta, and the Hudson Bay Lowlands, and spending their winter in the mangroves and coastal wetlands of the Caribbean and South America.  Whimbrel is also understood to be a species in decline. It is a species of high conservation concern in the United States and Canada in part, due to local observations of dramatic population declines.  Although estimates of population size are difficult to ascertain, current estimates for the entire North American race of Whimbrel range from 66,000 (Morrison 2006) and 80,000 birds (Andres 2012). For comparison, that’s a close equivalent to the number of students attending Ohio State University and the University of Toronto, respectively.

Manomet’s Shorebird Recovery Program is dedicated to identifying trouble spots during a shorebirds life cycle and working collaboratively with regional partners to address issues locally and reduce threats at the most important sites. By working with biologists and land managers throughout the Western Hemisphere, we strive to improve enough local conditions for the birds that, when taken together across an entire migratory route, can add up to flyway-scale benefits for shorebird populations. Through our Habitats for Shorebirds workshops, we are able to piece together the larger conservation picture for shorebirds and pinpoint where improved environmental conditions are needed.

Brad Winn and I first learned of the ‘blueberry and whimbrel’ issue in 2014 when we taught a Habitats for Shorebirds workshop in the Bay of Fundy and had a chance to understand the situation from Canadian Wildlife Service biologist, Julie Paquet. Since then, Manomet’s Habitats for Shorebirds team has been sharing information about our experiences in shorebird conservation and providing advisement on techniques that have worked in other regions where agriculture provides habitat for shorebirds. This August, I had the opportunity to see it all in person.

Over the last few years, the scientific community has learned quite a bit about Whimbrel migration and their use of the Acadian Peninsula in New Brunswick, Canada. Research conducted by The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), the Canadian Wildlife Service, and Mount Allison University has highlighted an elliptical shaped migration connecting 1) breeding areas in the Mackenzie River Delta with 2) stopover sites in eastern Canada, to 3) the wintering areas in northern South America, then 4) the return flight across the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to the Laguna Madre of Mexico and Texas back to the breeding areas on their northbound migration. Our current understanding is that the Whimbrel using the Acadian Peninsula breed along the Mackenzie River Delta on the border of Alaska and the Northwest Territories. CCB and Mount Allison University biologists estimate that the number of Whimbrel using the Acadian Peninsula range from 1,200 in 2014 to 344 in 2016 (Nagy-MacArthur 2016). Those may seem like small numbers, but they are biologically significant when we think about the entire North American population being equivalent to the number of students in one university.

superfood3_mapMap of migratory paths of individual Whimbrel. Whimbrel were fitted with satellite transmitters by the Center for Conservation Biology and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Map used with permission.

The incredible journey of the Whimbrel is only possible because there are a series of sites with reliable food resources to fuel the trip along the way. The Acadian Peninsula is one of those sites. Historically, this area provided a mix of coastal beaches and salt marshes as well as heathlands. These habitat types provide foods like invertebrates and native crowberries that supported Whimbrel migration. In fact, another common name for crowberry is curlewberry. Which is particularly fitting because Whimbrel are a type of curlew. This area was also a major staging area for another shorebird, the Eskimo Curlew, a species that was hunted heavily and has not been seen since the 1980s.

Today, a large amount of land in the Acadian Peninsula has been excavated for peat moss (the kind you use in your garden) or converted to farmland to accommodate the skyrocketing popularity of blueberries. Individual Whimbrel stop in the region for approximately three weeks in July and August where they will rest and eat (invertebrates like caterpillars, spiders, grasshoppers, and beetles as well as blueberries) while they gain sufficient weight to make their trip across the ocean. During that time, blueberry fields are nearly ready to harvest and farmers and farm staff actively work to keep Whimbrel out of their blueberry fields. They do this through the use of loud canon air guns, shiny pie pans as deterrents, playing distress calls over loudspeakers, and in some cases, directly shooting birds.  The problem with hazing is that, like other forms of disturbance, it can reduce the bird’s fitness and subsequently their ability to successfully migrate.

superfood 4_deterrents1 superfood 5_deterrents2Air canons and pie pans used as wildlife deterrents in blueberry fields. Photos by Monica Iglecia

Farmers consider Whimbrel to be a pest because, well, they eat blueberries, but also because they are a conspicuous sight when they are using a field. That makes them easier to blame than other species that might be causing more damage but are difficult to see or are using the field at night. And, it is true, Whimbrel do eat blueberries but they eat a small amount when compared to the total value of the region’s crop (a $39 million dollar, 78 million pound industry in the Province of New Brunswick). In the larger scheme of things, there are a relatively small number of Whimbrel using the area and the conservation value those blueberries provide by fueling southbound migration is important.  In 2015, assuming all 518 Whimbrel in the Acadian Peninsula ate only blueberries (which is an oversimplification) biologist Avery Nagy-MacArthur estimates these birds ate between $1,321 to $2,518 worth of product.

superfood6_whim takeoffWhimbrel leaving a blueberry field. Photo by Julie Paquet

So, here is the conservation conundrum: how do we work with farmers to support wildlife like Whimbrel? Is there a future where blueberry farmers might let Whimbrel gorge on these superfood morsels and even enjoy seeing their arrival each year?

Shorebird conservation in this region will rely heavily on outreach to the local community and the farmers. Julie Guillemot of The University of Moncton, Shippagan Campus and Lisa Fauteux with the non-profit Verts Rivages are leading the charge in both social science and outreach efforts through their group Amis du Courlis (Whimbrel Friends). In 2016 they surveyed 40 blueberry farm employees or owners. They found that blueberry farmers in the Acadian Peninsula vary in size and growing objectives. The region is home to producers with small farms, farmers that grow blueberries as a side business, and some of the largest blueberry producers in the world. Half of the producers surveyed farm less than one hundred acres and two of the producers farm over 1,000 acres each.

Most survey respondents were able to recognize Whimbrel from other birds but did not know the species name or its migratory life history. Two-thirds of respondents reported that Whimbrel used their fields and that Whimbrel were often observed with gulls. The survey identified opportunities for dispelling certain Whimbrel myths with blueberry farmers and the public. For example, nearly half of the survey respondents provided their estimate of the amount of blueberries that Whimbrel ate. Their estimates ranged from 320 grams to 3 pounds per day and between 1% and 20% of their total crop production. Avery Nagy-MacArthur used behavioral observations and energy needs to estimate that Whimbrel eat significantly less than what the farmers predicted, one Whimbrel can eat between 5 to 10 pounds of blueberries over the course of their entire stay in the area. Thus, in 2017, outreach efforts were focused on sharing information about how and why Whimbrel use the Acadian Peninsula as well as the actual impact of this bird species on their crop.

During my visit, we conducted the first citizen-science based Whimbrel count in the Acadian Peninsula. The counting teams were made up of university students, visitors from Quebec, local nature groups, and biologists. It is through events like these and through news articles and radio spots, through environmental education programs, and farmer surveys, that trust, relationships, and the awareness necessary to support Whimbrel will be founded.  By communicating the results of the biological research, Amis du Courlis is helping inform decision making and conservation actions on the ground. For some people that hear the radio segments, it is the first time they learn about the very birds they see every year. For some farmers, access to the estimates of the crop value lost to migrating Whimbrel might be enough information to stop the bird harassment.

superfood7_participantsSome of the participants of the Acadian Peninsula’s first citizen-science based Whimbrel count. Photo by Lisa Fateux

Perhaps future efforts could include commitments from farmers and the blueberry-buying industry not to harass or shoot Whimbrel. Perhaps there is merit to celebrate both migration and the blueberry harvest through a Whimbrel and Blueberry Festival. Hopefully, through this multi-pronged approach being led locally in the Acadian Peninsula, coupled with conservation efforts occurring throughout the Whimbrel’s life cycle, we can collectively keep Whimbrel from going the way of the Eskimo Curlew.

superfood 8_whim 2A young, thin, Whimbrel fresh from the nesting grounds flies overhead in a blueberry field. Photo by Monica Iglecia


Shorebirds in the Prairies and the Value of Being in the Same Place Twice

In late May 2016, Brad Winn, Brian Harrington, and I hosted a Shorebird Ecology, Conservation, and Habitat Management workshop in Chaplin, Saskatchewan, in collaboration with Nature Saskatchewan, the Chaplin Nature Centre, and the University of Saskatchewan.  While we were there, the flock of Red Knots and Black-bellied Plovers were restless—it felt as though the slightest change in wind direction would send them aloft on the next breeze up to the arctic breeding grounds.

ed Knot and Black-bellied Plover

A flock of Red Knot and Black-bellied Plover roost at Reed Lake, Saskatchewan


As each day passed, the number of arctic-breeding shorebirds in Saskatchewan dwindled as the tundra continued to beckon them on their journey northward. Among the 450 Red Knots we encountered, we sighted two birds with colored flags on their upper legs. Both birds had been flagged by David Newstead of the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program in coastal Texas, highlighting the connectivity between the central coast of the United States and inland lakes and wetlands in the prairie pothole region of the northern United States and Canada.

For some species, Saskatchewan is the breeding area. Some of the locally breeding shorebirds include Wilson’s Snipe, Willet, Upland Sandpiper, American Avocet, and Marbled Godwit. They reminded us each day of their intent with their courtship flights, alarm calls, and by feigning broken wings to deter us away from their nests.


A pair of Upland Sandpiper forage along the edges of Chaplin Lake, Saskatchewan.

A pair of Upland Sandpiper forage along the edges of Chaplin Lake, Saskatchewan.

A Wilson’s Snipe calls to its mate.

A Wilson’s Snipe calls to its mate.


Our shorebird workshops featured field excursions and discussions that were focused on the Chaplin, Old Wives, and Reed Lake Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site, but also included discussions about conservation across the Canadian prairie. The 35 workshop participants came from all three Prairie Provinces (Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan) and included University professors and students as well as biologists and land managers from non-profits, provincial and federal agencies, and private consultants.


The 2016 workshop participants visit Reed Lake, Saskatchewan.

The 2016 workshop participants visit Reed Lake, Saskatchewan.


Among the group were seven individuals that Brian Harrington had met before. In May of 1999, they had attended a first-of-its-kind shorebird workshop in the Canadian prairies that Brian had collaborated with local partners to hold at the recently designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. Today, each of the returning workshop participants plays a significant role in bird conservation. It was a pleasure to meet them and to talk with a few about their experiences since the last workshop and their motivation to attend another workshop years later.


From left to right: Brian Harrington and returning workshop participants Michael Barr, Barbara Hanbidge, Jordan Ignatiuk, Clem Millar, Lori Wilson, Alan Smith, and Andrew Hak.

From left to right: Brian Harrington and returning workshop participants Michael Barr, Barbara Hanbidge, Jordan Ignatiuk, Clem Millar, Lori Wilson, Alan Smith, and Andrew Hak.


Michael Barr attended the 1999 shorebird workshop as an avid bird enthusiast and Ducks Unlimited Canada biologist after working with Environment Canada to lead the charge on the nomination of Beaverhill Lake as a WHSRN site, the first and only in Alberta. Michael says he came to the 2016 workshop to reinvigorate and “up his shorebird game.” In his current capacity as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Coordinator in Alberta, Michael says he is in a position to elevate shorebird conservation and to help move people to action. Michael stated that the workshop had made him re-inspired by shorebirds and that “Manomet brings the needed energy and gravity of the status of shorebirds to managers and biologists through their workshops.”

Barbara Hanbidge had never seen a Red Knot before her attendance at the 1999 workshop. She said the workshop gave her the skills to identify shorebirds and recognize their habitats. Since then, Barbara has influenced wetland management in ways that benefit shorebirds in Saskatchewan throughout her career with Ducks Unlimited Canada—an important contribution given that the province is losing 10,000 acres of wetlands each year. Barbara says she returned for a second workshop in 2016 to learn more and to stay connected with the latest in shorebird conservation efforts. Today, Barbara is a Provincial Policy Specialist in Saskatchewan and a longtime resident near Chaplin Lake. After the workshop in 1999, Barbara introduced her family to shorebirds through the Chaplin Nature Centre, including her 96 year-old mother-in-law who had lived her entire life in the region, but had never known that these international travelers (shorebirds) were right in her own backyard.

The workshop participants that we met this spring in Chaplin, Saskatchewan, included conservation professionals of a variety of ages and stages in their careers. It was a pleasure to meet them all, from the students to the seasoned professionals. We all have much to learn from each other as we work to conserve our shared shorebirds across international boundaries. It was quite the experience to reconnect with the individuals that have committed themselves to the conservation of the wetlands and lakes of Saskatchewan and to meet some of the next generation ready to learn and to make a difference.


Meet Virginia: The Lasting Impact of Manomet’s Shorebird Workshops

I often wonder about the impacts our Shorebird Habitat Management Workshops might have on workshop participants, how our time together might influence their work over the long term and the future conservation of shorebird populations. We recently completed teaching a collaborative workshop on shorebird habitat management in Lagoa do Peixe in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil and we caught a hint of just the kind of influence our workshops can have on individuals.

In 1983, Brian Harrington, Senior Scientist with Manomet collaborated with Paulo Antas of CEMAVE (Centro Nacional de Pesquisa para a Conservação das Aves Silvestres), and Martin Sander of the Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos to host a first-of-its-kind international shorebird workshop in South America held at Lagoa do Peixe.


A snap shot from a shorebird workshop Manomet ran in Lago do Peixe, Brazil in 1987.

A snapshot from a shorebird workshop Manomet ran in Lago do Peixe, Brazil in 1987


At the time, Maria Virginia Petry was a freshman in her first semester at college with a strong interest in biology. Ornithology, biochemistry, and entomology were all potential focus options but switching majors was on the table as well. She had begun working with a professor, Martin Sander, and was assisting him with multiple and varied research projects including studies of mosquito biology, forest birds, and Antarctic birds when she heard about the shorebird workshop.


As Virginia recalls, this workshop brought together biologists from every country in South America, was only offered to professional biologists, and was definitely somewhere she wanted to be. As an undergraduate, this also meant she was not on the invite list. Determined to participate in the workshop, Virginia offered to help with logistics during the classroom components held at the University – and was thus able to attend the lectures. When it came time to head to the field, she was told she could not attend as she was not an official workshop participant.  As the field vehicle transporting the workshop participants broke down and another vehicle from the University prepared to rescue the stranded biologists at Lagoa do Peixe (a 3-4 hour drive), with no one to stop her, Virginia hopped in the car.


The rest is history. With a clear passion for biology, Virginia learned to identify and monitor shorebirds during the workshop. She stayed after the workshop ended to assist Brian and others complete a shorebird survey along the central coast of Rio Grande do Sul. She has continued monitoring the shorebirds and other coastal wildlife on this same stretch of beach on and off over the years ever since.


Maria Virginia Petry at the 2016 shorebird workshop

Maria Virginia Petry at the 2016 workshop


Today, Virginia is an accomplished research scientist and professor at the Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos teaching both undergraduate and graduate students. She manages and coordinates a research laboratory of marine animals and birds, assists the management of the National Trust for Research and Technology of Antarctic Research, and is on the steering committee for the recently completed Shorebird Conservation Action Plan in Brazil. In fact, a previous manager of Lagoa do Peixe National Park was a student of Virginia’s.


When I asked her how attending the workshop influenced her career trajectory, she said that it inspired her to continue in the study of biology – and ornithology specifically.  It helped her develop a passion for coastal birds in particular and to understand the value of long term monitoring.


33 years later, Virginia attended our 2016 workshop at Lagoa do Peixe. She said she came to learn more about technological advances in migratory bird monitoring and to hear more about the status of the shorebird populations that connect us across the hemisphere. But for us, the workshop leaders, meeting and talking with Virginia was like peeking into the future. A small glimpse of the potential impact you can have when you combine personal passion with critical information, and of course, introduce people to the magic of shorebirds. I have high hopes for the future outcomes and long term impacts of our continued shorebird workshops to fostering collaborative conservation and igniting passion for shorebirds for future generations.