The Remarkable Odyssey of a Semipalmated Sandpiper
Posted on: July 9, 2014
Author: Stephen Brown
Just a few days ago, Brad Winn and Shiloh Schulte returned from Coats Island with the first two geolocators from the Semipalmated Sandpiper migration study. We were waiting breathlessly to see what mysteries would be revealed! Ron Porter, who is working on analyzing the geolocator data, downloaded and analyzed the data from the first geolocator over the weekend. He produced the map below, which reveals a remarkable odyssey for a tiny bird, the first glimpse ever into the entire migratory pathway of this species.
The Semipalmated Sandpiper geolocator project was designed to solve one of the most pressing mysteries in shorebird conservation. Surveys conducted by the New Jersey Audubon Society have shown an 80% decline over the past 20 years in numbers within the core wintering range in northern South America. At the same time, data from the Arctic show that breeding populations are apparently stable at some sites, especially in the western part of the arctic breeding range in Alaska. We need to understand the migratory pathways of the species in order to know where the decline is occurring, and what can be done to reverse it. Light-level geolocators are a cutting edge technology and their use has helped revolutionize our understanding of shorebird migration, but they have never been used on Semipalmated Sandpipers before this project.
Manomet has partnered with biologists from many organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Jersey Audubon, Kansas State University, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Canadian Wildlife Service, Simon Fraser University, the Government of Nunavut, and Université de Moncton to coordinate the first effort to use geolocators to understand the migratory pathways of this species.
Analysis of the data from the geolocators is key to understanding what the tiny units have recorded during the past year. The map below shows the first ever track of an entire year in the life of a Semipalmated Sandpiper from the eastern Arctic, the group for which the decline may be particularly severe. This particular bird, a male, flew a total distance of over 10,000 miles in the past year. He also made a remarkable six day, 3,300-mile nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from James Bay to South America, before moving on to his wintering area in Brazil.
The second geolocator that was recovered at Coats Island had lost battery power, a common occurrence, so it had to be sent back to the company that manufactured it in England to download the data. It should still have recorded much of the journey of the bird it was attached to, and we are excited to learn how its journey may have been similar or different from this one. At the same time, at least 35 other units have been recovered in Alaska. These units are on their way back to Anchorage and will be sent on to Ron for analysis. We will learn an enormous amount from those as well, in particular whether the western arctic birds also winter in the same areas in South America where the aerial surveys have shown the dramatic decline. We will share results here as soon as they become available.
We are very grateful to our partners from Environment Canada, who supported our travel back to Coats Island and who have worked with us closely on the fieldwork for this project. We are also very grateful to the supporters who helped make this project happen. Without their commitment to shorebird science, none of this would be possible. We hope you all enjoy this glimpse into a previously unknown world, the timing and flight path of an entire year in the life of a Semipalmated Sandpiper.
Here are the highlights from its journey:
23 June, 2013. The geolocator is placed on the bird by Brad Winn, a member of a Manomet shorebird science research team, at Coats Island, Nunavut, Canada.
21 July, 2013. Arrives in James Bay, where it fattens up for its upcoming long flight to South America.
22 August, 2013. Leaves James Bay for a six day nonstop flight to South America.
28 August, 2013. Arrives at the Orinoco Delta, on the border of Venezuela and Guyana.
10 September, 2013. Leaves for a relatively leisurely 11 day flight along the coast to Brazil.
21 September, 2013. Arrives in Brazil for the winter (northern winter, but summer in Brazil).
3 May, 2014. Leaves Brazil for a series of flights north, including stops in Cuba (May 6), Florida (May 10), Georgia (May 11), North Carolina (May 14), and Delaware Bay (May 21).
2 June, 2014. Arrives back in James Bay for the last stopover on its return journey.
10 June, 2014. Leaves James Bay for the final leg of its return journey.
11 June, 2014. Arrives back at its Coats Island breeding site.
18 June, 2014. The bird was re-captured by Brad Winn and Shiloh Schulte, its geolocator was removed, and it was released to begin its next odyssey!