Around the world and back: The amazing feats of our feathered friends

Today you’re hearing from Deb Reynolds in our Division of Migratory Birds. She has worked as their outreach coordinator for eight years, and in her free time, she likes to run and play with her girls and dogs.

Whimbrel. Credit: Lynn Schmid

Whimbrel. Credit: Lynn Schmid

I love shorebirds.

They range from the cute little fluffy piping plover chick to the greater yellowlegs and its elegant long legs. But the shorebird I am most taken with these days is the whimbrel, a gray-brown wading bird characterized by its long, curved bill. These long-distance migrants are nothing short of fabulous, as they navigate tropical storms, fly nearly 30 miles per hour, and have been documented to fly nonstop for 145 hours (6 days) covering a distance of 7,000 kilometers (4,355 miles).

Using satellite transmitters, researchers from The Center for Conservation Biology have recently tracked three birds* named Mackenzie, Taglu and Akpik, originally marked on the breeding grounds along the Mackenzie River Delta in far northwestern Canada.

In mid-July, the birds flew across the continent to the east coast of Canada, resting and eating for about two weeks in the James Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to build enough energy to continue on. The birds then flew southeast, reaching the center of the Atlantic Ocean before turning south and making landfall in South America between Guyana and Brazil.

But just as these whimbrels land, they are subject to new hardships—hunting on islands such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, as well as Barbados, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana. Hunting in these areas is mostly unregulated; a single hunter has been known to harvest up to 1,000 birds per season.

Fletcher Smith holding Akpik in the Canadian Arctic. Credit: Center for Conservation Biology

Fletcher Smith holding Akpik in the Canadian Arctic. Credit: Center for Conservation Biology

Whimbrels aren’t the only shorebirds subjected to unregulated hunting—red knot, lesser and greater yellowlegs, and marbled godwit to name a few others. This is one reason that conservation partners are coming together to develop an Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Conservation Business Strategy.

Atlantic Flyway shorebird populations have declined between 50 and 90 percent just over the last three decades. The business plan will lay out an aggressive strategy to reverse the decline over the next ten years. Seven components will drive the effort: reducing threats to populations; managing and protecting habitat; strengthening regulations; developing constituencies for shorebird conservation; engaging partners across the flyway; assessing populations; and reducing gaps in our knowledge. With the power of a strong partnership and strategic planning, hopefully whimbrels and other shorebirds will be able to safely reach and then rest in their wintering grounds after a long journey.

*The three birds are part of a larger project including 20 additional birds that have been tracked to better understand migratory pathways and locations that are critical for this declining species. The study has tracked whimbrels for more than 185,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) since 2008. The broader tracking project is a collaborative effort with The Center for Conservation Biology, Canadian Wildlife Service/Environment Canada, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.

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