Tracking a High-flying Bird

Sep 13, 2017

With the summer nesting season behind us, it’s the time when bird researchers turn their collective gaze upon bird migration, and the many mysteries it holds. Right here on Cape Cod, scientists are studying bird migration using a variety of methods, from the high tech and cutting edge to good, old-fashioned, 19th century trapping and monitoring methods – and sometimes both at the same time.

On Monday, Brad Winn and his team from the conservation organization known as Manomet were once again hanging suspiciously around the Lieutenant Island bridge in Wellfleet in hopes of trapping a Whimbrel. They had lines with small, monofilament nooses strung along creek banks to grab the toe of a unsuspecting Whimbrel.  Their goal was to place a satellite transmitter on a juvenile bird to help unravel the mystery of their migration routes and wintering locations.

Whimbrels are big, crazy looking sandpipers with a huge sickle of a bill. They are thick in the marshes of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay sanctuary and Lieutenant Island because their favorite food, fiddler crabs, blanket the marshes and mudflats there. And since no one has tracked New England Whimbrels before, we still don’t know for sure which breeding population they come from or which wintering area they head to.  Data from a bird tagged two years ago in Chatham showed that at least some juveniles winter in the Caribbean, then migrate to the Gulf Coasts of Louisiana and Texas in spring.

That bird either died or shed the transmitter before we learned for sure which breeding population it was heading to, but Brad is pretty sure it was headed to the Mackenzie River delta in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Given our American tendency to not know much about Canada, especially remote, wilderness Canada, you probably don’t know that the Mackenzie River is the second largest river in North America and one of the longest in the world. The delta is a vast landscape of marshes and tundra where thousands of shorebirds, geese, ducks, terns, and other birds breed. The estuary itself is big enough that at least 5000 beluga whales have their calves there. If you’ve ever had young children, I’m guessing you now have that insidious Baby Beluga song in your head – sorry about that.

Adult Whimbrels tracked from this population migrated east to Atlantic Canadian provinces, fattened up for two weeks, then headed out over the open Atlantic for a 5000 mile, six day, marathon flight to Guyana or Brazil. Think about what an impossible feat that non-stop flight is – I can never find flights to South America without at least one inconvenient layover in Miami…

Both Arctic tundra, where Whimbrels birds nest, and salt marshes, where they stage and gain weight before their epic migrations, are already taking a beating from climate change, and the situation is not expected to improve. Thanks to warming, forests are moving north into formerly treeless tundra, and coastal marshes are shrinking, squeezed between the rising seas and armored uplands. Tracking technology like this is helping researchers find and protect the most important staging areas for birds like Whimbrels.

We don’t have a name for this latest bird yet, but we’re working on it. When we do, you’ll eventually be able to find it and track its progress under the Georgia Whimbrel project at seaturtle.org, which is a clearing house for wildlife satellite tracking studies. There you can see the tracks for past Cape Cod birds named Chatham and Blackfish, as well as all of the adult Whimbrels ever tracked from all over the Western Hemisphere. And maybe you can find the name of their travel agent so you can get in on those non-stop flights.

Mark Faherty is Science Coordinator at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.