Are Dutch-breeding limosa Black-tailed Godwits that now winter in Spain and Portugal doing better than ones that travel to the other side of the Sahara?
Changing weather patterns and land management are providing opportunities for many bird species to modify their migration patterns – both in terms of space and time. Dutch limosa Black-tailed Godwits were traditionally thought of as long-distance migrants that spent the winter months in countries such as Senegal and Guinea Bissau. In recent years, however, increasing numbers have been observed to fly no further south than Spain and Portugal, where their winter distribution overlaps with the islandica race.
As has been described in a previous blog (Dutch Black-tailed Godwits numbers down by nearly 75%), the limosa population in western Europe is in serious decline. The proportional change is therefore even more impressive than the change in numbers. Márquez-Ferrando et al showed that the number of birds wintering in the Doñana Wetlands, Spain has increased from 4% of the flyway population in the late 1980s to 23% in 2011.
The annual distances travelled by African-wintering and Iberian-wintering Black-tailed Godwits are hugely different, being about 10,000 km and 4,000 km, respectively. A Doñana bird therefore needs to find much less fuel for migration when compared to a bird in Guinea-Bissau.
Logic might suggest that travelling less far should have benefits. Provided that an Iberian bird survives the winter, it should be better placed at the start of the next breeding season? There’s less far to travel to return home and it might be easier to use weather cues in Spain & Portugal to determine the best time to make the journey, given that Atlantic lows affect the weather patterns across large sections of western Europe?
In a paper in Ecology & Evolution, Rosemarie Kentie and her colleagues investigate whether there are differences in timing of breeding and breeding success between Black-tailed Godwits that spend the winter in Africa and those that only travel as far as Iberia. Do European wintering birds start breeding earlier, do they choose the best breeding territories and do they have a higher chance of successfully raising chicks?
Timing of arrival
This paper benefits hugely from colour-ring sightings made in both African and European wintering areas. Most of these have been collected by dedicated teams but additional reports by other birdwatchers are also gratefully acknowledged. Their efforts distil into 180 known Iberian-winterers and 131 known African-winters.
When the spring arrival dates of males and females of the two groups were compared, Rosemarie Kentie discovered that African winterers arrive back two days earlier than Iberian winterers and that males return to the breeding grounds three days earlier than females (see table). Mean lay date of first egg was five days earlier for African birds.
Although the magnitude of the differences seem quite small, the results are statistically significant and previous work has shown strong effects of timing of breeding on reproductive success. What is clear is that birds that only have 2,000 km to travel are no earlier (and on average are actually later) than birds that travel 5,000 km. Both groups spend several weeks together in Iberian rice fields, before heading north, but a difference based on wintering location is still detectable.
Interestingly, this pattern of timing is similar to that previously found by José Alves and colleagues for islandica Black-tailed Godwits. In islandica, there is a much smaller wintering range, from Iberia in the south to Scotland in the north. Despite the longer journey back to Iceland from Portugal, these southern birds tend to reach Iceland about five days earlier than birds wintering in England. The energetic constraints of birds wintering in (and migrating from) different parts of the range are discussed in the paper Overtaking on migration: does longer distance migration always incur a penalty? or you can read this WaderTales blog: Overtaking on Migration.
In the limosa paper, the authors look for different measures of breeding success for Iberian and African winterers. There seems to be no link between wintering area and the quality of the territory in which birds breed, although the earlier birds may have had earlier access to better territories (see paper for details). There’s no difference in size between birds in the two groups and the daily nest survival rates were not different either. The only potential benefit for either group is that Iberian-wintering females lay slightly bigger eggs. Given that other wader studies have shown that bigger eggs turn into bigger chicks and bigger chicks are more likely to fledge, there may be a breeding advantage for birds travelling less far. This is a statistically different result (i.e. there is a measurable difference) but the magnitude is only 3% difference in egg weight, and the authors question whether this can really be significant, biologically. Is this extra mass enough to make a practical difference to the probability that these bigger eggs will turn into more, bigger or fitter youngsters?
Why are godwits now wintering in Iberia?
We know that individual Black-tailed Godwits, like most other waders, use the same wintering areas each year. Having once settled into a particular pattern – African or Iberian – then that’s almost certainly the pattern for life. As recently as the 1980s, 96% of the western population of limosa were flying 5,000 km each autumn. The fact that few birds used the 2,000 km option then and that an increasing number do so now may suggest that winter conditions in Iberia have become more suitable for Black-tailed Godwits. This may be a good thing because there’s a line in the paper that makes for interesting reading “the mortality rate of godwits equipped with satellite tags was highest during the crossing of the Sahara Desert”. Perhaps it’s harder to find the resources for the journey north from countries such as Guinea Bissau? That’s going to be the subject of a future paper. Meanwhile, there’s more about the satellite-tagging project on the King of the Meadows website.
Read the full paper
Rosemarie Kentie, Rocío Marquez-Ferrando, Jordi Figuerola, Laura Gangoso, Jos C.E.W. Hooijmeijer, A. H. Jelle Loonstra, Frédéric Robin, Mathieu Sarasa, Nathan Senner, Haije Valkema, Mo A. Verhoeven and Theunis Piersma