Geolocators* have provided fantastic information about the movements of migratory birds – making links between countries, revealing previously unknown stop-over sites and indicating just how quickly birds traverse our planet. A small number of Icelandic Whimbrel have carried geolocators for up to six annual cycles, providing Camilo Carneiro with an opportunity to investigate the annual consistency of egg-laying, autumn departure, arrival in West Africa, departure in the spring, stopover in Western Europe and arrival back in Iceland.
* Geolocators are tiny devices that record the daily positions of birds, by measuring the timing of dawn and dusk. An individual typically carries a geolocator for a year and then needs to be re-caught for the data to be downloaded.
Planning a trip
When booking a train journey on-line, the first question I am asked is whether I want to stipulate departure time or arrival time. In early spring, with breeding on their minds, you might think that Whimbrel will focus on the time they need to be in Iceland, rather than the time they leave West Africa? If that’s the case then it might be best to take early spring opportunities if they arise, to catch express winds that will make the journey as rapid as possible and to get to Iceland early. Is that the case?
The Whimbrel is one of several wader species that breed in Iceland. Each autumn, Redshank, Snipe, Golden Plover, Oystercatcher and Black-tailed Godwit fly south to Europe, especially Ireland and the United Kingdom, but many Ringed Plover, most Dunlin and most Whimbrel travel as far as Africa. The main wintering sites for Whimbrel are in West Africa, south of the Sahara, in countries such as Guinea-Bissau. Here they can be seen feeding on crabs on the mangrove-fringed muddy shoreline (above). It’s a very different environment to the inland floodplains of Iceland (below).
In a paper by Tómas Gunnarsson & Gunnar Tómasson in 2011, we learnt that Whimbrel arrival times in Iceland did not change much between 1988 and 2009 (just 0.16 days earlier per year), while timing of arrival was advancing much more in species that travel less far to winter grounds, as you can see in this diagram.
The arrival date for Black-tailed Godwit was advancing fastest (0.81 days per year). In more recent research, it has been shown that the rapidly advancing trend for Black-tailed Godwits is being driven by new recruits to the population – individual adults are not changing their schedules. Why is spring migration getting earlier? summarises a paper by Gill et al in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
The Whimbrel trend has been recalculated, with a longer run of years, and the new change of 0.03 days earlier per year is not significantly different from zero. Given that Whimbrel are breeding alongside other species that are arriving in Iceland much earlier than thirty years ago, what are the constraints to the timing of their migrations?
Migration timings for Whimbrel
Camilo Carneiro, José Alves and Tómas Gunnarsson from the Universities of Aveiro (Portugal) and Iceland have been studying a population of Whimbrel in Southern Iceland. Birds are caught on the nest in one year and then re-caught in the subsequent year – or two years later if a bird evades capture in the intervening summer. The following results summarise weeks and weeks of patient fieldwork and brush over the hours of frustration caused by wary birds that have been caught before!
Over the course of the whole study, 86 Whimbrel were fitted with geolocators, 62 of which were retrieved. Repeatability could be calculated for 16 birds, with between 2 and 7 years of data collected from each individual. The results are summarised in these few bullet points. Please see the paper for confidence intervals and more details about differences between the sexes.
- Individual timings of autumn departure from Iceland varied between years. The repeatability index is 0.28, with a suggestion of a gender difference (females 0.40, males 0.02). Males tend to look after chicks for a longer period than females so their departure dates may be more strongly influenced by the success of each year’s breeding attempt.
- Autumn arrival time in West Africa was closely linked to departure time because, on all but one occasion, southward migration was achieved through a single direct flight. See Iceland to Africa non-stop.
- Spring departure time from West Africa was highly consistent, with a repeatability index of 0.76 and no discernible difference in repeatability between males and females.
- Spring arrivals in Iceland. Some Whimbrel that managed to complete spring migration in a single flight in some years stopped off in other years. These breaks, perhaps to wait for more helpful wind conditions and/or to refuel, resulted in variability in annual arrival dates for individuals. The repeatability for the two sexes combined was 0.23.
- Laying date was the least consistent stage of the annual cycle, with a repeatability index of 0.11 and no significant difference between males and females.
In an individual Whimbrel’s annual cycle, there appears to be one fixed point – departure from wintering ground in West Africa. With no discernible seasonality of resource availability on the wintering grounds and little change in day length in these areas, departure dates are probably being determined by an ‘internal clock’. Two major unknowns will then determine what happens in the next twelve months. Will wind and weather conditions be conducive to a one-leg flight to Iceland and how successful will a bird be in any particular breeding season? Unforeseen events, such as having to wait for a delayed partner, losing a first clutch, and the time needed to guard chicks will all affect the timing of autumn migration.
The study of wader migration has advanced hugely.
- Fifty years ago, the main measure of migration phenology was the appearance of the first individuals of a species.
- Colour-ring sightings are ideal for providing repeat arrival dates over the lifetimes of individuals, as exemplified by the Gill et al paper on Black-tailed Godwits, which suggest that individual timing is highly repeatable.
- Geolocators have provided more detailed information about the precise arrival and departure timings of individuals, which is so important if we wish to conserve threatened, migratory species that visit areas in which data collection was previously virtually impossible.
- Now, by tracking individual birds for several years, it is possible to look at the variability in annual patterns, and what can cause this variability.
Over the next decade or so, as devices get smaller and remote downloads become easier (eg using GSM tags), it should become possible to understand the conditions that lead to fast, slow and aborted migratory journeys in a whole range of species. Exciting times!
Why are Whimbrels not advancing their arrival dates into Iceland? Exploring seasonal and sex-specific variation in consistency of individual timing during the annual cycle. Camilo Carneiro, Tómas G Gunnarsson & José A Alves. Frontiers in Ecology & Evolution.
There is more about the information that is obtained from geolocators, how they work and the affects that they have on the individual birds that wear them in these two blogs:
WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton, to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on previously published papers, with the aim of making wader science available to a broader audience.