Despite its global distribution, the Grey Plover (or Black-bellied Plover in the Americas) does not get the attention it deserves, according to Andrew Darby, author of Flight Lines, a book about shorebird migration and Grey Plovers in particular.
Who would want to study a shorebird that is the first species to sneak away from its tundra nest when danger threatens, and that is hard to catch outside the breeding season? Fortunately, satellite technology means that a lot can be discovered by following just a small number of birds and this blog will focus on two individuals, setting their travels within a broader flyway context.
Grey Plovers CYA and CYB are the stars of Flight Lines, a book by Andrew Darby which takes us ‘across the globe on a journey with the astonishing ultramarathon birds’. They were caught together in Adelaide’s Gulf St Vincent by members of Victoria Wader Study Group on 14 November, 2015. Here, they were carefully fitted with tags that were originally to be deployed on Bar-tailed Godwits. So starts a story that takes us from the south coast of Australia to islands off the north coast of eastern Siberia, via the Yellow Sea.
Andrew has not simply written a bird book; Flight Lines tells the sort of tale that I remember from school days, of how Cook and Magellan travelled the globe or Livingstone and Stanley ‘discovered’ Africa. Grey Plovers have been flying to the Arctic for millennia – from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia, the USA and South America. CYA and CYB are doing what their ancestors have always done. As we follow their journeys, Andrew tells us about the habitats these birds need, shares stories about the lives of local people who await their arrival, reveals the way that shoreline ‘development’ is impacting upon their survival and tells us about some of the ornithologists who are encouraging governments and local communities to save space for the birds with black wing-pits (see picture below).
Grey Plovers travel vast distances across the globe but once they have arrived at their final destinations they are highly territorial – and not just in the breeding season. When David Townshend studied marked individual Grey Plovers feeding on the Tees, in north-east England, back in the late 1970s, he discovered that they fed in the same places for the four-month period of the winter, defending their patches against interlopers; what’s more, they returned to these territories in subsequent years. It’s like running a marathon and then not leaving your back yard until it’s time to take off again, months later.
As Andrew Darby reminds us, Grey Plover can re-visit the same territories for decades; something to remember when considering what happens when a coastal development steals the ‘homes’ of all of the Grey Plovers in a bay. How does a twenty-year old bird find a new home? There’s a WaderTales blog about longevity records for waders/shorebirds.
Territoriality is not just a British thing. In Flight Lines we learn that the same is true for American Black-bellied Plovers wintering in San Diego and Grey Plovers in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Here, tracking has shown that the patterns that David Townshend witnessed by day are maintained during the night. Those big eyes can make the most of low light-levels. A hungry individual stands still and waits for prey to move, gives up after a while and tries another likely patch within its territory. Plovers are not like Knot; they don’t have a sensitive tip to the bill that can detect hidden prey, their hard-tipped bills grab items from the surface of the mud or sand, guided by those big, black eyes.
According to BirdLife International, the global population of Grey Plover is only about half a million birds, 80,000 of which use the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. This system of aerial ‘motorways’ links countries as diverse as New Zealand and Thailand with breeding areas in the East Russian Arctic and Alaska.
There is a temptation to sit at home and think of migration as something that happens in a line that runs north to south and back again. Fifty years ago there was an assumption that Black-bellied Plovers would migrate north and south within the Americas, that Grey Plovers in western Europe and Africa would be linked to western Siberia, that Australian birds bred in eastern Siberia, and that Grey Plovers in southern Africa, the Arabian peninsula, India etc would be birds that had flown from ‘the middle bit’ – between western and eastern Siberia.
Studies of other shorebirds have shown more cross-overs than might have been expected, breaking up the neat south-north pattern. Chukotka, for instance, indicated by the red star on the BirdLife map, is a summer home for Ringed Plover from Egypt (Well-travelled Ringed Plovers), Spoon-billed Sandpipers from Bangladesh, Knot from Australia and Buff-breasted Sandpipers from South America.
Shorebird mixing happens on the other side of the Bering Sea too. Shorebirds that fly to Alaska from South America in spring are joined by Bar-tailed Godwit that fly north from New Zealand, via the East Asian coast. These baueri race Bar-tailed Godwits are famous migrants – they fly non-stop all the way to New Zealand come fall/autumn. See paper by Phil Battley et al.
So, what about Australian Grey Plovers? Do they meet up with American Black-bellied Plovers?
Linking wintering and breeding areas
As Andrew Darby tells us in Flight Lines, measurements of Grey Plovers in Australia and in Russian breeding areas suggested that wader experts Clive Minton and Pavel Tomkovich were handling the same birds in Victoria and on Wrangel island, north of the Russian mainland. In 2007, Pavel banded some Grey Plovers, the hope being that one of them might be seen in Australia. The only one of these Grey Plovers ever to be reported was seen in the Chinese part of the Yellow Sea – six years later.
The Grey Plover colour-ringed by Pavel was spotted by David Melville, who has done a great deal to fill gaps in knowledge about the vast flocks of waders that use the Yellow Sea, including significant numbers of passage Grey Plover. One of the wonderful features of Flight Lines is the way that it turns names into characters. I had heard of many of the people who Andrew met or spoke to, during research for the book, but I appreciate their roles much better now. There is fantastic work taking place in countries throughout the Flyway, ably coordinated through the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.
Given that colour-ringed Grey Plovers were not providing the data that could link breeding and wintering grounds, it was time to try something new. On 14 November, 2015, CYA and CYB were fitted with satellite transmitters and in March they flew north. In the same way that we read that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ Australia, without telling the story of the challenges his crew faced on the way, I am just going to present the map of the northward journeys of the two birds and leave you to read Flight Lines, the log-book of their journeys.
The map shows the positions on 7 June 2016, whe CYA and CYB had only just arrived on Wrangel Island. The journey north is described by Tony Flaherty in Victoria Wader Study Group Bulletin number 39.
“The two satellite transmitters, put on to Grey Plover in South Australia by Maureen Christie’s team in November, 2015, have performed brilliantly, with both birds successfully migrating northwards, including a long stop-over in the Yellow Sea, and eventually going on to breed on Wrangel Island off the north coast of Chukotka, eastern Siberia. This is the first evidence of any bird from Australia visiting this remote Arctic Island. At the time of writing this, both are now on their way back from the Arctic, with one having made a surprising major detour via the New Siberian Islands.”
There is a complementary article about the journey south in the next issue of the VWSG Bulletin, also by Tony Flaherty.
Map data courtesy of Victorian Wader Study Group & Friends of Shorebirds SE. The project was made possible by support from the Australian Government and the Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board.
A conservation agenda
One of the major drivers of bird ringers/banders is a thirst for knowledge – and there is nothing wrong with that spirit of enquiry. For the East Asian-Australasian Flyway there is a deeper imperative; conservation of birds using habitats that are under immediate threat from human exploitation and climate change. A previous WaderTales blog – Wader declines in the shrinking Yellow Sea – focuses on a paper that highlighted the desperate need to understand and conserve shorebird populations. One species that hardly gets a mention in that paper is the Grey Plover. It’s not that there is no threat to Grey Plovers, it’s just that there were insufficient data. It’s not easy to study these territorial plovers, which are thinly spread throughout the non-breeding range and difficult to catch.
About Flight Lines
The WaderTales blog series started out as a planned book about Black-tailed Godwits but I found that I did not have the stamina to weave together science tales into an interesting tapestry. Andrew Darby is a master of the writing craft. Although he focuses upon waders, and the Grey Plover lead characters, he also tells us about the pioneer ornithologists who have explored the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, in search of shorebirds that spend Christmas and New Year in Australia and New Zealand. Flight Lines is published by Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978 1 76029 655 1
Migration research about other Grey Plover populations
Papers about Grey Plover and Black-bellied Plover are thin on the ground but new projects on the East Atlantic Flyway and in the Americas are starting to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge.
The Wash Wader Ringing Group has ringed/ banded over 6500 individual Grey Plovers since the Group was founded in 1958 (Sixty years of Wash waders). Their work was written up in 1976 by Nick Branson and Clive Minton (Moult, measurements and migrations of the Grey Plover). The map alongside shows movements of birds to and from the Wash.
Recent research by Klaus-Michael Exo and colleagues has used satellite tracking to understand better the movements of Grey Plover breeding in the Taimyr and Yamal regions of Siberia. In their paper, they identify important staging sites as well as wintering areas between Ireland and Guinea Bissau. Tagged birds stopped off for long periods during migration, especially in late summer and autumn. See Migration routes and strategies of Grey Plovers on the East Atlantic Flyway as revealed by satellite tracking.
The Tidal Wings project focuses on Grey Plovers that winter in the Bijagos archipelago of Guinea Bissau. You can keep up to date on their discoveries on their website (https://birdecology.wixsite.com/tidalwings) and on Twitter. The map above shows three migrations of the same individual.
In North and South America, the Black-bellied Plover is also receiving increased attention. There is a large collaborative project to reveal their migratory connectivity, with over 70 tags deployed to track birds from Alaskan and Canadian breeding grounds, and from Texas and Louisiana wintering grounds. Work is being conducted by the Smithsonian’s Migratory Connectivity Project, USGS Alaska Science Center, Environment Canada, Texas A&M University, University of Missouri, Brighman Young University-Hawaii, and Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program. The map alongside was provided by Autumn-Lynn Harrison of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and shows example migration routes from one breeding population in Nome, Alaska.
Colour-ring studies. Satellite tags are a key part of modern wader and shorebird studies, providing immediate insights from just a small number of birds, but simple bits of plastic can play a role too, especially in Western Europe, where lots of birdwatchers visit coastal sites. Colour-ring studies in East Anglia and northwest England are revealing more about how Grey Plovers use a suite of different estuaries during the course of the non-breeding seasons and will ultimately monitor annual survival rates. It will be interesting to learn whether individual birds hold territories in each of the estuaries that they visit, to moult, spend the winter and prepare for spring migration. The importance of allocating individual leg-flags to ringed birds is discussed in Bar-tailed Godwit: migration & survival.
I look forward to seeing more papers about the Grey and Black-bellied Plover, the shorebird that breeds at the top of the world.
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.