“The flock now departing from the tideline is bound for Beauvais. Curlew can change here for destinations in Germany and Russia”. It’s fascinating to wonder what might be happening when a flock of waders takes to the air, gains height and sets off in a particular migratory direction. With more individuals wearing tracking devices, it was only a matter of time until someone would have data that provides clues as to the association of individuals within flocks – as we see in a 2021 paper in Bird Study by Frédéric Jiguet and colleagues: Joint flight bouts but short-term association in migrating Eurasian Curlews.
Setting off on migration
When we get on a plane to a particular destination, everyone else who is on the same journey has chosen to travel at the same time and we all know where we are going. Each of us has checked that we have what we need for the journey and has a plan of what to do when we land – whether that involves a short shuttle to home or a lay-over before catching another flight.
For waders, planning must be more random? It’s presumably safer and more efficient to be part of a flock but how do you know which flock to join, who organises the schedule and is information shared? We can get some clues from observations of departing migratory flocks. In estuaries, there is often the chatter (which is hard to interpret but tells us that something is about to happen), then the first birds take to the air and start to gain height. A few birds may peel off and return to the tide-line while other birds take off and catch up with the departing flock. As the birds gain height, the direction of travel becomes clearer and more birds may decide to return to the mudflats. There is now a migratory flock of birds that are committed to flying in a particular direction. We have no idea how that direction was chosen, of course, but there is a plausible explanation as to how the flock might have formed.
This is not the last decision that members in a flock might need to make. Tired birds may need to drop out of the flock, to take a break. Perhaps some birds might realise that the direction of travel does not work for them and the flock might break up?
It can be just as chaotic when a flock reaches a destination. Watching Black-tailed Godwits arriving in South Iceland in April is fascinating; a tired flock might come in off the sea, land and start drinking, before either resting or feeding, but this is not always the case. On a clear day with fair winds, the flock may split up, with some birds keen to keep flying and others happy to stop. This reinforces the impression that a flock only maintains its integrity as long as being in a group meets the needs of the individuals it contains.
Tracking Eurasian Curlew
In their Bird Study paper, Frédéric Jiguet and colleagues describe four cases of joint migration by tagged Eurasian Curlews. Their observations were a byproduct of research aimed at a better understanding of the origins and migration patterns of Curlew that spend the winter in France. The species has been a popular target for French hunters, many of whom are keen to resume shooting, as you can read in the WaderTales blog Black-tailed Godwit and Curlew in France. It is estimated that more than 7000 Curlew were shot in France annually prior to 2008, when the first moratorium was put in place.
There is an urgent need to understand links between wintering sites and breeding sites, especially in areas where the species is in rapid decline. How important is France to the Curlew that breed in countries such as Poland and Germany? The current ban on shooting is not perfect (see paper in Forensic Science International: Animals and Environments) but it is better than nothing, given rapid declines in Curlew numbers across Europe.
In winter and spring 2020, the research team deployed 61 GPS tags on Curlews in France and Germany, hoping to learn more about breeding ecology and migratory connectivity. In a separate study, in Poland, four captive-bred juvenile curlews were tagged and released in July 2020. Between them, these tagged birds led to four cases of joint migration bouts. One case concerned two adults leaving their wintering ground for the pre-breeding migration. Two other cases were birds leaving their breeding grounds at the start of migration. The last one was of two juveniles initiating their first flights to the non-breeding grounds.
About 27,500 Curlew spend the winter in France (see French report produced jointly by government and shooting groups), representing about 5% of the European population. Tracking has shown that these birds breed in Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Austria and Russia (see article published by Bird Guides) but there are reports of ringed birds from many other countries, including the threatened populations in Poland and the UK.
Return migration to breeding areas takes place in early April. Frédéric Jiguet reports ‘groups of curlews rising high in the sky at sunset’ from the Moëze-Oléron and Baie de l’Aiguillon Nature Reserves in southwest France.
On 17 April 2020, two individuals wearing tracking devices left their French wintering site at sunset, between 22:37 and 22:40. They became closely associated just ten minutes prior to the start of migration, having typically stood 100 metres apart during the previous hour. They flew together for seven hours before making a stop-over north of Paris, between Creil and Beauvais, in the Thérain Valley.
- 200185 was on its way again two hours later, flew for six hours, stopped again in the Netherlands and arrived in Norderney, an island of the Wadden Sea in northern Germany, at 18:39 on 19 April.
- 200187 had a much longer layover in the Thérain Valley, making another evening departure at 20:05 on 18 April. It continued migrating, in stages, for more than a month, crossing the Ural Mountains and reaching the Yamalia municipality, in Asian Russia.
Two birds that had been on the same flight from southwest France ended up in very different locations and at very different times. The German Curlew reached its summer destination five weeks before the Russian bird arrived on territory, the latter having secured places on several different ‘international flights’ as it made its way east and north (see figure below).
After breeding, adult Curlew head towards wintering sites, perhaps stopping to moult en route. Some birds do not travel far; for instance, there are colour-marked birds that winter on the Wash (eastern England) and fly just a few kilometres inland to breed. The Bird Study paper includes reports of two occasions when tagged birds have been spotted migrating together from German and French study areas. Southerly migration of all four birds commenced during the evening of 17 June 2020.
French birds: Two individuals departed simultaneously from Deux-Sèvres (central France) between 19:16 and 19:17 for a non-stop southward flight and arrived together at Ria de Treto estuary, in northern Spain on 18 June at 05:49. The two birds departed separately from this stopover site the same day (18 June).
- 200201 departed at 18:18, for a non-stop flight to Kenitra (Morocco) where it stopped briefly, before moving a short distance north to Merja Zerga.
- 200204 departed at 19:46 and flew to the Atlantic coast of Spain, stopping for 2.5 hours on Isla Cristina and then flying to its final destination at Ilha de Tavira, in southern Portugal.
After separation, the two birds travelled at different times but followed quite similar routes and even flew at similar altitudes.
German birds: On 17 June 2020, two individuals departed simultaneously from Dollar Bay, in the Wadden Sea National Park. 201075 began migration between 18:58 and 19:03. After five kilometres, if flew over 201072 at an altitude of about 190m. The latter bird took off and joined 201075. They then flew together for five hours, landing in the Rhine-Meuse-Delta (Netherlands).
201075 departed from the Rhine-Meuse-Delta on 20 June and, after one more stop-over, reached its final destination on the Brittany coast on the evening of the next day.
201072 was also bound for Brittany. It departed on 23 June and flew non-stop for six and a quarter hours.
Migration of juveniles
It will be hard to satellite-tag enough wild juvenile waders to pick up instances of marked individuals migrating in the same flocks. However, head-starting may give some clues as to what might happen when naïve flocks of juvenile waders start their migratory journeys, months after the parents have left them. The full story is told in the paper but a quick summary tells us that two Polish head-started Curlews were released on 1 July, departed together on 5 August and landed in the Baie de l’Aiguillon (France) on 8 August. In between times, they came close to landing in The Netherlands, flew along the English coast from Dover to Poole, flew a long way south and west around the Bay of Biscay and then northeast to the coast of France. They both spent the winter in the Baie de l’Aiguillon but not together.
Although it will be difficult to compare the migratory behaviour of wild-caught and head-started wader chicks using satellite tags, just because of probabilities and costs, researchers are building up datasets using smaller geolocators and GPS tags. Here’s hoping that we will soon know more.
This paper provides observations of just four instances of joint migration but each story is fascinating. They give us insights as to what might be possible as devices get smaller and when land-based tracking stations collect signals from passing birds. For the moment we can use our imagination to interpret the chattering of pre-migratory flocks of waders, the appearance of a small flock of waders at an inland spot in spring and the noisy arrival of a lone Curlew on an estuary in June.
The paper contains a lot more detail about the methods used to collect and interpret data and a discussion that sets Curlew migration within a much broader conceptual context. Here’s a link:
Frédéric Jiguet, Pierrick Bocher, Helmut Kruckenberg, Steffen Kämpfer, Etienne Debenest, Romain Lorrillière, Pierre Rousseau, Maciej Szajdaand & Heinz Düttmann. Bird Study. DOI/10.1080/00063657.2021.1962805
WaderTales blogs are written by Graham Appleton (@GrahamFAppleton) to celebrate waders and wader research. Many of the articles are based on published papers, with the aim of making shorebird science available to a broader audience.