Navigating a vast ocean

The journeys that shorebirds make, as they cross the oceans of the globe, are truly remarkable. Individual birds demonstrate amazing endurance and navigational expertise while in the air for days at a time. Satellite transmitters are providing opportunities to understand how shorebirds refine their flight plans in responses to the wind patterns they encounter. In a paper in Movement Ecology by Jenny Linscott and colleagues, we join the northward flight of Hudsonian Godwits across 7,000 km of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Coping with wind

Conditions encountered en route can dramatically impact the energy that migratory species spend on movement. To complete their journeys across barriers such as oceans, migratory birds need to manage energetic costs by adapting to the wind conditions they encounter. It’s a dynamic environment; no two years are the same and there is often little relationship between local conditions upon departure and what lies ahead, as for instance discussed in the WaderTales blog Rhapsody of Whimbrel.

Migrating Hudsonian Godwits are heading for Alaska

If an individual bird has full knowledge of its location at all times and a fixed destination point in mind, then perhaps it can adjust its airspeed and direction of flight so that it can completely compensate for any lateral drift that is caused by the wind systems en route. Alternatively, it might accept the drift that it experiences or only partly compensate, perhaps gambling that there may be systems ahead that might cause drift in the other direction. It may even over-compensate for the wind patterns it experiences at a particular time, which may be a good idea if there is more of the same weather to come. The authors of the Hudsonian Godwit study explain how these different approaches may integrate to create a movement strategy and summarise what has been found in other studies. Interestingly, it has been suggested that complete compensation (continually adjusting the flight-plan) might not be possible for trans-oceanic flights because there are no landmarks to use as reference points.

Hudsonian Godwits spend the austral summer in coastal Chile and Argentina and migrate northwards in spring, through the midcontinental United States, to breed in subarctic Alaska and Canada. For birds taking off from Chiloé Island in Chile, the first part of the journey takes them across the open Pacific Ocean, the relatively narrow landmass of Central America and the Gulf of Mexico. Godwits making this flight have few or no opportunities to stop, and they traverse several global wind regimes that differ in directionality and strength along the way. The authors predicted that birds would experience drift during their journeys, especially over the featureless open ocean, and increase compensation as they approach North America. Given the vast distances and time spent in flight, it might be expected that the winds experienced during flight should influence the points where individuals cross the coast into North American airspace.

Flock of Hudsonian Godwits on Chiloé Island in Chile – a long way from Alaska

Tracking transoceanic journeys

During the springs of 2019, 2020 and 2021, Jenny Linscott used satellite tracking devices to follow Hudsonian Godwits, as they migrated northward across more than 7,000 km between Chiloé Island, Chile and the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Prior to migratory departure, two types of solar-powered satellite transmitters were deployed on a total of 54 adults. Technical details are provided in the paper, alongside information as to how the data were filtered and interpreted. This paper focuses on the journey across the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, as birds head towards a relatively narrow refuelling area in North America (the eastern parts of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota).

For any two points along each bird’s route, between Chiloe and the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, it was possible to calculate distance travelled, ground speed, turning angle, and heading. Having removed low-quality data, the team were left with 29 tracks and 689 locations with which to work. They linked each location with the range of possible wind conditions that godwits were likely to be experiencing at the time, depending upon flight height. They then “calculated the total magnitude and mathematical direction of the wind flow for each location at each altitude using vector trigonometry”. Previous studies have shown that migrating waders change altitude in order to find better wind conditions, allowing the team to assign the most likely wind conditions to each godwit location. Please see the paper for details of the modelling and assumption-testing processes.

Results

A total of 24 complete and 5 partial northward journeys were collected from birds migrating north, including repeat tracks from two individuals, which were followed for three years. The sample size was reduced by device failure/malfunctions, presumably some mortality, and by eight birds that oversummered in Argentina (see Teenage Waders and Gap year for sandpipers for information about oversummering shorebirds).  The 25 birds in the study comprised 14 males and 11 females.

  • Godwits for which there were complete tracks undertook continuous flights lasting about six days, covering an average of 8,361 km, before making their first stops.
  • Godwit ground speeds were best predicted by a strategy in which individuals flew at the altitude offering the most wind support in the preferred direction of movement, but were restricted to altitudes at or below 3000 m. It seems likely that the godwits were mostly flying between 100 m and 750 m above sea level.
  • Tracked godwits travelled along paths which showed a close match to a Great Circle line from Chiloé to the North American target area.
  • When flight behaviours were analysed, full compensation was the most frequent behaviour, accounting for 41.1% of all observed flight segments. Fewer segments were associated with partial compensation (23.5%), tail winds (8.1%), full drifting (9.4%), or overcompensation (16.0%).
  • The prevalence of full compensation remained constant across wind conditions. For example, full compensation was the dominant behaviour under crosswinds to the east (32.0%) and west (45.3%). Full compensation was also prevalent across regions, comprising the largest proportion of behaviours exhibited over the Pacific Ocean (45.1%), while crossing Central America (23.9%), and in the Gulf of Mexico (31.4%).
  • There was considerable variation in migration patterns over the Gulf of Mexico and it is suggested that some birds may have been running out of fuel and heading for the nearest land.
  • One individual tracked repeatedly over three years completed its crossing of the Gulf of Mexico in central Texas every year. The other bird tracked for three years had no specific point at which it crossed the coast but always ended up in the same spring staging area.

Jenny Linscott and colleagues found little support for their prediction that godwits would tolerate more drift early in their flight and gradually begin to increase compensation as they approached North America. Instead, both fully supported flight (benefiting from tail winds) and full compensation were common soon after leaving Chiloé. Compensation did not increase with distance travelled, was not constrained during flight over open ocean, and did not influence where an individual ultimately crossed over the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, at the end of this flight. Instead, the team found a strong preference for full compensation throughout godwit flight paths. Birds ‘knew’ where they were along their route and could judge how to adjust their headings so as to compensate for the drift they were experiencing at any given time. The paper’s Discussion includes more detailed consideration as to how compensation appeared to operate in different parts of the journey and in different wind conditions.

How do shorebirds, flying over the vastness of an ocean ‘know’ where they are, with no island landmarks? Are individuals within migrating flocks picking up on changes in temperature or humidity, that mark passage through broad wind regimes, can they navigate with reference to sun position and stars, are there magnetic cues, or can they interpret surface swell patterns? Perhaps it’s a mixture of several of these skills? It’s pretty amazing!

Learning more

Jenny Linscott and her colleagues found that fully compensating for wind displacement appears to be a critical strategy for Hudsonian Godwits making a long-distance, transoceanic flight. While godwits often followed wind flow in the early stages of this journey, they nonetheless engaged in full compensation more frequently than any other behaviour during the entirety of the flight, across a vast and apparently featureless ocean. These continuous adjustments help to make sure that birds can fly extremely long distances without running out of energy. The team wonder how well future generations will cope with changing wind systems over warmer seas.

The full paper can be found here:

Compensation for wind drift prevails for a shorebird on a long-distance, transoceanic flight. Jennifer A. Linscott, Juan G. Navedo, Sarah J. Clements, Jason P. Loghry, Jorge Ruiz, Bart M. Ballard, Mitch D. Weegman, and Nathan R. Senner. Movement Ecologyhttps://doi.org/10.1186/s40462-022-00310-z

The Hudsonian Godwits studied here are flying 7,000 km north across the Pacific, but this pales into insignificance when compared to Bar-tailed Godwits that commute between Alaska and New Zealand. The Pacific was once considered a barrier to migration but it is increasingly seen as a conveyor belt. There is an excellent review article by Theunis Piersma and colleagues in Ornithology, the title of which explains its content:

The Pacific as the world’s greatest theater of bird migration: Extreme flights spark questions about physiological capabilities, behavior, and the evolution of migratory pathways. Theunis Piersma, Robert E Gill, Jr, Daniel R Ruthrauff, Christopher G Guglielmo, Jesse R Conklin and Colleen M Handel. Ornithology,  https://doi.org/10.1093/ornithology/ukab086


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.

3 thoughts on “Navigating a vast ocean

  1. Pingback: Migration blogs on WaderTales | wadertales

  2. Pingback: January to June 2022 | wadertales

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s