Across the globe, migratory birds that breed in the northern hemisphere are embarking on their southward treks to warmer climates for the winter. These journeys encompass a wide range of distances and efforts but perhaps the most spectacular are those of the world’s shorebirds—the athletes of the migratory bird world.
In North America, shorebirds are among the earliest fall migrants, with adults first departing their northern Arctic and Boreal Forest breeding grounds in July, soon followed by juveniles that hatched just weeks prior! By August, shorebird migration is in full swing and these birds can often be spotted during stopovers in wetlands and coastal areas of southern Canada and the northern U.S.
Tagged American Golden-Plovers—The Latest
One of the journeys to watch right now is that of the American Golden-Plovers that were equipped with GPS transmitters by biologists in June while working in the Teshekpuk Lake Special Use Area within Alaska’s North Slope. The American Golden-Plover is a quail-size plover with a striking appearance and is one of the fastest fliers among shorebirds. Their speed is quite necessary because they make one of the longest migrations of any bird—up to 20,000 miles and across 39 countries each year. Indeed, twice a year they traverse nearly the full range of the Western Hemisphere moving between their Arctic and Boreal breeding grounds in the north and their wintering grounds in southern South America. But they require high-quality habitat along the way to safely rest and refuel for the next leg of their journey.
The American Golden-Plover tracking project hopes to highlight just that by showcasing the importance of the habitats used by the birds during their southward migration. The project is a collaboration among Manomet, Inc., the Western Hemisphere Reserve Network (WHSRN), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service–Alaska Region, Audubon Alaska, National Audubon Society’s Boreal Conservation Program, and the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative. Over the last month, the tagged plovers have been moving eastward across the Northwest Passage from their Alaskan breeding grounds toward the North Atlantic.
Along the way, they fatten up on insects and fruit, and will soon begin a non-stop flight over the ocean of some 2,500 miles! As of September 6, 2023, the birds were spreading out across eastern Canada, with some already moving across Baffin Island and out to the Labrador Sea and North Atlantic.
However, one of the birds (ID No. 243890) has moved south and stopped along the coast of northwestern James Bay—the site of a proposed Indigenous-led National Marine Conservation Area. The site has been highlighted by WHSRN as a site of hemispheric importance for migrating shorebirds because it provides critical stopover and staging habitat for at least 25 shorebird species.
An Ominous Trans-Atlantic Journey Ahead
As of now, all the birds will soon be—or are already—making their non-stop flights out over the open Atlantic and there is cause for concern that the birds will encounter Hurricane Lee during their journey this week. Increasing storm severity due to climate change is just one of the myriad obstacles shorebirds must face over the course of their annual cycle.
Since the 1970s, the frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the Atlantic have increased in concert with rising sea surface temperatures. Severe weather often results in a phenomenon known as a migratory fallout—where migrating birds rapidly descend from the sky to seek shelter on the ground to ride out the storm. However, this is not an option for those species, such as the American Golden-Plover that migrate out over the open ocean. Flying against high winds can cause birds to use up their energy reserves too quickly and exhaust them, while others may be blown far off-course from their migratory route. Some, however, may find refuge by flying directly into the eye of the hurricane.
“Tropical storms, which are turning into hurricanes at increasing rates, are impacting migratory birds as they conduct Trans-Atlantic migrations,” says Rick Lanctot, Shorebird Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service–Alaska Region. "In this case, the lead birds might have to thread the needle to get between two storms—hurricanes Lee and Margot—while others following may divert (or be pushed) inland, which predisposes them to other risks."
Stay Tuned, Tullik Fans!
In the meantime, the project team is anxiously awaiting the next relay of the bird’s locations, downloaded weekly from orbiting satellites, to learn the fate of the birds over the next week.
You can follow along by monitoring their journeys on the Tullik’s Odyssey tracking page, where you will find an interactive map of the birds' movements. Find information about the project and the team at TulliksOdyssey.org.