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KANUTI: Shorebird Research Begins to Unravel Migration Mystery
Alaska Region, July 9, 2009
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A surgically implanted satellite transmitter (antenna in shadow above and beyond tail) and uniquely coded colored leg flag track the migration of Whimbrel

A surgically implanted satellite transmitter (antenna in shadow above and beyond tail) and uniquely coded colored leg flag track the migration of Whimbrel "00." - Photo Credit: n/a

Kanuti Refuge avian biologist, Chris Harwood, releases a whimbrel back to its nesting area after surgery.

Kanuti Refuge avian biologist, Chris Harwood, releases a whimbrel back to its nesting area after surgery. - Photo Credit: n/a

The North American Whimbrel is a large shorebird that nests in Alaska and Canada and winters along the shores of the southern U.S. to the tip of South America.  But where and when they go when they leave Alaska remains a mystery.  So, in June 2009, biologists from Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge and researchers from the USGS Alaska Science Center deployed satellite  transmitters in 15 Whimbrels.  The Center studies life histories and migration of several species of Pacific Basin curlews, including the Whimbrel.  All three North American curlews are listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service as “birds of conservation concern” due to low population size and/or threats to critical habitats.

Kanuti Refuge has been a Whimbrel study site since June, 2008, when refuge biologists found at least 10 breeding near Kanuti Lake as well as a breeding group of Hudsonian Godwits, another species of concern. Kanuti Refuge staff spend weeks in the field documenting bird populations and habitats and learning more about shorebird use of the boreal forest and transition to tundra habitats near the arctic circle. Refuge biologists arrived at Kanuti Lake on April 30, 2009, preceding arrival of Whimbrels and Hudsonian Godwits.  After two weeks of documenting territories and courtship behavior, biologists found the first Whimbrel nest.  USGS researchers arrived June 6 coinciding with the peak hatch period to allow for capture of birds on the nest or with broods.  By the time USGS arrived, refuge personnel had found 17 Whimbrel nests.

In just three days, 15 incubating Whimbrels, equally split between males and females, were captured on the nest, surgically implanted with small satellite transmitters by the USGS wildlife veterinarian, and fitted with colored leg flags.  All birds were released near their nest sites within two hours of capture.  Without the need to locate far-flung nests over broad expanses of tundra, deployment of the transmitters on Whimbrels went surprisingly fast--prior USGS capture work has required up to two weeks to complete.  During the capture efforts, an additional six Whimbrels were fitted with flags but no transmitters, resulting in 21 marked birds. 

Refuge and USGS biologists were also interested in breeding Hudsonian Godwits found near Kanuti Lake in June 2008.  No Godwit nests were found in 2009 but eight pairs of Hudsonian Godwits with chicks were discovered during the Whimbrel capture effort.   One researcher, crew, a PhD student whose thesis is on Hudsonian Godwit breeding biology, may return to the study area in 2010 to deploy geolocators in some Hudsonian Godwits too small to carry a transmitter.  Because Whimbrels are faithful to their breeding sites, USGS and Refuge biologists plan to revisit to the study area to monitor returning implanted birds.  The clustered nesting of these Whimbrels and an accessible study area provides USGS an  especially good opportunity to revisit birds implanted in previous years.

The satellite transmitters on Whimbrels broadcast their movements within the study area and post-breeding movements within Alaska.  Whimbrel chicks fledge in about four weeks with male parents generally remaining until fledging; females leave within two weeks of hatch.  The transmitters are programmed to report more frequently starting in late July to show Whimbrels’ migrations beyond Alaska to their staging and non-breeding area. Biologists hope satellite telemetry will help them unravel the mystery of the Whimbrel’s southward migration from Alaska.


Contact Info: Joanna Fox, (907) 456-0330, joanna_fox@fws.gov



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