A few weeks ago, Cool Green Science started following the progress of five whimbrels on their flights north to breeding grounds in central Canada. One female shorebird, Hope, amazed us all when she changed her flight direction and touched down in northwest Canada.
But now we have some disappointing news to share.
Due to a the record-breaking lateness of spring in the eastern Arctic, scientists now believe that four out of the five whimbrels failed at breeding this year or didn’t even make an attempt at nesting. In fact, one bird immediately headed back to Virginia, where he’d begun his journey north.
The eastern Arctic hasn’t witnessed a late spring like this one since 1983. Snow and ice has partially covered the breeding grounds of many shorebirds and waterfowl — as of mid-June, James Bay in central Canada had virtually 100 percent snow cover. Conditions at Churchill, Manitoba were even worse. Whimbrels have a very short breeding season — so when the area doesn’t thaw out, they simply miss their window to breed.
According to the Winnepeg Free Press: “Prolonged cold snowy conditions in the Hudson Bay are expected to obliterate the breeding season for migratory birds and most other species of wildlife this year.”
A later report from Erica Nol of Trent University, who studies shorebirds at Churchill and James Bay, notes that some shorebirds have started to nest — just very late. Overall nesting success should be below average, but if there are enough bare spots, it won’t be a complete bust for shorebirds.
Boxer and Hope are just two of the birds affected by the troublesome weather. After touching down in central Canada, Boxer immediately headed back to Box Tree Farm in Virginia, the exact location where he was captured and tagged earlier this spring.
After a brief staging stop with Boxer in central Canada, Hope unexpectedly continued her flight northwest. Unfortunately, she also didn’t find what she was looking for and is headed back east.
What does this all mean?
The good news first: whimbrels are fairly long-lived creatures and only have to produce one chick during their lifetime that lives to adulthood to maintain the population. So one failed breeding season isn’t going to wipe out our new friends.
However, if climate change and more frequent annual oscillations and late springs continue, the impacts will be devastating to the population of whimbrels and other migratory birds.
“Such major oscillations are part of a bumpy ride toward global warming,” says Thomas Karl of the National Climate Center. “For awhile, at least, this will be the shape of things to come.”
With that warning, scientists from the Conservancy and Center for Conservation Biology will continue their important research this summer by deploying four new whimbrels with satellite transmitters in early August as they make their way south for the winter.
Will these curious creatures bring up more surprises when they embark on the next leg of their journey? You can follow along on nature.org.
Maddy Breen is a marketing specialist with The Nature Conservancy based in Arlington, VA.
(Image: Boxer, the only male in the group of tagged whimbrels, shows off his satellite transmitter. Source: Barry Truitt/TNC)