PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 147, Winter 2007: PRBO's Winter Field Work Across Two Hemispheres


We aim to map the travels of these far-ranging birds throughout the Pacific Basin.

Tracking the Elusive Bar-tailed Godwit

Nils Warnock, PhD

Austral Summer
CEO's Column
Shorebirds Down Under
Farallon Island Winter
Songbird Survival
Getting the Word Out
Focus on California Quail
News About PRBO

Bar-tailed Godwit. ©JARI PELTOMÄKI/VIREO
Miranda. Golden Bay. Farewell Spit. North Island. South Island. If these names conjure up New Zealand to you, you are on the path to one of my new study sites this winter. With colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Auckland, and New Zealand Ornithological Society (and thanks to a generous grant from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation), I will be capturing Bar-tailed Godwits Down Under, starting in January 2007. Our group will attach satellite telemetry tags (often called PTTs, for platform transmitter terminals) to a few of these birds as part of our study of the migration of curlews and godwits throughout the Pacific Basin.

The Bar-tailed Godwit is a large shorebird (very similar to California's Marbled Godwit) that breeds on the tundra, from Alaska east to Scandinavia. Of particular interest to our research group is the subspecies that breeds in northern and western Alaska, Limosa lapponica baueri. Following breeding, this bird stages (prepares for migration) along the coast of western Alaska, from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta down to the Alaska Peninsula. In September and early October, after gorging on clams, marine worms, and other food--and then carrying the greatest fat load of any migrant bird known (having doubled their body mass)--these godwits head east and south out over the Pacific Ocean. Some fly continuously for ten straight days, covering more than 11,000 kilometers (6,600 miles), the longest migration of any shorebird. Their destination is New Zealand or Australia, where they spend their winter season.

One thing we want to learn more about is how these birds migrate back to Alaska from New Zealand. From past studies by others, it appears that birds may fly north from New Zealand in late February through April, some then stopping in Australia, others in New Guinea, before they continue on to sites in China, Korea, Japan, and eastern Siberia. Finally, by early May, they cross over to Alaska to breed.

The use of PTTs will greatly aid our efforts to understand how these shorebirds move through their global landscape. The transmitters beam a signal to a series of orbiting satellites, where the bird's location is plotted and the information beamed back to a company in France. Via computers, we get the daily locations of tagged birds, which we will use to map out their migration routes over about half the world.

A problem we face is getting the transmitter tag to stay on the bird over the time and distance of its travels, such that it does not interfere with the animal's behavior. One technique we can use is to implant the transmitter in a bird's body cavity. Our research group includes one of the most experienced teams in the world for implanting PTTs in birds (expert veterinarian Dan Mulcahy of USGS in Alaska and shorebird biologist Bob Gill). We will also try out a solar-powered transmitter, attached to the bird with a harness. These radios have the advantage of being lighter and lasting longer than PTTs but are unable to transmit as many locations daily. Learning how to obtain the information we seek is clearly a big part of the research endeavor.

This new telemetry study of large, far-traveling shorebirds will continue beyond my winter field stint Down Under. In April and May of this year, PRBO will work with others on tracking Long-billed Curlews from their breeding grounds in the western United States to wintering grounds in California and Mexico. In June, colleagues in western Alaska will put satellite tags on Bristle-thighed Curlews to better understand that species' migration to the far Pacific Islands. Next winter, we hope to put PTTS on Hudsonian Godwits in southern Chile.

In two years time we aim to be able to map all the tracks of these far-ranging godwits and curlews. I predict a criss-cross pattern connecting locations throughout the Pacific Basin in amazing and intricate ways.

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