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Research

"Ultra Marathon Champion" Bird May Plan Flights Based on Weather Across the Pacific



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A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)-led study of the Bar-tailed Godwit, a shorebird known famously as the ultimate marathon champion of bird flight, suggests that these birds can sense broad weather patterns and optimally time their long, nonstop, transoceanic migrations to destinations thousands of miles away.

Female Bar-tailed Godwit
Above: Female Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica, subspecies baueri) starting to molt into breeding plumage before departing on long flight to breeding grounds. Photograph taken in Miranda, New Zealand, February 2014, by Phil Battley (Massey University, New Zealand); used with permission. [larger version]

Like airplane pilots examining weather charts for the course ahead, godwits waiting to take flight ultimately selected dates of departure that corresponded to the best atmospheric wind conditions possible within a two-week window. Remarkably, not only were the conditions optimal for takeoff, but they almost always provided the best possible conditions for the birds’ entire transoceanic flights.

Male Bar-tailed Godwit
Above: Male Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica, subspecies baueri) starting to molt into breeding plumage before departing on long flight to breeding grounds. Photograph taken in Miranda, New Zealand, February 2014, by Phil Battley (Massey University, New Zealand); used with permission. [larger version]

“We think that these behaviors represent a previously unknown cognitive ability that allows Bar-tailed Godwits to assess changes in weather conditions across widely separated atmospheric regions in different parts of the Pacific Ocean and to time their migration patterns accordingly,” said Robert Gill, Jr., an emeritus scientist with the USGS and lead author of the study.

Range map for the Bar-tailed Godwit
Above: Range map for the Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica, subspecies baueri, whose trans-Pacific migration is the subject of a recent paper in Animal Behaviour. Limosa lapponica baueri (blue range on map) breeds in Alaska, spends the non-breeding season in New Zealand and east Australia, and stops during northbound migration at coastal staging areas in East Asia. From the USGS Alaska Science Center webpage. [larger version]

These findings are part of a recent scientific publication by collaborators from the USGS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Groningen (in the Netherlands), and the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. The researchers used detailed information on individuals tracked by satellite transmitters, along with data on wind conditions across the Pacific Ocean, to investigate migration patterns along the 18,000-mile annual route of the Bar-tailed Godwit. Their study determined that Bar-tailed Godwits are able to make efficient decisions about when and where to fly during nonstop flights of up to 10 days long between wintering areas in New Zealand and breeding areas in Alaska.

Male Bar-tailed Godwits The females of this species are slightly larger than the males
Above Left: Male Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponica, subspecies baueri) in breeding plumage at breeding grounds on Alaska’s North Slope. USGS photograph by Dan Ruthrauff. [larger version]

Above Right: The females of this species are slightly larger than the males; the males are more brightly colored. USGS photograph by Dan Ruthrauff. [larger version]

“There are a number of broad-scale prevailing wind patterns through the Pacific Ocean, and the godwits take advantage of these winds to facilitate successful migration between their wintering and breeding areas. These wind patterns appear to be teleconnected, or linked, across broad expanses of the Pacific Ocean,” said Gill.

In all but one instance during all three migration legs, Bar-tailed Godwits departed on their long flights on dates that offered significant assistance from winds. Furthermore, they usually departed on the first day after a marked change in winds from unfavorable to favorable, increasing the likelihood that the favorable winds would persist during their flights. In areas where storms are common, such as the North Pacific, the scientists believe that the most likely cue signaling a favorable departure window is a change in barometric pressure and an associated change in wind direction.

Once birds depart an area, they can choose where to fly, both laterally and vertically, in order to maximize assistance from winds. “Just like airline pilots, birds occasionally have to abort flights or change course drastically when they encounter severe, unexpected weather,” noted David Douglas, a research wildlife biologist who is a coauthor of the study, and like Gill, works out of the USGS Alaska Science Center. 

The researchers observed two birds that made abrupt course changes when they encountered rapidly developing cyclones along their flight paths. In one case, the prolonged flight change resulted in the bird not breeding that season, likely due to energy spent fighting the headwinds of the storm.

The report on this study, titled “Hemispheric-scale Wind Selection Facilitates Bar-tailed Godwit Circum-migration of the Pacific,” was published in April 2014 in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Additional photographs and information are posted on a USGS Alaska Science Center webpage.


Related Sound Waves Stories
Coastal and Ocean Researchers Receive DOI Meritorious Service Awards
May 2009
USGS Biologists Receive Alaska Bird Conservation Awards
May 2008

Related Websites
Hemispheric-scale Wind Selection Facilitates Bar-tailed Godwit Circum-migration of the Pacific
Animal Behavior
Alaska Science Center Bar-tailed Godwit Photos
USGS
Shorebird Research at the Alaska Science Center
USGS

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in this issue:

Fieldwork
cover story:
Assessing Climate Change Vulnerability of Pacific Atolls

Spotlight on Sandy
Fire Island Oceanographic Study Update

Linking Coastal Processes and Vulnerability at Assateague Island

Recent Hires Assist USGS Barrier Island and Estuarine Studies

Research
EDEN and EVE—Getting the Water Right in Paradise

"Marathon" Bird May Plan Flights Based on Weather Across the Pacific

Warmer Conditions Create New Goose Habitat in Arctic Alaska

25 Years After the Exxon Valdez, Sea Otter Populations at Pre-Spill Levels

Outreach
USGS Intern Teaches Kids about Ocean Acidification

USGS Scientists Support the National Ocean Science Bowl’s Spoonbill Bowl

Awards
Communications Awards Recognize Ocean Chemistry Topics

Staff
Three USGS Volunteers in Florida Working on Ocean Acidification

USGS Employee in Florida Recognized for Service on Science Museum Board

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