Under-Studied Boreal Habitat Key for North America’s Ducks

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Researchers used ducks harvested by hunters to learn new details about waterfowl migration. Photo credit: M. Carriere

Knowing where migrating birds came from and where they’re headed is essential for their conservation and management. For ducks, most of this information comes from long-term bird-banding programs, but this type of research has limits—despite all the birds harvested by hunters, only a small percentage of banded birds are ever recovered. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications takes on the challenge of gaining information from unbanded birds by using stable isotope ratios, which reflect where birds were living while growing their feathers. These results reveal that the northern reaches of Canada may have underappreciated importance for North America’s waterfowl.

Canada’s Saskatchewan River Delta is North America’s largest inland delta and is a key stopover site for migrating ducks. To learn more about the origins of ducks using delta habitat, Christian Asante of the University of Saskatchewan, Keith Hobson of the University of Western Ontario, and their colleagues analyzed the isotopes in feather samples from 236 ducks from five species, all harvested by hunters in the region during migration in 2013 and 2014. Hydrogen and sulfur isotope ratios give scientists different information—hydrogen isotope ratios vary predictably with latitude, while sulfur isotope ratios reflect the type of food a bird eats and underlying geology—but together they indicated that as many as half the ducks using the delta during migration originated in the vast and nearly inaccessible areas of boreal forest and wetlands to the north.

The research required close collaboration with the area’s hunters. “Working on this project was a great experience,” says local community member Michela Carriere, who was hired to do the field work for the study. “I spent a few weeks collecting samples from the ducks and getting to know the hunters and the guides. Twice a day a load of ducks would come in and I would collect samples and label and package them, plucking feathers and extracting tissues. The hardest part was the labeling, which has to be done meticulously. I would spend hours each day collecting and organizing the samples.”

The results show that the boreal habitat’s contribution to North America’s waterfowl populations, though poorly documented, may be crucial. This region faces increasing threats from climate change and other factors, and isotopic monitoring offers a new means of tracking the effects on birds. “Our study is important for two reasons,” says Hobson. “First, it demonstrates clearly that the delta is a major fall refueling station for birds breeding in the north. Second, it shows once again how origins and regions of productivity can be determined using the simple isotope approach with feathers from hunter-killed birds. This major potential tool in waterfowl management has been largely overlooked in North America for too long.”

Tracing origins of waterfowl using the Saskatchewan River Delta: Incorporating stable isotope approaches in continent-wide waterfowl management and conservation is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/abs/10.1650/CONDOR-16-179.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.

Time-Lapse Cameras Provide a Unique Peek at Penguins’ Winter Behavior

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Gentoo Penguins at a breeding site in winter, as captured by a time-lapse camera. Image credit: T. Hart

Not even the most intrepid researcher wants to spend winter in Antarctica, so how can you learn what penguins are doing during those cold, dark months? Simple: Leave behind some cameras. Year-round studies across the full extent of a species’ range are especially important in polar areas, where individuals within a single species may adopt a variety of different migration strategies to get by, and a new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances uses this unique approach to get new insights into Gentoo Penguin behavior.

Gentoo Penguins are of interest to scientists because they’re increasing at the southern end of their range in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, a region where other penguin species are declining. Little is known about their behavior during the nonbreeding season, so Caitlin Black and Tom Hart of the University of Oxford and Andrea Raya Rey of Argentina’s Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Cientificas y Técnicas used time-lapse cameras to examine patterns in Gentoo Penguins’ presence at breeding sites across their range during the off season. They found both temporal and spatial factors driving winter attendance—for example, more Gentoo Penguins were present at breeding sites when there was open water or free-floating pack ice than when the shoreline was iced in, and more Gentoo Penguins were at breeding sites earlier in nonbreeding season than later.

The researchers deployed the cameras at seven sites including Argentina, Antarctica, and several islands. Each camera took eight to fourteen photos per day, and volunteer “citizen scientists” were recruited to count the penguins in each image via a website (penguinwatch.org). Overall, the seven sites fell into three distinct groups in terms of winter attendance, each with its own patterns of site occupation. These findings could have important implications for understanding how localized disturbances due to climate change and fisheries activity affect penguin populations during the nonbreeding season.

“Working with cameras allows us to understand half of this species’ life without having to spend the harsh winter in Antarctica. It has been exciting to discover more about why Gentoos are present year-round at breeding sites without having to handle a single bird,” says Black. “I believe the applications for this technology are far-reaching for colonial seabirds and mammals, and we are only just beginning to discover the uses of time-lapse cameras as deployed virtual ecologists in field studies.”

“What most seabirds do away from their nest is often anybody’s guess. For Antarctic birds, this is compounded by the long periods of darkness that penguins and others must face in the winter,” adds Mark Hauber, Editor-in-Chief of The Auk: Ornithological Advances and Professor of Animal Behavior at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “This new research in The Auk: Ornithological Advances on Gentoo Penguins colonies reveals critical year-to-year differences in where the birds are when they are not nesting: In some years, only the most temperate sites are visited, and in other years both southerly and northerly locations are busy with penguins.”

Peeking into the bleak midwinter: Investigating nonbreeding strategies of Gentoo Penguins using a camera network is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-16-69.1.

About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology that began in 1884 as the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union, which merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2009, The Auk was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

AUTHOR BLOG: How the ‘Mitey’ Have Fallen: Impacts of Burrowing Skin Mites on Reproduction of an Urban Raptor

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Black Sparrowhawks displaying symptoms of mite infection.

Julia L. van Velden

Linked paper: Negative effect of mite (Knemidokoptes) infection on reproductive output in an African raptor by J.L. van Velden, A. Koeslag, O. Curtis, T. Gous, and A. Amar, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:3, July 2017.

Parasites were once considered to be one of the less important factors that limit or regulate animal populations, with the impacts of predators and resource limitation previously receiving far more attention. This lack of attention probably stemmed from the mistaken belief that most parasites have evolved not to harm their hosts too much, because if their host dies, they lose the resource they depend on. We now know, however, that parasites can often strongly affect both a host’s reproduction and survival rates. Our new study published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances adds to this knowledge for a relatively understudied parasite in a wild raptor population.

Knemidokoptes mites are a genus of microscopic skin mites which burrow into the skin of birds and cause the “scaly leg” and “scaly face” conditions that are frequently seen in caged and domestic birds. They also occur in some wild species, particularly passerines. However, these parasites have rarely been recorded on raptors, except on captive birds. Additionally, almost no research has been carried out to investigate the impacts of these parasites on species’ fitness. Our study explored the symptoms of infection and the impact these mites have on the breeding performance of a wild population of Black Sparrowhawks in Cape Town, at the southernmost tip of South Africa.

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Knemidokoptes skin mites.

Black Sparrowhawks are a recent colonist to this mostly urban area, and urban living may come with associated changes in exposure to parasites and pathogens. Our study population has been closely monitored since 2001 and has grown steadily over the years, with the population now containing around 50 breeding pairs each year. In 2007, we started to notice birds in the population with strange symptoms, namely balding heads and scaly lesions on their legs. These birds appeared to be agitated and in poor condition. Post-mortem investigations revealed that, in all cases, birds with these symptoms were infected with the burrowing skin mite (Knemidokoptes spp.). We found that in some years, up to 5% of the Cape Peninsula population was infected, which represents a highly novel finding for a wild population of raptors.

Comparing between the sexes, we also found that mite infection was more frequent for males than females. Higher parasitic infection of males has been found for several other studies in different parasites and may be the result of fundamental biological and behavioural differences. In our population, we suspect that Black Sparrowhawks may become infected by these mites from their prey, possibly domestic chickens, which are known to frequently be infected by Knemidokoptes mites. Like most Accipiters, Black Sparrowhawks pluck their prey before consumption, which may mean they have greater exposure to this parasite than other raptor species, and the fact that males are responsible for hunting throughout the breeding season may explain the male bias in infection.

Most importantly, we found that Black Sparrowhawks that were infected with these mites had considerably reduced breeding success. We compared breeding performance between infected and non-infected birds and also between birds pre- and post-infection. These analyses showed that infection reduced breeding performance by over 50%. This could be because adults become too agitated to incubate or hunt effectively following infection.

We also investigated if this infection was present anywhere else in South Africa and found four hotspots of infection. Three of the infection sites were cities, and thus infection by this mite may be associated with urbanization levels and the additional stresses this may incur. Other research has, however, not yet detected any negative effect of urbanisation on this species’ health.

Our study, the first on Knemidokoptes mites within a wild population of raptors, therefore suggests that this parasite could play a role in limiting the breeding performance of infected populations. Although Black Sparrowhawks are not a species of conservation concern, this study provides important information on the negative role such parasites can play in their host’s reproductive success, which will be important if this infection is found to occur in an endangered raptor species.

AUTHOR BLOG: Tracking Semipalmated Sandpiper Migration

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Photo credit: B. Winn

Stephen Brown

Linked paper: Migratory connectivity of Semipalmated Sandpipers and implications for conservation by S. Brown, C. Gratto-Trevor, R. Porter, E.L. Weiser, D. Mizrahi, R. Bentzen, M. Boldenow, R. Clay, S. Freeman, M.-A. Giroux, E. Kwon, D.B. Lank, N. Lecomte, J. Liebezeit, V. Loverti, J. Rausch, B.K. Sandercock, S. Schulte, P. Smith, A. Taylor, B. Winn, S. Yezerinac, and R.B. Lanctot, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:2, May 2017.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) is a small shorebird, most commonly seen on migration along the coastlines of the eastern United States. It is historically one of the most widespread and numerous shorebird species in the Western Hemisphere, breeding across the North American Arctic tundra, but major population declines have been documented in the core of the nonbreeding range in northern South America. Breeding populations have also declined in the eastern North American Arctic, but appear to be stable or increasing in the central and western Arctic. To help understand what is causing the declines and work toward conservation of this species, we set out to track migration routes and stopover sites using light-level geolocators, a relatively new technology which determines the bird’s position on earth by measuring the length and timing of daylight throughout the year. The major challenge to using these tags is that you have to catch the bird once to put on the geolocator and then again the next year to retrieve it, which requires finding the same bird again in the vast arctic tundra. Luckily, they tend to return to the same breeding areas the next year.

Our large group of 18 partner organizations worked collaboratively to carry out the study across the entire North American Arctic from Nome, Alaska, to Hudson Bay, and we attached 250 geolocators to birds by mounting expeditions to 8 different field sites. Our field crews faced challenging conditions, working in the Arctic where the weather is always unpredictable and where both grizzly bears and polar bears regularly visit field sites. We repeated expeditions the next year to each site, and recovered 59 of the units by recapturing birds. The treasure trove of data showed migration routes and stopover sites from the entire year in the life of each bird, and showed that birds breeding in the eastern Arctic wintered in northeastern South America. Birds from eastern Alaska and far western Canada wintered from Venezuela to French Guiana. Central Alaskan breeders wintered across a very wide range from Ecuador to French Guiana. Birds that bred in western Alaska wintered mainly on the west coasts of Central America and northwestern South America, outside the nonbreeding region in which population declines have been observed.

Our results confirm that Semipalmated Sandpipers that breed in the eastern Arctic and use the Atlantic Flyway also use the areas in South America where population declines have been detected, suggesting that declines may be concentrated in populations along the Atlantic Flyway and in the eastern Arctic. However, because some birds from sites as far west as Barrow, Alaska, also used the areas in northeastern South America where declines have occurred, further work is needed to localize the geographic areas used by declining populations, and therefore the potential causes for the declines. We identified several new stopover and wintering areas, where implementing conservation actions to preserve the habitats used by Semipalmated Sandpipers could contribute to protecting the species. We measured a larger impact of geolocators on return rates than has been observed for larger shorebirds, indicating that caution should be used when working with small shorebirds, and that potential new information gains from additional geolocator studies should be weighed against expected impacts on individual survival. Our data also provided new insights about how long birds stay at migration stopover sites, which will be useful to studies that measure and monitor the total size of populations using these sites. Understanding the connections between breeding, migration, and wintering areas for these populations of a widespread yet declining shorebird can help future studies identify the causes of declines and ensure the effectiveness of targeted conservation efforts.

Sandpiper Detectives Pinpoint Trouble Spots in Continent-Wide Migration

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A Semipalmated Sandpiper wearing a geolocator. Photo credit: B. Winn

Understanding and managing migratory animal populations requires knowing what’s going on with them during all stages of their annual cycle—and how those stages affect each other. The annual cycle can be especially difficult to study for species that breed in the Arctic and winter in South America. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications tackles this problem for Semipalmated Sandpipers, historically one of the most widespread and numerous shorebird species of the Western Hemisphere, whose populations in some areas have undergone mysterious declines in recent years.

Stephen Brown, Vice President of Shorebird Conservation for Manomet, assembled a large group of partner organizations to deploy 250 geolocators, tiny devices that use light levels to determine birds’ locations, on adult sandpipers at sites across their breeding range in the North American Arctic. Recapturing 59 of the birds after a year to download their data, they found that the eastern and western breeding populations use separate wintering areas and migration routes. Birds that breed in the eastern Arctic overwinter in areas of South America where large declines have been observed. The researchers believe these declines are tied to hunting on the wintering grounds and habitat alteration at migration stopover sites, although their precise impacts remain unclear.

“This study was a response to the discovery of a large decline in the population of Semipalmated Sandpipers in the core of their wintering area in South America, and the need to determine which birds were involved. We didn’t know if the decline affected the entire population or just part of it,” says Brown. “Bringing together the 18 partner organizations that worked collaboratively on this project allowed us to track the migration pathways used by Semipalmated Sandpipers at the enormous geographical scale of their entire North American Arctic breeding range and provided critical new information about what sites are important to protect to support their recovery.”

“The authors here present one of the few studies that examine year-round connectivity, including stopover sites, of Arctic-breeding shorebirds,” according to the University of Guelph’s Ryan Norris, an expert on migration tracking who was not involved with the study. “Multi-site, range-wide studies on connectivity, such as this, are critical if we are to understand the population consequences of environmental change in migratory birds.”

Migratory connectivity of Semipalmated Sandpipers and implications for conservation is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-16-55.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.

About Manomet: Manomet is a nonprofit organization that believes people can live and work today in ways that will enable our world to thrive and prosper tomorrow. Manomet’s mission: applying science and engaging people to sustain our world. Visit www.manomet.org for more information.

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Eagles Migrate Through Bad Weather to Arrive in Time to Nest

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A Golden Eagle wearing a GPS transmitter. Photo credit: P. Fusco

Migration is tough, and birds do everything they can to optimize it. How do factors like weather and experience affect the strategies they choose? A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances shows that older, more experienced Golden Eagles actually migrate in poorer weather conditions and cover less ground than their younger counterparts, but for a good reason—they’re timing their efforts around raising the next generation of eagles.

Adrian Rus of Boise State University (now at Australia’s University of Sydney), Todd Katzner of the USGS, and their colleagues studied GPS telemetry tracks to evaluate the migratory performance of almost 90 Golden Eagles in eastern North America and determine how performance related to season, age, and weather. Unsurprisingly, eagles flew faster and farther when they had strong tailwinds and thermals to help them along. What was counterintuitive, however, was that older eagles did not cover more ground than younger eagles despite their greater experience. Instead, older eagles migrated in poorer weather conditions and travelled more slowly.

The researchers believe this is because older birds face different pressures than younger birds. Even if the weather is bad and will slow them down, they need to start heading north earlier than young birds that aren’t breeding, because they have to get back to their breeding grounds in time to reclaim their territories and start nesting. “Younger eagles just need to survive the summer, so they can be choosy about when they travel north and only migrate when conditions are really ideal for fast soaring flight,” explains Katzner.

Lead author Adrian Rus, who worked on the study as an undergraduate, enjoyed the challenges involved in analyzing the migration data. “The best part about working on this project was using specialized software to visualize the golden eagle migrations and being able to pair it with meteorological data to answer my biological questions,” he says. “As a result, the project greatly improved my geospatial and statistical analysis skills and was instrumental my current graduate research in animal movement ecology.”

“Rus et al. provide an unusual demonstration of the interaction between migration experience and seasonal environments,” according to Oklahoma University’s Jeff Kelly, an expert on avian migration. “It is likely that the migration experience that older birds have enables them to extend their summer season through early spring and late autumn migration despite declining atmospheric conditions. Rus et al.’s demonstration of this insight into the interaction between age and the migratory environment expands our thinking about the life history tradeoffs that occur across the annual cycle of migrants.”

Counterintuitive roles of experience and weather on migratory performance is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/abs/10.1642/AUK-16-147.1.

About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology that began in 1884 as the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union, which merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2009, The Auk was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

AUTHOR BLOG: A New Look at Altitudinal Migration

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Alice Boyle

Linked paper: Altitudinal bird migration in North America by W.A. Boyle, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:2, April 2017.

I became a birder in my early 20s when I moved to Costa Rica to play in the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional. I didn’t know many people at first, and my Spanish was, shall we say, a work in progress. When I left Canada, I was given a pair of binoculars and the (then) newly published “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by Stiles and Skutch. Armed with these tools, I would get on a bus headed in a different direction every time I had a day off from my music job. At first I managed to identify only a few of the dozens of species that would pass in riotous mixed flocks. Pretty soon I realized that I had to focus on looking and taking notes, only later to pore over the book to figure out what I had seen. While those evening book sessions were occasionally frustrating (“Dang… I should have checked if that flycatcher had one or TWO wing bars!”), I also enjoyed reading the eloquent descriptions of bird behavior and soon found myself engrossed in tropical natural history. One of the things that puzzled me from the start were descriptions of the seasonal migrations of birds within that tiny, lovely, benign country. I grew up in a place where bird migration seemed not only logical, but frankly the ONLY sensible thing to do in winter. But why would some birds move up and down mountains each year in a place where the weather is always warm and food hangs from the trees wherever you go?

This question ultimately became the topic of my PhD many years later, and I did get some satisfying answers (full details here). But one unsatisfactory aspect of my chosen topic was that few other researchers were asking similar questions in other parts of the world. What common themes from my tropical work might hold true for other regions? What about North American birds? How common are these altitudinal migrations in our mountains? What else is known about them? Finally, in this article, I have attempted to summarize that knowledge. It turns out that we have LOTS of birds in North America that make similar types of movements. In fact, roughly the same proportion of the North American avifauna migrate up and down mountains as does the Costa Rican avifauna—20% to 30% depending on how you count it. With the exception of the Himalayas, reports from other avifaunas seem consistent with this figure. The higher latitude of North America makes things interesting, creating varied combinations of seasonal movements along both elevational and latitudinal gradients, and several of the North American species make movements that stretch our tidy migration terminology in complex ways. There is a reason I had trouble as a grad student finding this literature, however. Much of the information, now summarized in the Birds of North America life history series, was originally reported in bird atlases, Masters theses, or dated natural history accounts. Furthermore, despite early naturalists’ interest in the topic, few authors have cared to document patterns or tried to understand causes of these movements in recent years.

Why might this be so? Part of the reason might have to do with geography; there are more ornithologists in the flatter and more populated eastern portion of the continent compared to the topographically complex west, and this fact may have steered our collective research interest in some way. Part might have to do with the perception that these are not “real” migrations. Certainly the short distances many altitudinal migrants traverse are not the jaw-dropping feats of athleticism displayed by Red Knots, Arctic Terns, or Blackpoll Warblers. But I argue that they are real in many important respects: they involve seasonal return movements between breeding and non-breeding areas on predictable schedules. The fact that such movements are often partial (not all birds migrate), facultative (not genetically hard-wired), and short-distance actually makes them more attractive subjects for many types of migration research. We have far better chances of determining what ecological conditions tip the cost-benefit balance toward migrating in species that have built-in control groups in the form of resident individuals. Furthermore, the more “messy” movements are undeniably a part of the rich diversity of strategies that animals use to cope with a constantly shifting environment. If we are to protect our avifauna for future generations, understanding these movements will be as important as understanding the marathon flights of the migration poster children. Perhaps this review will inspire a blossoming of interest in the birds who make mountains their home.

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