A Bird’s Tale

A Hudson Bay Whimbrel on Aruba

Wed, 10/19/2022 - 10:00am

A couple of weeks ago our friend from Aruba – birding guide and acclaimed photographer Michiel Oversteegen (see them at https://www.birdwatchingaruba.com) – sent a photo that told an amazing story. It is a photo taken in early October of a group of large shorebirds called whimbrels, which are chicken-sized shorebirds with long, downcurved bills. This individual was seen in a shallow salina called Malmok on the island nation of Aruba. On the left leg of one of the birds is a yellow band.

Michiel had been looking for this particular bird since August, the month during which he first spotted her on Aruba in 2018. Michiel learned from Bryan Watts, director of The Center for Conservation Biology at College of William & Mary in Virginia, that the bird was first captured and banded as part of their research program in fall 2006 on the Delmarva Peninsula. Their measurements at the time of the capture indicated that the bird was a female.

Every year since 2018, Michiel has found this remarkable bird spending the fall and early winter on Aruba, usually in the same area around Malmok. According to Bryan, this whimbrel is now at least 17 years old. She is one of the oldest North American whimbrels on record, another marked bird has the record (for now) as it was resighted for 19 summers at Churchill, Manitoba, along the shores of Hudson Bay.

Aruba, you may remember, is a small island nation about 19 miles long that is located just 17 miles off the coast of Venezuela. This bird Michiel has been spotting is 1700 miles south of the fall migratory stop-over location where it was banded in Virginia and where research indicates it probably stops every fall.

The whimbrels that migrate through the Delmarva Peninsula of Maryland and Virginia each fall are all thought to nest in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. That’s at least a thousand miles north of the Delmarva and 2700 miles north of Aruba.

Another population of whimbrels nests much farther north, in the Mackenzie Delta of the Northwest Territories and stops off along the shores of Hudson Bay and James Bay in migration. In the fall, birds from that population continue flying eastward to Atlantic Canada and Maine before departing out over the open ocean for a four- to five-day nonstop flight east of the Caribbean to South America. The birds from the Hudson Bay Lowland population stop off in the mid-Atlantic states (including on the Delmarva Peninsula) before departing south across the Caribbean.

Bryan and his team satellite tracked whimbrels from both populations and made some unexpected discoveries. They found that the Mackenzie Delta birds had a longer flight and encountered fewer dangerous hurricanes but also had no places to stop and seek shelter if they did encounter one. The Hudson Bay Lowland birds, on the other hand, had a shorter flight but sometimes ran head-on into more dangerous hurricanes that occur in the Caribbean. They were more likely to be able to find a spot to stop and wait out such hurricanes on one of the islands of the Caribbean.

Michiel’s sighting of this wonderful and resilient whimbrel on Aruba again this fall is certainly cause for celebration, especially considering the several dangerous hurricanes that passed through the Caribbean just in the past few weeks. Many other whimbrels were undoubtedly not as strong or skilled—or as fortunate. Sadly, millions of birds of other species will not make it to their wintering grounds or back again in the spring because of the many challenges and threats they face along the way from habitat loss and degradation to severe weather. As the world grapples with more sad and alarming news of biodiversity loss and increased climate change impacts, this little bird reminds us that we humans have a heavy responsibility to the survival of birds and all natural things. And for our own survival since we are all reliant on the same air and water and life that springs from it.

The leaders of the world’s nations are meeting in November in Egypt and in December in Montreal to set goals and make pledges and promises for what they will do about the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Let’s all urge them to increase their ambitions and commitments to a level that meets the true needs to stop and reverse climate change impacts and biodiversity losses. Speak up for nature. That little whimbrel and the millions of other birds migrating across our hemisphere can’t speak to governments and politicians, but we can!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular books, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).