Wildlife: Tropical storms no problem for migrating birds

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Late summer tropical storms like last month's Isaac often leave behind a path of floods and destruction, but I always wonder about the impact big storms have on migrating birds. They should be able to fly around and avoid approaching storms, but sometimes these storms are so large birds might have trouble avoiding them. Or so I thought.

Thanks to satellite transmitters attached to migrating whimbrels, we now have a better sense of how storms affect migrating birds.

Last year researchers at the Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg, Va., documented the amazing migration of whimbrels, large shorebirds with long, decurved bills. Whimbrels nest in northern Alaska and Canada and winter on the northern coast of South America. By attaching tiny satellite transmitters to 19 individuals during the last three years, biologists have discovered their migratory route.

After nesting in northern Alaska, whimbrels fly east across the continent and then out over the Atlantic Ocean. Then they turn south and fly over open ocean until stopping to refuel along the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia). They sometimes fly more than 3,000 miles nonstop.

After a few weeks, they continue south through the Atlantic en route to the coast of South America. Along the way, they stop at Caribbean islands to rest and feed.

In 2011, one whimbrel involved in the study flew into a large tropical storm off the eastern shore of Canada. For 27 hours she flew nonstop, averaging just 9 mph to reach the center of the storm. On the back side of the storm, tailwinds grabbed her, and she flew 92 mph for 11/2 hours to exit the storm.

Unfortunately, the Caribbean islands provide little refuge for migrating birds. Unregulated hunters shoot migrating shorebirds in many areas. Several transmitter-equipped birds have been lost to wing shooters on these islands.

Understanding the migratory path of whimbrels highlights the importance of international cooperation to protect migratory birds.

"These shooting parties are the antithesis of everything the hunting community stands for here in the U.S.," said George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy (www.abcbirds.org), in a written statement. "They give nothing back in the way of permit fees to promote conservation efforts, and sometimes don't even bother to collect the birds they shoot."

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Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


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