Data that Manomet scientists recovered from a Semipalmated Sandpiper on sub-Arctic Coats Island in June revealed that the bird flew a total distance of over 10,000 miles in the past year, including a remarkable six day, 3,300-mile nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.


The shorebird was equipped with a geolocator by a Manomet research team in 2013 as part of a first time effort to use the devices to understand the migration of Semipalmated Sandpipers.


Manomet researchers Brad Winn and Shiloh Schulte returned from eastern Canada’s Coats Island last week with the first two geolocators for the Semipalmated Sandpiper migration study, which was designed to solve one of the most pressing mysteries in shorebird conservation.


“Surveys conducted by the Canadian Wildlife Service and New Jersey Audubon Society have shown an 80 percent decline over the past 20 years in Semipalmated Sandpiper numbers within the core wintering range in northern South America,” said Manomet Shorebird Recovery Program Director Stephen Brown. “At the same time, data from the Arctic show that breeding populations are apparently stable at some sites, especially in the western part of the Arctic breeding range in Alaska. We need to understand the migratory pathways of the species in order to know where the decline is occurring, and what can be done to reverse it.”


The geolocators weigh only two hundredths of an ounce and are equipped with light sensors that use day length and the time of day to track each bird’s migration. The use of this cutting-edge technology has helped revolutionize scientists’ understanding of shorebird migration. However, the devices had never been used on Semipalmated Sandpipers before this project.


Retired engineer Ron Porter is working with Manomet to analyze the data from the geolocators as they are returned from field sites across the Arctic. Using data from the first geolocator recovered at Coats Island, Porter produced the map below, which shows the first ever annual migration of a Semipalmated Sandpiper breeding in the eastern Arctic. For this group of birds, the population decline may be particularly severe.


This first geotagged bird, a male, left his breeding grounds on Coats Island last summer and made his incredible nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean from James Bay to South America before moving on to his wintering area in Brazil.


The second geolocator recovered at Coats Island had lost battery power, so it had to be sent back to the company that manufactured it in England for the data to be downloaded.


During the 2013 field season, researchers placed 192 geolocators on Semipalmated Sandpipers at eight Arctic Shorebird Demographics Network field sites. At least 35 additional geolocators have been recovered so far at sites in Alaska.




Manomet Shorebird Biologist Brad Winn holds the Semipalmated Sandpiper after removing its geolocator


“We will learn an enormous amount from the geolocators recovered in Alaska as well,” Brown said. “In particular, we will learn whether the western Arctic birds also winter in the same areas in South America where aerial surveys have shown the dramatic decline.”


The geolocator project is a partnership between Manomet and many other organizations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, New Jersey Audubon, Kansas State University, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Canadian Wildlife Service, Simon Fraser University, the Government of Nunavut, Université de Moncton, and Environment Canada.


“The data from each geolocator gives us a glimpse into a previously unknown world: the timing and flight path of an entire year in the life of a Semipalmated Sandpiper,” Brown said. “Understanding the migratory journey of each of these birds will help us better understand the population trends and wintering habits of this species so that we can help its populations recover.”


Stephen Brown and Haley Jordan



Highlights from the Geotagged Semipalmated Sandpiper’s Journey: 

23 June, 2013: The geolocator is placed on the bird by Brad Winn, a member of a Manomet and Environment Canada shorebird science research team, at Coats Island, Nunavut, Canada.


21 July, 2013: Arrives in James Bay, where it fattens up for its upcoming long flight to South America.


22 August, 2013: Leaves James Bay for a six day nonstop flight to South America.


28 August, 2013:  Arrives at the Orinoco Delta, on the border of Venezuela and Guyana.


10 September, 2013:  Leaves for a relatively leisurely 11 day flight along the coast to Brazil.


21 September, 2013:  Arrives in Brazil for the winter (northern winter, but summer in Brazil).


3 May, 2014:  Leaves Brazil for a series of flights north, including stops in Cuba (May 6), Florida (May 10), Georgia (May 11), North Carolina (May 14), and Delaware Bay (May 21).


2 June, 2014: Arrives back in James Bay for the last stopover on its return journey.


10 June, 2014: Leaves James Bay for the final leg of its return journey.


11 June, 2014:  Arrives back at its Coats Island breeding site.