By Kat J. McAlpine
For long-distance migratory shorebirds like the Whimbrel–which over the course of a year travel from breeding grounds in the Arctic to South America’s coastlines and then back again–Cape Cod’s salt marshes provide a welcome stopover on this extensive journey. During these stopovers, Whimbrels feast on the bounty of food that the Cape’s salt marshes offer, particularly fiddler crabs.
As they gather in concentrated areas where nutrients are dense, spots along their journey that biologists call “staging sites,” Manomet researchers take the opportunity to fit some of the birds with devices that transmit their location data via satellites. Whimbrels, bigger and heavier than many other species of shorebirds, are the perfect “hiker” for these location trackers to hitch a ride on.
The satellite transmitters, less than 1 percent of the bird’s total weight, are worn like little backpacks by the Whimbrel. The data they transmit paints a clear picture of how the birds use all the habitats within their annual travels, a geographic range known as their flight path. That holistic view could provide scientists with new insights into the geographic regions of the Western Hemisphere where habitat management and conservation efforts would have the most impact on the Whimbrel and other shorebirds.
In this video, videographer Benjamin Clock follows Brad Winn, Manomet’s vice president for resilient habitats, and Alan Kneidel, Manomet conservation biologist, as they do field research on Cape Cod. Watch as they fit Whimbrels with tracking devices and learn about why these salt marshes, one of the first places many young Whimbrels visit after migrating from their Arctic nests, are a vital link in a global chain of coastal areas that support shorebirds.
The role that Cape Cod and other staging sites play in nourishing juvenile Whimbrels on their first southbound migration is not yet well understood. This research provides an unprecedented glimpse into what factors might determine whether the young birds can survive the long journey.