Wednesday, 24 May 2017

AWSG Whimbrels getting close to breeding ground!

Over the past week, our two Whimbrels KS and KU have made significant progress towards breeding ground.

After staying for 10 days in Panjin, Liaoning Province, on 17 May, KS first made a north-east flight to the east coast of Sakhalin, Russia in a single flight of nearly 2,000km in 2 days with an average speed of 45.1km/h. On 21 May, signals from the transmitter show us that KS had moved again to a lake called Ozero Tungar near the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. But it had only stay for a very short while, maybe for an hour or so, before it continued to head inland in a north easterly direction.

Fig 1. Migration route of KS after leaving the Yellow Sea

Just a day after KS departed, KU made its move as well. On 21 May, KU first made a stop near Qiqihar City in Heilongjiang Province before crossing the China-Russia border. In two days’ time, KU again flew for another 1,650km with average speed of 35.1km to land in an area east of Yakutsk in Sakha Republic. From the maps (Fig 2) we could see KU had been utilising wetlands all along a straight line from China to Russia. It will be very interesting to see if its final destination in the breeding ground falls on the same straight line!

In one or two weeks’ time we would also hopefully be able to find out where they nest, which is one of the main objective of this satellite tracking project. Another very interesting question would be: Will KS and KU reunion again at the breeding ground?

Fig. 2 Migration route of KU from China to Russia

 We are now quite certain that JX would stay in Palawan, the Philippines. Nevertheless, it is still giving us valuable information as NW Australia leg-flagged Whimbrels have not been resighted in South-east Asia before.

Today also marks the 100th day since we deployed transmitter on LA, we do hope our Whimbrels and transmitters stay strong for another 100 days or more for us to understand more of their magical journey!

Photo 1: LA at Eighty Miles Beach on day one. Photo: Prue Wright

As of 23 May 2017:
Migration tracks of our Whimbrels:

Migration summary on our Whimbrels

Katherine Leung
23 May 2017

Sunday, 14 May 2017

AWSG satellite tagged Whimbrels Update 3

Reunion at the Yellow Sea

It has nearly been a month since our three Whimbrels departed Broome. Their journeys so far clearly show us that, when it comes to migration, individual bird of the same species has different strategy but yet could still show some similarities.

KS and KU were our Whimbrels that were caught in the same flock, fitted with satellite transmitters and released together on the same day (24 February 2017) at West Quarry Beach, Roebuck Bay, Broome. Back then, they were at similar stage on moulting their wings (moult of the outer most primary feather nearly finished), and were at similar weight (KS – 357g, KU – 399g). It was therefore very reasonable for them to start migration on almost the same date.

Six days later, both KS and KU reached their first stop-over sites on migration which are 280km apart. However, both sites were estuarine area with intertidal mudflat for foraging. Since then, their journeys deviated. 

Fig1. First stop-over location for KU and KS after 6 days of migration

KS adopted a “hopping” strategy by staying at different sites over very short period of time, so it was really lucky for it to be found and photographed. Overall it had stayed in Taiwan for only 6 days before moving on its next leg of migration.

KS in Taiwan. Photo Lin  Jer An

On 30 April, KS departed Taiwan and flew 1747km to the Yellow Sea. It first took a very brief stop for a day on 4 May, in the south-west corner of Liaoning Province, China, and then continued to fly another 143km east to where it is now in Panjin, an important wetland area in northern Yellow Sea for migratory shorebirds, breeding Saunders’ Gull and Red-crowned Crane.

Fig 2. KS movement in the Yellow Sea

 On the other hand, KU used a different strategy to stay long for re-fuelling in Xinghua Bay, Fujian Province, China. It has stayed for 11 days in total and departed for Yellow Sea on 4 May. First, it made a very short stop in Shandong Province on 6 May, where it utilised artificial lake and natural estuarine before moving on for another 446km north to Liaoning Province.

Fig 3. KU movement from Fujian to the Yellow Sea.

It is a very interesting “coincident” for KS and KU to reunion in the Yellow Sea area. They are now less than 50km apart after 20 days of migration and they are utilising very similar habitat: paddy field. Rice is a popular local product for Panjin area since the 1980s due to its highly fertilised soil and suitable temperature. May is the time when rice farmers transplant rice seedlings to the paddy field, so a wetland habitat with perfect water depth for shorebird is created!

Both KS and KU have been staying in Panjin for over a week, they might probably stay until late May before departing for their breeding grounds. Let’s see which one will reach their breeding ground first!

Fig 4.Both KS and KU in paddy field in Panjin

Meanwhile, JX has stayed in Malanut Bay, Palawan, the Philippines for 20 days now. A closer look into the satellite image shows that it is utilising some shallow reef area. In the evening on 10 May, JX flew north-east for about 10km as if it will start to migrate but then return after 2 hours. It would be very interesting to see if JX would finally migrate to breeding ground in a month's time.

Fig 5. JX in Malanut Bay

Life for LA seems to be much more relaxing at Eighty Mile Beach. In May, its movement is highly confined to a 5km x 2km area along the beach and it occasionally flew over the sand dunes to the inland marshes. We do hope the satellite transmitter could stay on LA for another year and finally track its migration in the next season.

Fig 6. LA movement in May at 80 Mile Beach.

As of 14 May 2017:

Migration tracks of our Whimbrels:

Migration summary on our Whimbrels

Katherine Leung
14 May 2017

Thursday, 11 May 2017

World Migratory Bird Day...

... passed us by on a busy domestic day with little time to spare for birding. 

However, during the day, we did see the local Common Swifts screaming over our suburban English garden, not long since returned from Africa, a couple of Barn Swallows likewise chittered by and somewhere in the distance a Eurasian Blackcap was chortling away. But perhaps the biggest symbol of the day's events was the completely unexpected garden fly-past by a singing cuckoo, one of Europe's most famous migrants and one, like so many others, that is in decline.

Reminding us of the importance of World Migratory Bird Day the cuckoo got us thinking about our beloved waders.

Breeding grounds are vital, as are non-breeding grounds, but, in the case of migrants, equally as important are the stop over points, the refuelling and rest stations of the birds who spend part of their lives in each of two places and almost as much travelling in between.

Black-tailed Godwits Limosa limosa.

For long distance migrants among the waders, this very often means the inter-tidal zone, that portion of an estuary or beach that lies between high and low tide. This flat and often stark looking zone deceives humans into thinking that it is barren and unproductive, a wasteland that would be much better used being turned into some facet of human life that will, in the end, result in someone getting richer.

The Dee estuary as seen from Hilbre Island.

But that flat, grey-brown expanse is anything but a barren wasteland, it holds a vibrant community of life only a very small proportion of which is visible to us and that, by and large, is the waders.

An inspiration of waders, a visual clue as to what lies beneath the surface.

The waders are not there because they like to get their feet dirty like a preschool child in his or her first pair of flowery yellow wellies, they are there for the very serious business of getting fat. What we cannot see they instinctively know is there. They search for it using a variety of methods; some probing with sensitive bills deep into the mud, others watching and plucking prey from the surface, some will use their chisel like bills to hack at hard shelled molluscs while the dainty Wrybill will tip its head to one side sifting the mud seemingly forgetting that there are no stones under which they need to insert their unique bills.

... seemingly forgetting that there are no stones under which they need to insert their unique bills.
Wrybill Anarhynchus frontalis.

The mudflats of the world are alive with birds at this time of year with many millions of them heading, with a rising sense of excitement, to their breeding grounds in the north. Others in the south will be relaxing with a more staid northerly movement, their breeding duties done. Not one of these millions of lives has the slightest idea what the next hour, let alone the next year will bring, they live from moment to moment, harming no-one (except a few molluscs and other mud dwelling critters) and yet, they face a barrage of obstacles stacking such massive odds against them that it is bewildering that they have evolved to partake in such folly.

In the greater scheme of things, migration has been, over the millennia, a strategy that has worked, but now the playing field is not as level as it once was.

Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica.

We, the human race, supposedly (by our own pronouncement) the most intelligent animal on earth, are making life ever harder for these birds; reclamation (can we reclaim something that was never ours?), coastal development for industry or tourism, pollution and altering of river flows are all affecting our inter-tidal zones across the world. While a few folk soak up the new money derived from such destruction, many thousands more stand idly by, unaware of, or unwilling to see, what is going on. A few doughty souls stand as a thin line of defence against this (excuse the pun) tide of destruction and stand up and give voice to those that have no voice other than the beautiful piping, trilling and warbling that they make that provides a wonderful aural backdrop to some of our most isolated places.

Giving voice to those that have no voice. Photo: Elis Simpson

It is time that the lives of these tiny wanderers were considered more highly than hitherto, and it is time that the world woke up to the fact that these creatures provide so much more than fun for a few birders, photographers and gunners. They are the very heart and soul of this glorious blue planet, the pulse of their movements is the steady breath of the world and without them our own lives will be forever desolate and ultimately perhaps unsustainable.