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Novel approach to track migration of arctic-breeding birds

Posted on 8. April, 2013.

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Animals move around the globe in billions, some like the snow bunting covering huge distances and enduring the most extreme frigid weather conditions. In an article published in Animal Migration, scientists try to determine how snow bunting populations are linked in space and time. Considering that the snow bunting poses an extra challenge to monitor due to its inaccessible breeding locations as far north as the Arctic Circle, nomadic lifestyle and small body size, they argue that combining multiple sources of data is the most appropriate approach to track patterns of the birds' migratory connectivity.

Although snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) have so far been considered common and widespread, enjoying stable numbers and extensive nesting and wintering habitats, their North American populations have shrunk by 64% over the past four decades, according to the National Audubon Society.

The authors discovered that the population of snow buntings in North America is divided. The individuals to the east of Hudson Bay do not regularly mix with the ones to the west of Hudson Bay. These two sub-populations also migrate different distances. The article supports the idea that thorough studies into this species need to embrace a versatile mix of data - including geolocator technology, stable-isotope analysis, and mark-recapture (banding) data along with citizen science data.

The study showed strong evidence for an east-west parallel migratory system, with Hudson Bay acting as a migratory divide. While band recoveries suggest strong migratory connectivity among eastern wintering populations (more than 95% of band recoveries reveal connections between western Greenland and eastern North America), novel application of geolocators and stable-hydrogen isotope analysis to a Canadian breeding population reveal a high degree of migratory connectivity within western North American wintering populations.

This mixed-data approach, with geolocators being used for the first time on arctic-breeding passerines, may lead to a better understanding of winter movement and connectivity between wintering and breeding populations and should help direct conservation efforts.

The paper “Strong migratory connectivity in a declining Arctic passerine” by Macdonald, C.A., Fraser, K.C., Gilchrist, H.G., Kyser, T.K., Fox, J.W. and Love, O.P. was published in Animal Migration 1, 23–30, ISSN (Online) 2084-8838, ISSN (Print) , DOI: 10.2478/ami-2012-0003, November 2012.

Photo: Snow bunting. Photo courtesy of Donna Dewhurst, US Fish and Wildlife Service.

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