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Monday, August 29, 2011

Rider of the storm

The Whimbrel is a medium-sized eastern shorebird that looks somewhat like the Long-billed Curlew that is a visitor to the Gulf Coast.  The Whimbrel nests and summers in the far northern reaches of the North American continent and then migrates along the eastern seaboard in late summer and fall, heading south to its winter home. The bird's migration often occurs at the height of the Atlantic hurricane season and this can be a challenge for a bird with a wingspan of 32 inches that weighs only 14 oz.  Often the birds perish in these storms.

These birds are good candidates for the radio transmitters that conservationists like to attach to birds to track their migrations.  During the past week, while Hurricane Irene was roaring her way up the eastern coast, scientists at The Center for Conservation Biology were anxiously tracking some of the birds to whom they had attached transmitters who had started their migration already.  In particular, they were tracking a bird they had named Chinquapin who appeared to by flying straight into the path of the huge storm.  There were some long anxious moments, but by Saturday, they were able to confirm that the bird had made it through and had apparently safely landed on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas.

Whimbrel wearing transmitter.   Photo by Barry Switt of The Nature Conservancy.

It's hard to imagine how an animal of that size could make it safely through such winds and yet even smaller birds do manage to survive them, as well. Migration is a perilous time for birds, for many reasons, including the challenges of weather, finding sufficient food, avoiding predators, and, of course, for birds that migrate over land, there are those tall buildings, power lines, and wind farms to negotiate.  It's heartening to read of one such bird who has met the challenges so far.  After he rests and feeds for awhile in the Bahamas, Chinquapin may continue on as far as the southern coast of South America before he settles down for the winter.  Let us hope that for the rest of his journey, however long it might be, this rider of the storm has clear skies and balmy breezes.

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