Photo: Whimbrels, like the one shown above, are large shorebirds that can brave their way through hurricanes, only to fall prey to hunters.
WASHINGTON, D.C.--As hurricane season gets under way and Tropical Storm Isaac bears down on the Caribbean and maybe on to Florida, biologists are paying particular attention to this fall’s shorebird migration.
Researchers at the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) in Williamsburg, Va., have documented incredible feats of endurance by migrating Whimbrels (large shorebirds with long, down-curved bills) flying through storms, only to fall foul to the guns of unregulated hunting on islands, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique, as well as Barbados, French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana.
100 MPH Through Hurricanes
Using satellite transmitters attached to the birds, researchers tracked one Whimbrel – named Hope – through a large tropical storm in 2011. She took 27 hours averaging just nine miles per hour to fly nonstop through the storm to get to the center. Then she flew at an average of almost 100 mph for 1.5 hours out the back end, using the power of the storm to “slingshot” her towards land.
“Our research is documenting some of the truly amazing dynamics of bird migrations. In addition to the simply staggering distances these birds travel – often thousands of miles at a time, nonstop – we are also observing what could be described as jaw dropping physical feats involving storms,” said Fletcher Smith, lead biologist on the tracking project.
He added, “These herculean efforts leave the birds exhausted and in need of a safe haven to rest and refuel. Unfortunately there are few of these locations in the Lesser Antilles, [small islands in the Caribbean north of Venezuela].
Some locals gather at recreational shooting swamps in the Caribbean to slaughter with impunity everything that flies by. They claimed perhaps their most notable bird victims last year: two Whimbrels named Machi and Goshen that were being tracked by Smith’s team.
Over a lifetime Machi is estimated to have flown 27,000 migration miles and made it through Tropical Storm Maria. Goshen had flown 14,000 miles, including several hours battling Hurricane Irene last year. Forced to land in Guadalupe, an area they had avoided in previous recorded migrations, they were then killed by the unregulated hunters.
American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and other bird conservation groups expressed outraged at the continued tolerance of the shooting ranges, especially in Guadeloupe.
France Could Stop Mass Killing
“This mass slaughter of birds has to stop,” said George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy.
Fenwick stressed, “These shooting parties are the antithesis of everything the hunting community stands for here in the U.S. They don’t care about the impact they have on the environment, give nothing back in the way of permit fees to promote conservation efforts, and sometimes don’t even bother to collect the birds they shoot.”
In a letter to the French Ministry of Ecology – which has an oversight role on the island – ABC requested that it to “take immediate measures to stop unregulated and unmonitored shooting on the island of Guadeloupe.”
The letter also referenced “the pressure that unregulated hunting has on shorebirds in this French department,” and demanded that “the Ministry of Ecology put a stop to this barbaric practice in all French departments of [Latin] America and adopt practices that protect avian wildlife in this hemisphere.”
“Sometimes something good can come out of something bad and in this case, I believe the good that may emerge is that island conservation groups and regulators will begin to take a more critical view of how to more effectively manage hunting practices in their communities,” Fenwick said.
The shorebird-tracking project is a collaborative effort between the Center for Conservation Biology, the Canadian Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.
The project will ultimately track 20 migrating Whimbrels to better understand migratory pathways and locations that are critical for this declining species. The study has tracked Whimbrels for more than 185,000 miles (300,000 kilometers) since 2008.
Threat of Tourism, Development
According to ABC, shooting swamps are one of several threats birds face in the Caribbean. In addition, wetlands throughout the islands are vanishing due to increasing tourism development, agriculture and urban expansion.
More than half of the wetlands that remain are seriously degraded by the cutting of mangroves and coastal forest. Add to that pollution, water mismanagement and natural catastrophes, such as droughts and hurricanes. As a result, many threatened birds that rely on these Caribbean wetlands are now declining.
American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is nonprofit group working to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats, while building capacity in the bird conservation movement.