By Barry Truitt, The Nature Conservancy
Anxious scientists watched with relief this weekend when a satellite signal assured them that a small shorebird they had been tracking somehow managed to survive flying through some dangerous winds of Hurricane Irene.
The whimbrel, nicknamed Chinquapin by the Georgia wildlife staffers who tagged him with a radio transmitter, had taken off from his summer feeding grounds on Southampton Island in Canada’s Arctic on Aug. 22. He was making the annual flight to Brazil near the mouth of the Amazon River, where whimbrels breed.
Chinquapin flew across New England, and then out over the ocean. On Wednesday, he flew through the dangerous northeast quadrant of the hurricane, which was then a Category 3. After disappearing from sensors, the bird popped up again Saturday — on an island in the Caribbean.
Whimbrels are “capable of really amazing migration flights” of up to 3,500 miles without a rest, says Bryan Watts, director of the College of William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology in Williamsburg, Va. Chinquapin had already been flying several days without stopping when he ran into Irene. “It’s sort of bad to hit a big storm at the end of a flight that long,” Watts says.
Chinquapin’s progress was impressive, Watts says. “When he was in the outer bands of the storm he was flying at 30 miles per hour.” Whimbrels, which stand about a foot-and-a-half tall, have been clocked at speeds of 40 to 50 mph in clear weather.
The transmitter he wears is attached with a leg loop harness and sits on his lower back and weighs a third of an ounce. When Chinquapin disappeared from the satellite tracking system, research biologist Libby Mojica says she started checking her computer “every 30 seconds” to see whether he had popped back up.
Things were tense until Friday, when researchers finally got a single satellite fix from Chinquapin’s transmitter at 4:20 p.m., showing that he was on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. Even so, the scientists weren’t convinced until they got multiple signals so they could triangulate his position. Finally, on Saturday, they got confirmation.
“We have had several locations that put the bird on that island and the collective locations and sensor data suggest the bird is fine,” Watts says.
After hanging out in the Bahamas for a few days, Chinquapin will likely complete his migration to the northern coast of South America, Watts says.