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News & events

Black-bellied plovers tracked to wintering grounds

March 3, 2016

VCU Rice Rivers Center and The College of William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology

The Center for Conservation Biology, in partnership with the Canadian Wildlife Service, has tracked black-bellied plovers from their Arctic breeding locations and fall stopover locations to their wintering grounds.  The plovers were trapped on the breeding grounds at Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area, located on Bathurst Island, Nunavut Territory, as well as at Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, located in the Quebec Province along the St. Lawrence River.

The current locations of the tracked plovers are spread across a wide zone of the Caribbean and Central and South America.  This wintering strategy contrasts with whimbrels that were tracked using similar satellite tags, with the majority of those birds concentrated in a relatively small area of Brazil. Black-bellies have a more generalist approach to habitat and diet than most shorebirds, and this may help explain why they are not concentrated in one area of the tropics and occupy such a broad latitudinal and longitudinal gradient in winter.    

Several interesting migration tracks were recorded, including a non-stop transoceanic flight from Newfoundland to Brazil, with the plover making the 3,462 mile (5,570km) flight in approximately five days.  A long-distance land route was also recorded, with the bird flying nearly six days and 3,960 miles (6,373km) from the high arctic breeding grounds to the wintering grounds in Cuba.  The migration route of the plover tagged on Mingan Archipelago is interesting in that it provides evidence that at least some of the Atlantic Coast flyway shorebird populations utilize wintering grounds on the Pacific Ocean, in this case the well-documented shorebird hotspot of the Bay of Panama.

The high arctic nesting plovers appear to have several migration strategies.  Several staged near the breeding grounds, then flew non-stop to winter locations.  Several also migrated from breeding grounds to Atlantic Canada stopover locations before departing to winter locations.  One of the tagged plovers was likely lost over the ocean due to interaction with a tropical storm system. 

Black-bellied plovers are one of the smallest birds that can be tracked using current satellite tracking technology.  Recent technological advances have reduced the size of satellite units, and this promises to answer life-cycle questions on even smaller migratory species.   

The tracking of black-bellied plovers is a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology and the Canadian Wildlife Service, who initiated the tracking in 2014. Logistical support for the Bathurst Island field expedition was provided by the Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute, Nunavut. The tracking of the plovers is an ongoing project and the birds can be followed at Seaturtle.org.

The Center for Conservation Biology is a partnership between VCU Rice Rivers Center and The College of William and Mary.

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