Chinquapin, the whimbrel that survived a flight through Hurricane Irene on its annual journey to the Bahamas, gets tagged by Brad Winn and Tim Keyes in May 2010. - photo courtesy of Georgia DNR
Faced with such a long and unpredictable flight, whimbrels like Chinquapin store up fat, increasing their body weight by up to 50 per cent. The stored energy helps reduce the number of required stops.
“They just seem to have this incredible ability for sustained flight,” Watts said. “In one of these flights, they may be flying for four or five days without stopping. Another bird, Hope, which is down here in Virginia and left Southampton Island earlier in August, encountered a tropical storm in Nova Scotia and flew for 27 hours at a really slow flight speed of 9 km/h, and then broke through the storm and increased its speed to over 90 km/h.”
Watts notes that despite their hardiness, whimbrel populations – like those of other shorebirds – are in decline and have dropped by 50 per cent. He says his researchers are hoping to come north to find a possible cause.
“A master's student studied the population near Churchill and suggested that the populations are moving further and further north because of shrub invasion related to climate change,” he said. “The drying out of certain habitat may be playing a role, but we don't know.”
The consortium, which also includes the Nature Conservancy and Georgia Department of Natural Resources, has tracked a dozen whimbrels using satellite transmitters since 2008; they are currently tracking four, including Chinquapin. To follow Chinquapin’s flight path, visit http://wildlifetracking.org