Global climate change is causing spring to arrive earlier across much of the Northern Hemisphere, and particularly at the most northerly latitudes. This presents a significant problem to organisms such as migratory birds that breed at these northerly latitudes but spend much of the rest of the year in other regions. This study examines how two different populations of a long-distance migratory bird, the Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica), change the timing of their migrations and breeding seasons in response to a rapidly changing climate. Migration will be quantified by tracking individual birds, and nest success and chick survival will be measured at two separate breeding sites.

Gaining a better understanding of how global climate change is affecting migratory birds is pivotal to the ability of scientists and land managers to plan for the conservation of these species under future climate change scenarios. The results of this research will facilitate this understanding through publication in scientific journals and through diverse social media to educate citizens living throughout the entire range of Hudsonian Godwits. The investigators plan to distribute a documentary film in both English and Spanish, and to mentor middle- and high-school students through video chats and on-line discussions. Undergraduate students and citizen scientists will be included in collection and analysis of field data.

Project Report

My dissertation research began with an attempt to solve a mystery: Where, and how, do Hudsonian Godwits migrate each winter? This question has been eluding ornithologists for much of the past century. And although incidental sightings and anecdotes during the past twenty-five years have begun to narrow our search window and provide some key information, the mystery, in large part, still remained at the beginning of my project. With help from the National Science Foundation, in 2011, I completed the core of my dissertation research and have, in large part, solved the mystery. Over the first three years of my dissertation, I was able to track the migrations of 15 different individual Hudsonian Godwits from two different breeding populaitons--Beluga, Alaska and Churchill, Manitoba. My intitial results had shown that godwits breeding in Churchill, on the western shore of Hudson Bay, traveled non-stop from northern James Bay to the Buenos Aires province of Argentina, a distance of over 6,000 miles. (The second longest non-stop flight ever documented!) From there they continued on to Tierra del Fuego, the island at the very southern tip of South America. On their return journey, they made another epic flight, this time from Tierra del Fuego to Texas, and from their hop-scotched their way through mid-continental North America and, finally, to Churchill. Godwits breeding in Beluga, in southcentral Alaska, exhibited a generally similar migration route, but with a few tweaks. These birds first flew east to Saskatchewan, before heading south and stopping in the Amazon of Colombia, followed by Buenos Aires, and then their main wintering area on Chiloe Island, Chile. On their way back north, they only stopped once, in central Kansas or Nebraska, before making another long, non-stop flight back to Alaska. My work in 2011 allowed me to expand the number of birds for which I had migration tracks, but also to begin gathering repeated migration tracks for many individuals. In total, I was able to recover 21 tracking devices in 2011, providing me with 13 repeated journeys. This data highlighted the incredibly small number of sites utilized by godwits: For both populations, repeated tracks revealed that each population utilizes no more than five or six sites throughout the entire year, meaning that each site is likely critical to the population's well-being. These repeated tracks also have begun to give us insight into how much weather and other environmental conditions during different parts of the year affect the timing of migration. My work also is focused on understanding how global climate change is altering the ability of migratory birds to properly breed each summer. In 2011 I was able to document the breeding success of both breeding populations for a third straight year. Three straight years of data from both sites has begun to show how signigificantly different patterns are affecting the reproductive strategies and success of the two populations. My results suggest that the Churchill population is being detrimentally effected by climate change--they are suffering a phenological mismatch--and that this has resulted in them experiencing extremely low reproductive success in most years. The Alaska population is, on the other hand, apparently adequately tracking climatic changes and continuing to reproduce at a normal rate. My findings are now coalescing and have resulted in three manuscripts being submitted to scientific journals within the past year. They also have allowed me to make presentations at two scientific conferences--those of the American Ornithologists' Union and the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Group--as well seven more public presentations. Completion of my dissertation should follow in the early fall of 2012. My efforts to reach out to local communities also met with considerable success in 2011. Besides making public presentations, I worked with a small group of colleagues--an artist and an educator--to design a project that would link schools along the migration route of Hudsonian Godwits and create a flow of information between these schools as students are trained in observational drawing and data collection techniques, all with Hudsonian Godwits as the focal theme. The pilot school year for this project is now set to take place in the fall of 2012 and the project will hopefully grow in subsequent years to includes schools in Chile, Kansas, and Saskatchewan. Funding from the National Science Foundation was integral in allowing for the continuation and completion of my dissertation research and has made a substantial contribution to our understanding of the life-cycles of long-distance migratory birds.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)
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Saran Twombly
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Cornell University
United States
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