Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Whimbrel Navigates a Storm but Gets Killed Anyway

Machi being fitted with satellite transmitter in August, 2009. Image credit: Barton Paxton
A few weeks ago, I mentioned a migrating Whimbrel that had successfully flown through the most severe portion of Hurricane Irene. There are other Whimbrels tagged by the same monitoring program at the Center for Conservation Biology, which follows the migratory paths of these distinctive shorebirds. Another Whimbrel, named Machi, recently navigated another tropical cyclone, this time Tropical Storm Maria. This story, though, does not have a happy ending for the bird, as it was shot and killed by hunters on Guadaloupe.
Scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology learned today that a whimbrel that they had been tracking via satellite for 2 years as part of a migration study had been shot by a hunting party this morning on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe (French West Indies).  The bird named “Machi” had just flown through Tropical Storm Maria and made landfall on Montserrat before flying to Guadeloupe.  Machi had been tracked for over 27,000 miles (44,000 km) back and forth between breeding grounds in the Hudson Bay Lowlands of Canada to wintering grounds on the coast of Brazil.  The bird was tracked on 7 nonstop flights of more than 2,000 miles.  During the spring of 2010, Machi flew more than 3,400 miles directly from Brazil to South Carolina.  Machi serves as an example of birds that interact with many landscapes and cultures throughout the year and a reminder of how international cooperation is required for their continued existence.
The center argues that this is a persistent conservation problem on Caribbean islands since many are not subject to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which governs the treatment of birds crossing international boundaries in North America.
Guadeloupe, Martinique and Barbados continue to operate “shooting swamps” some of which are artificial wetlands created to attract migrant shorebirds for sport shooting during fall migration.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of shorebirds continue to be taken annually by hunting clubs on just these three islands.  This practice is a throwback to more than a century ago when gunners hunted shorebirds throughout the Americas.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed, in part, to protect dwindling numbers of birds that migrate across country borders.  Operated as a French overseas department, both Guadeloupe and Martinique are part of the European Union and are not party to the Treaty.  Barbados, once a British colony is now an independent state and also not party to the Treaty.  The last Eskimo Curlew known to science was shot on Barbados in 1963.  Shorebird hunting within these areas continues to be unregulated to the present time. Conservation organizations continue to work toward some compromise that will reduce pressures on declining species. 

Worldwide, many shorebird populations are experiencing dramatic declines.  Most of the migratory shorebird species breeding in eastern North America and the Arctic pass over the Caribbean region during the late summer and early fall on their way to wintering grounds.  When they encounter severe storms the birds use the islands as refuges before moving on to their final destinations.  Hunting clubs take advantage of these events and shoot large numbers of downed birds following the passage of these storms.  During the 2009 and 2010 fall migrations, Machi did not stop on any of the islands but flew directly from Virginia to Paramaribo, Suriname before moving on to winter near Sao Luis, Brazil.  It appears that the encounter with Tropical Storm Maria caused the bird to stop on Guadeloupe.
This comes from the press release about the incident, which may be downloaded here.

Tracking map of Machi (2009-2011).  Image credit: The Center for Conservation Biology.
Update: It turns out that a second tracked Whimbrel was also shot there on the same day (pdf). BirdLife and other conservation organizations, including the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds, are calling for better regulation of hunting in the Caribbean to avoid killing species of conservation concern.