CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An ornithological researcher whose interest in birds was hatched as a teenage member of a Kanawha Valley bird club is now studying the migration patterns of one of the world's most far-ranging shorebirds. On Monday, he will share some of his findings with club members and the public during a presentation in the Kanawha County Public Library in Charleston.
Bryan Watts, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Virginia's College of William & Mary, heads a study on the whimbrel, a member of the sandpiper family that winters in South America and breeds in the Arctic, a process involving a 12,000-mile roundtrip flight annually. A stretch of Virginia's Eastern Shore with abundant supplies of fiddler crabs and marine worms serves as the whimbrel's primary rest stop and staging area for both northbound and southbound flights.
Watts, a St. Albans native and a member of the Handlan Chapter of the Brooks Bird Club starting at age 12, has been studying the whimbrel since a decline in population was suspected not long after scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology began tracking shorebird numbers on the Eastern Shore in the mid-1990s.
From then until now, there has been a decline of about 50 percent in the number of whimbrels stopping on the Eastern Shore to fuel up for their often nonstop flights to their breeding or wintering grounds.
"During a three-week stop on the Eastern Shore, these birds feed almost nonstop, nearly doubling their weight," said Watts. "They come in depleted, and then gain 10 to 20 grams a day to be able to make these huge nonstop flights of 3,000 miles or more."
To help determine the cause of the whimbrel's population decline, Watts and other scientists from the Center for Conservation Biology needed to learn more about where the birds spent their time after leaving coastal Virginia, where their food and habitat needs are relatively secure.
They began placing radio telemetry transmitters on birds captured in Virginia and started tracking the movements of the far-ranging whimbrels.
"Right away, we began seeing some unexpected things," said Watts. Researchers had thought that the northbound whimbrels staging in coastal Virginia were destined for a breeding ground along Hudson Bay, believed to be the spring destination for all Atlantic coast members of the species.
"But this bird went to the western Arctic," to the McKenzie River Delta and the Beaufort Sea, to breed -- a location previously believed to have been used exclusively by Pacific Coast whimbrels, Watts said.
Watts' tracking study also showed that whimbrels returning to Virginia's Eastern Shore showed a remarkable tendency to return not just to the same general area, but to the same section of creek or mudflat where they had rested and dined during previous stops.