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St. Albans native heads research project for far-ranging shorebirds

Courtesy photo
St. Albans native Bryan Watts, shown here with a juvenile bald eagle, was featured in a recent Audubon magazine feature for his study on the far-ranging migration patterns of the whimbrel, a shorebird species. On Monday, in the Kanawha County Public Library in Charleston, he will discuss the study and other matters affecting shorebirds during a meeting of the Handlan Chapter of Brooks Bird Club, which he joined at age 12.
Courtesy photo Watts bands a shorebird on Virginia's Eastern Shore as part of his work with the Center for Conservation Biology.

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.

Amazing feats of flying and navigation have also been recorded in the tracking study.

"We've seen birds flying for five or six days without stopping, covering 3,600 to 4,000 miles in a single flight," Watts said. Late this summer, four transmitter-equipped whimbrels added another surprise by using a previously unknown mid-Atlantic migration route to reach their over-wintering grounds along the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil.

"These birds were 2,000 miles out to sea, and at one point were closer to Africa than they were to the North American coast," Watts said.

Whimbrels are occasionally spotted along West Virginia waters, particularly following coastal storms.

"During all my time growing up there, I never saw one," Watts said. "But when we tracked some whimbrels moving out of Georgia last year, they flew directly over St. Albans, traveling at night."

On Monday, Watts will discuss the whimbrel study and the need to preserve key shorebird staging sites, breeding grounds and over-wintering areas during a 6:30 p.m. meeting of the Handlan Chapter of the Brooks Bird Club in the Kanawha County Public Library. The public is invited to attend.

"My interest in birds started by going out on all the birding trips with members of the Handlan Chapter, and it's stayed strong ever since," Watts said. "The older members were really nice to me and kept me involved in birding all through my years as a teenager. Now, I get to work with birds every day."

In another connection to West Virginia bird life, Watts, through the Center for Conservation Biology, has arranged for dozens of peregrine falcon chicks hatched in life-threatening urban locales in Virginia to be released in West Virginia's New River Gorge.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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