The Science of Winged Marathons

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Nils Warnock holding a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper/ Photo: Ake Lindstrom

Thanks to the current issue of Audubon Magazine for bringing to our attention the remarkable work of scientists studying the even more remarkable bird journeys that make up one of North America’s many migration paths:

A decade ago, a group of biologists made an astounding discovery: By tracking Bar-tailed Godwits, they found that the one-pound shorebirds—that have bills longer than their heads—were flying non-stop for up to 7,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean, from their wintering grounds in New Zealand to their breeding grounds in Alaska.

One of the biologists behind the grand reveal was veteran shorebird scientist Nils Warnock, who had already spent decades researching migration mysteries. He was one of the first ecologists to deploy micro-technologies on smaller species, using radio trackers and satellite tags to see how Western Sandpipers, Dunlin, and other winged marathoners move about the world.

After studying rattlesnake and cobra behavior as a college undergrad, Warnock got a job at the Point Blue Conservation Science, a wildlife research center on the coast of California. There he started working with shorebirds, and decided to never go back. He stayed at Point Blue for 20 years, before spending a few seasons as an oil spill response scientist at the University of California. In 2012, Warnock took the helm at Audubon Alaska, moving closer to the vital breeding grounds he had once followed his study subjects to. Nowadays, he doesn’t spend as much time in the field, though he does bird every morning as he walks to the office in Anchorage.

We caught up with Warnock to talk about his milestone discoveries, and to see what new and exciting ventures he’s up to with Audubon Alaska.

Audubon: In the 30-plus years you’ve spent studying shorebirds populations, what patterns have you noticed?

Nils Warnock: For a lot of North America, we still don’t have enough monitoring efforts that let us detect statistically valid trends. Threatened and endangered species like Snowy Plovers are studied closely because of federal or state regulations; but in general, we still lack the information we need when we’re trying to put the big picture together. The data that we do have though, suggest that many more shorebird species are declining than increasing. So overall, we can tell that they’re not doing very well.

A: Is monitoring up in the Arctic and Alaska a problem, too?

N: Yes, it’s tough up here. The shorebird breeding grounds are vast, and we don’t have many access roads. There are some nice efforts, like the Alaska Shorebird Demographic Network. But it comes down to sample size and logistics, and moving around in the Arctic is just expensive and hard.

A: Given the gigantic scale of Audubon Alaska’s conservation work, is there any kind of technology that makes it easier?

N: We’re using GIS-ESRI to synthesize data, map out complex scientific information, and try to make sense of it all. GIS is the backbone of what we do and how we work with scientists. When really concentrated areas of importance are threatened, we go in and say, “Hey, here are all of our maps of IBAs and seabird colonies.” We work with industries, showing them the information, helping them to avoid these key areas. And we do that all over the state: the Bering Strait, the Arctic refuge, the Tongass, and now the boreal forest. It’s a similar approach for all of these places…

Read the whole story here.

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