Hope (the Whimbrel) Returns

Photograph courtesy of Barry Truitt

She spent the winter in a mangrove swamp called Great Pond on St. Croix. Then, on April 1st, Hope the whimbrel began her trip north, traveling 1,600 miles in 60 hours. In the early morning hours of April 4th, she landed on the Eastern Shore of Virginia near Box Tree Creek, marking the third time that scientists have seen her there in the spring.

“It’s been amazing how high the site fidelity has been for these birds,” says Bryan Watts, The Center for Conservation Biology director at the College of William and Mary. Watts has been following Hope since he and Fletcher Smith equipped her with a satellite transmitter three years ago. Since then, she has flown more than 44,100 miles between her breeding grounds on the Mackenzie River delta in western Canada and Great Pond.

“This bird has been a real champion and has showed us a lot about what these birds have been facing,” Watts says. She is just one of more than a dozen birds that scientists at The Center for Conservation Biology, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners are studying. Transmitters help them see where these birds breed, fly, rest, and winter. That information can then help them conserve habitat critical to the declining species. (To see where the birds have gone, check out their tracking maps.)

As Scott Weidensaul writes in our March-April issue (“The New Frontier”), Hope flew through Tropical Storm Maria last autumn--and that was after she made her way through Tropical Storm Gert--before arriving on St. Croix. Her wintering grounds, unlike those of many other migrant shorebirds, are recognized as an Audubon and BirdLife International Important Bird Area.

“There she found a very different world than the gauntlet that awaits migrant shorebirds on islands like Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Barbados. As one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix is subject to U.S. laws, including the international treaty that protects shorebirds and to which French possessions like Guadeloupe are not signatories,” Weidensaul writes.

Yet she still faces threats, he explains in the piece. A resort has been proposed that would encompass the bay. “Local environmentalists have stalled that project thus far, but disturbance by four-wheel-drive vehicles and illegal dumping are ongoing problems,” he goes on to say. “There are many dangers for a migratory bird, and only a few come out of the barrel of a gun.”

Those hazards make Hope’s return that much more amazing. For the next three weeks, she’ll stay in Virginia eating fiddler crabs. Then she’ll make the journey to her nesting grounds in Canada, perhaps stopping one more time on her way north.

“It’s nice to have a bird back that has been gone for a year and know that this bird is doing well,” says Watts.

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