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« Chesapeake News and Events | Main | Rally for Clean Water Planned for March 28 »

03/19/2012

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Fascinating post! I was particularly interested in the info about birds adjusting the speed of their migrations in response to temps. One question about the birds remaining in the lower Bay throughout winter -- I heard that resident Canada geese might be genetically slightly different from their migrating cousins. Any indication that's the case with osprey?

Great question, Desiree.

The resident Canada geese, as I understand it, are the descendents of geese that were trucked in from the Upper Midwest about a century ago, and had their wings clipped. (The idea was to add to the scenery and please hunters). Their offspring never learned how to fly back to Canada, and so have remained here ever since -- fed in part by all the leftover corn and grain they find in fields here.

The resident osprey, by contrast, were not trucked in, and did not have their wings clipped.

A nest of Osprey I have followed since 2008 - support early return. Locals know them to return around the 18th, from previous years. In 2011 and 2012 the male returned the first week in March. March 5th and 7th.

That's consistent with what the Maryland Department of Natural Resource told me, Kim. Osprey are returning roughly two weeks earlier than normal in the spring.

One researcher I interviewed said that the first osprey she saw returning this year was in February.

The most likely explanation for the overwintering and early arrival of ospreys to the Bay is that a small percentage of the birds have a reduced tendency to migrate and, after their post-fledging dispersal, will stay relatively close to their nest sites. Migration is expensive, both in terms of the effort required for the yearly round trip and for the risks to the bird's life (natural and man-made). We know that mortality of migratory birds is high and that migration is only worth it when it provides benefits, such as seasonal sources of food or less competition for nesting sites, that balance the risks. In normal climate conditions, if normal means the freezing over of the Bay and the migration of prey fish to lower in the water column, it would have been clearly advantageous for the ospreys to vacate the area in winter. Now, with warmer winters and earlier springs, overwintering ospreys do not face starvation by staying in the breeding grounds all year round and, in fact, may have a competitive edge over their migratory relatives by arriving safely and early, with better chances of occupying prime nesting real estate and producing more young. If the loss of migratory drive is genetically inherited, and the warmer climate conditions continue as expected, natural selection will ensure that the fraction of sedentary ospreys (which now we can estimate at 0.1% or less of the total Bay population) will steadily increase in the future. A similar case of increased overwintering in a migratory species is the White Stork in Spain and Portugal, which learned to use irrigated agricultural fields and garbage dumps as winter feeding sources, avoiding the risky trip across the Sahara desert. From an extremely low number of overwintering storks early in the 20th century, the numbers of sedentary birds has kept increasing and, in places, may exceed the number of migrants.

Fascinating! Thanks for the explanation and the perspective on the storks in Spain.

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