Several species of shore birds that migrate along the Atlantic Coast are in decline, including whimbrels, whose numbers have fallen by half over the last two decades. Whimbrels are large shorebirds with long, curved beaks, spindly legs, and brown and white striped heads.
In an effort to discover what is killing so many shore birds, scientists with the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University are working with other researchers to attach satellite transmitters to whimbrels.
The biologists are following a whimbrel they named Hope from Virginia’s lower Eastern Shore up to Canada, where whimbrels nest before flying thousands of miles back to South America. One scientist is making an epic journey via airplane, helicopter, and motorboat in pursuit of Hope as she migrates up to the arctic, and you can learn more and follow the bird's progress by clicking here or here.
On a recent evening, Dr. Bryan Watts, Director of the Center for Conservation Biology, watched from a wooden pier as a cloud of whimbrels rose from spartina grass on Virginia’s lower eastern shore.
Around him, thousands of fiddler crabs darted in and out of borrows in the mud flats. As the sun set, the night was transformed by songs from the sky. Even the rickety platform Smith stood on seemed to magically spring to life-- with bright green leaves erupting from the pier’s posts, which are gum tree trunks driven into the salty creek.
The whimbrels approached in formation.
“There’s a ‘V’ of whimbrels,” Dr. Watts said. “They are probably about 300 feet off of the marsh, and they are moving straight up the seaside here. So these birds are taking off here and this is the last time they’ll touch ground until they reach the breeding grounds. These birds will be in Toronto tomorrow morning. And that’s almost 500 miles away.”