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Pectoral sandpipers go the distance, and then some

Males visit multiple breeding grounds all across the Arctic

7:00am, February 7, 2017
male pectoral sandpiper

FREQUENT FLIERS  After a long migration from the Southern Hemisphere, male pectoral sandpipers (one shown) fly thousands of kilometers more around the Arctic.

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After flying more than 10,000 kilometers from South America to the Arctic, male pectoral sandpipers should be ready to rest their weary wings. But once the compact shorebirds arrive at a breeding ground in Barrow, Alaska, each spring, most keep going — an average of about 3,000 extra kilometers.

Scientists thought males, which mate with multiple females, stayed put at specific sites around the Arctic to breed. Instead, in a study of 120 male pectoral sandpipers in Barrow, most flitted all across the region looking for females. One bird flew a whopping 13,045 kilometers more after arriving, researchers report online January 9 in Nature.

“We had no clue that they range over such a wide area,” says study coauthor Bart Kempenaers, a behavioral ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany. To track the birds, the researchers placed satellite transmitters on 60 males in 2012 and another 60 in 2014.

“It doesn’t seem to be very tough for them to do these flights,” Kempenaers says. Competition for a mate, however, is cutthroat. In Barrow, just a few males sire the majority of offspring each year. The new work shows males visited as many as 24 potential breeding sites over four weeks, perhaps to boost their chances of reproducing.

Some had better stamina than luck. Kempenaers told of one male’s 2,000-kilometer Arctic odyssey: Once the bird reached Barrow, it flew north over the Arctic Ocean before turning around and landing just 300 kilometers from where it started. “There’s nothing northwards. There is only the [North] Pole, no land,” he says.

Long-distance lovers

To follow the movements of male pectoral sandpipers, scientists tagged the birds with satellite transmitters in the spring of 2012 (red) and 2014 (blue). Surprisingly, most male pectoral sandpipers visited multiple breeding sites all across the Arctic, rather than remaining at a first-stop breeding ground in Barrow, Alaska (bottom, center). Red diamonds mark visited sites and fade when the birds move on or the transmitters stop working. Green areas indicate the birds’ breeding range.

Video: B. Kempenaers and M. Valcu/Nature 2017


B. Kempenaers and M. Valcu. Breeding site sampling across the Arctic by individual males of a polygynous shorebird. Nature. Published online January 9, 2017. doi: 10.1038/nature20813.

Further Reading

S. Zielinski. Mosses hitch rides on the wings of birds. Science News Online, June 17, 2014.

S. Milius. That special wax lasts after courtship. Science News. Vol. 162, October 12, 2002, p. 237.

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