Cross-hemisphere migration of a 25 g songbird

Franz Bairlein, D. Ryan Norris, Rolf Nagel, Marc Bulte, Christian C. Voigt, James W. Fox, David J. T. Hussell, Heiko Schmaljohann

Abstract

The northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) is a small (approx. 25 g), insectivorous migrant with one of the largest ranges of any songbird in the world, breeding from the eastern Canadian Arctic across Greenland, Eurasia and into Alaska (AK). However, there is no evidence that breeding populations in the New World have established overwintering sites in the Western Hemisphere. Using light-level geolocators, we demonstrate that individuals from these New World regions overwinter in northern sub-Sahara Africa, with Alaskan birds travelling approximately 14 500 km each way and an eastern Canadian Arctic bird crossing a wide stretch of the North Atlantic (approx. 3500 km). These remarkable journeys, particularly for a bird of this size, last between one to three months depending on breeding location and season (autumn/spring) and result in mean overall migration speeds of up to 290 km d−1. Stable-hydrogen isotope analysis of winter-grown feathers sampled from breeding birds generally support the notion that Alaskan birds overwinter primarily in eastern Africa and eastern Canadian Arctic birds overwinter mainly in western Africa. Our results provide the first evidence of a migratory songbird capable of linking African ecosystems of the Old World with Arctic regions of the New World.

  • Received December 15, 2011.
  • Accepted January 24, 2012.
View Full Text