Automated telemetry reveals staging behavior in a declining migratory passerine.

  • April 25, 2018
  • by Wright, J. R., Powell, L. L., & Tonra, C. M.

Migratory birds spend most of their journeys at stopover sites where they rest and refuel. Many migrants are in steep decline, and understanding their behavior within and among migrations is crucial for developing effective conservation strategies across the full annual cycle. One of the most rapidly declining songbirds in North America is the Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus; 85–95% decline over the past 50 yr), and stopover ecology is a major gap in our knowledge of its annual cycle. We utilized an automated telemetry array in western Lake Erie and the Motus Wildlife Tracking System to track landscape-scale movements, stopover duration, departure behavior, and between-season site fidelity in this species. We found that stopover duration during both fall and spring was nearly 1 mo (mean = 25.5 days)—exceptionally long for a passerine. During spring, birds in both poor condition and high degree of molt had longer stopovers, post-departure flights were relatively long for a songbird, and tailwinds predicted departure in both seasons. Many individuals made landscape-scale (10–35 km) relocations during stopover. Site fidelity was high for a passerine, in terms of both route and stopover site. Taken together, these behaviors describe a migration strategy that largely matches the staging behavior of shorebirds. Lastly, we found that Rusty Blackbirds migrate directly across Lake Erie and migrate primarily at night, which might expose them to mortality from offshore wind development. Collectively, our results indicate that high-quality stopover habitat may be critically important to Rusty Blackbird populations. More broadly, our results highlight the need to expand the scale of stopover studies, and to further explore all aspects of species’ annual cycles to understand potential limiting factors on populations.