Light-level geolocation reveals wintering distribution, migration routes, and primary stopover locations of an endangered long-distance migratory songbird.

  • January 20, 2017
  • by Cooper, N. W., Hallworth, M. T., & Marra, P. P.

The importance of understanding the geographic distribution of the full annual cycle of migratory birds has been increasingly highlighted over the past several decades. However, the difficulty of tracking small birds between breeding and wintering areas has hindered progress in this area. To learn more about Kirtland’s warbler Setophaga kirtlandii movement patterns throughout the annual cycle, we deployed archival light‐level geolocators across their breeding range in Michigan. We recovered devices from 27 males and analyzed light‐level data within a Bayesian framework. We found that most males wintered in the central Bahamas and exhibited a loop migration pattern. In both fall and spring, departure date was the strongest predictor of arrival date, but in spring, stopover duration and migration distance were also important. Though stopover strategies varied, males spent the majority of their spring migration at stopover sites, several of which were located just before or after large ecological barriers. We argue that loop migration is likely a response to seasonal variation in prevailing winds. By documenting a tight link between spring departure and arrival dates, we provide a plausible mechanism for previously documented carry‐over effects of winter rainfall on reproductive success in this species. The migratory periods remain the least understood periods for all birds, but by describing Kirtland’s warbler migration routes and timing, and identifying locations of stopover sites, we have begun the process of better understanding the dynamics of their full annual cycle. Moreover, we have provided managers with valuable information on which to base future conservation and research priorities.