To cross or not to cross – thrushes at the German North Sea coast adapt flight and routing to wind conditions in autumn

  • October 31, 2019
  • by Brust, V., Michalik, B., & Hüppop, O.

Background: Although many aspects of passerine migration are genetically determined, routing appears to be flexibly adjusted to the conditions experienced on each individual journey. This holds especially true for routing decisions taken when confronted with large bodies of water. Once taken, these decisions can be hardly altered or revised. In this paper, we analysed stopover and routing decisions taken by three species of thrushes, blackbirds, redwings and song thrushes, at the German North Sea coast.

Methods: Birds were equipped with radio-telemetry tags at stopover sites along the coast during autumn migration and subsequently tracked by an automated receiver network covering the coastline and islands of the German Bight.

Results: The thrushes resumed migration in nights with a favourable northward wind component and clear skies. About 40% of the tagged individuals have taken an offshore instead of an alongshore oriented flight route. Routing decisions were influenced by the strength of the eastward wind component with offshore oriented flights taking place primarily under weak winds or winds blowing towards the west. Thrushes that took an offshore oriented route stopped over at the coast longer than those flying alongshore. Interestingly, offshore as well as alongshore oriented flights co-occurred within single nights and under comparable weather conditions.

Conclusions: Migratory flight and routing decisions of thrushes at the German North Sea coast are highly dependent on weather, in particular wind. Still, we found evidence that weather may not be the sole reason for individual routes taken. Physical condition, morphology or animal personality lend themselves as possible additional factors of influence. Enabling a more detailed understanding of thrush migration over and along the German North Sea, our data help to better judge risks that migratory birds are facing when en route conditions are altered, for example by artificial obstacles such as offshore wind turbines.