The Places in Between

Tahuesco, one of the Guatemalan coastal wetland areas to be surveyed in 2019. Photo: David Valle/DIPESCA-MAGA.

By Martin Robards and Roan McNab
September 24, 2018

Most of us are familiar with the concept of animal migration — the often-awe-inspiring spectacle of entire populations of animals moving seasonally between different areas.

We think of Arctic terns flying between the Arctic and Antarctic, or salmon making their epic journey up-river from the ocean to spawn. The Porcupine caribou herd navigates the Arctic Refuge each year to calve on the coastal plain. Some 800,000 kob make a 50 mile seasonal migration across the grasslands and swamps of South Sudan. Then there’s the granddaddy of animal migrations as more than two million animals crisscross Tanzania’s Serengeti plain in giant herds between grazing or watering areas.

Arctic Tern feeding on the Northwest Coast of Alaska. One of the world’s longest migrants, this bird will head to the Antarctic, over 12,000 miles to the south once summer ends. Photo: Martin Robards/WCS.

A key component of these migrations are the corridors along which migration happens and the critical spots along those corridors where animals may rest or refuel. Migratory birds in particular are facing the repercussions of the widespread threats and impacts to coastal areas where they stop to recharge. Nevertheless, there are practical and proven initiatives underway to reduce impacts and restore critical migratory bird habitat. Guatemala is one nation where close attention by conservationists is making a difference.

Migratory birds are facing the repercussions of the widespread threats and impacts to coastal areas where they stop to recharge.

For migratory shorebirds, such as Buff-breasted and pectoral sandpipers, researchers around the Arctic have been studying breeding success each year in relation to rapidly changing environmental conditions such as warming temperatures and earlier springs. A key conclusion from this research is that at least for now, birds appear to have been coping with the changing breeding conditions — this is good news.

However, many bird populations remain in precipitous decline due to migration incidents either at their resting and refueling areas, or at their wintering sites. Too often, migratory stopovers and wintering areas fall in countries where not enough is being done to monitor and protect specific birds and their habitats. In some countries we do not even know if important sites occur, never mind the timing and use of them if they do exist.

Pectoral Sandpiper, one of the Arctic species that passes through Guatemala on their migration to South America. Photo: Cameron Rutt/WCS.

To address these gaps in understanding of the conservation needs of migratory birds, partnerships have grown around the major flyways (e.g., the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, the Pacific Americas Shorebird Conservation Strategy) and for all the birds breeding in the Arctic (the Arctic Council’s Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative or AMBI).

These efforts have brought together the expertise and geographical diversity that is needed to identify the ways that people across the full extent of a migratory pathway can pitch in to help learn about and protect key areas. Without these migratory oases across the globe, the iconic spectacle of millions of birds returning to the Arctic each year would be lost.

Shorebirds face numerous threats on migration, from hunting (including sport hunting in some areas, but for food elsewhere) to habitat loss (through coastal reclamation or conversion to other uses such as shrimp farming) to coastal pollution.

Long-billed Dowitcher, another charismatic species linking the Arctic and Guatemala. Photo: Zak Pohlen/WCS.

In Guatemala, we will focus significant effort over the coming years to document critical sites for migratory shorebirds on the Pacific coast, and then to work with local landowners, agencies, and other organizations to monitor and protect those sites. Modern tracking technologies such as geotags can be placed relatively easily on birds at the breeding sites in the Arctic — providing scientists with a detailed understanding of the routes different groups of birds take and where they stop in countries like Guatemala.

With recent advances in such technologies, we have found that some species deviate from the general perception of a north-south routing.

In Guatemala, we will focus significant effort over the coming years to document critical sites for migratory shorebirds on the Pacific coast.

For example, Buff-breasted sandpipers migrate from their breeding sites on the north coast of Alaska, moving due east over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Banks Island in Canada and as far as 2000 km further to the east before turning south along the western shores of the Great Lakes, through Manitoba and the Dakotas on their way to the Gulf of Mexico, through Central America, including Guatemala, and on to Argentina.

Now, with the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, United Nations Development Program, and WCS, we will coordinate our efforts in Guatemala with local NGOs and governmental agencies — including Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP), the national authority responsible for protected areas and biodiversity.

Tahuesco. Photo: DIPESCA-MAGA.

The project will allow us to survey up to 12 sites along the Pacific Coast flyway to discover key refuges for migratory shorebirds, and establish a baseline for their abundance at the five most important sites. Surveys will be undertaken by experienced field technicians from the WCS Arctic Beringia Program working in partnership with Point Blue, Fundaeco, and Guatemalan bird experts, with the intent of training additional young Guatemalans to monitor shorebirds in the future.

We are thankful for the support of efforts like the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, which provides a substantial investment of $3.9 million each year to support projects like ours.

Only by raising awareness of the global role these birds play and engaging local partners can we find specific long-term solutions that address specific impacts in specific places. Standing together, we will ensure that the spectacle of millions of birds coming back to the Arctic each spring continues.

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 Martin Robards is Regional Director for the Arctic Beringia Program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Roan McNab is WCS Guatemala Country Director.