A Bird Flies Into A Hurricane. Does It Fly Out?

Many migratory birds travel thousands of miles every year, over land and sea and, sometimes, through hurricanes. Host Scott Simon talks to Dr. Bryan Watts from the College of William and Mary, who used satellite transmitters to track shorebirds as they flew through Hurricane Irene.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Imagine this: a migratory bird flies yearly from Canada to South America. It's a long, light flight, especially since they've stopped serving peanuts. Sometimes the bird takes off over the ocean heading south over the open water, and then runs straight into a hurricane. How does the bird make it through the storm? Dr. Bryan Watts, the director of the Center for Conservation and Biology at the College of William and Mary has been tracking some of those birds and may have some information. Dr. Watts, thanks for being with us.

DR. BRYAN WATTS: Thank you.

SIMON: Now, you've been tracking the Whimbrel?

WATTS: Yes. We've been tracking Whimbrel for about three years now using a tiny little satellite transmitter, which allows us to track their movements anywhere in the world.

SIMON: And they fly from where to where?

WATTS: These birds breed in the high Arctic, and they actually winter, at least the eastern population, down in northern South America, sort of over between Venezuela the mouth of the Amazon.

SIMON: So that's a schlep, isn't it?

WATTS: Yeah, long distance. These birds are capable of tremendous flights. The first bird that we tracked, we were astonished to find actually made a 3,500 mile nonstop flight from Virginia to Alaska.

SIMON: Nonstop?

WATTS: Nonstop. Yeah, flying 35 to 40 miles an hour for five solid days. So the satellite tracking has really opened up a new world of questions for us.

SIMON: Well, I got one. What happens when they run into a hurricane?

WATTS: Yeah. That's something that we've been interested in for a long time, and we've been tracking a large bird called Hope. And that bird came off of Nova Scotia in August and went right into Tropical Storm Gert and was flying for 27 hours at nine miles an hour into stiff headwinds and then finally broke through the storm and the flight speed picked up to over 90 miles an hour with the tailwinds.

SIMON: Is it sheer strength or do they...

WATTS: Yeah. We don't know how they're capable of these types of flights, but they seem to be able to do that. One factor clearly is, the birds that come and stop here in the spring, for example, might come in at 350 to 400 grams. But over a period of three weeks, the add 50 percent of that. So they leave here like a fat ball and they have all this energy stored up that they're able to make these tremendous flights, and that's likely a factor in how they're able to sustain these types of headwinds for so long.

SIMON: Do you know where Hope is now?

WATTS: Hope is in St. Croix at a place called Great Pond. And so she has wintered in this tiny little place for three winters. She comes here to Virginia and stages to build fat reserves for migration in a tiny little place that we work. And then she flies up to the McKenzie River in western Canada and breeds in a tiny area.

And that's one of the things that we've learned is that although this bird moves throughout the hemisphere, it seems to depend on tiny little areas and specific places. And so if we just disrupt the ecology in those tiny little places it has some impacts on the population that uses those areas.

SIMON: Dr. Bryan Watts is director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary. He joined us from WHRV in Williamsburg. Thanks so much, sir.

WATTS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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