We investigated the importance of wind-assisted flight for northward (spring) migration by Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) along the Pacific Coast of North America. Using current models of energy costs of flight and recent data on the phenology of migration, we estimated the energy (fat) requirements for migration in calm winds and with wind-assisted flight for different rates of fat deposition: (1) a variable rate, assuming that birds deposit the minimum amount of fat required to reach the next stopover site; (2) a constant maximum rate of 1.0 g/day; and (3) a lower constant rate of 0.4 g/day. We tested these models by comparing conservative estimates of predicted body mass along the migration route with empirical data on body mass of Western Sandpipers at different stopover sites and upon arrival at the breeding grounds. In calm conditions, birds would have to deposit unrealistically high amounts of fat (up to 330% of observed values) to maintain body mass above absolute lean mass values. Fat-deposition rates of 1.0 g/day and 0.4 g/day, in calm conditions, resulted in a steady decline in body mass along the migration route, with predicted body masses on arrival in Alaska of only 60% (13.6 g) and 26% (5.9 g) of average lean mass (22.7 g). Conversely, birds migrating with wind assistance would be able to complete migration with fat-deposition rates as low as 0.4 g/day, similar to values reported for this size bird from field studies. Our results extend the conclusion of the importance of winds for large, long-distance migrants to a small, short-distance migrant. We suggest that the migratory decisions of birds are more strongly influenced by the frequency and duration of winds aloft, i.e. by events during the flight phase, than by events during the stopover phase of migration, such as fat-deposition rate, that have been the focus of much recent migration theory.
Additional publication details
Wind assistance: A requirement for migration of shorebirds?