The annual 29 000 km long migration of the bar-tailed godwit, Limosa lapponica baueri, around the Pacific Ocean traverses what is arguably the most complex and seasonally structured atmospheric setting on Earth. Faced with marked variation in wind regimes and storm conditions across oceanic migration corridors, individuals must make critical decisions about when and where to fly during nonstop flights of a week's duration or longer. At a minimum, their decisions will affect wind profitability and thus reduce energetic costs of migration; in the extreme, poor decisions or unpredictable weather events will risk survival. We used satellite telemetry to track the annual migration of 24 bar-tailed godwits and analysed their flight performance relative to wind conditions during three major migration legs between nonbreeding grounds in New Zealand and breeding grounds in Alaska. Because flight altitudes of birds en route were unknown, we modelled flight efficiency at six geopotential heights across each migratory segment. Birds selected departure dates when atmospheric conditions conferred the greatest wind assistance both at departure and throughout their flights. This behaviour suggests that there exists a cognitive mechanism, heretofore unknown among migratory birds, that allows godwits to assess changes in weather conditions that are linked (i.e. teleconnected) across widely separated atmospheric regions. Godwits also showed adaptive flexibility in their response not only to cues related to seasonal changes in macrometeorology, such as spatial shifting of storm tracks and temporal periods of cyclogenesis, but also to cues associated with stochastic events, especially at departure sites. Godwits showed limits to their response behaviours, however, especially relative to rapidly developing stochastic events while en route. We found that flight efficiency depended significantly upon altitude and hypothesize that godwits exhibit further adaptive flexibility by varying flight altitude en route to optimize flight efficiency.
Additional publication details
Hemispheric-scale wind selection facilitates bar-tailed godwit circum-migration of the Pacific