Whimbrel Survives Tropical Storm, Shot in Caribbean

September 13, 2011
machi the whimbrel Machi the Wimbreal. Photo by Barry Truitt.

A migrating Whimbrel named Machi has been shot on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, French West Indies. The bird (pictured at left) had likely landed to rest up after detouring around Tropical Storm Maria. Machi became one of thousands of shorebirds that are hunted for sport each fall—but she stood out from the flock because of a satellite tracking tag applied by scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary.  The hunter contacted a local wildlife biologist to report what he’d found.

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Though Whimbrels (and most other North American birds) are protected in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act it’s legal to hunt them on several Caribbean islands and there are no bag limits, said Lisa Sorenson of Boston University, who is president of the Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds. Hunting has a strong tradition in the Caribbean, especially on Guadeloupe and nearby Martinique and Barbados. Guadeloupe has about 3,000 hunters, the most active of whom may take 500 to 1,000 shorebirds in a single season, according to a 2011 report. Precise figures are hard to come by, but frequently shot species likely include Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, and American Golden-Plover, according to the report. Some Whimbrels visit during fall migration or winter, but many stop in the Caribbean only when forced down by bad weather—Machi had not visited Guadeloupe in previous years.

Machi was first caught and tagged in August, 2009, on a Nature Conservancy reserve in Virginia. Fletcher Smith, a biologist at the William and Mary center, applied the tag, and over the next two years Machi drew a detailed map of staggering athletic feats: more than 27,000 miles traveled; seven separate, nonstop flights of more than 2,000 miles; yearly trips between breeding grounds near Hudson Bay and wintering grounds in Sao Luis, Brazil. The red line in the map shows Machi’s last flights from Hudson Bay, including the long arc she made around Maria; the track ends in Guadeloupe (other colors show Machi’s routes in previous seasons).

map of yearly migrations of Machi the Whimbrel

The Center for Conservation Biology is still tracking four other Whimbrels and have tracked 13 others in previous years; you can see migration maps for them all on their site.

According to Sorenson, when the hunter returned Machi’s transmitter, the Guadeloupe wildlife biologist told him Machi’s history and the distances she had traveled. “He was amazed; he just had no idea what these birds are capable of,” Sorenson said. Though flocks of birds can blur into anonymity, knowing the name and history of a single individual can somehow resharpen the focus. Hunters who live on the islands, and who have hunted all their lives, must see the annual arrival of shorebirds as an abundance that returns undiminished every year. It’s traditional to go out hunting after hurricanes have passed, to shoot what the bad weather has brought in, Smith said.

The solution to the problem, Sorenson hopes, lies in raising awareness of shorebirds’ plight in the larger world—including population declines and habitat loss. “It’s important not to offend the hunters and shut down communications,” she said, “but hunting regulations need to be updated.” In the Bahamas hunting used to be unrestricted, but recent bag limits of 50 birds per day have been put in place, and hunter education, including involving hunters in banding and population counts, have helped raise awareness and develop a conservation ethic.

On Barbados, hunters have voluntarily agreed not to shoot American Golden-Plovers or Red Knots, birds of high conservation concern. “We want to have that approach in Guadeloupe and Martinique,” Sorenson said, “where we work with the hunters to find a solution. [Machi’s death] is a really, really sad event, but the reality is it’s happening to thousands of birds every fall. This is a good opportunity to encourage these governments to adopt more sustainable hunting regulations, such as bag limits, as well as protect some wetlands as refuges.”

(Map courtesy of the Center for Conservation Biology. The Whimbrel tracking project is a collaboration of the Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary, the Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, and Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences.)



  • Dave Woodson

    It’s sad to hear about the loss of shorebirds by uneducated hunters.

    I volunteered and worked with Biologist Matt Whitbeck to located and document Whimbrels flying into roosts at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Surveys documented 735–3,070 individuals between 15 April and 2 May during 2005–2008.

    The following document may be a helpful resource for education purposes…

  • sally bolton

    The more I learn about birds the more I am becoming their human advocate 50 a day is outragious for any species I hope to see changes in this management and working with hunters to understand

  • Andy

    It’s not that these individuals are uneducated it is that they just recently enacted regulations regarding how many they can shoot.

    Hopefully these hunters are shooting for food and for economic gain (by selling meat and feathers). I’m sorry to say that those kinds of things are more important. It’s not our job to tell them what to do but we should try to work with them to make conservative limits on the birds they take.

    Even in america the Wimbrel was shot by market hunters and they decimated the populations, it would seem that these hunters have not had that much effact on the overall populations. If this was looked into it would be interesting to see and track their direct effect.

  • Rob Olson

    I doubt these indigenous hunters are simply doing this for “sport”,I bet they eat all the birds they bag. In addition to regulating the harvest, how about we co-opt these folks into a monitoring effort? They are probably willing to help, because they hunt the birds. Let’s embrace their culture.

  • Hugh

    Andy and Rob: You’re right to consider the culture of the people who live on Guadeloupe and other Caribbean islands—this is something that conservationists such as Sorenson are also very careful to do. Their aim is to work with the hunters, introduce a little more awareness about the year-round pressures on migrating shorebirds, and move toward reducing some of the take. According to the Center for Conservation Biology, Whimbrel numbers on the east coast of North America have dropped by 50 percent since 1990, so there is reason to investigate what factors are causing that decline. In addition, the hunting tradition is indeed primarily a sporting and not a subsistence activity. The practice was brought to the islands by French colonists who hunted for recreation much as they did in France. I’m sure that some fraction of the shorebirds are put to use in some way, but this is not the main reason for the hunts. Thanks for writing in.

  • rob olson

    Thanks for the thoughtful response Hugh. Sounds pretty reasonable. One last thing. I’d be surprised if any hunting culture, introduced by the French wasn’t food based. I know they are passionate about eating Snipe. Is it true only a fraction are being eaten?

Whimbrel Survives Tropical Storm, Shot in Caribbean