Alaska Science Center
Understanding migration ecology of wild birds is fundamental to understanding how avian influenza viruses are maintained and spread. Researchers at the USGS - Alaska Science Center have developed a number of research projects designed to understand migratory connectivity of wild birds between and within continents, identifying potential routes by which influenza viruses are spread.
Using satellite telemetry to assess the potential for virus movement across continents: Northern Pintails (Anas acuta) as a test species
Evaluating exchange of avian-borne pathogens between Asia and North America by migratory birds requires a clear understanding of where birds from each continent are likely to come into contact. Satellite telemetry provides an useful method of identifying areas used by migratory species and provides a measure of temporal use which is important for understanding the likelihood of contact between North American and Asian migrants. During a three-year period, researchers at the USGS - Alaska Science Center collaborated with colleagues from the University of Tokyo to mark 198 Northern Pintails with satellite transmitters on wintering areas in Japan, the primary wintering area for this species in east Asia. This study identifies areas used by Northern Pintails during spring migration and provides precise estimates of the summer distribution of Northern Pintails that winter in Japan. This information will be used to define areas of overlap between North American and Japanese pintails on Asian breeding areas, and to provide a direct measure of the proportion of Japanese pintails that conduct a transcontinental migration to North America.
Yamaguchi, N., J. W. Hupp, H. Higuchi, P. L. Flint and J. M. Pearce. 2010. Satellite-tracking of Northern Pintail Anas acuta during outbreaks of the H5N1 virus in Japan: implications for virus spread. Ibis 152, 262–271. PDF file 273kb
Contact: Jerry Hupp
Assessing of breeding sympatry of Northern Pintails wintering in the United States and Japan using banding recoveries and population genetics
Populations of Northern Pintails wintering in Japan and California are considered separate from a management perspective. In this study, data from band recoveries and population genetics were used to assess the degree of biological independence of these wintering populations. Distributions of recoveries in Russia of Northern Pintails originally banded during winter in North America overlapped with distributions of Northern Pintails banded during winter in Japan. Thus these allopatric wintering populations are partially sympatric during the breeding season. Furthermore, band recoveries demonstrated dispersal of individuals between wintering populations both from North America to Japan and vice versa. Genetic analyses of samples from both wintering populations showed little evidence of population differentiation. The combination of banding and genetic markers demonstrates that these two continental populations are linked by low levels of dispersal as well as likely interbreeding in eastern Russia. Although the levels of dispersal are inconsequential for population dynamics, the combination of dispersal and interbreeding represents a viable pathway for exchange of genes, diseases, and/or parasites.
Flint, P. L., K. Ozaki, J. M. Pearce, B. Guzzetti, H. Higuchi, J. P. Fleskes, T. Shimada and D. V. Derksen. 2009. Breeding-season sympatry facilitates genetics exchange among allopatric wintering populations of Northern Pintails in Japan and California. The Condor 111(4):591–598. PDF file 2.27MB
Contact: Paul Flint
Evaluating virus transmission and shared migration pathways between Whooper Swans and Northern Pintails
In April and May 2008, dead or dying Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) infected with the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus were found at three sites in northern Japan, including two locations on the island of Hokkaido. Detection of H5N1 on Hokkaido marks the closest occurrence of highly pathogenic H5N1 to North America, and demonstrates that the range of the virus is still expanding in east Asia. Genetic evidence suggests that migratory birds may have been responsible for this recent movement of the H5N1virus. However, little is known about migration routes of Whooper Swans in east Asia. In this study 17 Whooper Swans were marked with satellite transmitters on wintering areas in Japan in February 2009 providing information on the extent to which Whooper swans and Northern Pintails share migration pathways and breeding areas. This data will be used to evaluate the likelihood of interspecific virus transmission between Whooper Swans and Northern Pintails which is especially important given that Whooper Swans and Northern Pintails frequently aggregate at the same winter habitats, and because some individuals of both species likely migrate to Japan from the Korean Peninsula, where H5N1 is persistent.
Contact: Jerry Hupp
This project documents inter-population differences in migration patterns and wintering distribution of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) breeding across Alaska. A total of 50 Tundra Swans were fitted with satellite transmitters (PTT) at five different breeding areas in Alaska, including the southern and northern Alaska Peninsula, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, drainages of Kotzebue Sound, and the Arctic Coastal Plain. Movement patterns and estimates of dispersal of swans will be inferred. An understanding of population-specific movement patterns of this widespread species will facilitate management of wildlife and domestic poultry populations in the event pathogenic strains of AI are detected in North American tundra swans as they have been in Europe and Asia.
Contact: Craig Ely
Extreme endurance flights by landbirds crossing the Pacific Ocean: Ecological corridor rather than barrier?
We used satellite telemetry to track the southward flights of bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica baueri), shorebirds whose breeding and nonbreeding areas are separated by the vast central Pacific Ocean. Seven females with surgically implanted transmitters flew non-stop 8117–11 680 km directly across the Pacific Ocean; two males with external transmitters flew non-stop along the same corridor for 7008–7390 km. Flight duration ranged from 6.0 to 9.4 days for birds with implants and 5.0 to 6.6 days for birds with externally attached transmitters. These extraordinary non-stop flights establish new extremes for avian flight performance, have profound implications for understanding the physiological capabilities of vertebrates and how birds navigate, and challenge current physiological paradigms on topics such as sleep, dehydration and phenotypic flexibility. We propose that this transoceanic route may function as an ecological corridor rather than a barrier, providing a wind assisted passage relatively free of pathogens and predators.
Gill Jr., R. E., T. L. Tibbitts, D. C. Douglas, C. M. Handel, D. M. Mulcahy, J. C. Gottschalck, N. Warnock, B. J. McCaffery, P. F. Battley and T. Piersma. 2009. Extreme endurance flights by landbirds crossing the Pacific Ocean: Ecological corridor rather than barrier? Proceedings of the Royal Society 276, 447–457 PDF file 568kb
Contact: Bob Gill
Temporal and geographic distribution of the Aleutian Islands Pacific Common Eider: Sampling for avian influenza
One mode of transmission of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus to birds in the Northern Hemisphere is from birds migrating between Asia and the United States. Many species pose as potential hosts if the birds regularly move between the regions. It is known that Common Eiders (Somateria mollissima v-nigrum) winter along the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia and irregularly as far south as Japan. The origin of these birds, however, is unknown. A likely source of contact is the Common Eider which spends the summer in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, yet their wintering location is unknown. Satellite telemetry provides a safe and accurate means to determine the movement patterns of birds. When used in conjunction with sampling for avian influence, an accurate evaluation for the potential transmission by this species can be completed. This study identified the wintering areas of the birds breeding in the Near Islands, Aleutian Islands and sampled for avian influenza viruses. There was no movement detected between Asia and North America for this group of birds. Although moving between islands, adult females remained within the Near Island group throughout the winter. Samples taken for determining the presence of avian influenza viruses from these birds and others in the area resulted in no viruses being detected. Sampling efforts within the Aleutian Islands have ceased and no further sampling is anticipated.
Contact: Margaret Petersen
Common Eiders (Somateria mollissima) were identified as focal species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service which highlighted to need to know basic population structure of the species. The subspecies Pacific Common Eider (S. m. v-nigrum) is the only eider that winters in the Bering Sea and breeds in Western North America. Key to effective management of this and any other population is an understanding of the interrelationships of the various groups of nesting and wintering birds. Once this information is known more informed permitting decisions and mitigation efforts can be used to manage this subspecies. Information is being gathered at two levels: the broad interrelationships among breeding areas throughout Alaska and the interrelationships of the expanding population within the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. The approach is to understand the current relationships using satellite telemetry and recent expansion of breeding groups using genetic techniques. Birds move into three distinct regions within the year: breeding, molting, and wintering areas. Connectivity is strong between breeding and molting areas for adult females, but less so between molting and wintering areas. In addition, there is extensive use of a single area by birds during spring migration. Genetic analysis suggests birds within the major breeding areas primarily remain separate from other breeding areas and there is structure within breeding areas. This suggests that destructive actions, such as oil spills in the Aleutian Islands or excessive disturbance on molting areas, will affect discrete populations, and natural recovery may take an extended period of time. Data collection is ongoing and expected to be completed in 2010.
Contact: Margaret Petersen
Changes in sea temperatures and ice dynamics in northern waters have resulted in changes in distribution of fishes and benthic invertebrates. The Threatened Spectacled Eider (Somateria fischeri) feeds almost exclusively on benthic and epibenthic fauna and any changes their use of critical habitat needs to be addressed. Using satellite telemetry, the distribution and temporal use of key habitats by Spectacled Eiders were determined from birds marked 1993-1996. Changes in at-sea waters since that period could have resulted in modifications of eider distribution and timing of movements. An understanding of any changes is especially critical for permitting and mitigation measures for resource development within Spectacled Eider habitats. The USGS Alaska Science Center marked a total of 66 adult Spectacled Eiders at two major breeding areas in 2008 and 2009. An additional 30 adults and 15 young are scheduled to be marked in 2010 and will complete the sampling portion of the study. Preliminary data show birds are still using areas used previously with no new regions having heavy use. To date some temporal variations have been detected although the sample size is small. The next portion of the study will be to complete the analysis of the data and publish the results.
Contact: Margaret Petersen
Most Emperor Geese (Chen canagica) nest in a narrow coastal region of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) in western Alaska, but their winter distribution extends more than 3000 km from Kodiak Island, Alaska, to the Commander Islands, Russia. In 1999, 2002, and 2003 researchers at the USGS – Alaska Science Center marked 136 adult female emperor geese on the YKD with either Very High Frequency (VHF) (n = 83) or satellite (n = 53) radiotransmitters. Birds were captured and marked at the Kashunuk and Manokinak rivers during molt in late summer. Objectives were to (1) examine annual migration chronology, use of staging areas, and differences in migration strategies among birds that wintered in different regions, (2) measure the interval between spring arrival of emperor geese on the YKD and the onset of nesting, (3) assess movements of non-breeding emperor geese to molting areas, and (4) estimate seasonal survival rates of radiomarked birds. Most nonproductive adult females marked as part of this study, departed the YKD and migrated to the north coast of the Chukotka Peninsula, Russia to moult. Additionally, differences were detected in the chronology and use of staging and wintering areas for reproductively successful geese that moulted on the YKD.
Hupp, J. W., J. A. Schmutz, C. R. Ely, E. E. Syroechkovskiy, Jr., A. V. Kondratyev, W. D. Eldridge and E. Lappo. 2007. Moult migration of emperor geese Chen canagica between Alaska and Russia. Journal of Avian Biology. 38: 000-000. PDF file 253kb
Contact: Jerry Hupp
Black Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans) nest in colonies in arctic Canada, Alaska, and Russia. Virtually the entire population stages in fall at Izembek Lagoon near the tip of the Alaska Peninsula before southward migration to winter habitats in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, and Baja California. A small number of Black Brant winter in Japan, Korea, and China. In Japan, 3,000-5,000 brant of unknown origin stop over in fall, and a declining population (< 1,000) of birds winter here, primarily in the northern islands. This study reports the sighting of brant in Japan that were marked in Alaska and proposes a migration route based on historical and recent observations and weather patterns.
Contact: Dave Ward