Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 66, Issue 6, pp 915–922 | Cite as

Tracking migration routes and the annual cycle of a trans-Sahara songbird migrant

  • Heiko SchmaljohannEmail author
  • Martin Buchmann
  • James W. Fox
  • Franz Bairlein
Original Paper


Movement ecology studies have highlighted the importance of individual-based research. As tracking devices have not been applicable for identifying year-around movements of small birds until recently, migration routes of such species relied on visual observations and ring recoveries. Within the Palaearctic–African migration system, loop migration seems to be the overall migration pattern. The interindividual variations within species-specific migration routes are, however, unknown. Here, we track the individual migration routes and annual cycles of male Northern Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe, a trans-Sahara songbird migrant from a German breeding population with light-level geolocators. Two migrated most likely via Spain towards western Africa but returned via Corsica/Sardinia, while two others seemed to migrate via Sardinia and Corsica in autumn and via Spain and France in spring (loop migration). The fifth took presumably the same route via France and the Balearics in both seasons. All birds wintered in the Sahel zone of western Africa. Overall migration distances for autumn and spring were similar (about 4,100 km), whereas the overall migratory speed was generally higher in spring (126 km day−1) than in autumn (88 km day−1). Birds spent about 130 days at the breeding area and 147 days at the wintering grounds.


Avian migration Light-level geolocator Migration route Northern Wheatear Songbird Trans-Sahara migrant 



This work was supported financially by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (BA 816/15-4). We thank Ommo Hüppop and Freimut Schramm for technical support and Lesley Szosteck for improving the English. Four anonymous reviewers had greatly improved former versions of the manuscript.

Ethical standards

Northern Wheatears were caught, ringed and tagged under license of the Ministry for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Areas, Rhineland Palatinate, Germany.

Supplementary material

265_2012_1340_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (303 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 303 kb)


  1. Adams J, Scott D, McKechnie S, Blackwell G, Shaffer SA, Moller H (2009) Effects of geolovation archival tags on reproduction and adult body mass of stooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus). New Zeal J Zool 36:355–366CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alerstam T, Hake M, Kjellen N (2006) Temporal and spatial patterns of repeated migratory journeys by ospreys. Anim Behav 71:555–566CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bächler E, Hahn S, Schaub M, Arlettaz R, Jenni L, Fox JW, Afanasyev V, Liechti F (2010) Year-round tracking of small trans-Saharan migrants using light-level geolocators. PLoS One 3:e9566CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bairlein F (2001) Results of bird ringing in the study of migration routes. Ardea 89:7–19Google Scholar
  5. Bairlein F, Norris DR, Nagel R, Bulte M, Voigt CC, Hussel D, Fox JW, Hussel DJT, Schmaljohann H (2012) Cross-hemisphere migration of a 25-gram songbird. Biol Lett 8: published online. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1223
  6. Barron DG, Brawn JD, Weatherhead PJ (2010) Meta-analysis of transmitter effects on avian behaviour and ecology. Methods Ecol Evol 1:180–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berthold P (2001) Bird migration: a general survey. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  8. Bowlin MS, Henningsson P, Muijres FT, Vleugels RHE, Liechti F, Hedenström A (2010) The effects of geolocator drag and weight on the flight ranges of small migrants. Methods Ecol Evol 1:398–402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Buchmann M (2001) Die Brutbiologie des Steinschmatzers (Oenanthe oenanthe) auf intensiv genutzten Flachen in Rheinland-Pfalz. Vogelwarte 41:1–17Google Scholar
  10. Buchmann M, Helm B, Rothery P, Flinks H (2009) Auswirkung von Spätbruten auf Mauser und Rückkehrrate bei einem Weitstreckenzieher, dem Steinschmätzer (Oenanthe oenanthe). Vogelwarte 47:125–133Google Scholar
  11. Cochran WW (1980) Wildlife telemetry. In: Schemnitz S (ed) Wildlife management techniques manual. The Wildlife Society, Washington, pp 507–520Google Scholar
  12. Conder P (1989) The wheatear. Christopher Helm, LondonGoogle Scholar
  13. Cramp S (1988) Handbook of the birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 5. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  14. Daan S, Aschoff J (1975) Circadian-rhythms of locomotor activity in captive birds and mammals: their variations with season and latitude. Oecologia 18:269–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dierschke V, Mendel B, Schmaljohann H (2005) Differential timing of spring migration in Northern Wheatears Oenanthe oenanthe: hurried males or weak females? Behav Ecol Sociobiol 57:470–480CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ekstrom PA (2004) An advance in geolocation by light. Memoir Natl Inst Polar Res C Earth Sci 58:210–226Google Scholar
  17. Fox JW (2010) Geolocator manual v8 (March 2010). available online:, download on 25.08.2011
  18. Fudickar AM, Wikelski M, Partecke J (2011) Tracking migratory songbirds: accuracy of light-level loggers (geolocators) in forest habitats. Methods Ecol Evol :published online, doi: 10.111/j.2041-210X.2011.00136.x
  19. Hall-Karlsson KSS, Fransson T (2008) How far do birds fly during one migratory flight stage? Ringing Migr 24:95–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hobson KA, Wassenaar LI (2008) Tracking animal migration with stable isotopes. Academic Press, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
  21. Irvine RJ, Leckie FM, Redpath SM (2007) The cost of carrying radio-transmitters: a test with homing pigeons. Wildl Biol 13:238–243CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kinzelbach R, Kinzelbach I (2005) Das Buch vom Pfeilstorch. Basilisken, MarburgGoogle Scholar
  23. Klaassen RHG, Strandberg R, Hake M, Olofsson P, Tøttrup A, Alerstam T (2010) Loop migration in adult marsh harriers Circus aeruginosus, as revealed by satellite telemetry. J Avian Biol 41:200–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Korner-Nievergelt F, Sauter A, Atkinson PW, Guélat J, Kania W, Kéry M, Köppen U, Robinson RA, Schaub M, Thorup K, van der Jeugd H, van Noordwijk AJ (2010) Improving the analysis of movement data from marked individuals through explicit estimation of observer heterogeneity. J Avian Biol 41:8–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Liechti F (2006) Birds: blowin’ by the wind? J Ornithol 147:202–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lisovski S, Hewson CM, Klaassen RHG, Kroner-Nievergelt F, Kristensen MW, Hahn S (2012) Geolocation by light: accuracy and precision affected by environmental factors. Methods Ecol Evol 3: published online. doi: 10.1111/j.2041-210X.2012.00185.x
  27. Naef-Daenzer B (2007) An allometric function to fit leg-loop harnesses to terrestrial birds. J Avian Biol 38:404–407Google Scholar
  28. Naef-Daenzer B, Widmer F, Nuber M (2001) A test for effects of radio-tagging on survival and movements of small birds. Avian Sci 1:15–23Google Scholar
  29. Nathan R, Getz WM, Revilla E, Holyoak M, Kadmon R, Saltz D, Smouse PE (2008) A movement ecology paradigm for unifying organismal movement research. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 105:19052–19059PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Panov EN (2005) Wheatears of palearctic. Pensoft, SofiaGoogle Scholar
  31. R Development Core Team (2011) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. 2011. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, Vienna, Austria. ISBN 3-900051-07-0, URL
  32. Rappole JH, Tipton AR (1990) New harness design for attachment of radio transmitters to small passerines. J Field Ornithol 62:335–337Google Scholar
  33. Robinson WD, Bowlin MS, Bisson I, Shamoun-Baranes J, Thorup K, Diehl RH, Kunz TH, Mabey S, Winkler DW (2009) Integrating concepts and technologies to advance the study of bird migration. Front Ecol Environ 8:354–361CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Salewski V, Schmaljohann H, Herremans M (2005) New bird records from Mauritania. Malimbus 27:19–32Google Scholar
  35. Stutchbury BJM, Tarof SA, Done T, Gow E, Kramer PM, Tautin J, Fox JW, Afanasyev V (2009) Tracking long-distance songbird migration by using geolocators. Science 323:896PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Tøttrup AP, Klaassen RHG, Strandberg R, Thorup K, Willemoes Kristensen M, Jørgensen PS, Fox J, Afanasyev V, Rahbek C, Alerstam T (2011) The annual cycle of a trans-equatorial Eurasian-African passerine migrant: different spatio-temporal strategies for autumn and spring migration. Proc R Soc Lond B :published online. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.1323
  37. Trierweiler C, Koks BJ, Drent RH, Exo KM, Komdeur J, Bairlein F (2007) Satellite tracking of two Montagu’s harriers (Circus pygarus): dual pathways during autumn migration. J Ornithol 148:513–516CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Walther BA, van Niekerk A, Thuiller W, Baumann S, Dean WRJ, de Brujin B, Jones PJ, Nikolaus G, Pearson DJ, Robinson SP, Salewski V, Taylor PB, Tushabe H, Rahbek C (2010) A database of Western Palearctic birds migrating within Africa to guide conservation decisions. In: Harebottle DM, Craig AJFK, Anderson MD, Rakotomanana H, Muchai M (eds) Proceedings of the 12th Pan-African ornithological congress, 2008. Animal Deomgraphy Unit, Cape Town, pp 50–104Google Scholar
  39. Wingfield JC (2008) Organization of vertebrate annual cycles: implications for control mechanisms. Phil Trans R Soc Lond B 363:425–441CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Winkel W, Frantzen M (1991) Ringfund-Analyse zum Zug einer niedersächsischen Population des Trauerschnäppers Ficedula hypoleuca. Vogelkdl Ber Niedersachsen 23:90–98Google Scholar
  41. Zink G, Bairlein F (1995) Der Zug europäischer Singvögel. Ein Atlas der Wiederfunde beringter Vögel. Aula, WiesbadenGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Heiko Schmaljohann
    • 1
    Email author
  • Martin Buchmann
    • 2
  • James W. Fox
    • 3
  • Franz Bairlein
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Avian Research “Vogelwarte Helgoland”WilhelmshavenGermany
  2. 2.Unterer Sand 12WaldböckelheimGermany
  3. 3.Migrate Technology Ltd.CambridgeUK

Personalised recommendations