Extreme spring conditions in the Arctic delay spring phenology of long-distance migratory songbirds
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Arctic regions are warming rapidly, with extreme weather events increasing in frequency, duration, and intensity just as in other regions. Many studies have focused on how shifting seasonality in environmental conditions affects vegetation phenology, while far fewer have examined how the breeding phenology of arctic fauna responds. We studied two species of long-distance migratory songbirds, Lapland longspurs, Calcarius lapponicus, and white-crowned sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii, across five consecutive breeding seasons in northern Alaskan tundra. We aimed to understand how spring environmental conditions affected breeding cycle phenology, including the timing of arrival on breeding grounds, territory establishment, and clutch initiation. Spring temperatures, precipitation, and snow-free dates differed significantly among years, with 2013 characterized by unusually late snow cover. In response, we found a significant delay in breeding-cycle phenology for both study species in 2013 relative to other study years: the first bird observed was delayed by 6–10 days, with mean arrival by 3–6 days, territory establishment by 6–13 days, and clutch initiation by 4–10 days. Further, snow cover, temperature, and precipitation during the territory establishment period were important predictors of clutch initiation dates for both species. These findings suggest that Arctic-breeding passerine communities may have the flexibility required to adjust breeding phenology in response to the increasingly extreme and unpredictable environmental conditions—although future generations may encounter conditions that exceed their current range of phenological flexibility.
KeywordsArctic seasonality Climate change Gambel’s white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii) Lapland longspur (Calcarius lapponicus) Phenology
We thank Ashley Asmus, Shae Bowman, Kathryn Daly, Adam Formica, Jessica Gersony, Kathleen Hunt, Michaela McGuigan, Simone Meddle, Lisa Quach, Jake Schas, and Marley Tran for field assistance. We thank Toolik Field Station (Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks) for sharing data on meteorological conditions, and dates birds were first observed on breeding grounds. We thank both Toolik Field Station and CH2 M HILL for providing support and logistics. This project has been funded by a collaborative NSF Grant from the Office of Polar Programs (ARC 0908444 to N. Boelman, ARC 0908602 to L. Gough, and ARC 0909133 to J. Wingfield).
Author contribution statement
NTB, LG, and JCW conceived and designed the study. All authors collected measurements and analyzed the data. NTB, JSK, and SKS did the majority of the writing, while HEC, JHP, LG, and JCW provided editorial advice.
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