Insights into Wilson's Warbler migration from analyses of hydrogen stable-isotope ratios
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Our ability to link the breeding locations of individual passerines to migration stopover sites and wintering locations is limited. Stable isotopes of hydrogen contained in bird feathers have recently shown potential in this regard. We measured hydrogen stable-isotope ratios (δD) of feathers from breeding, migrating, and wintering Wilson's Warblers. Analyses of feathers from museum specimens collected throughout the western portion of the breeding range indicate that δD values are significantly negatively related to latitude of collection (R2=0.52), which is an indication that δD values are a good descriptor of breeding latitude. Analyses of feathers collected from birds migrating through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico (USA), revealed a significantly positive relationship between δD values and the timing of autumn migration (R2=0.34), but not the timing of spring migration. This pattern indicates that Wilson's Warblers that bred furthest north migrated earliest in the autumn. Finally, analysis of feathers collected on the wintering grounds indicate that the hydrogen isotope ratio is significantly positively related to wintering latitude (R2=0.80), which indicates that birds that bred furthest north wintered furthest south. In combination, these patterns suggest that in the western portion of their range, Wilson's Warblers have a leapfrog migration system in which the northern-most breeding birds pass through New Mexico early in the autumn to arrive on the wintering grounds in southern Central America, the southern edge of the Wilson's Warblers winter range. We know of no other literature documenting or suggesting that Wilson's Warbler engage in leapfrog migration. We think the novelty of these results is a reflection of the potential for stable-isotope techniques to revise our understanding of bird migration.
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