This article was originally written in the 2013 summer edition of FOAR's newsletter Gator Tales.
Welcome a Special Visitor - Pingo Has Made It to the Refuge
By Tim Cooper, Project Leader, Texas Chenier Plain NWR Complex
During this season, Anahuac, McFaddin, Texas Point and Moody refuges host birds that are traveling over great distances and find shelter in our area. Even though Anahuac NWR is now celebrating its 50th year as a National Wildlife Refuge, we still have much to learn about its value to wildlife resources on a global scale. I am excited about the increasing information that is coming in regarding the Whimbrel roost on Anahuac NWR. Right now, the roost is becoming more active as birds come in daily from wintering in South America. Refuge Biologist Patrick Walther has been working with others to increase understanding of this annual concentration of remarkable birds.
One of the things that makes a National Wildlife Refuge significant on a larger scale is well illustrated with this example. This Whimbrel roost, discovered by Refuge Biologist Matt Whitbeck and proven to be a globally important migration roost, is located deep in the heart of the refuge's East Unit. It is estimated that as many as 10% of North America's Whimbrel population uses Anahuac NWR as a safe haven and a critical "refueling" area for a much further migration push into the Arctic. These birds must arrive in the Arctic in adequate condition to quickly conduct an elaborate courtship display, nest, lay up to 4 eggs and rear young; and hopefully be back in shape to migrate south.
Whimbrels are one of the world's great migrants that nest in the Arctic tundra then migrate down to South America for winter - often over water most of the way. Heading south, our visiting bird, named Pingo, left land at the Saint Lawrence River mouth in Quebec and crossed the open Atlantic Ocean headed south to Brazil. She spent the winter almost 6,000 miles from her summer grounds. What kind of athlete does it take to fly that great route burning body fat and eventually muscle tissue for days on end? Likely never seeing land and never being able to stop and catch her breath, Pingo made her way south on an all-or-nothing non-stop flight. Her southbound trans-Atlantic flight was around 3,500 miles and it looks like she added a slight detour! She averaged around 46 mph on the start of this trip, which would make the trans-Atlantic flight more than 76 hours of non-stop flying. Her navigation ability with no ground based landmarks alone is an incredible feat.
The SeaTurtle.org website has tracked about 23 Whimbrels that were fitted with satellite transmitters in the fall. By spring, only four are still working and sending data. See a listing of these Whimbrels on their website. Click on the list under Pingo and see the brief story surrounding one of our international refuge visitors this season. Thankfully, she arrived on the refuge and is here as I write this. Let’s see how long she stays and maybe the bird named Mackenzie (on the same site) will pay us a visit as well.
As spring migration comes into its own, take a moment and marvel at what is happening around us. The story of Pingo should remind us that we all play a support role in a much bigger picture, providing and maintaining a network of critical habitats for wildlife. She is one single bird, one of many thousands of her species, and Whimbrels are just one species which are protected and sheltered by National Wildlife Refuges. But with technology putting her tracking and life history story information in front of you, it is amazing!
Thank You for all that you do on a daily basis to help keep these refuges such special places.
Whimbrel at Anahuac NWR photo by Joe Blackburn
Update April 2015: According to the SeaTurtle.org website, Pingo stopped transmitting a signal in May 2014. However, as of this post, three of the original 23 Whimbrels continue to transmit their location, including Postel, who has been transmitting for over three years during it's annual journeys between Hudson Bay in Canada and a mangrove forest on the Brazilian coast.
Click here to read about the discovery of new staging areas by the Whimbrel tracking project at the Manomet Center for Conservation Science. Pingo and Anahuac NWR are mentioned.