Live Updates: Tracking Upland Sandpiper Trans-hemispheric Migration

Upland Sandpiper. © Jason Hill

Where is Konza Now? Quick Links to Location by Date:

August 31, 2018
September 4, 2018
September 9, 2018
September 11, 2018
September 17, 2018
September 24, 2018

So many people wish to be a bird, even if just for a moment. I felt waves of envy when I watched a video of a man in a motorized hang glider imprinting a migration route for hand-reared Whooping Cranes by leading them across the sky. A similar glider offered a bird’s eye view of flying geese for the breathtaking film “Winged Migration,” allowing us to tag along on the birds’ journey.

We all can’t jump into hang gliders, but thanks to technological advances there are other ways to follow a wild migratory bird through its entire, year-round movements.

We are currently “live” tracking a free-living Upland Sandpiper. A shorebird that has nothing to do with shores, the Upland Sandpiper is a long-distance migratory bird that lives in grasslands and travels 6,000 miles to South America each winter. In April 2016, we captured this female sandpiper (we call her Konza), graced her with a solar-powered geolocator, and have been following her every move ever since. Funding for this project was provided by the Department of Defense Legacy Program.

The Upland Sandpiper we are tracking, sporting her solar-powered satellite geolocator. We have been following her every move since April 2016, thanks to funding from the Department of Defense Legacy Program. (Photo courtesy of R. Renfrew.)

Starting from her breeding grounds in Kansas, we will post new maps to show where Konza travels, stops, and overwinters, as an Argos satellite detects and records her location and transmits the data. As we embark on year three of tracking her moves, we promise to not give out any spoilers.

Watch Konza head back to the wild after receiving her solar tag in 2016:

August 31, 2018

As of today, Konza is already on her way south, about 400 km southwest of her breeding area, recorded this morning in Oklahoma USA. Where will she go next? Stay tuned!

Current location: Oklahoma, USA
Countries visited: USA

September 4, 2018

Konza is still in the same location in Oklahoma, undoubtedly fattening up for the journey ahead. The diet of Upland Sandpipers is 97% insects year-round, and some of the heaviest weights have been recorded in September, just before their long flight south (Houston et al. 2011). When we captured this bird on 23 April 2016, she weighed 196g. Although we cannot definitively know the sex of an upland sandpiper, females weigh more than males, and birds that are heavy or light enough can be assumed to be female or male, respectively. The average mass of all nine presumed females we captured in spring 2016 was 191g, while the 10 presumed males we captured averaged 136g.

We’ll post an updated map and social media alert once Konza is on the move again!

Current location: Oklahoma, USA
Countries visited: USA

September 9, 2018

Konza is over the ocean!

Konza, the Upland Sandpiper carrying a solar-powered satellite tag, left her pre-migration staging location in Oklahoma on 4 Sept. Then her tag went quiet for four days, which isn’t unusual for this technology; a tiny solar-powered battery takes time to charge, especially when under cloudy skies. But yesterday, on 9 Sept., we got what we’ve been waiting for, and the wait was worth it!

Konza is south of Central America, over the Pacific Ocean, on her way to South America! “Over the ocean,” you say? “Where does she stop to eat and sleep while on this trans-continental flights?” The answer: she doesn’t. You may recall reading about one of our other Upland Sandpipers (here) that flew for four days non-stop over the Pacific Ocean without food, water, or much sleep.

“How is that even possible,” (you ask while munching on a piece of fruit while sitting at your desk) “and what do you mean by ’much sleep’? How can she sleep at all while in flight?”

First, birds’ guts grow dramatically larger (to take in more food) as they prepare for long migration flights, and then the gut shuts down during flight to save energy. Birds take advantage of favorable winds and use a host of navigational cues (including smell, celestial cues, and the Earth’s magnetic fields [which they can see!] to navigate. They can even compensate for wind drift if they get blown off course, and yes, they can sleep while in flight by shutting down one hemisphere of their brain at a time.

We’ll give you a minute to let all of that soak in. Meanwhile, Konza is still powering across the Pacific Ocean at a steady ~22 mph on her way to… Well, you tell us! Donate here to keep her transmission signal alive, and tell us where you think she’ll land in South America.

Fall Migration Statistics

Current location: International waters, 900 km north of the Galapagos Islands
Countries visited: USA, Mexico (flyover), Guatemala (flyover), El Savador (flyover)

September 11, 2018

Land ho in Ecuador! And with a fascinating tale to tell… But stay tuned, because Konza still has a long way to go.

In our last entry, Konza was flying over the Pacific on 9 September. Over the next 48 hours, she flew at least 1,930 km to eastern Ecuador, very close to the border of Peru.

Konza not only endured her oceanic journey, but she also successfully flew past the lakes of Ozogoche in the Andean mountains, where strangely enough, Upland Sandpipers are known to rain from the sky. “Ozogoche” is a merging of the word “ushu,” meaning desirous to eat meat, and “juchi,” meaning lonely. It is such a fascinating tale of Ecuador indigenous people and migrating Upland Sandpipers, that Joe Houlberg, a native of Ecuador, is making a film about it.

An Upland Sandpiper washed up on the shore in the Lakes of Ozogoche region in Ecuador. Photo: © Joe Houlberg

A local woman collects a “sacrificed” Upland Sandpiper in preparation for cooking. Photo: © Joe Houlberg

Each year hundreds of migrating Upland Sandpipers wash up on the shores of lakes in Ozogoche between September and mid-October. It is said that the birds “commit suicide” by flying head first at very high speeds into the lake. For the twenty-five local indigenous communities in the region, this act of sacrifice is sacred. “Cuvivie” they call the species, based on the sound that it makes. For hundreds of years, the communities have celebrated the arrival of the sacrificed Cuvivie, which they collect along the shores to feast on. The indigenous of Ecuador celebrate the Upland Sandpiper with great fanfare out of their appreciation and respect for the bird that dependably provides for them every year.

Note: Since leaving her breeding grounds on September 4, Konza has flown 5020 km (3120 mi) in one week.

Fall Migration Statistics

Current location: Ecuador: in a narrow grassy valley at 1500 m elevation, and <10 km from the Peruvian border

Countries visited: USA, Mexico (flyover), Guatemala (flyover), El Savador (flyover), Costa Rica (flyover), Columbia (flyover),  Ecuador
Distance flown from 2018 breeding grounds:  5020 km (1920 mi)

September 14

From ocean to forest – breaking down barriers

When we last tuned in on September 11th, Konza had terminated her transoceanic crossing over the Pacific with a brief stop in southeastern Ecuador, near the Peruvian border. Our latest transmission on September 14th shows Konza 1,300 km farther, in southeastern Peru near the border with Bolivia. The last three transmissions from her solar satellite tag on the 14th are within a few hours of each other, and she was still on the move. She has been passing over forested regions of eastern Peru.

To a grassland bird, dense forests are fairly similar to oceans when it comes to migration. Long-distance migrants such as Upland Sandpiper and Bobolink usually fly nonstop over enormous forested regions (think: the Amazon). They tend to stop on either side of these vast, inhospitable tracts of land to rest and refuel. Our best guess is that she has since made a landing somewhere in the open savannas of northern Bolivia. Another transmission from Konza is soon due; all we need now is for the satellites to be in the right positions to detect her 5g tag. Keep an eye out – we’ll be in touch again soon!

Fall Migration Statistics

Current location: In the air over Southeastern Peru, near the Bolivian border.

Countries visited: USA, Mexico (flyover), Guatemala (flyover), El Savador (flyover), Costa Rica (flyover), Columbia (flyover),  Ecuador, Peru

Distance flown from 2018 breeding grounds:  6320 km (3930 miles)

September 24, 2018

No Word from Our Bird

The latest update on Konza is… there is no update. There have been no transmissions since our last update on 14 September.

Don’t panic just yet.

This has happened before, with a variety of ultimate outcomes. Sooner or later, every tag stops reporting, never to be heard from again. It is usually difficult, if not impossible, to know whether the bird perished (and the tag is in water, on the ground, or in the stomach of an unfortunate predator), or if the tag simply stopped functioning. Tags can fail internally, or the antenna becomes damaged from water or wear and tear.

One Upland Sandpiper we tracked previously made it as far as Texas by October, and subsequent transmissions came in only every few months until the following March—and then there was nothing. If during this time the tag had reported from the same location in Texas, we would have inferred that the tag was lying on the ground, either because the bird had shed the tag or died. However, at one point the tag reported from about 15 km away from the previous position, suggesting that the bird was still wearing the tag, but the tag had ceased to function properly.

We are rooting for one or more of the other potential explanations for this radio silence from Konza. We have had cases where a tag went silent for days or weeks, and then Bam! It started transmitting regularly again. We can only speculate as to why this happens.

We do know that in order to transmit a tag’s location, satellites need to “see” the tag and triangulate on the location. Konza may be in a spot where the tag simply cannot communicate with the satellites. For example, if Konza is in a dense forest or a narrow valley (such as a river channel), the possibility that a satellite’s path will cross in the right place to obtain a fix on her tag is greatly diminished.

Transmissions may be further inhibited if she isn’t taking flight and instead remaining on the ground, in which case the antenna is on or very close to the ground. Or, perhaps the solar-powered tag is not getting enough charge during a major weather event; or, perhaps the bird preened her feathers so that they are covering the solar cells.

We don’t know, and we may never know. We can only patiently wait and hope that Konza survives with her tag intact. Welcome to the world of suspense and uncertainty experienced by scientists who track migrating birds!

You can be confident that if and when we hear from Konza, we will update you immediately. Meanwhile, try to get some sleep.

We need your help to keep Konza’s signal alive!

Our Department of Defense funding has come to a planned end, but Konza is still going strong. Help us tell her story by contributing to her data transmission costs. Click here and enter “Go Konza, go!” when you donate, and tell us what country you predict Konza will visit next. Thank you!

Houston, C. S., C. Jackson, and D. E. Bowen Jr. (2011). Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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Comments (2)

  1. ellen says:

    Wow I love this. I’d love to track bar tailed godwits from alaska to nz.

  2. Jared Keyes says:

    Just a tremendous and inspirational story unfolding! Thank you!

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