1. Seasonal carry-over effects may be important structuring components of avian life-history cycles. However, little is known on physiological transitions between stages and on phenotypic compromises that may be made at such time to improve fitness.
2. We studied postmigratory body remodelling in red knots (Calidris canutus islandica) arriving on the Arctic breeding grounds. Our objectives were to determine the effects of body reconstruction and preparation for breeding on maintenance energy costs and to determine whether weather conditions can force compromises between functions required for postmigration recovery of body composition, thermoregulation and breeding.
3. During two consecutive springs at the northernmost land on Earth (Alert, Ellesmere Island, Canada, 82°30′N), we monitored changes in knots post-arrival body stores. Using ultrasonography, we also tracked changes in gizzard size, an indicator of gut size, and pectoral muscle thickness, not only an endogenous protein source but also a thermogenic organ. We measured basal metabolic rate (BMR) throughout reconstruction and compared it with BMR of nonbreeding red knots wintering in the Dutch Wadden Sea.
4. Arriving knots faced temperatures up to 13 °C lower than during midwinter. Birds arrived with large body stores and pectoral muscles, which declined in size while they grew their gizzard and prepared for breeding. BMR at arrival was indistinguishable from winter BMR and increased linearly throughout reconstruction. BMR increased up to 69% faster in females than males, likely due to the development of their reproductive organs.
5. Birds had lower body stores but larger muscles in the colder year, and muscle loss was correlated with the warming of spring temperatures. Therefore, muscles would not only serve as a nutrient source, but their thermogenic function could also provide the flexibility to cope with high thermostatic costs in the spring. However, retaining muscles for shivering may limit protein recirculation and delay the onset of breeding.
6. Postmigratory recovery therefore involves significant energy costs and arriving birds likely have to make physiological compromises, depending on spring conditions, which may impact on fitness. Although this period is clearly critical in the life cycle of red knots, it is one of the least understood life-history stages in Arctic-breeding shorebirds.