Population-scale drivers of individual arrival times in migratory birds


Tómas G. Gunnarsson, Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Conservation, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK. E-mail: tomas@hi.is


  • 1In migratory species, early arrival on the breeding grounds can often enhance breeding success. Timing of spring migration is therefore a key process that is likely to be influenced both by factors specific to individuals, such as the quality of winter and breeding locations and the distance between them, and by annual variation in weather conditions before and during migration.
  • 2The Icelandic black-tailed godwit Limosa limosa islandica population is currently increasing and, throughout Iceland, is expanding into poorer quality breeding areas. Using a unique data set of arrival times in Iceland in different years for individuals of known breeding and wintering locations, we show that individuals breeding in lower quality, recently occupied and colder areas arrive later than those from traditionally occupied areas. The population is also expanding into new wintering areas, and males from traditionally occupied winter sites also arrive earlier than those occupying novel sites.
  • 3Annual variation in timing of migration of individuals is influenced by large-scale weather systems (the North Atlantic Oscillation), but between-individual variation is a stronger predictor of arrival time than the NAO. Distance between winter and breeding sites does not influence arrival times.
  • 4Annual variation in timing of migration is therefore influenced by climatic factors, but the pattern of individual arrival is primarily related to breeding and winter habitat quality. These habitat effects on arrival patterns are likely to operate through variation in individual condition and local-scale density-dependent processes. Timing of migration thus appears to be a key component of the intricate relationship between wintering and breeding grounds in this migratory system.