1. Climate change has been associated with shifts in the timing of biological events, including the spring arrival of migratory birds. Early arrival at breeding sites is an important life-history trait, usually associated with higher breeding success and therefore, susceptible to selection and evolution in response to changing climatic conditions.
2. Here, we examine the effect of changes in the environmental conditions of wintering and passage areas on the mean passage time of 13 trans-Saharan passerines during their spring migration through the western Mediterranean over the 15 years from 1993 to 2007.
3. We found that most of the species studied have been advancing the timing of their passage in recent years. However, annual variation in the mean date of passage was positively correlated with vegetation growth (measured as the normalized difference vegetation index [NDVI]) both in the Sahel (the region of departure) and in northern Africa (the passage area). Thus, migration dates were delayed in years with high primary productivity in passage and wintering zones. All species seem to respond similarly to NDVI in the Sahel; however, late migrants were less affected by ecological conditions in northern Africa than those migrating earlier, suggesting differences based on species ecology.
4. Mean timing of passage was not related to the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), temperature or NDVI in the species-specific wintering areas (the overwintering region) when analysed in combination with the other covariates.
5. Our findings show that ecological conditions in the winter quarters (specifically the Sahel) and en route are relevant factors influencing trends in the passage dates of trans-Saharan migratory birds on the southern fringe of Europe. Possible long-term consequences for late arriving spring migrants are discussed.