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Keywords:

  • behavioural plasticity;
  • departure direction;
  • departure time;
  • ecological barrier;
  • migration;
  • migratory direction;
  • radiotracking;
  • songbird

Summary

1. An innate migration strategy guides birds through space and time. Environmental variation further modulates individual behaviour within a genetically determined frame. In particular, ecological barriers could influence departure direction and its timing. A shift in the migratory direction in response to an ecological barrier could reveal how birds adjust their individual trajectories to environmental cues and body condition.

2. Northern wheatears of the Greenland/Iceland subspecies Oenanthe oenanthe leucorhoa arrive in Western Europe en route from their West African winter range. They then undergo an endogenously controlled shift in migratory direction from north to north-west to cross a large ecological barrier, the North Atlantic. We radiotracked these songbirds departing from Helgoland, a small island in the North Sea, over an unprecedented range of their journey.

3. Here, we show that both birds’ body condition and the wind conditions that they encountered influenced the departure direction significantly. Jointly high fuel loads and favourable wind conditions enabled migrants to cross large stretches of sea. Birds in good condition departed early in the night heading to the sea towards their breeding areas, while birds with low fuel loads and/or flying in poor weather conditions departed in directions leading towards nearby mainland areas during the entire night. These areas could be reached even after setting off late at night.

4. Behavioural adjustment of migratory patterns is a critical adaptation for crossing ecological barriers. The observed variation in departure direction and time in relation to fuel load and wind revealed that these birds have an innate ability to respond by jointly incorporating internal information (body condition) and external information (wind support).