By Yessenia Soto
Migratory shorebirds average just two-thirds the size of a pigeon, yet they have some of the longest migration routes in the world, flying thousands of miles each year between their nesting and wintering grounds in North and South America. The birds fatten themselves up before beginning each migration and may reach twice their normal weight, packed with enough fat, or “fuel,” to complete their long-distance journey. Most species stop at specific points along their routes to rest and replenish themselves in wetlands, swamps, lagoons, or other habitats rich in food. The preservation and ecological health of those stopover sites are consequently essential for a successful migration.
Such was the premise of the migratory shorebird conservation campaign started in the 1980s, when biologists first began to notice that the populations of certain shorebirds in the Americas were shrinking. They subsequently set about protecting stopover sites in various countries, which was widely considered the key to halting those population declines. Then, two Canadian scientists pointed out that this alone would not be enough to save shorebirds.
After traveling to the southern hemisphere to evaluate the status of several crucial stopover sites, Guy Morrison and Ken Ross concluded that isolated conservation measures would be insufficient. What was needed was a system of “sister reserves” that would transcend borders, connecting the key sites that birds use in their migratory flights with local efforts to conserve them. That marked the beginning of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), an initiative that has helped to preserve important habitat for migratory shorebirds in the Americas for the past 25 years.
WHSRN is “an international strategy for local conservation” whose goal is to promote conservation at sites that link local, regional, and hemispheric efforts, according to Diego Luna, the WHSRN representative in the Southern Cone. “I will accomplish very little by conserving my site if the next site is threatened. If you want to achieve real results, it is impossible to talk about conservation exclusively on a national or local level,” he says.
Just as its creators envisioned, the network connects key stopover sites for shorebirds with the people who are involved in their conservation. It currently coordinates the conservation of 84 protected areas under a hemispheric network that comprises almost 90% of the sites considered critical for migratory shorebirds. The protected habitat is located in 13 countries and covers nearly 30 million acres (more than 12 million hectares).
In order to become part of the network, stakeholders must nominate their sites, which will undergo a rigorous evaluation process, and await the decision of the WHSRN Hemispheric Council. According to Luna, the challenge facing the Network is not just to incorporate new sites, but to ensure critical habitats are actually conserved with the available resources and human capacity, which are always limited. They consequently have to filter site applications according to their importance in order to incorporate the ones with the highest population density, or where conservation efforts will have the greatest impact.
Once a site is accepted, the people responsible for its conservation automatically become members of WHSRN and begin to receive training and resources, with strategic guidelines for the migratory birds found in the area. The network allows members to easily exchange information and experiences and provides support for site management, research, monitoring, indicator development, and fundraising — though the network is not a direct source of funds, it has been very successful in raising resources for its members. The network also supports awareness-raising activities such as social marketing campaigns for the general public and decision makers.
According to Luna, the network’s focus has evolved, especially in the past decade, as conservationists are facing new global phenomena and challenges such as climate change, urbanization, and the expansion of agriculture and ranchland. “Our strategies have evolved from a scientific focus to a more complex approach that encompasses social, economic, and political factors. We are moving toward the creation of good governance processes and ensuring that our partners have the information, skills, and opportunities to make the right decisions for critical habitat conservation,” he explains.
Luna explains that climate change is one of the greatest challenges, since weather events are increasingly altering migration patterns. By tracking individuals using signaling devices secured to their bodies, biologists learned that the red knot (Calidris canutus) — a shorebird that weighs just six ounces (170 grams) — flies nonstop for six days and nights for a distance of 4,970 miles (8,000 km) over the Amazon Basin and the Atlantic Ocean to travel between southern Brazil and North Carolina. Research has shown that red knots sometimes make detours of more than 620 miles (1,000 km) to avoid tropical storms during their migration south, which results in a major loss of energy and muscle mass. Therefore, changes in weather patterns could consequently begin to jeopardize the ability of certain species to complete their migratory cycle.
Because it is a relatively new phenomenon, biologists have just begun to study the impact of climate change on migratory birds and determine how it might be mitigated. For example, the Network has moved to strengthen the ability of its partners in Patagonia to assess the vulnerability of their sites and define what adaptation and mitigation measures should be developed for critical areas. The challenge for the WHSRN now is to build a hemispheric agenda for climate change, as quickly as possible. One of the first steps toward this was the development of the Sea Level Affecting Marshes Model (SLAMM) – within the Western Hemisphere Migratory Species Initiative (WHMSI) framework and with support from the Organization of American States’ FEMCIDI fund – which has helped scientists identify climate change threats, estimate their impact, and calculate the need for adaptation.
In response to human population growth that is affecting key shorebird areas, the network faces the challenge of promoting a balance beyond the needs of real estate development and conservation. “The idea is to integrate the one with the other, so that they are mutually beneficial,” Luna said.
WHSRN members are working to eradicate the misconception of many decision-makers that conservation is anti-development. “Given the market trends and consumer demand, habitat preservation adds value to development and productive activities. That’s the road to green economies,” said Luna.
Shorebird conservation can also promote local development, mainly through tourism, an activity that has led many communities to support conservation while diversifying their incomes. There is a growing demand for special interest and scientific tourism from bird watchers and universities seeking critical conservation sites where they can develop research programs.
Network members have also established partnerships with local industries. In Laguna de Rocha, a WHSRN site in Uruguay, conservationists have been helping local ranchers improve their livestock management in order to preserve natural grasslands and the habitat of the buff-breasted sandpiper (Tryngites subruficollis). These birds require grass that’s no higher than 4 inches (10 cm), so well-managed livestock can generate ideal conditions for them. At the same time, members of the Alliance for Southern Cone Grasslands are studying options for certifying a type of sustainable ranching, which could be permitted in a WHSRN reserve.
Luna points out that these initiatives have been possible thanks to the work and motivation of an array of partners, which in some cases are forward-thinking companies that have joined forces with conservationists as a strategy to ensure their own business’s sustainability.
For example, in 2010 Chile’s National Petroleum Company, (ENAP for its name in Spanish), became a strategic ally for the conservation of Bahía Lomas, a Chilean Ramsar and WHSRN site. The company created a rational wetland use program that prioritizes shorebird conservation as part of its corporate social responsibility program. The company’s efforts have resulted in good habitat management supported red knot research. ENAP also provided resources, convened stakeholders, lent facilities for meetings, and donated hours of helicopter flights to researchers, in addition to running an internal program that has mapped threats, updated contingency plans, and trained workers.
One of the WHSRN’s most impressive achievements was in Argentina, where members pushed through legislation that prohibits the modification of wetlands in Black River and Santa Cruz, two provinces in Patagonia that hold critical migratory shorebird habitat.
“We believe we’ve come a long way with the incorporation of more than 90% of the hemisphere’s key sites into our network. Now the challenge is to continue ensuring the health and integrity of shorebird populations and their habitats at the 84 sites currently in the network,” Luna explains. “It’s also vital that we build frameworks and provide access to information for decision-makers – only then can we be sure that the miracle of migration will continue.”