Unlocking Migration's Secrets

Unlocking Migration's Secrets

For centuries the study of bird migration has been riddled with mystery and unanswered questions: Where do birds go in winter? How far do they fly? Can they navigate a hurricane? Scientists are tapping new technologies to find the answers, and transforming everything we know--or think we know--about birds.

By Scott Weidensaul/Photography by Joel Sartore
Published: March-April 2012

But for the time being, at least--and true to her name--Hope was safe from all but the mostly natural dangers to which shorebirds have always been subject. And true to her nature, which depends on a few extraordinarily small, localized places in her hemispheric wanderings, Hope would defend a tiny winter territory on St. Croix. Every time she has been observed at Great Pond, it has been within 10 yards of the same spot--a small section of a mangrove-rimmed mudflat rich in fiddler crabs, which she defends against other whimbrels. For the next seven months this would be her universe while she rebuilt her reserves of fat and strength for the arduous return trip that awaits her.

About the time you read these words, Hope will be winging northwest again, retracing the thousands of miles that will bring her back to Hope Creek on the Virginia tidelands, there to gorge on still more crabs, then across the Canadian Shield to the flower-specked tundra on the Mackenzie Delta--spanning the continent on a journey whose complexities, triumphs, and dangers, like those facing all migrants, grow ever more astonishing and awe-inspiring as we decipher them.

Magazine Category

Author Profile


I have tears in my eyes as I

I have tears in my eyes as I type. What a story. Fly safely little Hope & let us all have hope that others will survive senseless hunters.

Whimbrel trek

Great article. Reminds me of how I feel about my ultra-trailrunning, likening it to a migration is a most excellent of analogies. Thanks for sharing this trek of the whimbrel.

Incredible research

What a great article! I love reading about wildlife research and keeping myself up to speed on the current conservation issues. I studied wildlife conservation at the university of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and participated in a number of research projects through the Illinois Natural History Survey, including one study on the American Golden Plover. I tracked transmitted plovers using radio telemetry during one of their migration stop over spots in Arcola, Illinois. These awesome shorebirds fascinated me in their incredibly long migration and how each year they return to the same stop over spots on their journey, just like the whimbrels. The data I collected just gave us a small glimpse into one part of their migration. To read about this new tracking system with the whimbrels that gave the researchers constant real time locations is absolutely incredible. What an awesome data set and comprehensive look into these birds migration. Knowing this new information about their journey can really help us understand how to conserve this species.

How do I locate the sources

How do I locate the sources you use in your articles. I am interested in studying this topic further. Do you provide the references on your web page somewhere? I don't seem be able to find a link anywhere.

Beautifully written article.

Beautifully written article. Once again I am dropped to my knees in amazement and reverence for the birds-the fierce determination and drive to survive. We must become a global village where every culture understands we can not continue to do what we have always done-i.e. hunt relentlessly with ignorant abandon. It is not imposing our values on another culture, but teaching a higher consciousness of thinking and understanding how all things are related, the balance of life on this planet is so out of whack with too many people. What befalls the animals and nature, befalls us all. Perhaps it is more "manly" to protect and stand up for what is good and right, than to destroy and kill everything in sight.

Life on Earth

It won't make much difference if the tar sands oil mining is allowed to continues. Unless we stop this TransCanada debacle, life as we and all other creatures of this earth will change to a point that we will wish we were dead. The sooner the humans are gone from the planet, the better for all other species. Hopefully, by then, there will still be some clean air and water and food to sustain them.


As usual, Joel Sartore's photographs enrich the information immeasurably. Wow.

I am wondering what the

I am wondering what the migratory patterns of birds can tell us about the history of the planet, its changing temperatures and its life span!

Unlocking migrations secrets

Working for a wildlife shelter it will be huge bonus when the price of these transistors make them usable by everyone not just the few who can get the funds to support their use. I would love to be able to track our releases as opposed to release and HOPE!


Although generally familiar with the idea of birds migrating, it took Scott Weidensaul's delineating it as "a new frontier" to really drive home to me the incredible flying and navigational feats of so many of our common birds, as well as the need to provide way stations, and protect their winter homes (March-April 2012). I am inspired to learn of ornithologists who are advancing knowledge of "migratory connectivity." We must do more to support these scientists and find ways to protect migrating birds who provide us with delightful sound and beauty, asking little in return. Marie Barry, Beverly, MA

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.