Some of the most extreme long-distance migrants, Arctic-breeding shorebirds are disproportionately represented in tallies of declining species worldwide. For many shorebirds, including the semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla), the specific causes and mechanisms behind population declines have not been identified. Stressful conditions affecting birds during wintering are often implicated. Interactions between events and processes occurring in the disparate locations used throughout the annual cycle also may be critical in shaping both individual life histories and population demographics. The main objectives of my graduate research were: a) to examine whether semipalmated sandpipers wintering in specific locations incur differential levels of stress; and b) to test whether stressful conditions may carry over between different stages of an individual's life cycle. Using measurements of corticosterone (the primary avian stress hormone) deposited in winter-grown feathers, I examined the contribution of breeding season and fall migration to winter-incurred stress, and looked for evidence of carryover effects from wintering conditions to spring migration and subsequent reproductive performance. In Chapter 1, I compared the levels of stress exposure of 40 semipalmated sandpipers that bred at five Arctic sites and spent the austral summer in distinct regions (identified via light-sensing geolocators) across their tropical 'wintering' range. I found stress exposure varied by wintering region, and birds using locations along the Atlantic coast of northeastern South America and the Pacific coast of Central America had the highest feather corticosterone levels. I did not find evidence that carryover effects from the breeding season and/or fall migration influenced birds' physiology during winter. In Chapter 2, I investigated whether greater stress exposure during winter might subsequently affect birds during spring migration and/or breeding. I found that geolocator-tracked birds with increased stress levels delayed spring migration and initiated nests later. However, results for a larger dataset (including 254 birds breeding at seven sites across the North American Arctic) suggested low-stress birds nested later. It is possible the larger dataset included replacement clutches that could have confounded relationships with feather corticosterone, as only birds in better condition are likely to re-nest after clutch failure. In addition, I found evidence that stressful wintering conditions carryover to affect reproductive performance: females that accrued high levels of stress during wintering subsequently laid fewer eggs. In confirmed first nests, we found evidence for a clutch size-egg volume tradeoff, with high-stress females producing fewer offspring but potentially investing more in individual offspring. This research represents the first instance of the feather corticosterone technique being used to compare conditions across the wintering range of a calidrid shorebird and reveals specific wintering locations with high levels of stress exposure. This is also the first research that provides a mechanistic perspective on carryover effects between the wintering and breeding stages in a shorebird, through measurements of feather corticosterone. Finally, by showing that poor environmental conditions at wintering sites far from Arctic breeding areas may be detrimental to the reproductive performance of a species with declining populations, this research emphasizes the importance of considering full annual cycles in conservation and research efforts for migratory species.
Thesis (M.S.) University of Alaska Fairbanks, 2018
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