For the better part of the last decade, one of the Virgin Islands’ most loyal visitors has been Hope, a migratory shorebird whose annual journey between the North American Arctic and St. Croix has been carefully followed by scientists seeking to learn more about her species’ behavior.
Hope is a whimbrel, a type of bird that frequently travels thousands of miles between its breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada to winter homes in the Caribbean and the Northeastern coast of South America.
This month Fletcher Smith, an ornithologist working out of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, visited schools across the V.I. to talk to students about what he and his research team have learned while tracking Hope and other whimbrels. On Monday and Tuesday, Smith visited St. John, where he spoke with students at Gifft Hill and Julius E. Sprauve Schools.
Smith was accompanied by award-winning children’s author and St. John resident Cristina Kessler, who published a book about Hope in 2013. The two also visited schools on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Although Fletcher said whimbrels are a fairly common shorebird, scientists noticed that between the mid 1990’s and the 2000’s their population declined by roughly 50 percent in one of their major staging areas in Virginia. In 2006, Smith began tagging whimbrels with small satellite transmitter “backpacks” to learn more about their migratory patterns and determine if anything encountered along their routes was contributing to their population decline.
One of the approximately 40 birds that Smith has tagged over the course of his research is Hope, a larger-than-average three-year-old female who was outfitted with a tracking device in 2009. Hope was named after a creek in the whimbrel’s staging ground in Virginia.
“We used to identify birds by their tagging numbers. But we felt like to get the general public interested we’d name them over local landmarks,” said Smith.
Data delivered by Hope turned out to be among the most helpful data collected during Smith’s research.
Over the course of four years, Hope was tracked about 51,000 miles, sometimes through hurricanes and tropical storms. Her transmitter pinged a satellite once per day and e-mailed Smith’s research team with data on her speed and location. Throughout those years Hope never deviated from her pattern of spending winters at Great Pond, a wildlife sanctuary on St. Croix.
By proving that individual whimbrels return to pinpoint-specific locations year after year, Hope caught the attention of conservationists seeking to preserve bird habitats. Smith said that during the peak of interest in Hope, over 10,000 people in 25 different countries, mostly students, were using the Internet to follow the whimbrel’s journeys across the hemisphere.
V.I. youth and their parents and teachers may remember Hope’s story from reading about her in Kessler’s book “Hope is Here!,” illustrated by Marcos Castillo, in which Smith appears as a character. Kessler became interested in Hope after reading reports about her in local media. When she was approached by former first lady Cecile deJongh to write a book to give out to children at her annual Christmas party and book giveaway, she knew she wanted to highlight Hope’s story.
In 2012, Hope’s transmitter stopped delivering data. But what could have been a sad end to the story turned out to simply be a snapped antennae identified by St. Croix-based researcher Lisa Yntema. Smith flew down to St. Croix to remove Hope’s broken transmitter; an unobtrusive tag was kept on her leg so that scientists could continue to keep tabs on her.
Hope has continued to travel to St. Croix annually ever since. Smith told the Gifft Hill School students her last sighting at Great Pond had been just a few weeks prior.
“I would say the takeaway from the story is that if you protect the places that these birds use, they will do just fine. And the Virgin Islands is actually doing a pretty good job, although it’s never an easy thing and you can’t really rest on the thought that things will always be protected,” Smith told students.
Smith said the whimbrel population has been declining at a rate of about 4 percent each year, and shorebird hunting is one potential reason. Whimbrels are fairly long-lived birds. Their life span is between 10 to 15 years, but they generally only breed successfully two or three times, Smith said. Overhunting can have a huge impact on their numbers.
Thanks in part to Smith’s research, the island of Guadeloupe, where he saw two of his tracked birds brought down by hunting, has placed a moratorium on killing whimbrels for sport.
Smith’s visit to the territory was funded by the University of the Virgin Islands’ Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. Kessler helped organize his visits to local schools.
“I wanted the students to meet a scientist who loves what he does, who is really excited about his job,” said Kessler. “Maybe it will inspire some of them to want to be scientists themselves.”