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Tiny Blackpoll Warbler Takes 3-Day Flight Across Ocean

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Bryan Pfeiffer
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Scientists have confirmed that the Blackpoll Warbler, a half-ounce songbird, flies for three days straight across the ocean.

A tiny songbird living in Vermont has been on the move and showing some amazing stamina on its journey. The Blackpoll Warbler has been tracked with a migration lasting up to three days over the ocean. A recent study tracked the little bird's astonishing flight from the Northeastern United States and Nova Scotia, over the Atlantic Ocean and then all the way to the Caribbean.

Chris Rimmer of the Vermont Center for Eco-Studies is the co-author of a paper that details the long migratory of the Blackpoll Warbler. He said the bird is about the size of a chickadee, weighing about half an ounce. It nests on Vermont's tallest mountains, including Mount Mansfield, which is where it was studied.

"It was hypothesized for years among ornithologists and birders alike that this really tiny bird underwent a trans-oceanic spectacular flight, but nobody had definitive proof of it," Rimmer said. "So our study was able to nail down that line of evidence and document the fact that this extraordinary flight does take place."

"The five that we were able to follow, between Nova Scotia and Long Island sailed out over the open ocean – there's nowhere to stop out there – they made landfall in the Greater Antilles of the Caribbean, Hispaniola, or Puerto Rico before continuing on to their wintering grounds in northern South America," Rimmer said. The average speed calculated was 20-30 miles per hour. "These little birds are motoring along during those three days of straight flight."

"These little birds are motoring along during those three days of straight flight." - Chris Rimmer, from the Vermont Center for Eco-Studies

Blackpoll Warblers are one of the signature breeding birds on Mount Mansfield, so the Center for Eco-Studies has been studying them for a while. They attached tiny backpack like geolocators on the birds, which tracks light patterns all the way to South America. "By recovering these, and that's the catch, you have to recapture the bird the following summer, and remove the geolocator and download the data which is stored on a tiny computer chip, you can then determine where the bird was within a certain degree of error each day during the year," Rimmer explained.

"They are declining across much of their breeding range, and the species actually breed all the way from Alaska to Newfoundland, most of them are in Canada. In Vermont, we have one of the few U.S. breeding populations."

They wanted to determine whether the bird was flying across the ocean or taking the coastal overland route, like most migratory birds. "These flights, remember if you're going to travel a couple thousand miles it takes an extraordinary amount of fuel to power your flight, so you've got to have the energetic wherewithal to do that," Rimmer said.

The other reason for the study is that Blackpoll Warblers are a species that conservationists are concerned about. "They are declining across much of their breeding range, and the species actually breed all the way from Alaska to Newfoundland, most of them are in Canada. In Vermont, we have one of the few U.S. breeding populations," Rimmer said.  "But you have to understand where migratory birds travel, where they stop and in order to conserve them you must understand the basic routes and areas that are important during their migration."

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