Does early spring arrival lead to early nesting in a migratory shorebird? Insights from remote tracking

Josh Nightingale, Jennifer A. Gill, Tómas G. Gunnarsson, Afonso R. Rocha, Ruth A. Howison, Jos C. E. W. Hooijmeijer, Theunis Piersma, José A. Alves

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Advancing breeding phenology is a commonly observed response to climate warming among bird species, potentially in response to shifts in the phenology of key resources. However, for migratory birds breeding at high latitudes, their capacity to breed earlier may be constrained by the time available between arrival on the breeding grounds and nesting, especially for later-arriving individuals. This may have consequences for productivity, as early laying is often linked to higher breeding success, particularly in such seasonal environments. We investigated how migratory arrival timing influences subsequent timing of breeding, in particular whether the time between arrival and laying (arrival–laying gap) varies with arrival date, and if later-arriving individuals are able to catch up with early-arriving conspecifics. We tracked individual Icelandic Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa islandica with GPS and PTT tags for one to two complete breeding seasons between 2013 and 2022. After arrival in Iceland, most Godwits visited their breeding territory within 5 days, though this interval was longer for earlier-arriving birds. The total gap between arrival and laying was also longer for earlier-arriving birds, such that laying date did not vary significantly with arrival date. These results suggest that, despite individual consistency in migratory phenology, subsequent timing of nesting is probably influenced by other factors, such as mate arrival timing and/or annual variation in environmental conditions. Regular pre-nesting visits to the breeding territory may indicate that Godwits are able to monitor such factors closely and to nest early when conditions allow, but a larger sample of individuals and years is needed to assess whether early-arriving individuals contribute disproportionately to population-level advances in breeding phenology. Widespread tracking with high temporal and spatial resolution helps improve our understanding of phenological variation during the breeding season and its consequences for productivity and variation in juvenile phenology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)424-439
Number of pages16
Issue number2
Early online date29 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024


  • bio-logging
  • migration
  • nest survival
  • phenology
  • reproduction

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