Plucky Northern bird beats a tropical storm: 'It really is an amazing feat'

A plucky bird named Upinraaq, who was tagged in the Mackenzie Delta, is giving scientists a glimpse into migration patterns of shorebirds after it survived Tropical Storm Erica last month.

A northern bird named Upinraaq is giving scientists a sense of just how rough it can be

Whimbrels breed across the subarctic region in North America, including in Manitoba, as well as in Europe and Asia. (Fletcher Smith/Centre for Conservation Biology)

Scientists have long been curious about how birds migrating from North America to South America fare during hurricane season, and now one plucky whimbrel is giving them a sense of just how rough it can be.

Researchers placed a tracking device on a whimbrel named Upinraaq in the Mackenzie Delta in 2014. They've been following her migration from her northern breeding grounds all the way to the Caribbean. The journey has been no easy feat.

Researchers placed a tracking device on Upinraaq in the Mackenzie Delta in 2014. (Fletcher Smith/Centre for Conservation Biology)

Upinraaq, which means summer in Inuvialuktun, surprised scientists this year when she got caught in Tropical Storm Erica, and survived. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Upinraaq encountered 75 km/h winds.

"This bird flew from Newfoundland, had been flying for three days non-stop, when it hit the northeast quadrant of the storm and then powered through the storm and on to South America," says Fletcher Smith, a research biologist with Virginia Commonwealth University.

There's been a 50 per cent decline in shorebirds since the mid-1990s, so the university collaborated with the Canadian Wildlife Service in 2012 to learn more about where the birds are stopping during their annual migration.

Hunters killing shorebirds

The researchers believe Upinraaq was in the storm for about 12 hours. The next day, it was upgraded to a Category 1 hurricane.

"It really is an amazing feat," Smith says. "They're able to put on enough fat at the stopover sites in Atlantic Canada and eastern Quebec that they can fly four to five days non-stop and still interact with a storm and still have enough fat to power through it."

A look at the whimbrel's migration route through Tropical Storm Erica. (Fletcher Smith/Centre for Conservation Biology)

Smith says, through the tagging, they've happened upon what may be the reason for the population decline: several birds have been shot and killed by hunters in the Caribbean.

"That kind of opened our eyes to the possibility that some of these locations in the Caribbean and northern South America may be shooting enough birds to potentially have a population level impact," Smith says.

Upinraaq, though, is safe for now. Smith says she's "doing just fine" in coastal Suriname.

"We're hoping that the bird makes it to its wintering grounds sooner rather than later. It's in a country right now that does have some shorebird hunting, so we hope that it makes it to its wintering grounds where it can safely make it through the winter."

You can track Upinraaq's migration pattern by going here