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Annual Cycle and Migration Strategies of a Trans-Saharan Migratory Songbird: A Geolocator Study in the Great Reed Warbler

Public Library of Science
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079209
  • Research Article
  • Ecology
  • Geography


Recent technological advancements now allow us to obtain geographical position data for a wide range of animal movements. Here we used light-level geolocators to study the annual migration cycle in great reed warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus), a passerine bird breeding in Eurasia and wintering in sub-Saharan Africa. We were specifically interested in seasonal strategies in routes and schedules of migration. We found that the great reed warblers (all males, no females were included) migrated from the Swedish breeding site in early August. After spending up to three weeks at scattered stopover sites in central to south-eastern Europe, they resumed migration and crossed the Mediterranean Sea and Sahara Desert without lengthy stopovers. They then spread out over a large overwintering area and each bird utilised two (or even three) main wintering sites that were spatially separated by a distinct mid-winter movement. Spring migration initiation date differed widely between individuals (1-27 April). Several males took a more westerly route over the Sahara in spring than in autumn, and in general there were fewer long-distance travels and more frequent shorter stopovers, including one in northern Africa, in spring. The shorter stopovers made spring migration on average faster than autumn migration. There was a strong correlation between the spring departure dates from wintering sites and the arrival dates at the breeding ground. All males had a high migration speed in spring despite large variation in departure dates, indicating a time-minimization strategy to achieve an early arrival at the breeding site; the latter being decisive for high reproductive success in great reed warblers. Our results have important implications for the understanding of long-distance migrants’ ability to predict conditions at distant breeding sites and adapt to rapid environmental change.

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