Skip to main content
SLU publication database (SLUpub)

Research article2016Peer reviewed

Body mass change and diet switch tracked by stable isotopes indicate time spent at a stopover site during autumn migration in dunlins Calidris alpina alpina

Schwemmer, Philipp; Voigt, Christian C.; Corman, Anna-Marie; Adler, Sven; Garthe, Stefan


Birds may change their diet and foraging habitat during or after migration. Dunlins Calidris alpina alpina breed in the tundra of northern Europe and Russia where they feed exclusively on terrestrial prey. However, up to 80% of the flyway population uses the Wadden Sea as their first important staging site on the way to wintering grounds, feeding exclusively on marine prey. Adult birds migrate earlier than immatures and tend to fly non-stop, whereas immatures may stage for at least a few days en route, mainly in the Baltic region. There they mostly feed on brackish water prey showing similar isotopic values compared to terrestrial prey. When they arrive in the Wadden Sea, dunlin body reserves are depleted and lower than those of individuals that have already staged for several days. We hypothesized that lighter individuals should retain a strong terrestrial isotopic blood signature, while heavier ones should show a stronger marine signature. We found a significant positive correlation between scaled mass index and carbon (delta C-13) and nitrogen (delta N-15) stable isotopes, reflecting the switch from terrestrial to marine prey during migration. A mixing model revealed differences in isotopic values between heavy and light adults and immatures, respectively, in relation to the isotopic prey signatures. Adults showed stronger marine signals compared with immatures, emphasizing the different modes of migration (i.e. a later departure in immatures) as well as the known spatial segregation of age classes in the Wadden Sea, i.e. adults use tidal flats distant from the shore while immatures use coastal areas influenced by terrestrial carbon sources. The results of this study demonstrate the value of scaled mass index in migratory birds as an indicator of time elapsed after diet switching following migration. Furthermore, this study extents the existing knowledge on the timing of dunlin migration by using an isotopic approach.

Published in

Journal of Avian Biology
2016, Volume: 47, number: 6, pages: 806-814

    UKÄ Subject classification


    Publication identifier


    Permanent link to this page (URI)