Each year, the world’s shorebirds embark on a remarkable collective journey, covering thousands of miles along mysterious migratory routes known as "flyways." More than 100 species make this incredible round trip from southern hemisphere feeding grounds to Arctic breeding grounds, enduring days of non-stop flying without food or water. 

Nathan Senner, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation
Nathan Senner, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation, holding a Hudsonian Godwit

Nathan Senner, an assistant professor in the College of Natural Sciences’s Department of Environmental Conservation, has been studying these flyways for nearly three decades. At UMass Amherst, his lab focuses on understanding how individual-level processes scale up to influence population- and species-level processes—and the seemingly leaderless phenomenon of migration is a perfect example of this. 

One species that has piqued Senner’s interest is the Hudsonian Godwit, a type of large sandpiper. Even among the long-distance flights undertaken by many shorebirds, the migrations of Hudsonian Godwits stand out: on their way north, they can fly for seven days and more than 6,000 miles without stopping, from southern South America to Nebraska and South Dakota. Then, on their way back south, many godwits stop in eastern Canada or along Cape Cod before launching themselves over the Atlantic Ocean toward the heart of the Amazon River Basin, where they spend a few days en route to Chile and Argentina. 

Many of these long-distance migratory shorebird species' populations are dwindling, however. In fact, their populations are decreasing faster than nearly any other group of species on the planet. These declines are likely due to climate change, human disturbance, and the loss of wetlands to agriculture and urban development. According to Senner, what makes shorebirds like godwits so special is exactly what makes them so threatened: “Along their incredible migratory pathways they are encountering so many different changes, including the expansion of the aquaculture industry in Chile, droughts and wetland loss in the mid-continental U.S., rapid warming in the Arctic, and beach development and increasingly severe storms along the Atlantic Coast. Each change adds just a bit more uncertainty to their lives and, right now, that is proving too much for shorebirds to handle.” 

To shine a light on this issue, PBS and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute partnered to produce “Flyways,” the latest episode in the award-winning wildlife television program Nature. This documentary focuses on three migratory shorebird species, including the Hudsonian Godwit—and the producers looked to Senner for this bird’s tale. 

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The story of Senner and UMass PhD candidate Jennifer Linscott being featured in this fascinating new film began at a scientific conference. In 2019, the producers of “Flyways” attended the American Ornithological Society Conference in Anchorage, Alaska. There, on the edge of the Hudsonian Godwit breeding range, they met Senner and became excited by the godwit story. “It’s hard not to fall in love with godwits when you can see them flying around the bogs of Alaska with glacier-covered mountains in the background and the midnight sun shining!” says Senner. 

In the first few minutes of the film, Jennifer Linscott can be seen conducting research on Chiloé Island in southern Chile, where godwits spend their Northern Hemisphere winter. Following that meeting in Anchorage, Linscott and Senner met up with the “Flyways” crew in Panama, Chile, South Dakota, and (again) Alaska, while enduring delays caused by the pandemic and the frequently conflicting schedules of godwits and an international film crew. 

After four years of work in challenging environments and the offices of some of the world’s foremost shorebird migration experts, “Flyways” paints the picture of a magnificent journey, the unique animals who embark on it, and the challenges that stand in their way. Ultimately, the film attempts to convey not only how amazing shorebirds are, but how everyone can make a difference. With shorebirds facing so many different changes, addressing any of them can have an impact. As Senner puts it, “We’re in a race against time, and Massachusetts would be the perfect place to start winning that race. That includes working to minimize disturbances to beaches and providing as much habitat as possible before godwits take off across the ocean, following their flyway back south.” 

 “Flyways” is now streaming on

Article posted in Careers for Public