Stable hydrogen isotope variability within and among plumage tracts (delta H-2(F)) of a migratory wood warbler

Hydrogen isotope analysis of feather keratin (delta H-2(F)) has become an essential tool for tracking movements between breeding and wintering populations of migratory birds. In particular, delta H-2(F) has been used to create delta H-2(F) isoscapes that can be used to assign the geographic origins of molt. The majority of past studies have sampled a portion of a single feather as an isotopic proxy for the entire plumage although surprisingly little is known about variation of stable isotopes within and between feather tracts of individuals in local populations. Here we examine delta H-2(F) variation in 24 pterylographic variables (9 primaries, 6 secondaries, 6 rectrices, and 3 patches of ventral contour feathers) in individual specimens of black-throated blue warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) breeding in the Big Santeetlah Creek watershed (5350 ha), southern Appalachian Mountains. By restricting our study to territorial ASY males (after second year) inhabiting a small watershed, we could focus on delta H-2(F) variation generated during the complete prebasic annual molt in a circumscribed population while factoring out age and sexual differences in foraging behavior, isotopic incorporation, and post-breeding dispersal. Summed within-individual variation (delta H-2(F)) across 24 pterylographic variables ranged from 12 to 60 parts per thousand (= 21.8 9.4 parts per thousand), with 81% of the individuals exhibiting variation >= 16 parts per thousand (reproducibility of analyses was <= 4 parts per thousand). Adjacent feathers in feather tracts tend to have more similar delta H-2(F) values than feathers grown weeks apart, consistent with the stepwise replacement of flight feathers. The pooled population sample exhibited significant delta H-2(F) variation in primaries (-78 to-21 parts per thousand), secondaries (-80 to-17 parts per thousand), rectrices (-78 to-23 parts per thousand), and ventral contour feathers (-92 to-32 parts per thousand). Strong year effects in delta H-2(F) variation were observed in each of the 24 pterylographic variables. Altitudinal effects were observed only in ventral contour feathers. The current findings demonstrate that within-individual variation (delta H-2(F)) may be much greater than previously thought in migratory species that molt on or near breeding territories. Our study also highlights the need for greater pterylographic precision in research design of isotope-based studies of avian movement. Within-individual and within-population delta H-2(F) variation should be incorporated in geographic assignment models. In a broader context, the staggered Staffelmauser pattern of molt in wood warblers provides an exceptional view of the seasonal variation of hydrogen isotopes circulating in blood plasma during the six-week period of annual molt.