We relate variation in the timing of arrival by migrating birds breeding at northerly latitudes to individual differences in the prior accumulation of energy stores. Balancing starvation risks early in the season against the almost universal declining trend in reproductive prospects with advancing date is seen as an individual decision with fitness consequences. We review three studies implicating events at the staging sites or in winter in setting the individual migratory schedule. Climate change influences the timetable of a pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) population breeding in The Netherlands and wintering in West Africa, followed since 1960. Mean air temperature in the period mid April-mid May (arrival and laying) increased and laying date advanced by 10 days. Still, in recent years most birds did not lay early enough to maximise fitness (determined by recruitment and parental survival) whereas many parents achieved this goal in 1980-1985. As the flycatchers have not started to arrive earlier, some ecological constraint further upstream is postulated (possibly the hurdle of the crossing of Sahara and Mediterranean). The ability to follow individual migrants provides a second avenue to assess the fitness implications of migratory schedules. Thus, brightly coloured male bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) captured in the Dutch Wadden Sea (the intermediate staging site linking a West African wintering area with breeding sites in arctic Russia) and traced with miniature radio-transmitters did not depart early. The 'best' males (with bright breeding plumage) were picked up by the listening stations in Sweden 650 km further along the migratory route ten days later than the paler individuals. If early arrival confers the competitive advantage of prior occupancy but increases mortality, the 'best' males may be able to afford arriving later and thus avoid some of the survival costs. Return rate of the 'bright' males to the staging site in later seasons was indeed higher than for the 'pale', early males. Intensive observation of pink-footed geese (Anser brachyrhynchus) fitted with coded neck-collars substantiate the tight relationship between energy stores (fat) accumulated up to final departure from the final staging site (Vesteralen, N. Norway) en route to the nesting grounds (Spitsbergen) and subsequent success. The breeding outcome of individual parents (accompanied by juveniles or not) could be related to observations of body condition before departure (visual 'abdominal profile index'). Recently, perceived conflicts with agriculture have resulted in widespread harassment by humans. The geese have: drastically shortened their stay on the Vesteralen, fail to achieve the body condition usual a decade ago and reproductive output has fallen. Although the geese are currently pioneering new staging sites, an adequate alternative has not materialised, underlining the critical role of the final take-off site.
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