1.Herbivorous birds are hypothesized to migrate in spring along a seasonal gradient of plant profitability towards their breeding grounds (green wave hypothesis). For Arctic-breeding species in particular, following highly profitable food is important, so that they can replenish resources along the way and arrive in optimal body condition to start breeding early.
2.We compared the timing of migratory movements of Arctic-breeding geese on different flyways to examine whether flyways differed in the predictability of spring conditions at stopovers, and whether this was reflected in the degree to which birds were following the green wave.
3.Barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) were tracked with solar Argos/GPS PTTs from their wintering grounds to breeding sites in Greenland (N = 7), Svalbard (N = 21) and the Barents Sea (N = 12). The numerous stopover sites of all birds were combined into a set of 16 general stopover regions.
4.The predictability of climatic conditions along the flyways was calculated as the correlation and slope between onsets of spring at consecutive stopovers. These values differed between sites, mainly because of the presence or absence of ecological barriers. Goose arrival at stopovers was more closely tied to the local onset of spring when predictability was higher and when geese attempted breeding that year.
5.All birds arrived at early stopovers after the onset of spring and arrived at the breeding grounds before the onset of spring, thus overtaking the green wave. This is in accordance with patterns expected for capital breeders: first they must come into condition; at intermediate stopovers arrival with the food quality peak is important to stay in condition and at the breeding grounds early arrival is favoured so that hatching of young can coincide with the peak of food quality.
6.Our results suggest that a chain of correlations between climatic conditions at subsequent stopovers enables geese to closely track the green wave. However, the birds’ precision of migratory timing seems uninfluenced by ecological barriers, indicating partly fixed migration schedules. These might become non-optimal due to climate warming and preclude accurate timing of long-distance migrants in the future.