Satellite tracking waterbird movements
– what can it tell us and how does it work?

Written by: Heather McGinness

Image: Getting ready for a day of satellite tracking. Photo: CSIRO Team

Waterbirds are amazingly mobile, capable of travelling incredible distances.

Understanding why, when, how, and in what ways they move, is important if we want to figure out how best to support their populations in the long-term. It’s also important if we want to know how best to support particular phases of their life-cycle, such as breeding.  CSIRO ecologists are working with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office to track the movements of waterbird species that are of interest to water and wetland managers, and can be supported through environmental watering. They are using the latest in satellite transmitter technology which is helping to answer these questions:

  • When and where do waterbirds move across the Murray-Darling Basin and beyond?
  • Are they moving in response to environmental water or flooding?
  • What does this mean for our perceptions and predictions of waterbird responses to water management?
  • Where are birds feeding, roosting, nesting, when and why?
  • What movement and habitat cues, preferences and limitations should we be taking into account in water planning for waterbirds?
  • How connected are Australian waterbird populations, spatially and temporally?
  • What are the implications for environmental water management to prevent further population declines?

What can satellite-tracking tell us about waterbirds?

  • Where, when, how far and how fast they move.
  • The exact routes they take.
  • Foraging habitat distances from nests and roosts.
  • Site selection:fFeeding, sleeping, nesting, shelter.
  • Population boundaries and connectivity.
  • Cues and triggers: movement, breeding.
  • Nesting behaviour, timing, duration.
  • Differences between species, sexes, age groups
  • Survival and mortality rates and drivers
Image: Ibis in flight. Photo: Heather McGinness

Types of satellite transmitters and their features

There are a range of different types of satellite transmitters. We select them carefully to suit the bird species being tracked and the information needed for each study. All transmitters are lightweight, being <5% bird bodyweight, and usually only ~1-2%. Transmitters are usually coloured to match the species being tracked.

The  three types being used for CEWO Flow-MER satellite tracking are:

  1. Solar-powered GPS transmitters that use the Argos satellite network.
  2. Solar-powered GPS transmitters that use phone networks.
  3. Battery-powered Doppler transmitters that use the Argos satellite network.

No recapture or base station is required for these transmitters because all data upload and download is via satellite networks.

Solar powered transmitters that use the Argos or phone networks can give:

  • High frequency location fixes (e.g. every 10 min, 60 min, 3hrs).
  • High accuracy location fixes (10’s of metres, usually <15 m).
  • Long duration solar-powered tracking (2+ years).

Battery-powered Doppler transmitters aren’t dependent on solar exposure to function and give:

  • Moderate frequency location fixes.
  • Moderate accuracy location fixes.
  • Medium duration tracking of months to years.
Different transmitters. Photo: Heather McGinness

“I feel very privileged to be so close to the birds and immersed in the intricacies of their daily lives.”

– Freya Robinson, CSIRO

Image: Early start to the day with gear checking to ensure equipment is good to go. Photo: CSIRO Team

How do we catch the birds and fit the transmitters?

The methods used to catch birds for satellite tracking vary depending on the species and on the location. For colonial-nesting species such as Straw-necked Ibis and Royal Spoonbills, we mostly use leg snares (slip noose traps), and sometimes hand-capture, hand-net or hand-held net-launchers.

Setting up snares out in the field. Photo: CSIRO
Close up of snares. Photo: CSIRO Team

For Australasian Bitterns, we use cage traps with call playback, mirrors and sometimes bait (e.g. mealworms). For ducks and other species, we might use any of these methods, including our whoosh-net, mist-nets, or spotlighting.

A cage trap with the door open. Photo: Heather McGinness
Installed cage trap. Photo: Heather McGinness

Depending on the transmitter type and material, a Neoprene pad is often incorporated to provide an insulated cushion between the transmitter and the bird’s back.  This makes the transmitter more comfortable as well as reducing the chances of feathers covering the solar panel.

Heather McGinness fitting a straw-necked ibis with a satellite transmitter. Photo: CSIRO
Straw-necked ibis with fitted transmitter. Photo: CSIRO

When first fitted, the transmitter and harness sometimes appear obvious on the back of the bird, but over a short period they ‘settle’ into the bird’s feathers. Some types are visible via their aerials; others do not have aerials but instead may have a raised solar panel.

Image: Ibis with fitted transmitter. Photo: Heather McGinness

What information about the tracked birds is collected?

Biological samples taken while the bird is in-hand include:

  • Feathers (3-5).
  • Oropharyngeal swabs (inside beak/trachea).
  • Cloacal swabs (rear end).
  • Blood sample.
  • Parasites.
  • Voluntary crop regurgitate.
  • Scats (droppings).
  • Eggshells from hatched eggs at the bird’s nest.

These samples are stored and eventually used to test for the presence of diseases and toxins such as pesticides and poisons, as well as general health, diet and genetics. Taking samples while the bird is ‘in-hand’ is an efficient and effective measure to gain the maximum possible information from each satellite-tracked individual.  It also helps to explain population structure and declines.

We use kayaks to transport gear and people. Photo: Heather McGinness
Image: The team heading back for lunch. Photo: CSIRO Team

How do we access and use the satellite data?

Each transmitter manufacturer and data provider has its own way of providing access to the data. Data downloads are done weekly, either via websites or proprietary software. We then take those downloads and use them along with environmental information to create collated datasets and maps, including:

  • Movement datasets: Multi-scalar spatial and temporal movement datasets for selected waterbird species.
  • Habitat selection datasets: Multi-scalar spatial and temporal habitat selection datasets for selected waterbird species.
  • Maps showing individual and grouped waterbird movements at a range of spatial and temporal scales.
  • Maps showing foraging, roosting, nesting and travelling sites.
  • Maps showing fix densities (heatmaps) representing intense or repeated site use for site/habitat prioritisation.
  • Movement videos / animations / visualisations highlighting key spatio-temporal patterns and processes.

We also use those datasets for data analysis, statistics and modelling, including:

  • Movement statistics and calculations, e.g. foraging and nomadic/migration distances, home ranges, breeding movements: Telling us where, when and for how long should environmental water be allocated to support foraging habitat and food resources.
  • Habitat selection models: Telling us what and where are the key habitats used and where, when and for how long should environmental water be allocated to support key habitats.
  • Models exploring relationships between bird species, capture site, biomass, sex, age category, longevity, movements, habitat selection, space use, season, e-water, and flooding: Telling us what factors might affect waterbird responses to where, when and for how long environmental water is allocated.

These two maps show the information we can gather from our birds. We enjoy watching and learning where they go, how long they stay and linking that to the seasons, what other birds are doing, etc. Satellite tracking provides us with a literal ‘birds eye’ view on the rivers, wetlands and birds we care so much about.

“It’s magic. This work is the perfect mix of on-ground field science and high-tech satellite based technology. It gives us the best of both worlds!”

– Heather McGinness, CSIRO Team

For more information

Dr Heather McGinness
Senior Research Scientist

+61 2 6246 4136


Our work in Biodiversity

We aim to evaluate the contribution of Commonwealth environmental water to achieving biodiversity outcomes. Our work here will focus on a range of species, including waterbirds, frogs and freshwater turtles, that are likely to have been protected or restored by Commonwealth environmental water.

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