Satellite tracking waterbird movements
– what can it tell us and how does it work?
Written by: Heather McGinness
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:
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:
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:
Battery-powered Doppler transmitters aren’t dependent on solar exposure to function and give:
“I feel very privileged to be so close to the birds and immersed in the intricacies of their daily lives.”
– Freya Robinson, CSIRO
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.
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.
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.
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.
Biological samples taken while the bird is in-hand include:
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.
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:
We also use those datasets for data analysis, statistics and modelling, including:
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
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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