Ducks lost and found

Waiting at the shoreline (Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Tracking birds is a rollercoaster ride between excitement and disappointment. Even though the technology is improving rapidly, some loggers will fail anyway, some birds will be taken by a predator, and some birds just don’t do all the exciting things you hoped they would. But on the other hand, when everything works you get extremely detailed knowledge about the behavior of individual birds across the annual cycle.

Given this, and the cost of each logger, there is always that moment on the shoreline. You see the bird (in our case a duck) fly, very rapidly away and the question of what will happen next forms in your mind. Will we learn anything about its life, will we see it again? Have we interfered too much in its life?

Over the years we have learned a bit on the rough life of ducks. A number of ducks have been shot by hunters, either reported by the hunters or detected by logger movements in cars and fixes on farmsteads. Quite a few we believe have been killed by predators, including a northern pintail that was taken by a goshawk within two hours of deployment and a mallard eaten by a fox in eastern Germany. On top of that we have adverse weather events, such as cold spells and blizzards that take they their toll on wintering birds.

One particular problem is when a bird reaches an area where the logger no longer has connection and can not send data. The bird is gone, vanished from the map. This is especially evident for two of our study species, the Eurasian wigeon and the northern pintail. Both species breed in large numbers on the tundra, far away from human settlements, in areas where mobile phones do not work. Thus, there comes a time when the signal is lost, and you can only hope the bird will return and send data again sometime later.

For our wigeons, we had seven birds that were lost this summer: Nicola in Murmansk, Sarah in eastern Finland, Fitzwilliam in the Pechora river in Russia, and Michelle, Sita, Ellinor and Pär east of the Ural mountains. But in the last week we have reconnected with Sarah in Archangelsk and Fitzwilliam in Estonia, and hopes are we will get reconnected with some of the others.

Until then we are waiting at the shoreline.

Fitzwilliam the wigeon: he once was lost, but now am found

Linnaeus goes Motus

It is already mid-October, but the weather is still mild for the season, especially so the last couple of days. Today we took advantage of the sunny autumn day and headed up on the roof. And what splendid scenery there is on top of the new university building! You can see tens of kilometers in each direction and have a clear view of the strait of Kalmar. A perfect spot to place our new MOTUS antennas.

And what is a Motus antenna, you may ask? Good question. The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is a collaborative research network that uses coordinated automated radio telemetry arrays to study movements of small animals. Or simply put: you can equip birds with mini radio transmitters and listen for them with large radio antennas. And by placing many antennas in a flyway of birds, you can follow the birds during migration. This is a big thing in North America, and just recently have started to become more common in Europe. If you look at the maps below you see that the towers currently are focused to the Wadden Sea region, but with occasional towers elsewhere. Together with Ottenby Bird Observatory and Lund University we are now building a network of Motus towers on the island Öland.

Compared to other tracking techniques, Motus has the benefit of really, really small loggers – all the way down to 0.2g. This means you can put them on smaller birds compared to other types of loggers, and study migration of warblers, thrushes, swifts and waders. And the more towers the better, as all towers can detect all loggers and forward the data to the right project. Pretty nice! Thus, today we added a new tower to the system.


Duck (and virus) movements from afar

A wigeon track on the undulating tribituary of the Pechora river

Before I was a researcher, I was a birder. I spent my free time either birding, or thinking about birds. And my favorite place was Ottenby Bird Observatory. This is where my formative years took place and where I made friends for life. A focus point in my existence to this day. I spent countless mornings ringing birds at the observatory. Sleep deprived, sustained by coffee, sandwiches and tobacco we young ringers often talked about what would happen with the birds we released. Where would they go, what would they do? We marveled about the epic journeys they would undertake, connecting distant parts of the globe.

Sometimes we got answers, for one benefit of ringing is that the rings transform birds into individuals, and hence make possible to follow if they are trapped again, resighted or found dead. The downside is that these are all rare events, especially for smaller birds. For instance, the chance of getting a ring recovery of a willow warbler on wintering grounds in East Africa is very low, somewhere around 1 out of 100,000 ringed birds. For other birds like the mallard, the chance of a recovery is closer to 10% – a considerable difference. In any case, the information you get is limited and usually shown as a dot on a map.

But times have changed. I am older, greyer and possible wiser, a professor working with bird borne infections (but not birding as much as I would like to). I am still very interested in the question of where birds go, and what they do. Fortunately, tracking technology has taken giant leaps and we can now do studies that were unheard of when I was a young ringer. In recent years, my laboratory has been involved in studies investigating movement behavior of mallards. Together with Martin Wikelski’s team in Constance, we have looked at home range sizes and habitat selection of mallards during migratory stopovers, tested the hypothesis that influenza A virus infection impairs movements of mallards, and even made translocation experiments between Sweden and Germany to repeat Perdeck’s classic starling study. We have used Argos loggers, radio-frequency loggers and GSM-loggers, and for each study the loggers have become better and lighter and data ever more detailed.

Right now, we are a part of DELTA-flu, a Horizon2020 EU-project with several European partners. Our role is to investigate the migratory connectivity of waterfowl in Eurasia in light of HPAI virus transmission. Can we use loggers to answer the question about possible routes of virus transmission across continent?

An urban mallard in Roskilde, Denmark, presently hanging out on the Roskilde Festival camping site

The loggers we use come from the company Ornitela in Lithuania, and weigh 10, 15 or 25g depending on which duck species we target. The general rule of thumb is that a logger shouldn’t weigh more than 3% of the bird’s mass, as not to impair it unnecessarily. These loggers are little marvels; they transfer data via the mobile phone network and can be programmed remotely. So far we have deployed loggers in Sweden, Lithuania, Netherlands and Georgia, and are planning to work in Ukraine, South Korea and Bangladesh. We are also waiting for the next leap in telemetry: the ICARUS project onboard the International Space Station. With this technology, loggers may reach 2.5g and hence be put on a larger range of species. What all these loggers do is to provide a real-time window into birds’ movements: Where they are and what they are doing, sometimes even what they avoid or what caused their deaths. We can follow the lives of ducks in great detail.

There is a veritable flood of data, with more than one million GPS points collected already. It is easy to get lost in time just watching the latest whereabouts of the tagged ducks, from the tundra regions east of the Ural mountains to a gravel pit outside Bremen. I hope to write here more frequently, because there is a lot of exciting stuff happening in the lab at the moment – until then, have fun!