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