‘Ospreys ideal bird for GPS tracking of migration’

Int’l experts convene to discuss migration technology collaborations, educational opportunities.

Black-headed gulls over the kinnere (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Black-headed gulls over the kinnere
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
With similar flight habits in their migratory paths all over the world, the osprey is the ideal bird for GPS tracking on a collaborative level, international experts agreed during a birding tour on Sunday.
Birding educators and professionals spoke to The Jerusalem Post during a field day in the Hula Valley and the Kinneret region that day, in preparation for a weeklong conference about monitoring osprey migration and using that the GPS satellite technology involved for streamlined, educational and conservation purposes.
On the Israeli side, the Kfar Blum conference was organized by Dr. Yossi Leshem, a senior researcher in Tel Aviv University’s zoology department, who has also worked for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). He currently serves as the founder and director of SPNI’s International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun. Also on the organizing team was Tim Mackrill, senior reserve officer at Rutland Osprey Project at the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, who is also working on a PhD about ospreys.
“[Ospreys are] such an iconic species,” said Dr. Rob Bierregaard, an osprey expert who has been geo-tagging the birds in the United States since 2000.
“They’re the flagship bird of the coastal ecosystem,” he added.
While Bierregaard has already tagged approximately 60 ospreys thus far, his newest focus is on tagging the juvenile birds. This, he explained, is a particularly difficult task due to the $4,000 cost of a single transmitter coupled with the baby birds’ low migration survival rate. Thus far, Bierregaard said he has decent – but far from perfect – success rates with the juveniles.
For those who have survived, however, Bierregaard said he has gotten very “interesting results,” as the juvenile osprey migrates independently, without family members.
When the baby osprey flies down south for the first time, the bird chooses a warm spot to settle down for the season, the exact spot that the animal will return to year after year, Bierregaard explained.
Following the first southern migration, the osprey will stay South for an extra year without returning home, as the bird cannot yet mate. Without the chance of mating, there is no point in the bird returning home and back south during that year, as “migration is a dangerous business,” particularly during hurricane season, according to Bierregaard.
“They come back to the same tree year after year after year,” Bierregaard said.
In the US, ospreys are mostly concentrated on the east coast, with 7,000 nesting pairs located in the Chesapeake Bay area alone, Bierregaard said. In addition, the New England Coast, Florida and the Great Lakes are often hubs for the birds, he added.
“Once we stopped using DDT they came back,” Bierregaard said.
He has tagged three ospreys who originate from the New Hampshire Squam Lake Nature Science Center, where Iain MacLeod serves as executive director. Out of the three birds tagged for migration from New Hampshire to Brazil, the two juvenile birds died along the way, but the third is alive and should return in five weeks, MacLeod said.
“We’ll be able to welcome him home from his amazing trip,” he said.
One crucial outcome of tracking ospreys at the Squam Lake center is the learning opportunity that this presents to local students, who both come to the center and receive rangers at their schools. One injured osprey that lives at the center is able to meet the children, MacLeod explained.
“They can hear it, they can touch it, they can smell it,” he said.
One possible outcome of this week’s conference –– in MacLeod’s opinion – could be the compilation of ospreytracking information from around the world onto one central website, where all of the bird watchers would have access to the data.
Across the ocean, Mackrill, the conference organizer from Rutland in the UK, tracks ospreys who fly from Great Britain over France and to the Sahara Desert.
The birds who stop in Israel during the winter, on the other hand, find their origins in more central European nations like Finland, and end up sunning themselves in the warmth of east African countries like Cameroon.
The Rutland Osprey Project began 25 years ago lead by Tim Appleton – together with the group in Israel – during which researchers began to reestablish the local osprey population that had been absent for 150 years, Mackrill explained.
“It’s worked and they’re nesting now,” Mackrill said, noting that the team has five nesting pairs in the region. “We’ve followed their migration and learned a great deal.”
Also valuing the educational tools that develop alongside bird migration technologies, Mackrill said that schools in the Rutland district have linked up with schools in Gambia to follow specific birds together and exchange letters and videos about the experience.
To provide this educational interchange, however, the teachers and birding professionals must have “a global picture and the help of satellites,” according to Prof. Amnon Ginati – head of the integrated and telecommunications in the related applications department at the European Space Agency.
“You can see the change from space,” he said, noting that only this way can researchers map out migration patterns properly.
Ginati is particularly involved with bringing this tracking technology to schools in Africa, where the tools receive autonomous solar power.
While Israel is neither a migration beginning nor endpoint for ospreys, it is a major “highway” for them, Leshem said. Hundreds of pairs pass through the region each year through “the eastern flyway” that originates in Finland, he explained.
Leshem said he has already approached Google about the possibility of creating a bird migration site called Google Birds, using satellite components in a similar manner to Google Earth.
“We want to get [students] connected to wildlife through the Internet,” Leshem said.
The goal would be to begin with ospreys, but then add raptors, storks and even mammals after enough of the birds are covered, Leshem explained.
“It’s people to people – suddenly people see it’s a small world,” he said. “A European and an American osprey are the same.”
Leshem, who has launched numerous cooperative birding ventures among Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, stressed that such work cannot succeed unless it occurs on a regional level.
“It’s about emphasizing the migration of birds, but it’s also about crossing cultural divides,” Mackrill agreed.
“Birds know no boundaries.”