Satellite Tracking

Join us as we follow the amazing journeys of the Bar-tailed Godwit

IN 2007 scientists and enthusiasts from across the planet were glued to Google Earth as they followed the incredible journeys of 16 Bar-tailed Godwits. The birds were captured at the Miranda Shorebird Centre, Firth of Thames on the North Island of New Zealand, for scientists from the USGS Alaska Science Centre (USGS), PRBO Pacific Shorebird Migration Project (PRBO). The godwits were fitted with small, lightweight devices, Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTTs), which would transmit signals to orbiting satellites.

The journey of Bar-tailed Godwit ‘E7′. Image: © 2007 USGS Alaska Science Centre.

The project was a stunning success as scientists were not only able to follow the northern migration of these charismatic sandpipers to Alaska, via their staging areas in the Yellow Sea, they were also able to track them as they returned to New Zealand from Alaska. The first bird home, ‘E7′ illustrated the trip beautifully, including her record breaking, 9 day non-stop trans-Pacific Ocean flight of about 11,600 kilometres. This confirmed the suggestions of many researchers that these birds were not only capable of such a journey but were routinely undertaking it as they returned from their Alaskan breeding grounds to New Zealand and the east coast of Australia every year. The entire journey covered by the celebrated ‘E7′ was about 29,000 kilometres (see image above).

Tracking godwits from NW Australia

One of the “sat-tagged” Bar-tailed Godwits after release. Image: © 2008 Jan van de Kam. NL.

The USGS, PRBO, Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG) and Global Flyway Network (GFN) have now teamed up to attempt to track a different sub-species of Bar-tailed Godwits (menzbieri) which travel between their non-breeding grounds in north-west Australia and their breeding grounds around Yakutia in Siberia every year. Our aim is to learn more (and confirm what we suspect) about these birds’ travels in the hope that we can set stronger, better targeted conservation measures in place across the flyway.

With the continued generous funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a team of researchers gathered at the Broome Bird Observatory (BBO) in February 2008 to begin the work of trapping 15 Bar-tailed Godwits and fitting them with satellite transmitting devices (PTTs).

The birds to be implanted with PTTs were captured using cannon nets and, following surgery, performed with great expertise by veterinarians Dan Mulcahy of USGS and Brett Gartrell of Massey University, New Zealand, the birds were released 2-3 hours later. On our first catch we had a TV crew with us filming for the ABC’s Stateline program. All is now ready for mid-March, when the PTTs will automatically switch on their regular reporting schedule of 6 hours on and 36 hours off.

A satellite flagged Bar-tailed Godwit (black flag “A9″) in a roost on Roebuck Bay. Note the aerial extending over the tail and the black flag with white lettering. Image: © 2008 Jan van de Kam.

It is expected that the batteries in the PTTs will last at least until the birds arrive on their Arctic breeding grounds. Any additional data received after mid-June will be a bonus. The box below has links where you can follow the journeys of these birds and keep up with the latest news as it unfolds.

Keep up with the latest

Acknowledgements

Projects such as this take an enormous amount of money and effort, not just in the field work stage but during all the meticulous planning. Please bear with me while I thank the many people involved:

  • The considerable financial contributions from David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science, United States Geological Survey Alaska Science Centre, US Department of Interior and are gratefully acknowledged.
  • Microwave Telemetry Inc is thanked for the development and manufacturing of the PTTs used in this study.
  • To Vogelbescherming-Nederland (BirdLife Netherlands), thanks for funding my full-time position.
  • The team in the field did a great job, having my Broome team with me fills me with confidence so thanks to Adrian Boyle, Maurice O’Connor, Helen Macarthur, Andrea Spencer, Yindi Newman and Jan Lewis. Also Mavis Russell, Petra de Goeij, Grant Pearson and Theunis Piersma (all honorary Broome team members).
  • Bob Gill, Nils Warnock, Lee Tibbitts, Colleen Handel for field work and being instrumental in getting the project going here in Broome.
  • To the highly skilled Vets Dan Mulcahy and Brett Gartrell. To John Curran for veterinary assistance and vital support with medication supplies.
  • To Andrea Spencer, Maurice O’Connor and Helen Macarthur for wonderful food and plenty of it!
  • The BBO wardens Pete Collins and Holly Sitters for hosting us and for field work.
  • To Annie Tibbitts for field work.
  • To Graeme Hamilton, Alison Russell-French and Rob Davis of Birds Australia for field work.
  • To Jan Van de Kam for images of all the birds.
  • To the AWSG committee for support of this initiative.
  • And last but not least to Clive Minton for continuing his unfailing support of me over the past 12 years.