On A Whimbrel & A Prayer #1

Background

Five years ago, The Australasian Wader Studies Group (AWSG) began experimenting with the use of satellite transmitters for tracking the migration of shorebirds visiting north-west Australia. 

In November 2013, five 5g satellite transmitters were deployed on Little Curlew in Roebuck Bay, Broome. A further three transmitters were put onto Little Curlew at 80 Mile Beach in February 2015. The target species was then switched to Grey Plover in February 2016, with five units again being deployed at Broome.

Researchers holding a Little Curlew that has just been fitted with a satellite tag
Little Curlew being fitted with a satellite transmitter
A researcher holding a Grey Plover fitted with a satellite transmitter
Grey Plover fitted with 5g satellite transmitter

Some extremely useful new data has been generated on the migrations of both species, although the results have been mixed, with many transmitters ceasing to function when a bird was part way through migration. 

It was decided to extend the satellite transmitter program to Whimbrel in 2017, with five 5g units being deployed at both 80 Mile Beach (one bird) and at Broome (four birds). In addition, recently released 2g transmitters, developed by Microwave Telemetry Inc. (MTI), were deployed on five Grey-tailed Tattler at 80 Mile Beach. This was carried out during the 2017 AWSG north-west Australia expedition, in February
2017.
Researchers holding a Whimbrel to fit it with a satellite transmitter
Fitting the 5g satellite transmitter on a Whimbrel

It is exciting to track birds with satellite transmitters because up-to-date location data is received as the bird flies or rests during migration. This occurs either in real time or at a maximum of two days behind the recorded event. One disadvantage of this technology is that it it is difficult to determine the cause of technical or other failures because there is often no direct evidence for the cessation of transmissions apparent.

Such is the situation already for our satellite transmitters in 2017. Four of the five Whimbrel with 5g transmitters are still giving regular signals from the area where the birds were originally caught. Only one has disappeared, either because the bird was predated, or because the transmitter failed.

Whimbrel with satellite transmitter
Whimbrel released on 80 Mile Beach with 5g satellite transmitter
A Grey-tailed Tattler fitted with a satellite tag taking off on the beach
Grey-tailed Tattler released with 2g satellite transmitter

However, all five of the satellite transmitters deployed on Grey-tailed Tattler have already ceased sending transmissions! This is a disastrous outcome for an outlay of $25,000 on these new, super light-weight 2g units. 

These units differ in a number of ways from the 5g units. In particular, the aerial doubles-up as the harness system to attach the transmitter to the bird via wing-loops and a neck-loop. The harnesses superficially appear very light-weight and potentially vulnerable to damage. The fact that this is probably the cause of the premature failures is supported by the fact that one of the Tattlers was sighted and photographed in the field at 80 Mile Beach on 7-8 April still carrying its transmitter but with part of the harness damaged and the aerial missing.

Transmitter numbers & corresponding engraved leg flags fitted to the five Whimbrel & five Grey-tailed Tattler

Bird Movements

Whimbrel

The first bird to be fitted with a satellite transmitter was LA the Whimbrel on 12 February at Eighty Mile Beach. Since the deployment of the transmitter, LA has spent all of its time near the area where it was captured and released 40km to 50km south of the Anna Plains Station entrance to Eighty Mile Beach (Figure 1.). LA is a 2nd year bird (born in the 2015 breeding season) so it will be interesting to see if it will migrate north this year.

Satellite map of 80 Mile Beach
Figure 1. Movement of Whimbrel LA at Eighty Mile Beach

Whimbrel KS and KU were captured on 24 February at West Quarry at Roebuck Bay. Unlike LA, these two birds have not spent much time around the catching site since they have been fitted with satellite transmitters. Most of the time they were at Dampier Creek at the western end of Roebuck Bay and occasionally visited Crab Creek, the salt marsh in the east and even beaches west of the Broome township (Figure 2.). Both KS and KU are mature birds born in or before the 2014 breeding season and as such, are expected to start migrating north in a few weeks time.

Satellite map of Roebuck Bay
Figure 2. Movement of KS (purple) and KU (yellow) in Roebuck Bay

Later on at the end of March, the local team in Broome set up mist nets for two consecutive nights at the salt marsh just north and east of the Broome Bird Observatory and successfully captured two more Whimbrel – JX on 25 March and JZ on 26 March – which were fitted with the last two 5g transmitters. 

Unfortunately, the transmission from JZ stopped the day after deployment. The cause of this could be either transmitter failure or predation in Roebuck Bay, which has a healthy population of birds of prey. 

Similar to KS and KU, JX spent most of its time at the western end of Roebuck Bay near Dampier Creek and occassionally flew to Crab Creek and the salt marsh in the east (Figure 3.).

Satellite map of Roebuck Bay
Figure 3. Movement of JZ & JX in Roebuck Bay

Grey-tailed Tattlers

All five Grey-tailed Tattlers fitted with the 2g transmitters were caught and released at Eighty Mile Beach. The birds were captured at the section of beach 40km south of the Anna Plains Station entrance of the beach and released the following day.

HYC, HYV, HVD and HYP were released on the 14th of February. HYC lingered at the release site for three days and then signals indicated the bird flew inland, which was unusual for a Tattler (Figure 4.). The transmitter stopped working on the 25th of February, but then come back to send lower quality signals on 7 March. This pattern suggests the bird may have been predated and the transmitter carried to an inland location by the predator where the transmitter is still occasionally receiving enough solar energy to transmit a signal.

Satellite map of 80 Mile Beach
Figure 4. Movement of HYC from 14 to 25 February

Since then, HYV, HVD and HYP moved southward along the beach as a group (Figure 5.). Seven days after they were released, they were back to where they were first caught 40km south of the Anna Plains Station entrance. HYV stayed at this spot until mid-March and then moved up the beach 15-20km from the Anna Plains Station entrance in late March. 

Unfortunately, we lost the signal from HVD on 11 March, HYP on 9 March and HVD on 21 March. HVD was last sighted on 7-8 April, still carrying its transmitter, but with part of the harness damaged and all of the aerial missing.

Satellite map of 80 Mile Beach
Figure 5. Tracks of HYV (blue), HVD (green) and HYP (white) along Eighty Mile Beach

Captured and released a day later, the fifth Tattler HVT behaved a bit different to the others. Upon releasing on 15 February, it first spent three days north of the 0km Anna Plain Station entrance, and then spent 3 days moving southward to where it was first caught at 40 km. HVT has been staying around that area since then until the last signal receive on 30 March (Figure 6.).

Satellite map of 80 Mile Beach
Figure 6. Tracks of HVT moving along Eighty Mile Beach

Regardless of the early failure of these transmitters on the Tattlers, it is still very interesting to see the high site fidelity of these individuals to certain section of 80 Mile Beach.

Thanks

The AWSG would like to thanks Doris Graham for her generous donation to cover the purchase cost of five 5 gram satellite transmitters for Whimbrel.

These projects would not have been possible without the fieldwork efforts of the AWSG NWA 2017 Expedition members, and the local Broome volunteers – Adrian Boyle, Grace Maglio, Kerry Hadley, Chris Hassell, Jon Hall, Frank O’Connor and Jason Richardson.

Acknowledgements

Clive Minton

The extensive and expensive satellite tracking program we have set up in NWA has only been possible through the efforts and generosity of a large number of people and organizations. It is difficult to know where to start with the formal acknowledgements so I will list them – but not in any particular order of priority.

  1. The members of the AWSG NWA 2019 Wader and Tern Expedition and similar NWA expeditions in previous years, are particularly thanked for their efforts in the field in catching, banding and deploying transmitters on a range of species.
  2. Landowners are especially thanked for permission to go onto their property to enable us to catch various species in order to deploy the satellite transmitters. In particular we thank Anna Plains Station for giving us the freedom to roam over large areas of grazed grassland when counting and catching target species.
  3. AWSG acknowledges the Yawuru People via the offices of Nyamba Buru Yawuru Limited for permission to catch birds on the shores of Roebuck Bay, traditional lands of the Yawuru people.
  4. AWSG acknowledges the Karajarri and Nyangumarta people for permission to catch birds to be marked for this project on the shores of 80 Mile Beach, traditional lands of the Karajarri and Nyangumarta.
  5. The cost of the satellite transmitters, which cost around $5000 each, and the satellite downloading costs (around $1000-1500 per month) have been met by a variety of sources. Private individuals (Charles Allen and Doris Graham) have made most generous individual contributions. Kate Gorringe-Smith and her team of artists involved in The Overwintering Project made a large, generous donation from funds raised during their various public exhibitions. The annual NWA Expedition members, collectively, also provided significant funds each year.
Nyangumarta logo
Kara Jarri Rangers logo
Katherine Leung
Author
Katherine Leung is an ecologist from Hong Kong and one of the leaders of the satellite-tracking projects run by the Australasian Wader Studies Group in north-west Australia since 2016.
Image credits:

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