Scientists Track Rare Songbird with GPS Tracking Technology

9 Aug 2017

GPS tracking technology continues to be used to help understand the behavior or animals and help improve their survival.  The Kirtland’s warbler’s journey is now discovered thanks to solar location methods that are centuries old and the latest tiny technology combined together.

By knowing the travel routes and stopover locations of these rare songbirds, scientists can better plan their next innovative step in getting to understand the birds better using the GPS tracking devices. By tracking the birds throughout the year, scientists and researchers can get a better understanding of their fundamental biology.

The average Kirtland’s warbler weighs around .48 ounces which is equivalent to a baby carrot or a handful of potato chips. Each year, this rare songbird from North America travels approximately 4,000 miles traveling across mountain ranges, the Gulf Stream, the body of a continent and across the open ocean. Until now, its journey has always been a mystery.

Smithsonian scientists are now using light-level geolocators to track and map the Kirtland’s warbler’s migratory paths for a whole year. They are following them starting at their Michigan breeding grounds as they journey to their central Bahamas winter homes and back again. The data the scientists collect is anticipated to enable conservation managers to get a better understanding of how to manage the warblers’ habitat which back in the 1970s was close to extinction but have since made a significant comeback.

The songbirds’ mortality rate is substantially high which seems to happen during migration and indicates that the conditions encountered by the birds while they are migrating could be a huge factor in the overall success or failure of the species.

This is North America’s rarest songbird and the one that is most endangered. The objective here is to track them throughout the year to know where and why this species of birds among others are dying.

In 2014, sixty male warblers weighing .5 grams each and at least two years old were equipped with geolocators. One year later, almost half of the same birds were recaptured at the same breeding sites in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and the research team was able to retrieve 27 of the geolocators providing them with a lot of data.

This data provided the research team with critical information including the stopover areas the birds rested at and refuel during their journey. Most of the birds on their southbound flight seemed to stop in upper Mid-Atlantic States or southern Ontario for their initial rest.

They would then stop along the coastline in South or North Carolina to fuel up again before they continued their journey across the open ocean making their way to the Bahamas. On their western route trip back, the birds flew across the Gulf Stream and rested in Florida for a bit. They then stopped again in northern Florida, southeastern Georgia or southwestern South Carolina for another rest before they continued on to the Appalachians.

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