Satellite tracking of migratory birds to take flight this year

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 9 Jan 17;

SINGAPORE — The National Parks Board (NParks) will launch a two-year project this year to find out more about the lives of 22 shorebirds via satellite tracking.

The solar-powered satellite tracking devices, weighing 5 or 9.5g each, will be attached to birds such as Whimbrels, Common Greenshanks, Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers to find out where they travel to and stop.

The results will increase the effectiveness of conservation along the pathways used by these migratory species, said NParks.

Singapore is one of 22 countries along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF), which extends from the Arctic Circle through East and South-east Asia to Australia and New Zealand.

Among the world’s nine recognised flyways, the EAAF supports the greatest diversity and populations of migratory birds — over 50 million from over 250 populations — but has the highest number of threatened migratory species.

In Singapore, some migratory birds stay throughout the northern winter, while others use the country as a springboard for the next leg of their journey. The tracking devices will provide researchers with more precise and accurate information.

As the devices should weigh no more than 3 per cent of a bird’s weight to limit the burden imposed on the animal, only certain species can be tracked. The 9.5g devices will also be used only on larger birds such as the Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit, said NParks senior conservation officer David Li.

The devices also do not entail recapturing the tagged animals, unlike a battery-powered device called a geolocator, which NParks used on 99 Common Redshanks between 2014 and last year.

The geolocators weighed 1g and cost over S$200 each, said Mr Li. Between September 2015 and March last year, seven of the tagged birds were recaptured, and data from the geolocators revealed previously unknown information about them.

The Common Redshank’s breeding areas are spread far out, from Tibet and Xinjiang to Mongolia and Russia.

Through the geolocators, NParks learnt that two major stopovers of the Common Redshanks found in Singapore, were the coasts of central to southern Thailand to south-eastern Myanmar, as well as Sichuan province in China.

Data suggested that the adults bred in the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, while the recaptured juveniles remained mostly in Singapore and travelled up to Thailand.

“Earlier, we didn’t know where our birds went ... With this study, we can see there are a few major stopovers,” said Mr Li. “So probably, we can, when opportunities arise, work with agencies there.”

The geolocators record data such as light, temperature, wet and dry conditions and the conductivity of water (to tell if the birds are in saltwater or fresh water), which experts then interpret.

For instance, the light logger can tell experts if the bird is incubating, and for how long.

Bird-ringing has also grown more sophisticated: Green-over-white flags began to be used from 2003 to indicate the birds were ringed and flagged in Singapore.

And in 2012, engraved alphanumeric characters on the flags were used to give each captured bird a unique identifier. Between 1990 and 2015, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve ringed more than 11,000 birds from 142 species.

About 2,000 migratory shorebirds roost and feed in its 130ha area each year and 254 bird species have been recorded there, of which 123 are migratory species and 34 are known to nest in the Arctic region.

Despite many species’ numbers being on the decline in the EAAF, the populations of some species such as the Whimbrel and Common Greenshank have been stable at Sungei Buloh.

NParks has also recaptured and observed birds banded nearly two decades ago, gaining important information on the longevity of their species. Among other ways, NParks helps migratory birds by clearing overgrown vegetation on raised embankments in brackish ponds, as some birds prefer to roost on higher ground.

Singapore hosts two migratory bird events for the first time
NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 9 Jan 17;

For the first time, Singapore is hosting two events aimed at protecting migratory birds that use a major pathway called the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF).

On the agenda: The protection of a critically endangered shorebird called the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, of which an estimated 150 breeding pairs are left in the world.

The EAAF is one of nine globally recognised flyways and spans 22 countries, extending from the Arctic Circle through East and Southeast Asia to Australia and New Zealand.

It supports over 50 million migratory birds from over 250 populations and has the highest number of threatened migratory species.

The first event, the Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative EAAF Workshop, began yesterday and ends tomorrow. It brings together 80 government representatives, experts, researchers and conservationists from 20 countries.

Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Manpower, Mr Sam Tan, opened the workshop at Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, a key stopover for Arctic migratory birds.

The Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative is a project under the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna working group. Singapore has been a permanent observer on the Arctic Council since 2013.

Participants will discuss priorities for intertidal habitat preservation in Southeast Asia, Yellow Sea conservation, demonstration projects and illegal bird hunting.

Yesterday, experts highlighted the urgency of saving the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, whose populations have been hit by habitat loss, hunting and climate change.

An estimated 400 to 500 individuals are left in the wild, and it is the rarest migratory species, said Dr Christoph Zockler, coordinator of the EAAF Partnership Spoon-billed Sandpiper Taskforce.

The bird breeds in Russia and passes through Korea, Japan and other Yellow Sea intertidal areas, spending northern winters in Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, eastern China and Vietnam.

It is rarely sighted further south and was last seen in Singapore in the 1990s.

Dr Zockler and other researchers recently used satellite tags on three Spoon-billed Sandpipers to uncover previously unknown sites used by the bird: Hangzhou Bay and sites in southern Fujian province. Work is also underway to tackle illegal mist-netting in Fujian.

From Wednesday to Sunday, the biennial EAAF Partnership Meeting of Partners will be held, bringing together participants from countries including China, Russia and the United States.

The partnership is an informal, voluntary initiative for international cooperation to protect the flyway’s migratory birds and their habitats; its partners include governments and non-government organisations.

Efforts in one country will be much less effective if migratory bird populations are suffering in another, said EAAF Partnership chief executive Spike Millington. “You have to take care of these birds all along the flyway,” he said.

National Parks Board (NParks) group director (conservation) Wong Tuan Wah said Singapore was happy to share best practices and learn from others.

NParks will conduct training workshops on wetland management in the second half of this year and open them to wetland habitat managers from the EAAF.

NParks to track migratory birds in two-year study
Samantha Boh, The Straits Times AsiaOne 9 Jan 17;

The travel times, stopovers and breeding patterns of Singapore's avian tourists are being placed under scrutiny here, as the National Parks Board (NParks) launches a two-year satellite tracking project on 22 migratory birds which travel to Singapore in the winter months.

The data will play a critical role in the survival of various species which use the Republic as a stopover point to feed and rest before continuing their arduous journey as far north as the Arctic Circle.

"Before we started using tracking technology, we did not know precisely where the birds go... With technology, we know who specifically to work with," explained NParks senior conservation officer David Li, speaking on the sidelines of the first Arctic migratory birds workshop held in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve yesterday.

"With these studies, we know which countries they go to for major stopovers, for instance, and sharing such information with those countries will help in setting up bird conservation projects there."

The shorebirds being tracked include whimbrels, bar-tailed godwits, common greenshanks and grey plovers.

With the new satellite trackers, researchers will be able to tell exactly where they are in real time, without having to recapture them.

The devices weigh either 5g or 9.5g and are solar-powered.

The study is likely to start in March.

The upcoming project builds on NParks' efforts to tap technology to obtain previously unknown information about birds.

Between September 2015 and last March, NParks recaptured seven common redshanks tagged with geo-locators, which can detect light and are used to record the location of the birds based on sunset and sunrise.

It learnt that the birds' main stopovers include the Inner Gulf of Thailand and that they breed at the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau in China.

The catch, however, was that the birds had to be caught again for the data to be analysed.

Nearly 100 delegates from 35 organisations and 22 countries attended the workshop yesterday, where they discussed the conservation of Arctic birds along the East Asian- Australasian Flyway, which extends from within the Arctic Circle southwards through East and South-east Asia, to Australia and New Zealand.

Sungei Buloh annually enjoys "winter holiday visits" by more than 2,000 Arctic migratory birds of more than 30 different species.

"Essentially, you have to take care of these birds all along the flyway. For instance, if you are making big efforts in Singapore but actually the birds are suffering more in other parts of the flyway like China or Australia, then it is much less effective," said Mr Spike Millington, chief executive of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.

"It is really imperative we have international co-operation so that the birds are protected and conserved all the way along the flyway when they make their journey down south in the autumn and back in the spring."

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