Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Testing an attachment method for solar-powered tracking devices on a long-distance migrating shorebird

January 1, 2016

Small solar-powered satellite transmitters and GPS data loggers enable continuous, multi-year, and global tracking of birds. What is lacking, however, are reliable methods to attach these tracking devices to small migratory birds so that (1) flight performance is not impacted and (2) tags are retained during periods of substantial mass change associated with long-distance migration. We developed a full-body harness to attach tags to Red Knots (Calidris canutus), a medium-sized shorebird (average mass 124 g) that undertakes long-distance migrations. First, we deployed dummy tags on captive birds and monitored them over a complete migratory fattening cycle (February–July 2013) during which time they gained and lost 31–110 g and underwent a pre-alternate moult of body feathers. Using each individual’s previous year fattening and moult data in captivity as controls, we compared individual mass and moult differences between years between the tagged and reference groups, and concluded that the attachment did not impact mass and moult cycles. However, some birds shed feathers under the tags and under the polyester harness line commonly used in avian harnesses. Feather shedding was alleviated by switching to smoothed-bottom tags and monofilament harness lines. To field-trial this design, we deployed 5-g satellite transmitters on ten Red Knots released on 3 October 2013 in the Dutch Wadden Sea. Bird movements and tag performance appeared normal. However, nine tags stopped transmitting 11–170 days post-release which was earlier than expected. We attribute this to bird mortality rather than failure of the attachments or transmitters and suggest that the extra weight and drag caused by the tag and its feather-blocking shield increased the chance of depredation by the locally common Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus). Our results demonstrate that species- and place-specific contexts can strongly determine tagging success. While captive trials are an important first step in developing an attachment method, field trials are essential to fully assess attachment designs.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2016
Title Testing an attachment method for solar-powered tracking devices on a long-distance migrating shorebird
DOI 10.1007/s10336-015-1276-4
Authors Ying-Chi Chan, Martin Brugge, T. Lee Tibbitts, Anne Dekinga, Ron Porter, Raymond H. G. Klaassen, Theunis Piersma
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Ornithology
Series Number
Index ID 70169275
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Alaska Science Center Biology WTEB

Related Content