Scientists Hope That Real-Time Tracking Project Will Help Imperiled Seabird

Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Satellite tracking of the imperiled Pink-footed Shearwater may help the species rebound from population declines.
Satellite tracking of the imperiled Pink-footed Shearwater may help the species rebound from population declines.
- photo by Peter Hodum

An international team of scientists from Chile, the United States, and Canada are mapping and timing the travels and activities of the imperiled Pink-footed Shearwater (PFSH) to better understand the habits and habitats of this species during their transequatorial migrations. This research will help shape conservation actions to help this species rebound from population declines resulting from a suite of impacts, both on the breeding colonies and at sea.

The project is a collaborative effort of individuals from the conservation organization Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF), Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Hawai’i Pacific University, American Bird Conservancy, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The project involves the real-time satellite tracking of six breeding shearwaters. Four of these are still foraging near the Chilean mainland during the day and returning at night to feed chicks waiting in their burrows on Isla Mocha; two have already begun their long migration to spend the austral winter off Peru or off the west coast of North America. The transmitters are expected to continue functioning through this fall, when the birds return to Chile to begin the next breeding season. USGS, with support from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and collaborators, plan to deploy 10 more units this summer off California.

“The satellite tracking technology allows us to map, within a few kilometers, the locations of the birds,” said Josh Adams, a biologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, who specializes in tracking seabirds at sea. “We are gathering data about where the birds go and about how long they spend in key foraging areas.”

When integrated with oceanographic conditions and wind patterns, these data can provide information about the birds’ preferred foraging habitats and the dynamics of their movements. In addition, this information may be evaluated in the context of defined ocean zones, such as sovereign Exclusive Economic Zones, marine protected areas, or active fishery zones, to elucidate where shearwaters may be most at risk of mortality or injury from interactions with human activities.

“The threats faced by this species at sea are poorly known,” said Valentina Colodro, a biologist with Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge who attached the transmitters to the birds in early April, with assistance from CONAF park rangers on Isla Mocha. “Satellite tracking data will shed light not only on current at-sea threats but also provide preliminary information about the relationship of these birds with conditions at sea that may respond to variation in marine climate.”

The range of the Pink-footed Shearwater outside the breeding season extends along the length of the Western Hemisphere and traverses the territorial waters of 13 countries, from Chile to Canada. In contrast, the breeding range of the Pink-footed Shearwater includes only three Chilean islands: Isla Mocha, Robinson Crusoe, and Santa Clara in the Juan Fernández Islands. The species’ total breeding population is estimated at only about 28,000 pairs, more than half of which nest on Isla Mocha. Their diet consists of fish, squid, and crustaceans.

The species is threatened by predation by non-native mammals, such as feral domestic cats and rats, hooking or entanglement in fishing gear, habitat destruction at breeding colonies, and the illegal harvesting of the chicks by human inhabitants of Isla Mocha. The Pink-footed Shearwater is designated as globally “Vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, is a focal marine species of common conservation concern for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, and is listed as Endangered in Chile and Threatened in Canada. In addition, the species is a candidate for inclusion in the international Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels.

Visit the tracking website to see where the birds are now.

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