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American White Pelican Flight

Using the Argos Satellite System to predict American white pelican flight altitudes

Abstract: We have worked with numerous colleagues since 1996 to use the Argos Satellite System and Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTTs) to investigate specific study objectives, in addition to obtaining standard location estimates. We studied American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) flight behavior and meteorological events in the Fallon, Nevada, area as part of a program to predict bird flight and reduce risk of bird strikes by aircraft. We radio marked pelicans with satellite and conventional (VHF) telemetry to locate the birds within their large breeding season range and to track individual flights. PTTs were equipped with sensors calibrated to atmospheric pressure so we could estimate flight altitudes. Pelicans often use soaring flight and the altitude at which they fly is related to the warm thermal “updrafts” that form during the day.


Since the earliest plans for using the Argos satellite system to study wildlife (Fuller et al. 1984, Fancy et al. 1988), the majority of use has been for obtaining location estimates and mapping the ranging or migrations of rapid moving or remotely occurring animals (Fuller et al. 1995). Examples of other applications of satellite telemetry include study of foraging behavior (Weimerskirch et al. 1993), orientation (Papi and Luschi 1996), habitat use (Mauritzen et al. 2003), and conservation (Higuchi et al. 1996). The purpose of this paper is to describe tracking and the use of sensors for research of flight behavior.

American white pelican in flight

We used the Argos satellite system (Fancy et al. 1988, Service Argos, Inc. at http://www/argos-system.org) to study American white pelicans (pelicans; Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) in the vicinity of Naval Air Station Fallon, NV where they are a threat to aircraft operated during pilot training (Yates 1999a). With colleagues from Penn State Univ. and the Univ. of Maryland-Baltimore, we studied pelican flight behavior and meteorological events in the Fallon area in 1996 – 1998. We marked pelicans from the breeding colony at Pyramid Lake and from the wetlands on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (SNWR) with personnel from the refuge, Naval Air Station Fallon (NASF), Nevada Division of Wildlife, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Biologist Bill Henry, SNWR, and others had observed pelicans regularly making flights along a corridor between the Pyramid Lake nesting colony and the Lahontan Valley wetlands, and among the wetlands across more than a 60km radius over most of the area around the air station. To locate a sample pelican within its extensive breeding season range we radio marked pelicans with Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTTs; Microwave Telemetry, Inc., Columbia, Maryland, USA) that transmitted a radio frequency (401.65 MHz) to polar orbiting Argos satellites. We also epoxied a 216 MHz VHF transmitter (Advanced Telemetry Systems, Isanti, Minnesota, USA) to each PTT. We flew in a single engine fixed wing airplane and homed (Samuel and Fuller 1994) to the VHF transmissions to locate the birds. After we located a marked pelican we tracked and observed its flight.

Microwave Telemetry equipped the PTTs with sensors calibrated to atmospheric pressure. Shannon et al. (2002 a) used the pressure sensor data and observations of radio marked pelicans and the other birds in the flocks with which they flew to estimate flight altitudes. During our tracking and observations of individuals we received PTT data transmissions via a Gonio 400 receiver manufactured by SERPE-IESM of France. We also could track some flights or segments of flight from an automobile, receiving data from the PTTs by using a Telonics satellite uplink receiver; Telonics, Mesa, Arizona, USA.. Pelicans often use soaring and gliding flight to fly the long distances within their ranges and the altitude at which they fly is related to the height of the warm thermal “updrafts” that form during the day and to the flight biomechanics of the birds (Shannon et al. 2002 b). By integrating data collected during our observation flights with corresponding meteorological data, we established a relationship between pelican soaring-gliding flight and the strength of the forecast boundary-layer of thermals (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Graph of the flight altitudes of one pelican for a portion of the day, plotted under the forecast boundary layer depth.

Figure 1. The flight altitudes of one pelican for a portion of the day, plotted under the forecast boundary layer depth.

Through the application of this relationship, it was then possible to “forecast” the flight altitudes of most pelicans within the study area at a given time of day (Shannon et al. 2002 a, b). The use of PTTs and pressure sensors also have been used to study the flight of frigate birds (Fregata magnificens; Weimerskirsch et al. 2003).

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The study of American white pelicans was led by H. Shannon and G. Young of Pennsylvania State University, and assisted by W. S. Seegar, Department of Army, and B.J. Dayton and B. Henke, of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Funding was provided by the Department of Defense (DoD) Legacy Resource Management Program. Linda Schueck, formerly with the Raptor Research Center, is a coworker on the pelican research. We wish to thank the staff members of Service Argos for their attention to our technical and administrative questions, and Betsy Micone, Boise State University Raptor Research Center, for her administrative support.

For additional information about American white pelican flight see:

Shannon, H.D., G.S. Young, M.A. Yates, M.R. Fuller, and W.S. Seegar. 2002. American white pelican soaring flight times and altitudes relative to changes in thermal depth and intensity. Condor 104:679-683. [American white pelican Full Text] *

Shannon, H.D., G.S. Young, M.A. Yates, M.R. Fuller, and W.S. Seegar. 2002. Measurement of thermal intensity over complex terrain using American white pelicans and a simple boundary layer forecast model. Boundary Layer Meteorology 104: 167-199. [Measurement of thermal intensity Full Text] *

Yates, Mike. 1999a. Satellite and Conventional Telemetry Study of American White pelicans in Northern Nevada. Great Basin Birds 2: 4-9.

REFERENCES

Fancy, S.G., L.F. Pank, D.C. Douglas, C.H. Curby, G.W. Garner, S.C. Amstrup. and W.L. Regelin. 1988. Satellite telemetry: A new tool for wildlife research and management. United States Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service Resource Publication 172. Washington, D.C. 54pp.

Fuller, M.R., N. Levanon, T.E. Strikwerda, W.S. Seegar, J. Wall, H.D. Black, F.P. Ward, P.W. Howey, and J. Partelow. 1984. Feasibility of a bird-borne transmitter for tracking via satellite. Pp. 375 – 378 in Proc. of the 8th International Symp. on Biotelemetry. H.R. Kimmich and H.J. Klewe, eds. International Society on Biotelemetry, Nijmegen, Netherlands.

Fuller, M.R., W.S. Seegar, and P. Howey. 1995. The use of satellite systems for the study of bird migration. Israel J. Zool. 41:243-252.

Higuchi, H., Ozaki, K., Fujita, G., Minton, J., Ueta, M., Soma, M. & Mita, N. 1996. Satellite-tracking of White-naped Crane Grus vipio migration, and the importance of the Korean DMZ. Conserv. Biol. 10: 806-812.

Mauritzen, M, S.E. Belikov, A. N. Boltunov, A.E. Derocher, E. Hansen, R. A. Ims, O. Wiig, and N. Yoccoz. 2003. Functional responses in polar bear habitat selection. Oikos 100:112-124.

Papi, F, and P. Luschi. 1999. Pinpointing ‘isla meta’: The case of sea turtles and albatrosses. J. of Exp. Bio. 199: 65-71

Samuel, M.D. and M.R. Fuller. 1994. Wildlife radio telemetry. Pages 370-418 in T.A. Bookout, ed. Research and management techniques for wildlife and habitats. Fifth ed. The Wildlife Soc., Bethesda, Md.

Shannon, H.D., G.S. Young, M.A. Yates, M.R. Fuller, and W.S. Seegar. 2002a. Measurements of thermal intensity over complex terrain using American white pelicans and a simple boundary layer forecast model. Boundary Layer Meteorology 104: 167-199.

Shannon, H.D., G.S. Young, M.A. Yates, M.R. Fuller, and W.S. Seegar. 2002b. American white pelican soaring flight times and altitudes relative to changes in thermal depth and intensity. Condor 104:679-683.

Ueta, M., M.J. McGrady, H. Nakagawa, F. Sato and V.B. Masterov. 2003. Seasonal change in habitat use in Steller’s sea eagles. Oryx 37:110-114.

Weimerskirch, H., M., Salamolard, F. Sarrazin, and P. Jouventin. 1993. Foraging strategy of wandering albatrosses through the breeding season: A study using satellite telemetry. Auk 110: 325-342.

Weimerskirsch, H., O. Chastel, C. Barbraud, and O. Tostain. 2003. Frigate birds ride high on thermals. Nature 421, 333 – 334.

Yates, Mike. 1999a. Satellite and Conventional Telemetry Study of American White pelicans in Northern Nevada. Great Basin Birds 2: 4-9.

 

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