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Field Notes: May 15, 2012

Tracking Birds on the East Coast

In February-March, 2012, Dr. Ford deployed to the East Coast to assist in a multi-agency, multi-institutional study aiming to track the movements of red-throated loons, surf scoters, long-tailed ducks, and northern gannets.

By Dr. Scott Ford



If you don't have wind generators near your home, you likely soon will. Wind power has been rapidly expanding over the past 10 years and new projects are in the works all over the country. Although wind power is considered a "green" source of electricity, there are environmental impacts to consider. These impacts could be direct (e.g., birds or bats being struck by rotating blades) or less obvious such as disorientation from marker lights or stress induced by underwater noises from the generators. Because of this, studies are conducted to predict the impact before it occurs. The information is used to determine the best design (e.g., placement, density) for the project to minimize the impact.

Tracking sea ducks, loons, and gannets on the East Coast
In February and March of 2012, I assisted BioDiversity Research Institute in a multi-agency study involving the implantation of satellite transmitters in red-throated loons, surf scoter, long-tailed ducks, and northern gannets. The implants allowing tracking the bird's movements during wintering, migration, breeding, and molting for up to a couple of years. Part of the study's objectives are to provide information that will help in determining where off-shore wind projects may best be located without disturbing the birds. The data will also help us learn more about the bird's movements, how different populations interact in their arctic breeding grounds, and what habitats and locations are most critical to ensuring the health of their populations.

I want to mention that the BRI biologists were a blast to work with and very professional in the field. I learned a lot in our conversations and by working side-by-side with them in the field. There were some formidable challenges to this work-- poor weather, widely scattered birds just outside of our "safe" operating area, and moon conditions all combined to seriously curtail how many birds we could safely capture (and safety is always the top concern). Despite discouraging conditions, Carrie Osborne (loon/gannet crew leader) and Dustin Meatty (sea duck crew leader) kept a positive attitude and gave it maximum effort. Jonathan Fiely, Ian Johnson, Josh, Lucas Savoy, Alisha, Carl Anderson, and Mike Chickering were all fun folks to work with. Mike is particularly talented at safe boat operation and netting loons. Jonathan kept things lively with his sense of humor. Ian is quite the singer-- something that helps pass the time when spending long sleep-deprived hours in a cold boat! Josh is a smart guy-- just finished his masters and is eagerly looking for a job as a waterfowl biologist. In the end, we were able to implant PTTs in 9 red-throated loons, 3 gannets, and 1 surf scoter. The birds are being tracked now by satellite every couple of days.

This is the first time that gannets have received implanted transmitters. I take these surgeries very seriously-- after all we are interrupting these birds' lives and going through a lot of expense and effort to collect the best information we can get. So, we carefully planned out the surgery using "dummy" transmitters and carcasses that were found dead of natural causes. Gannets are very cool (and formidable) birds! Their beaks are very strong and very sharp and they have a very strong neck to dart out with. I am quite certain that they could take out a human eye-- so I was very careful when I handled them. Gannets feed by plunging at fish from high above the water. They fold their wings back and plunge in like a dart. When it comes to the high dive, they put Olympic athletes to shame with their grace. So, do you see why they have such strong necks and stout beaks? I also found that they have very fine serrations along the edges (or "tomia") of their beak. These serrations pointed backward-- can you guess why? (see below) Their stomachs are highly expandable and can fill their entire abdomen when completely full of fish, which they tend to swallow whole. In contrast to being graceful in the air, they can be quite awkward on the water or on land. We found that capturing them was relatively easy-- you just drift up to them with a bright light shining on them at night. Since they cannot see past the glare, they tend not to see us and flee. In some cases, the birds remain sleeping with their heads under their back feathers until the net comes down over them. We presume they sleep so soundly because, well, there's not too many night-time predators for these birds. One more interesting anatomical bit-- gannets have no obvious external nares (nostrils) like most birds. They are part of a group of birds called Pelecaniformes that all share this feature, among other anatomical oddities such as air pockets under the skin to cushion their plunges and tiny practically useless tongues. We felt privelaged to wotk with these magnificent birds and hope that the data will help us learn more about their life history and, ultimately, what we can do to be better stewards and ensure their future.

I want to send out a very special thank you to the people and businesses around Cape May, New Jersey. In particular, Rutgers University's Greg Degroff at the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory, Lisa and Kay at Atlantic Cape Community College, Mike Laffey at Cape May County Park & Zoo, Gretchen at Audubon Nature Center of Cape May, the kind folks at Parkway Veterinary Hospital, and the amazingly flexible people at Lincoln Medical Supply. Mike was amazing and took a lot of time out of his busy day to help me find a location for our field surgeries. Gretchen set me up with their classroom for use as a surgery. Parkway allowed me to use their autoclave for prepping instruments. Paul Reses at Lincoln Medical went way beyond the call of duty and delivered oxygen to the hotel at 10:30 in the evening!!! He said he loves animals and was happy to help. Thanks to folks like these, we can accomplish the important research that will hopefully help us find ways to care better for wild birds and provide better for their needs. Thank you New Jersey!!

Do you want to know more? Do you want to DO more? Check out BioDiversity Research to learn more about this and other projects and to see how you can volunteer or contribute financially. You can also drop me a line:

[Scroll down for answers!]

  1. The gannet is part of the Pelecaniforme order of birds. Name two other common North American birds from this order.
  2. Why do you suppose there are backward-pointing serrations on the edges of the gannet's beak?
  3. This is a toughy-- What is the anatomic/medical term for the air pockets that are normally found under the skin of Pelecaniformes.

 Here's a video showing some of our work:


[stay tuned-- coming soon!]


ANSWERS: 1) Cormorants (several species) and pelicans (brown or white pelicans in North America). 2) To prevent fish from slipping out of the beak. 3) Subcutaneous emphysema.

Gannet at the moment of release. You can see the USGS leg band on the right leg (just behind the wing) and the antenna of the transmitter above the tail.

From left to right: Me (Dr. Scott Ford), Carrie Osborne (BRI), Carl Anderson (BRI), and, of course, Morus bassanus, the northern gannet.

OK, so it's all fun and games until this guy pokes your eye out!! He definitely has the equipment. Note that there is no external nare-- just a tight slit that runs along each side of the beak. I suspect that they breath mainly through the corners of their beak in flight. I also presume that this adaptation is to prevent a big slug of water from being shot into their sinuses every time they plunge into the ocean.

Red-throated loon making full steam away from us just after release. Note the transmitter antenna above the tail.

Jonathan Fiely holding a loon in preparation for surgery. I believe that the payment for this photographic privilege was a shot of loon poop across his lap... (or maybe it was a nip on the knuckles)

All photos courtesy of Jonathan Fiely (

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