Mottled ducks in Georgia to be tracked with futuristic technology that’s now commonplace

By David Pendered

Tremendous scientific advances in the tracking of birds are now so commonplace that they were barely mentioned in a recent release from the state Department of Natural Resources about a new tracking program.

This mottled duck is outfitted with a satellite transmitter to track its feeding patterns and movements, in order to protect its habitat. Credit: Robert Horam, Ga. DNR

This mottled duck is outfitted with a satellite transmitter to track its feeding patterns and movements, in order to protect its habitat. Credit: Robert Horam, Ga. DNR

It was just in 1984 that a bald eagle in the U.S. became the first bird to be outfitted with a satellite tracking device. That was a huge advance from the piece of string that James Audubon tied a string on the leg of a bird in 1803 to see if it would return after the autumn migration. (It did.)

These days, satellite telemetry is so common that mottled ducks along Georgia’s coast are being outfitted this fall with transmitters. The solar-power devices will gather GPS location information from Air Force satellites and transmit it back to researchers.

It goes without saying that the GPS navigational system has advanced to the point that it’s a common feature in smart phones and trackers used in jogging and cycling.

GPS is operated by the U.S. Air Force and the system now includes more than 30 satellites circling the globe more than 12,000 miles above Earth’s surface, according to a video produced by Boeing. On Aug. 1, the Air Force launched its seventh GPS Block IFF satellite, which was third such satellite to be launched this year, according to gps.gov.

Kaylee Pollander, a UGA graduate student, and Greg Balkcom, a biologist with Georgia DNR, attach a transmitter to a mottled duck. Credit: Robert Horan, Ga. DNR

Kaylee Pollander, a UGA graduate student, and Greg Balkcom, a biologist with Georgia DNR, attach a transmitter to a mottled duck. Credit: Robert Horan, Ga. DNR

The project of tracking of mottled ducks is new collaboration between DNR and the University of Georgia. DNR staffers and a graduate student from UGA attached transmitters to the first six mottled ducks in early August. Through autumn, additional transmitters will be attached to additional ducks.

The ultimate objective of the research program is to help preserve and protect the mottled ducks. Potential conservation areas can be identified and management schemes devised to create a habitat that nurtures the mottled ducks. Loss of wetland habitat has led to decreased populations, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Georgia’s duck researchers want to know where the birds eat breakfast, where they sleep and where they go during the day.

“Mottled ducks are a relatively new species to the Georgia coast, only having been established here since the late 1990s,” Greg Balkcom, a DNR wildlife biologist said in the statement. “Their population is concentrated along the mouth of the Altamaha River, and has remained stable for several years, but we still don’t know enough about their habitat preferences and movement patterns to effectively manage coastal impoundments to meet their needs.”

Satellite telemetry tracked a falcon on its annual migration from Germany to Zimbabwe. Credit: Google Earth, David Pendered

Satellite telemetry tracked a falcon on its annual migration from Germany to Zimbabwe. Credit: Google Earth, David Pendered

Incidentally, the mottled duck is the only duck that has adapted to breeding in southern marshes, according to Cornell, which further described the mottled duck as:

  • “A dull relative of the Mallard. It is in danger of being displaced by introduced Mallards, primarily because of hybridization,” as mottled ducks breed with the mallards introduced to their habitats.

A fascinating account of a female falcon’s migration from Germany to Zimbabwe and back again, as tracked by satellite telemetry, is cited in a European study:

  • “After leaving on migration in the second week of August [2008], and a short rest period on the island of Elba off the west coast of Italy from 6 to 13 September, the bird flew at first in a southerly direction towards North Africa. The falcon held this course more or less until reaching its mainwintering area in Southern Angola on 17 October.
  • “Over two months later it migrated further in a south-easterly direction and arrived in Zimbabwe on 29 December.
  • “On 1 January 2009 it reached the southernmost point of its migration between the cities of Bulawayo and Harare in central Zimbabwe. The distance migrated from the breeding site, not including regional movement in Angola, was up to this point 10,000 km.
  • “The Hobby [falcon] did not linger for long in Zimbabwe and retreated almost immediately to its wintering area in Angola. The bird arrived back at its old breeding site in Brandenburg in May.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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