Britain’s largest native seabirds are being tracked in real time using regular 3G mobile networks in a unique project designed to understand the effects of wind farms on wildlife.
Some 20 birds of the northern gannet species, the largest seabird in the North Atlantic with a wingspan of up to two metres, have been fitted with GPS tags that send information to 3G-enabled mobile networks.
The tags are attached to the birds’ tail feathers and were developed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), in cooperation with the Universities of East Anglia and Lisbon.
Every time the birds come within the vicinity of a 3G mobile station, the devices download detailed positioning data of their previous movements, enabling researchers for the first time to reconstruct in detail the birds’ paths as they fly through the English Channel to find food for their chicks.
The project, overseen by the Alderney Wildlife Trust, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the University of Liverpool, focuses on the most southerly gannet population that nests about three miles off the coast of Alderney.
“Seabird populations in the Channel have declined dramatically in the last 50 years, with the gannets one of the few successful species,” said Roland Gauvain, Alderney Wildlife Trust Manager. “The Trust has worked alongside its partners to setup the T.A.G project to help Alderney better understand the unique dynamics of its stunning wildlife, in order that it can work to protect them into the future.”
The researchers said the technology used provides the most real-time form of monitoring that has ever been attempted for birds at sea.
The data has already revealed a fishing trip totalling more than 800km through the Channel and one bird has been tracked flying as far as the Thames Estuary.
The collected positioning data is being displayed on the project’s website www.teachingthroughnature.co.uk/t-a-g together with a live webcam streaming images of a major gannet nesting colony near Alderney.
The researchers hope the project will shed some light on the effects of human activity in coastal waters on sea wildlife.
"Tagging these magnificent birds is already showing that if you build a wind farm in English waters it might have an effect on the birds of Alderney and other far-flung breeding colonies,” said Joan Edwards, The Wildlife Trusts' head of living seas.
"Animals move big distances and we need to take this into account when off-shore developments are planned."
Northern gannets are identified as ‘Amber listed’ in the Birds of Conservation Concern 3 (Joint Nature Conservation Committee).