Greater Black-backed Gull (Creative Commons image)

‘Bird backpacks’ to help track flight patterns around wind farms

Image credit: Greater Black-backed Gull (Creative Commons image)

High-tech tracking tags that can be attached to seabirds are to be created to help monitor the movements of gulls, guillemots and other seabirds.

Clever designs for miniature ‘bird backpacks’ have been shortlisted by a government-backed innovation body set up to boost UK wind, wave and tidal energy.‘’

The scheme follows concerns raised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) that wild seabird colonies and threatened species like puffins and razorbills could be decimated amid the UK's rush for green power.

Vicky Coy, from the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult project, said: “Developing a tag that withstands a bird's natural behaviour is key to developing a greater understanding of their movements. It’s more difficult than it sounds.

“But the solutions suggested are ingenious. One, for example, is a small backpack which contains a solar charger to keep the battery going, and another attaches discreetly to the tail feathers.

“With battery life a concern, one suggestion was to use ‘geo-fencing’ to ensure full details of the bird's movements are only transmitted when it's in the proximity of a pre-determined area, giving us more detail than ever.”

The tags will have to weigh no more than three per cent of a birds overall body weight in order not to interfere with its natural behaviour.

They will also need a battery capable of lasting for 12 months and strong enough to withstand attacks and offer a quick-release mechanism to prevent snagging.

Proposals include a device containing a solar-powered GPS system, and discreet tags that attach to tail feathers.

Four organisations have been shortlisted as part of a scheme to find a solution to the design challenge. They are Pathtrack, the British Trust for Ornithology, Ornitela and Debug Innovations.

The successful company or companies will see their device first used on greater black-backed gulls, although it will need to be adaptable for other birds.

Catarina Rei, technical lead on the project for EDP Renewables, which is developing Moray East, in Scotland, said: "Environmental monitoring is already a big part of any wind-farm planning and post-construction monitoring, onshore and offshore, and so we are always looking for new ways to improve monitoring, and take advantage of innovations in, for example, batteries and solar power.

"Developing new techniques and methods is an essential step in improving what we do.

"We'll be able to gain a greater insight into bird and coastal species behaviour, which will better inform the planning, consenting and operational stage of an offshore wind farm development."

Nigel Butcher, senior technical officer at the RSPB, said: "This is a really exciting project which will hopefully pave the way for further technological advances in tracking seabirds.

"RSPB has previously worked with several of the shortlisted companies and, given our experience with them, are confident that the criteria for the new tags will be met to an incredibly high standard."

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