Tracking pelicans with solar power

In a new conservation effort, researchers in Utah are placing GPS transmitters on pelicans. The information they gather will be used to protect pelican ecosystems, but the first step in tracking a pelican with GPS  is to catch one.


In a new conservation effort researchers in Utah are placing GPS transmitters on pelicans.

The information they gather will be used to protect pelicans ecosystems. But the first step in tracking a pelican with GPS is to catch one.

Let's take a look.

American White Pelicans are considered to be a species of greatest conservation need.

Mostly as a result of historic persecution, and also effects of DDT.

We're monitoring pelicans -- pelican movements, really -- for a few reasons.

One, we'd like to get to know, what are the daily movements from the pelicans that are either nesting on Gunnison Island or foraging on our lakes and streams?

What are the seasonal movements of pelicans?

And then also these annual movements.

So, what are the full migration pathways?

So we can talk about full life cycle of conservation.

It's one thing to conserve the breeding habitat of a species, but if it migrates south for nine months of the year, you really have to talk about its full life cycle to get a comprehensive view of conservation.

Monitoring these pelicans, we have a couple different methods for doing that.

We of course use citizen science, like eBird, where people just report where they see American White Pelicans.

We also band juvenile birds on Gunnison Island.

And the third leg of this is, of course, the satellite telemetry tags.

These gives us very fine-grained information about movement.

My main part of this project is trapping adult pelicans to attach GPS transmitters.

Transmitter's a backpack-mounted transmitter.

It's got a solar panel on the back of it, two separate antennae.

One antenna is for the GPS signal, and the other antenna on it is actually the antenna that transmits all the stored GPS way points back to us.

The GPS unit inside the transmitter will take a way point every hour during the daytime, from about an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset.

And then it will take another point at midnight.

So, then it will store all those way points onboard on the transmitter, and then every other day it'll transmit those way points back through a separate satellite system.

My name is Sam Hall, and I'm a Senior GIS Analyst.

My primary role in this project has been to create the PeliTrack.

Before, most of the biologists just downloaded the raw data, records that really meant nothing to anybody unless they formatted it correctly and put it on a map manually.

The biologists now can go to the map itself, and then see all that data live any time they want.

It's a great resource.

We've seen this used in a variety of ways.

We had an elementary-school class here that was using the daily movement, how far did each individual bird move in a day, as their math problems.

I think this has been a great project for us to be able to kind of get a lot of the work that we do out in front of the public.

I think a lot of the work the biologists do at the Division doesn't get -- isn't really seen.

The nongame program kind of sits in the background.

A lot of folks think about the Division of Wildlife Resources, and they think about hunting and fishing, and the things that we primarily do.

Every one of our species is shared with some other state or province or country.

So, for us to do effective conservation and management of these species, we have to work together in partnerships, both internal, between different programs within the agency, but also between agencies, and between agencies and the public.

Pelicans are numerous enough that they're a good study system.

They're a big, obvious bird, and they can help tell us about where wetlands are sort of functioning ecologically.