Everyday lives of great egrets are largely unknown

08/17/2014 8:00 PM

08/18/2014 4:47 AM

How often do you see a bird flying high in the sky and wonder where it’s going? Some birds make amazing migrations of many thousands of miles. Have you ever wondered: How long has that bird already been flying? How much farther does it have to go? Migratory birds must have amazing stories to tell, but we are left to imagine the details as we watch them fly overhead.

We know surprisingly little about the everyday lives of even common species. Consider, for example, great egrets, which are so easy to identify and observe in wetlands and other common coastal habitats. We know that great egrets migrate in the winter. But we don’t know exactly when and where they go, the distances they fly, which routes they take and other basics of their migratory habits. In order to help these magnificent birds survive in an increasingly urbanized environment, we need to explore these questions and understand their behavior and biology.

Modern technology allows researchers to investigate these stories in ways previously unavailable – new tracking tags use GPS to record location and a three-axis accelerometer to record behavior. These solar-powered units work 24/7, anywhere on the globe, for the entire lifetime of an animal.

In 2012 the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences’ Biodiversity Research Lab started a project to investigate the spatial ecology of great egrets, and to specifically understand their migratory habits. We tagged eight birds, each with a high-tech tracking backpack. Among them was a male egret we named Mr. Bisbing, after the principal of Moyock Elementary School. We caught and tagged Mr. Bisbing (the egret) at the Whalehead Club in Corolla (see more, in this Untamed Science video at http://bit.ly/1opLnnV) on April 21, 2013, and followed his every movement for the next 7 1/2, until his untimely death.

We learned that the tagged egret’s time with his offspring was quite limited and that he moved from his nesting site to the southern Outer Banks to spend the rest of his summer after his kids left home. And most surprising to us was to see where he went in the winter – flying due south over the open ocean toward the Caribbean.

If you are interested in learning more about this amazing bird, you can visit the science blog of N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences: http://naturalsciencesresearch.wordpress.com or check out www.movebank.org.

Melanie Beckmann is a postdoctoral researcher in the Biodiversity Research Laboratory at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

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