This post was contributed by Michelle Kappes and Kevin Coustaut, Laboratoire d’Ecologie Marine at the Université de la Réunion.
Shearwaters, like most seabirds, spend most of their lives at sea. In order to learn about where shearwaters go when they are away from their breeding colonies, Dr. Matthieu Le Corre from the Université de la Réunion has begun a research program to deploy miniaturized electronic tags on wedge-tailed shearwaters (Puffinus pacificus) at sites throughout the western Indian Ocean. These tags, or geolocators, collect data on light level that can be used to determine the position of the bird at sea. Basically, the time of local noon is used to determine longitude, and latitude is estimated by local day length. The tags are attached to a metal ring on the bird’s tarsus using a plastic zip-tie (see photo). The tags also have a salt-water switch, and due to their placement, we can determine when the shearwaters are in flight and when they are resting or foraging on the sea surface. By taking advantage of this technology, we can begin to get a picture of how these wide-ranging seabirds behave during their foraging trips to sea.
Wedge-tailed shearwater with geolocator © Michelle Kappes
Also using geolocators, recent work by Catry et al. (2009) demonstrated that 9 wedge-tailed shearwaters breeding on Aride Island remained close to the colony when raising chicks, and later dispersed up to 3,500 km to the central Indian Ocean Basin during the non-breeding period. Last year, members of Dr. Le Corre’s research team recovered 6 geolocators from wedge-tailed shearwaters deployed at Cousin Island. Preliminary analysis suggests that shearwaters from Cousin Island disperse further east during the non-breeding period than those from Aride Island. However, a larger sample size will be necessary to confirm colony-specific differences in foraging behavior.
During 14-29 September 2009, we deployed 24 geolocators on wedge-tailed shearwaters breeding within St Joseph Atoll, Amirantes group, and 24 geolocators on shearwaters breeding at Cousin Island. Field work is planned to deploy similar numbers of geolocators at sites on Réunion Island, as well as off Mauritius and Madagascar. This will be the first attempt to simultaneously study the at-sea behavior of this seabird species across a broad range of breeding sites.
Ultimately, these data will help us answer questions such as: do wedge-tailed shearwaters breeding at different sites in the western Indian Ocean travel to similar locations at sea? Are there specific ocean habitats that are of particular importance for this species? Areas of the ocean that are important to shearwaters may be important for other marine species as well, so these data could be used to help identify marine Important Bird Areas and possibly oceanic Marine Protected Areas.
Shearwater in burrow on Cousin Island © Conor Jameson
However, as the geolocators store these data on-board, we won’t be able to answer these questions until we recover the tags at the end of the breeding season. This may prove trickier than it sounds because once shearwater chicks reach about a week in age, adults only return to the colonies for brief periods to deliver meals to their chicks. So we may have to wait until the next breeding season starts in 2010 to recover these tags and unlock the secrets of where these different populations of shearwaters spend their time at sea!