For centuries, humans and animals have been chasing each other. It was a matter of ‘to eat or to be eaten’. However things have changed and from the 20th century, a group of people started chasing after animals for a different reason. These people are scientists and they are tracking animals. Through this research they not only track the whereabouts of the animals, but also the conditions of remote areas.
‘Meet under the Anseong-cheon Bridge…’ Under the bridge, he said? It’s not like we are smuggling anything illegal… This was the first time to meet a news source at a place like this. There was not even an address. What is worse, there were four Anseong-cheon bridges according to the GPS. Only after receiving a satellite map from the researcher could I finally make my way to the right Anseong-cheon Bridge.
9 am, 5th of November, 2015. I was on my way to the place to capture migratory birds, where researchers look for AI and attach geolocators to these birds. I imagined all the possible scenarios as I drove to the meeting point. ‘How should I take photos when capturing the birds?’, ‘there’s got to be lots of birds… what if they poo on me?’ Despite all these, unexpected things were ahead of me.
Staring at the sky for the whole day under Anseong-cheon Bridge
“It’s just like attaching smartphones to the back of migratory birds.”
Seung-woo Han, researcher from the KoEco Inc. whom I met under the Anseong-cheon Bridge, Gongdo Town, Anseong City, Gyeonggi-do, described the geolocator as a ‘smartphone’. It tracks the bird in real-time and sends back the information through text messages. It’s almost like receiving online messages from the bird. Of course, it’s a one-way communication.
The reason why researchers attach these geolocators is to study the spread of AI. The spreading of the disease, that can cause massive outbreaks in poultry, such as chickens and ducks, has not been clarified yet but some researchers suspect migratory birds as the medium. Hence we need to track these birds and try to understand the characteristics of migration.
Commissioned by Ministry of Environment (ME) and Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA), KoEco has been capturing hundreds of migratory birds since 2013 to check for the virus as well as attaching geolocators to track them.
After brief introduction with the researchers, I carefully looked around for ducks. I couldn’t find any. ‘Maybe it is too early for them?’ This is what I thought at first.
The target species for capturing were Spot-billed Duck Anas poecilorhyncha and Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. This operation has been ongoing for a week and it almost looked like a military operation. The team of four searched for the most adequate site to spy on the birds near Anseong-cheon. Then just a day before my visit (4 Nov), they installed a ‘Canon Net’ at the place of operation. In this method, researchers capture birds by shooting a net over them. They also baited the birds with rice seeds, which the birds love to eat, and waited for a day.
After 6 hours of stakeout. The birds weren’t coming any closer to the capturing point except for the occasional circling over our head. I started to get nervous. ‘Would I be able to write an article after all?’
“The birds are also aware of us. If you keep staring at them like that, they won’t come near us.”
Eun-hong Lim, one of the researchers from the capturing team warned me as I was staring intently at the Spot-billed Duck which was circling in the sky as if it was doing aerial reconnaissance. He added that migratory birds observe every move of the team as if the team were their enemy troop. To make the situation worse, fishermen started to gather around near the river. There was one more reason for the birds to not approach us now.
Researcher Seung-woo Han said “it might be difficult to proceed today” and added that “these kind of things happen a lot when we try to capture migratory birds”. I was shocked. Among all the scenarios that I went through, there was not a single one that we couldn’t capture any bird. No need to worry about dirtying clothes in the first place. This was the first failure in 6 years of being a reporter.
Check the migration course with smart phones
Although I couldn’t witness the capture-and-attach-scene with my very own eyes, the scientists in the team gave me a detailed description of how geolocators are helping them.
From 2013, the team has attached geolocators on more than 400 birds including Mallards, Spot-billed Ducks and also on endangered species, such as Black Vultures and Black-faced Spoonbills. The number of capturing locations is over 20 all over the country, including Mangyeong river that runs through Jeolla Province and Anseong-cheon, Gyeonggi Province. Recently, geolocators have been attached to migratory birds in Mongolia as well, such as Black Vultures, White-naped Cranes and Whooper Swans.
After three years of monitoring the birds’ movement, we learned new facts. For example, we have thought that after wintering in the Republic of Korea, Mallards would remain for few days at a stopover site before returning to Manchuria in China or to Mongolia. However, we found out that some birds flew from the Republic of Korea to Amnok River in a day. Other birds also left the Korean Peninsula in 2-3 days.
Another outcome was to learn about the migration route and the habitat of the Black-faced Spoonbill, an endangered species. Commissioned by the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea (CHA), KoEco has attached geolocators on Black-faced Spoonbills that hatched in the Republic of Korea and tracked their migration route. The route was announced in October, 2014.
It was known before that Black-faced Spoonbills usually winter near Jeju Island in the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong. However the tracking confirmed there is also habitat for this species near Shanghai, China. As for the migration route, instead of going straight to China from the Republic of Korea, they rested for three months in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea then went down to China.
The geolocator KoEco has developed only weighs about 27 g. In other words, it is not above the weight limit according to the international standard for the size of an animal tracking device. The weight of the device should be ‘lower than 3% of the animal’s weight’ except for some small species like Baikal Teal.
The device also uses mobile base station network along with GPS signal, so when compared to just using the GPS, it is five times more precise. The error range has reduced from within 50 m to 10 m. Moreover, the price for equipment is five times cheaper. It went down from KRW 10 million to KRW 1.8 million. (USD 8,200 to USD 1,500)
Researcher Han said “in the past the tracking technology didn’t exist or was too expensive, so what we could do was merely checking where the birds were, looking for their colour markings” and added “thanks to the development of technology, we can now understand ecological characteristics such as the detailed migration routes and habitats of birds”.
To read the original article (in Korean), click here.