South West Wales

Swansea tagging aims to map Andean condors' flight path

Andean condor - photo courtesy of Diego Vallmitjana, Aonek´er GIS Solutions, Argentina.
Image caption The birds will be fitted with tags attached to the feathers on their backs

A Swansea University researcher is aiming to map the flight patterns of one of the world's largest birds to look for clues behind its decline.

Dr Emily Shepard is part of a team that will fit tracking devices to Andean condors to examine how they use rising air to glide from one place to another.

The tags, developed by experts at the university, will be fitted to feathers on the condors' backs.

The birds cannot sustain flight, even by flapping, without riding rising air.

Dr Shepard will take her first field trip to Bariloche, in the Río Negro Province of Argentina, later this month after securing £50,000 funding from the Leverhulme Trust.

The 31-year-old is aiming to tag 10 birds in the first year of the project.

The data loggers, developed by Prof Rory Wilson and the Smart Tag research group, have a special timed mechanism so that they automatically release from the bird at a pre-programmed time when they are back in roost.

"Snakes and ladders"

Dr Shepard said: "Condors are uniquely dependent on sources of lift in order to travel.

"They are, effectively, engaged in a three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders, transiting between sources of rising air and avoiding down-currents, in order to find food and return to their roosts at night.

"I'm fascinated by their relationship with the changing aerial environment and I think the daily diary tags, developed here at Swansea University, are going to provide insights into how the mountain winds shape their everyday lives."

The project focuses on Andean condors as they demonstrate the most extreme example of birds using rising air to gain a free ride.

This dependence restricts them to mountainous areas where they are thought to use distinct flight paths that link one column of rising air to the next.

Ultimately, this determines where they feed, breed, and migrate.

Dr Shepard said understanding the flight routes and schedules of the birds was increasingly important as populations were decreasing in several parts of their range.

She hopes the project, which will see her working with colleagues from South America, could be applied to other soaring birds such as vultures and storks.

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