'Where's Robbie?': Fate of endangered Australian bittern unclear

Robbie, in handlers' hands Image copyright Bitterns In Rice
Image caption The path to Robbie's bird-world stardom got off to an uneasy start

Scientists say the fate of an endangered Australasian bittern named Robbie, part of a groundbreaking tracking project, is unclear.

The bittern, part of the heron family, had a transmitter attached to his back, which allowed people to follow his journey online for nearly a year.

Thousands of Australians did just that, making him a modest celebrity, but in recent days his transmitter went dark.

An ecologist behind the study told the BBC the transmitter could have broken.

"We're not exactly sure what happened," said Matt Herring from the crowd-funded Bitterns In Rice project, stressing that the team hoped Robbie was well.

"He certainly clocked up a lot of kilometres. Probably over 2,500km," he said, adding that the transmitter could even have fallen off.

Image copyright Bitterns In Rice
Image caption The project has shed light on the movements of Australasian bitterns
Image copyright Bitterns In Rice/Google Earth
Image caption Robbie's fans followed his journey on social media

Mr Herring said the project was already studying other bitterns and that the results would also help inform agricultural practices.

"We're interested in ways of growing rice that not only produce really good yields, but also benefits wildlife as much as possible."

There are only a few thousand Australasian bitterns left, a significant proportion of whom breed in the rice crops of south-east Australia.

Image copyright Bitterns In Rice
Image caption Robbie was the first of a planned 10 bitterns to be studied

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