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Flight scan on nomad bird
(Top) A cluster of lesser flamingos; solar-powered transmitters to track the birds

Oct. 31: India may join an international project to satellite-track the movements of lesser flamingos under a study proposed by scientists from Germany and India to tag birds from Gujarat’s coastal sites.

The scientists plan to observe long-distance travel and local conditions associated with the movements of lesser flamingos into and out of Gujarat — one of only four regions of the world with a high concentration of these birds.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology at Radolfzell in southern Germany and the Anand Agricultural University in Gujarat plan to fix solar-powered transmitters on the backs of 20 to 25 lesser flamingos between February and April 2010. Position-tracking satellites will pick up the transmitter signals, allowing scientists to observe the movement of the birds for about four years.

Lesser flamingo populations in Africa and Asia appear clustered in four regions — eastern Africa, western Africa, south Africa and western India. The Rann of Kutch is among a small number of breeding sites for the birds worldwide.

“But we don’t know what drives long-distance movement of lesser flamingos. We don’t even know whether the four regional populations are connected,” said Volker Salewski, a team member and senior ornithologist at the Max Planck institute.

The project, yet to be approved by the Indian government, is intended to corroborate — or disprove — speculation that the lesser flamingos may be moving between eastern Africa and India, flying along coastal zones or island hopping.

Lesser flamingos are not migratory — they do not show regular movements between breeding sites and fixed areas where they spend non-breeding seasons. But there is abundant evidence for their nomadic, irregular movements, Salewski said.

“Dramatic fluctuations in lesser flamingo populations have been a long-standing mystery,” said Bhavabhuti Parasharya, an agricultural ornithologist at the Anand university, the project’s Indian collaborator.

In the past, ornithologists have observed rapid but temporary declines in lesser flamingo populations in eastern Africa coinciding with increases in head-counts in southern Africa or western India. At individual lakes in eastern Africa, where their populations can climb to tens or hundreds of thousands of birds, the numbers can double or reduce by half within a week.

Parasharya and his colleagues had once observed what he described as an “intriguing increase” in lesser flamingo populations in Gujarat at a time about 2.6 million of these birds appeared “missing” from eastern Africa.

A decade ago, scientists who observed lesser flamingos in Madagascar proposed the island-hopping hypothesis. The birds are able to travel long distances at night, covering about 600km in a 10-hour flight.

The tracking project began when Salewski and his colleagues tagged four lesser flamingos at Lake Abijatta in Ethiopia in April this year and 15 more birds at Lake Bogoria in Kenya in June. The backpack transmitters showed a bird from Ethiopia flying 95km northeast, while a few birds from Kenya had moved southward, one of them reaching Lake Manyara in Tanzania.

“The Rann of Kutch, when inundated after rains, is an ideal breeding ground. It provides the birds safety from predators such as dogs or jackals and there is abundant food in the marshy land,” Parasharya said.

But lesser flamingos respond quickly to changes in environmental conditions. When the Rann dries up, Parasharya said, the birds move to the coast. Whether in Africa or India, the birds appear to rely on relatively few patches of good feeding habitat.

The scientists hope to correlate the birds’ movements with environmental changes at their breeding sites and feeding zones. “Insights into the movement ecology of these birds would be important for conservation strategies,” Salewski said.

Although the lesser flamingo is the most numerous flamingo — the world’s largest concentration in eastern Africa accounts for up to 2.5 million birds, about 75 per cent of the global population — it is classified as “near threatened” because of a lack of suitable breeding sites.

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