WAAKVOGELS takes flight!

by Tjibbe Stelwagen

The final chapter in the Sinagote book is dedicated to ‘Dirkje’. Dirkje was a spoonbill ringed and tagged on Schiermonnikoog but never made it far. She was found soon after, starved to death, in Dirksland, the place from which she got her name. We don’t know much about her life, but we know much about her afterlife as weird as that may sound. She has been a theatrical prop in the performance ‘Kanoet’ and now resides at BirdEyes. She was hanging around in the building, sometimes moving from one place to another, even getting a prominent spot at the table where the BirdEyes MT holds its weekly meetings. 

Last week Dirkje ended up on the desk where I was preparing a presentation about our upcoming WAAKVOGELS project for Rijkswaterstaat, governmental area manager of the Wadden Sea. As I looked up from the screen while preparing this presentation, our eyes met. Obviously, a stuffed bird has no eyes. But it felt so real that it struck me for a moment. As if she was looking at me caught between hope and fear, saying: “Will you speak well for me, make them care?”. And so I decided to bring Dirkje to Rijkswaterstaat exactly for that. I brought her into the room, gave her a prominent spot, and started my presentation by explaining to the audience that I brought Dirkje to remind me to speak well for her. To remind all of us that my talk will be about data points in space and time, but that I, nor anyone in the audience, should ever forget that these data points represent actual living beings. Each with their own story. 

And so my presentation took off, talking about how the NIOZ’ WATLAS system allows us to track even the smallest shorebirds in real-time, and how this will enable us to see how shorebird flocks and individuals respond to (unpredictable) events in the Wadden Sea. Just imagine being able to see in real-time how birds behave when a warm summer causes a massive die-off of Baltic Tellins or Cockles. Or in the event of an oil spill. During the course of WAAKVOGELS, will we observe shifts in their preferred foraging areas? If so, can that be explained by other available data long before that data itself suggests to us that ‘something is going on’? 

WATLAS data from around Griend in summer 2023 offer a glimpse into the future of bird monitoring across the entire Wadden Sea. 

While smaller birds will be tracked with WATLAS, bigger birds such as spoonbills will be tracked with GPS devices, allowing us to follow them along the entire flyway, and to link conditions at faraway places to our observations in the Wadden Sea. It will teach us how climate change affects the chronology of seasonal events, such as we already see in the Bar-tailed godwits that have to speed up refuelling in the Wadden Sea on their northward migrations in order to keep up with earlier springs in their breeding areas. The tags will not only allow us to track the birds’ location, but thanks to a built-in accelerometer we can even determine when a bird is resting, foraging, and even when it is ingesting a prey. When coupled with GPS data, this amounts to an extraordinarily detailed diary of when and where birds were doing what, which can greatly improve our understanding of what areas require protection at what time. An example in the making by Mohamed Henriques et al (in review) is that of Spoonbills of Schiermonnikoog that, in order to prepare for migration, congregate in a very specific part of the eastern Dutch Wadden Sea; precisely in the area where developers are keen to lay a cable to bring power generated by wind farms in the North Sea to shore. And so we turn Spoonbills into WAAKVOGELS, indeed! 

With that statement I ended my presentation that morning at Rijkswaterstaat. The people in the room were intrigued by the potential of WAAKVOGELS and how the project might provide much relevant information for area managers. I was so happy to hear the question “Do you already know this for the other birds?” No. BUT WE WILL! 

After years in the making, WAAKVOGELS will finally take off in January ‘24! For the next 5 years we will follow the birds in space and time and get to know their intricate lives, which we will relay to scientists, area managers, artists, and the general public. We are eagerly anticipating an unprecedented journey with the birds and invite you to share your thoughts, follow the birds and hear them tell their stories. 

Meanwhile, Dirkje is back at BirdEyes again. I like to think that she will keep a watchful eye on us for the next 5 years. Make sure that we speak well for her. 

Centre for global ecological change at the University of Groningen

Birdeyes is a science and creative centre that views the world - almost literally - through the eyes of birds. More and more birds are flying around with tiny transmitters, loggers and other high technology on their backs and legs. This generates an unimaginable amount of information. By cleverly combining such data with other sources of information, and by using new ways to tell stories and share the insights with, BirdEyes strives to open up a new knowledge network. The centre aims to be an innovative part of the University of Groningen and is linked to the Rudolph Agricola School for Sustainable Development. BirdEyes, with empirical and inspirational roots in the farthest corners of the world.

visit homepagina