February 18. 2013 9:37PM

Squam Lakes osprey project gives world a glimpse into birds' flight

Special to the Union Leader

Dr. Rob Bierregaard of the University of North Carolina, left, and Iain MacLeod, executive director of the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, represented North America at an international conference on ospreys in February. Here, the experts tag a New Hampshire-born osprey in May 2012. (COURTESY)

This satellite photo from September 2012 shows the route of ospreys Chip (yellow line) and Jill (pink line). Jill made it to South America before being killed by a predator and Chip was blown out to sea after getting stuck on an eastbound freighter. (COURTESY)

HOLDERNESS - Last fall, Iain MacLeod of the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center and his colleague, Rob Bierregaard, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina provided the world with a bird's-eye view as three New Hampshire-born ospreys and eight others from the East Coast migrated to South America.

With state-of-the-art transmitters affixed to the birds on small backpacks, the public tracked the migrations of Jill and Chip on their maiden journey, and the adult, Art, through the Project osprey website. Bierregard, who has tracked and studies ospreys for four decades, this year tracked eight ospreys from Massachusetts, Delaware and New York.

For Jill and Chip, the migration ended badly - a large predator in the Brazilian forest ostensibly killed Jill, and Chip took a wrong turn eastward where he likely hitched a ride towards Africa on a large freighter and was unable to hunt in the open ocean.

The North American-based tracking project earned the experts an invitation to speak on an international five-day seminar in Israel. MacLeod was an invited guest at the conference, which was focused on osprey migration and the use of satellite tracking technology as a tool for education. MacLeod joined other presenters from Scotland, England, Finland, Estonia, Spain, Italy, the Basque region of Spain, Germany, Holland, Palestine, Jordan and Israel. MacLeod and Bierregaard represented North America. Bierregaard has tagged more ospreys with transmitters than anyone else in the world. More than 200 ospreys have been tracked in North America.

"The reason we were all brought together is that we're all doing the same thing, using the same technology, tracking the same species," said MacLeod, who outlined the goals of the seminar. They include developing a coordinated international approach to integrate satellite tracking studies with education along osprey migration flyways by initiating links between researchers using GPS satellite transmitters on ospreys; identifying key education aims and objectives, relating specifically to bird/osprey migration; using new digital technology (websites/Google Earth/Skype/social media/webcams) to link schools and other education establishments along osprey migration flyways in a new and exciting way; and to discuss how the work can be extended to other species of birds, mammals and reptiles.

MacLeod's presentation focused on osprey education programs that the Science Center has produced and his experiences with using ospreys as a teaching tool.

According to a project update, future plans include the creation of an international website where schools from around the world can share experiences and learn about ospreys. Ospreys who breed in New Hampshire migrate to South America and the Caribbean; ospreys in Europe migrate to Africa.

The use of lightweight GPS-enabled satellite transmitters has revealed new insights into bird migration and facilitated conservation efforts.

In New Hampshire, with funding from Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), the Science Center fit four transmitters on ospreys in 2011 and 2012 to follow their migrations.

The adult osprey, Art, who made a successful trip to east-central Brazil and has been hanging out along the Tocantins and Araguaia rivers, is expected to return to his nest on the Pemigewasset River in Bridgewater. In about a month, Art will begin his northbound migration again, aiming to be back in New Hampshire by April 1.

Anyone can follow along by going to the osprey migration pages at the Science Center website, www.nhnature.org/programs/project_ospreytrack. The Science Center has funding from PSNH again this year to tag four more New Hampshire ospreys and follow their migrations. The transmitters cost more than $4,000 apiece. The latest models use cellular phone towers to transmit data rather than satellites.

Schools that want to get involved in the new international osprey project should contact MacLeod at iain.macleod@nhnature.org.