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French scientists use radar to track migratory birds

In the Mediterranean region of Camargue, a stop on the route of many migratory birds, scientists are watching for the first major waves of birds returning from Africa.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2006 11:24 IST

In the Mediterranean region of Camargue, a stop on the route of many migratory birds, scientists are watching for the first major waves of birds returning from Africa. Using radar equipment, the teams of experts in southern France are charged with alerting authorities as soon as large numbers of wild geese, swans, teals and storks start flying up from the south.

These ‘paparazzi’ are on the lookout for birds that may be carriers of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus which has already been detected in countries along the migration route in Africa and in Europe.

"We're the paparazzi for migratory birds. We are like military sentinels watching for any movement," said Jean-Claude Ricci, director of a Mediterranean hunting and wildlife institute (IMPCF), responsible for the radar project. About one million birds, some 370 species, pass each year through the 80,000-hectare park of the Camargue, a protected area in the delta of the Rhone river.

The major migrations have not yet begun in the Camargue, though they can start at any time now, according to Ricci. Still, park officials like Gael Hemery have reported seeing some migrations earlier this month, including the species that have beem most affected by bird flu like swans, ducks and geese. The migratory birds were "heading to mating areas; this is a sensitive time which lasts until the end of March," said Hemery, who added that so far all birds tested at the Camargue have been negative for the avian virus.

The scientists involved in the radar project are watching the movement of birds on computer screens set up in a camping car, parked alongside the eight-metre radar antenna. The radar sweeps a radius of three kilometre. The ducks, pink flamingoes and cormorants which pass the winter in the Camargue show up as yellow points on the screen.

A green line tracks their movements followed by radar for up to ten minutes in the same position. When the radar is placed in a vertical position, it allows the observers to determine the number of birds flying over the region and at what height. The radar can also detect movements at night, an important advance since many migratory birds prefer to move about after dark, Ricci said.

The IMPCF conducts its bird counts twice within a 24-hour period, every 10 days. The project, which was started before the outbreak of bird flu in Europe and Africa, is expected to last three years and provide better information about the migration periods. Some hunters hope the project will convince the government to change the opening and closing dates of the hunting season.

The hunting federation of the Bouches-du-Rhone region where the Camargue is located have informed all groups watching the migratory birds what procedure to follow if they find any suspect dead birds.

"Of course, there are fears with the outbreak of bird flu in Africa, but at the same time, the birds affected there with the H5N1 virus do not have the strength to travel as far as the Camargue," Ricci said. Still, the birds can carry other variants of the virus, and authorities are urging more vigilance as contact with wild birds increases during the periods of migration.

First Published: Feb 20, 2006 11:24 IST