WSU students, professor first to track native bird species migration

Thursday , June 19, 2014 - 6:54 AM

Special to the Standard-Examiner

OGDEN — On the salty banks of the Great Salt Lake, WSU zoology professor John Cavitt, alongside three students, is the first person to track the migration of the American avocet, a bird native to the Western United States, using satellite technology. Small solar-powered satellite transmitters that Cavitt and his team personally attached to the birds will collect data with valuable information on the avocet’s breeding and migration habits.

“The American avocet is an important bird at the Great Salt Lake,” Cavitt said. “We host up to 50 percent of the total avocet population here each year, either during migration or breeding. Unfortunately, we don’t have detailed information on their use of the lake or their migration path.”

The project is being funded by Rio Tinto Kennecott and the Rio Tinto/BirdLife International partnership.

Two WSU zoology students, Jeff Cowlishaw and Josh Hall, are assisting Cavitt on the project. Javier Paniaqua, a student from the Autonomous University of Nayarit located in Tepic, Mexico, is also working on the project. Paniaqua will return to Mexico after the avocets migrate south for the winter and will continue to work on the project with colleagues there.

“We hope to get information on how these birds use the lake during the time they are here,” Cavitt said. “We will track the movement of the birds once they leave the Great Salt Lake and start heading south. Most likely they are heading to Mexico.”

Cavitt and his team will capture eight avocets and place the small transmitters on the birds’ backs. The transmitters send a signal that is received by the ARGOS satellite network. The network can determine the location of the trackers and download information from them anywhere in the world. The transmitters have a solar battery and will last from two to five years. In addition to location, the transmitters also measure temperatures and activity of the birds.

Cavitt said the data would be used in a number of ways that are important for the conservation of this species. First, he wants to understand how the avocets use the Great Salt Lake during their stay in Utah. Then, the goal is to determine the avocets’ flight path south to learn where they spend the winter and how they get there.

Cavitt and his team will continue to monitor the avocets during their breeding season and will visit the tagged birds from time to time until early September, when they begin migration.

“We are looking around for them while they are here,” Cavitt said. “We have started doing that to confirm that they are still with young and that they are in the area that the satellite says they are. This is providing invaluable data for us.”

For more information on the Rio Tinto/BirdLife International partnership, visit For more information on WSU’s Department of Zoology, visit

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