Ducklings will help judge satellite accuracy

Posted: Monday, July 14, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Four fuzzy ducklings hatched at the Alaska SeaLife Center will test the accuracy of orbiting satellites and demonstrate how seabirds fare with miniature computers placed inside their bodies.

The three female and one male common eiders, nicknamed Solstice, June, Yukon and Summer, were born in the five-day period beginning June 22 at the Seward research facility, said eider research technician Bill O'Connell.

The birds came from eggs gathered on Kigigak Island, on the edge of the Bering Sea near Newtok. More eggs will be taken to the center later this summer.

''They're now in blue fish totes, and we have heat lamps on them,'' O'Connell said. ''They have unlimited access to food and water, and they're monitored all the time.''

The birds will begin shifting to outdoor pools as soon as their glands produce enough natural oil to make them waterproof. When they reach an adult weight of about 4.5 pounds in November, they will be surgically implanted with satellite transmitters. Then, in a yearlong study designed by U.S. Geological Survey eider biologist Margaret Petersen, scientists will use the birds to check the accuracy of location readings.

Birds that travel vast distances across the sea are often tracked via satellite from transmitters nestled in body cavities. But the information produced by this process isn't always accurate, sometimes giving coordinates hundreds or thousands of yards from actual locations. And no one really knows how the birds do week by week with devices inside them.

The eiders will live out the year on the outdoor research deck overlooking Resurrection Bay, monitored daily by eider specialists.

''We'll know within the meter actually where the birds are. We'll have the coordinates of the pool where they live,'' O'Connell said. ''No one has ever done that before.''

After a year, the eiders will join the center's permanent research flock, which includes spectacled and Steller's eiders for long-term biological studies.

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