Where in the World is Ms. Palma?

Scientists, with the help of students across NC, launch the first radio tracking program of egrets in order to study behavior and habitat, and better protect the birds.

NAGS HEAD - Chances are, at some point, you’ve been in a car that’s traveling at 60 miles per hour. Whether you were driving or riding as a passenger, going 60 mph means moving at a pretty fast speed. 

Now imagine a bird flying that fast.

That’s the speed scientists have calculated a Great Egret named Ms. Palma flew in a trip from North Carolina to New York. That’s just one of the new discoveries researchers are making in the first ever study that is tracking the travels and behavior of Great Egrets. The project is using elementary school students to help track the birds. That’s where Ms. Palma comes in.

Dr. Adrienne Palma is the Principal at Nags Head Elementary. She’s worked with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh to build an outdoor environmental science lab and jumped at the chance to help with the egret-tracking project.

“I like elementary school because this is the place where a child’s solid academic career begins,” says Dr. Palma. “We build a solid academic foundation right here in Pre-K and all the way up.”

But she never knew she would have an egret named after her.

“The students are very excited about it, and as I said, it incorporates all areas of the curriculum," she says, looking out the window at the marsh near the school, which just happens to have an egret standing in it. “They are writing about it, learning math about it, learning how amazing it is that a bird can fly so fast, and even touching on geography to find out where the birds are visiting.”

Researchers first met the egret Ms. Palma when they captured her in the marshes near Lake Mattamuskeet.

The tracking project is a joint effort between the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Reese Institute for Conservation of Natural Resources at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Lenoir-Rhyne professor Dr. John Brzorad specializes in the study of egrets.

The traps he uses to catch the birds are designed for capturing coyotes but he’s padded and modified them for the egret project. The team set the traps in the marsh around the lake before dawn.

“We use decoys to lure the egrets to our trap location,” explains Dr. Brzorad. “We have fish in these basins, a super abundance of fish, more than they would find naturally. We put the decoys in the area around the basins, and when the egrets try to eat the fish, they will hopefully step into one of the traps and we can come out to get them."

The decoys, by the way, are pink flamingo lawn ornaments painted white with yellow bills to look like egrets.

The plan is simple and effective, although it takes hours for an egret to land and actually step into a trap. However once one is caught, Dr. Brzorad wades into the water with a jacket that he quickly places over the bird’s head. That’s because egrets instinctively use their long bills to strike at the eyes of anything that threatens them.

Once the bird’s head is covered, Dr. Brzorad holds the bird while another researcher removes the leg from the trap. The bird is gently carried into a cabin at the lake where scientists work quickly to study the animal.

The birds are measured, a blood sample is taken, and then a solar powered tracking device is attached to its back. It’s about the size of a small cell phone, with solar cells on the top and three antennas sticking out the back.

“This is the latest technology in animal tracking,” says Dr. Roland Kays, a scientist with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. “It’s a combination of GPS and cell phone so it records GPS location and sends us location with data three time a day. It also has a three-axis accelerometer to give us information about how the animal’s energy is doing as well as its activity and behavior.”

The bird is then released and watched closely to make sure it recovers from the experience. Usually within 15-20 minutes, the egret adjusts to the added weight on its back and flies away. Scientists say every time the bird moves they learn something new. Several of the birds that were tagged in the project are breeding and have stayed close to their roost around the lake in eastern North Carolina. But then there’s Ms. Palma.

“So this is Ms. Palma,” says Dr. Kays, as he points to a green tracking line that runs along the east coast of the United States. “She left North Carolina and went all the way up to northern Maine, which is about as far north as the species breeds, and then backtracked a bit and is now breeding on an island called Ten Pounds Island near Gloucester, Massachusetts."

When I asked how long it took, Dr. Kays shook his head.

“That’s the most surprising thing we’ve learned so far,” he replied. “She went from North Carolina to New York City in one night. She was flying at 60 mph, with a tail wind. So we think she was sitting there waiting or the wind to be right and popped up and went bookin’ north.”

After staying on the island for several months, Ms. Palma then flew to Honduras, which brings us back to Nags Head Elementary. 

The scientists in several sciences classes at the school are tracking Ms. Palma because several aspects of the project fit nicely with the curriculum in multiple grade levels.

“We’re using it now when we talk about adaptation, and one of the ways to adapt is to migrate, and these birds are ideal for the marshes,” says Noah Corbett, a fifth grade science teacher. “We also used it last year when we talked about biomes, and what birds live in the swamps and marshes.”

But after students discovered that the egret Ms. Palma had flown to Honduras, their principal became very jealous of her namesake bird. The human Ms. Palma said it wasn’t fair that the bird had gone to a warm South American country that she hadn’t visited.

However when the students explained the scientific reason for why the egret flew south, her feelings changed. She was proud of what they had learned, even though she still wants to go to Honduras.

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