Want to follow a heron's progress during migration? There's an app for that

How to track a heron using an app

Want to follow a heron's progress during migration? There's an app for that
April 20, 2018

Watch as herons make their annual journey

It’s pretty amazing when you can tap an app on your cell phone to find out the location of a Great Blue Heron. And it's all thanks to the hard work of the students in the Environmental Club at Maiden High School in Maiden, North Carolina. 

Let me explain. First, back in 2014, students helped to capture a heron at Lake Norman, near Charlotte. They named the bird Big Blue, after their school mascot, the blue devil. Besides taking a lot of measurements of the bird and a blood sample, Big Blue was outfitted with a tracking device.

The device is a solar-powered mash-up of a GPS tracking device on a cell phone with a Fitbit-like device. It gives the bird's current location as well as what it's doing; including flying at a specific height and speed.

However collecting all of that data costs money— almost $800 a month per bird. The data is transmitted to the nearest cell phone tower three times per day. It is collected on a website, which serves as a database of animal tracking data hosted by the  Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. 

So to keep track of Big Blue, students hold candy drives and other fundraisers to pay for the data transmission. There is a lot of data, but it appears Big Blue likes Lake Norman. It doesn’t fly far from the lake.

Want to follow Big Blue? Here are the steps:

1. Have Google Earth available on your computer.

2. Go to www.movebank.org in your web browser.

3. When Movebank is up, you will click on the right side of the screen “Browse tracking data”.

4. A search box will appear on the left. Type in ‘egret’)

5. Click “search”.

6. Click the “+” sign in the green box labeled; “Egrets & Herons ”.

7. Check the box to the left of “Big Blue” Chocolatte, or Tiki, or any of the other birds on the list (we also have birds under “Life Track Great Egrets”.

8. Click the “i” icon in the box to the right of the name.

9. Click “Download search result”.

10. Click “I agree”.

11. Choose the circle next ot “GoogleEarth (Tracks).

12. To get data choose Excel.

13. Put in a time frame (more than 2 months may cause a crash)

14. Click “download”.

15. Be sure “Open with” is chosen and click “ok”.

16. Wait.

17. A map will appear in Google Earth with purple icons and lines between them. Each dot is a location of a bird communicated through the cell phone network. OR a spreadsheet will appear.

18. Slide the tool bar above to show locations over time. There are two sliders. If both are moved to the right, you can see the most recent position of the bird. If one is to the left and one to the right, you can hit play and watch the bird’s movement over time.

19. There are other options for data download on Movebank, including adding environmental data to your download, or downloading for MS Excel – these are all available after you hit the ‘i’ next to the bird’s name. And the Movebank team is still adding new options – like a ‘heat map’ to show the density of time a bird spends in a particular area.

20. One reminder – data for each bird comes in at 11 am, 4 pm, and 9 pm daily (as long as the bird is in cell phone range!), though it may take 10-15 minutes to register on the Movebank map.

If you'd rather just get an email with updates:

1. Send an email to John (john.brzorad@lr.edu) and ask to be added to the list!

2. You’ll receive a daily email reporting on the birds’ recent movements.


—Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on Sci Tech Now North Carolina, a weekly science series that airs Tuesdays on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

Related Resources:

Video: Students team up with Lenoir-Rhyne University to track herons