Follow Artoo the Osprey's Incredible Journey

Each year, at about this time, an osprey nesting in New Hampshire begins an amazing journey deep into South America. Come spring, he makes his way back
Dr. Rob Bierregaard releases Artoo.

The journey for Artoo is long — up to 6,000 miles each way.  And, at times, it’s grueling — crossing the Caribbean might require him to fly for more than 30 hours without stopping . Yet he is driven by instinct to leave a soon-to-be frozen New Hampshire for the lush fishing grounds of a land far to the South.

He’ll stay in South America, perhaps Brazil or Venezuela, until March or so, when he heads north again, to his ancestral breeding ground in the Lakes Region.  He’ll reunite with his mate, who migrated separately, likely using the same nest. “They are very faithful to their nests and return year after year,” says Iain MacLeod, executive director of Squam Lakes Natural Science Center in Holderness.

Two years ago, the Science Center began tracking the travels of Artoo with a solar-powered  transmitter that was attached to him with a backpack. “Every three days, the transmitter communicates with a satellite and uploads data,” says MacLeod. “It reveals the exact GPS location of the bird for every daylight hour.”  The data includes altitude, speed and direction.  Speaking of direction, MacLeod says juveniles on their first or second migration “make lots of mistakes. Only about one in five survive the first two years of life.”

See how the tracking works with the images to the right — they document Artoo’s journey home this past summer. The tracking, called the Project Osprey Track, was conceived in 2011 by MacLeod (“ospreys are a particular passion of mine”) who partnered with Dr. Rob Bierregaard (“he had been using transmitters to study ospreys in Massachusetts and Connecticut for about 10 years”). The aim — to learn more about juvenile migration, territory size and foraging of breeding ospreys.

You can follow the travels of Artoo and six other ospreys on the Science Center website. You can download data directly to Google Earth on your computer. There’s also a Twitter feed, @OspreyNH, and a free phone app called Animal Tracker.

Learn more about Project Osprey Track (like how the heck they know where they’re going) with MacLeod's full interview below.

Web Extra: Full Interview

How and when did the osprey tracking project come to be?

Ospreys are a particular passion of mine. I have been studying them for more than 35 years. In 2011, I conceived the NH project and contacted Dr. Rob Bierregaard who, at that time, had been using transmitters to study ospreys in Massachusetts and Connecticut for about 10 years. We joined forces and expanded his study into New Hampshire and created a whole new education initiative.

What is it, exactly; what is its aim?

The aim of the project is to learn about both osprey migration and foraging habits during the breeding season. Dr. Bierregaard’s studies have pretty much answered most of the questions about adult migration, but we are still learning about the juvenile’s first migrations and their return and integration into the breeding population. We also have much to learn about the territory size and foraging of breeding ospreys. To learn more, we focus our efforts on tagging adult males (they do all the hunting for their mates and chicks during the breeding season)

How many osprey have the transmitters? Future plans?

Right now in New Hampshire we are following four adult (breeding) males and a subadult male who made his first return migration this spring. In August we will tag two more juveniles at nests in the Lakes Region, so we should be following a total of seven NH ospreys as they make their migrations south this fall. In addition to the NH birds, Dr. Bierregaard has an additional 10 ospreys with transmitters in other states.

How do the transmitters work? What information do you get?

The transmitters are attached like backpacks. Each weighs about an ounce. Every three days the transmitter communicates with a satellite system orbiting earth and uploads data which, once translated, reveals the exact GPS location of the bird for every daylight hour (usually 13 points per day). Each point includes altitude, speed of flight and direction the transmitter (and therefore the bird) are pointed. The upper surface of the transmitter has a solar cell that constantly charges the battery. We are able to get several year’s worth of data from each transmitter.

Can the public follow the migration online?

Yes. The Science Center website has a special Project OspreyTrack section ( ) with blogs and links to all the data for all the birds we have followed. There are links to interactive maps and ways to download data directly to Google Earth on your own computer. I also have a Twitter feed, @OspreyNH.

Is there a phone app?

Yes, there is even a phone app that can be downloaded (for free) for Apple or Android. The app is called Animal Tracker and is created by a group in Germany called MoveBank.

How far do the birds fly generally?

Almost all New Hampshire ospreys migrate to South America with the majority ending up in Venezuela or Brazil. Some go south of the Amazon. This journey is 3,000-5,000 miles long.

Why do they migrate so far, or at all?

The osprey’s fish diet – they are the only raptor in the world to feed exclusively on live fish – means that they are unable to survive during our long, cold (frozen) winters. They leave in August and September and don’t arrive back here until early April. Although some New England ospreys fly only as far as Florida and Cuba, the majority head for South America, where they can spread out in the millions of square miles of rainforest. Fish are abundant and a wintering osprey can find a spot where the living is easy until it’s time to head back to their ancestral breeding areas.

How do they know where they're going?

Adult ospreys learn the safest and easiest route and certainly remember landmarks and geological features. Some stop off at the same lakes or ponds on their migrations each year. The bigger mystery is how the juveniles make it. When they begin their first migrations at 3-4 months old, they have no idea where they are going. We know that birds have an ability to orient themselves on the north/south axis (likely based on sun position) and birds have an innate sense to fly south in the fall. There is good evidence that birds can sense magnetic fields and may be able to orient themselves that way. Juveniles need all the help they can get and make a lot of mistakes. Only about one in five ospreys survives its first two years of life.

They migrate alone – is that unusual?

Not really. Of course some birds migrate in large flocks (often in family parties within those flocks), but for many other birds, migration is a solo venture. Most ospreys head south within a certain time window, so one assumes that young ospreys migrating “alone” maybe following other ospreys headed in the same direction. There are certain funnel points where many ospreys are seen migrating in loose groups.

How long can they fly without stopping?

Ospreys are one of the few raptors that will fly at night when they migrate and they will also cross large bodies of water. Some of our birds have clocked up more than 30 hours of continuous flight while crossing the Caribbean or Gulf.

They return to the same nest in New Hampshire?

Yes, they are very faithful to their nests and return year after year. The pair takes separate winter vacations and reunite each spring at their nest. Some pairs are together for more than a decade and some individuals have used the same nest for 20+ years.

Tell me about Artoo's journeys.

Artoo is a young male who we tagged, along with his brother Bergen, at their nest in Bridgewater in August 2013. We previously followed their father Art and in 2014 tagged his sister Bridget. Artoo successfully completed his first migration and ended up along the Rio Solimoes in the Amazon Basin in Brazil. He lived there throughout 2014. On March 31, he started his first migration north (right on cue – ospreys do not return to their breeding grounds until they are mature in their second year). He has made a meandering journey north of over 6,000 miles and as of right now (July 10) he is in New York, just 200 miles from home. Males generally return close to their natal area, so I expect his to return to the Lakes Region and do some house hunting for the remainder of the summer and, all being well, return next year to try and breed.

What is the migration schedule coming and going?

Adults leave their breeding sites in late summer. Generally mom leaves first, once the chicks have fledged in early August, and then dad goes a few weeks later. They arrive at their wintering sites by late October. Experienced adults with an established winter home move very little in the winter. They find all they need to feed themselves in the rich Amazonian wetlands. They head north again in March and arrive back at their nests in the first week of April.

What do you find most interesting about the migration? The oddest thing you've seen happen?

The difference between experienced adults and first time juveniles is marked. The adults make it look effortless. They have a plan, they know where they are going, they know what lies ahead and they plan accordingly. They are seasoned travelers. The juveniles can be a disaster. They make mistakes, they get lost, they get disoriented and they generally look like they have no clue what they are doing. They need a little luck too – only the lucky few make it. Perhaps the best example of that is Chip, a juvenile from a nest in Tilton. He spent a couple months in Rhode Island, which was fine, but then when he restarted his migration he was swept out to sea in a storm. He ended up roosting on a trans-Atlantic freighter. He sat on the freighter for a day or so as it headed east towards Europe. He then landed on a second freighter and then a third, all the time heading away from the eastern US coast. After a week of stowing away, he was starved and ditched in the sea. He was closer to Portugal than to South America.

I read that a flyway will be created with grants?

We have created a Network of Nature Centers and schools from New Hampshire to Florida (13 states) who are following our birds. A series of lesson plans have been created that these Nature Centers and schools can use to learn about ospreys and their migrations. Funding for this project was provided by 3M Ecogrant.

How are ospreys different from other raptors? Do all raptors migrate?

Most birds migrate to some extent. Some may just move from lowland areas to upland areas within a dozen miles. Others fly thousands of miles from continent to continent. Most of our North American raptors migrate and many like ospreys make long-range migrations to Central and South America. Others just vacate the Boreal Forests of the North for more temperate zones in Southern US states. We even have some raptors that winter in New Hampshire (our climate is milder than far Northern Arctic regions). It’s all about food. If a bird can find enough food in one area year-round then it doesn’t need to migrate.

Are there partners in the project?

In addition to Dr. Bierregaard, a key partner is Chris Martin, Raptor Biologist at New Hampshire. Funding has been provided by Eversource Energy (formerly PSNH), The Jane B. Cook 1983 Charitable Trust, 3M Ecogrant and the Meredith Bay Colony Club. Other key partners are Donovan Tree Experts and Chippers Tree Service and Bridgewater Power Company who have provided bucket trucks and lift to nests.


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