Migrant Landbird Study Group

Promoting collaborative research for migratory landbirds across flyways

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Wouter Vansteelant

Study species: Eurasian birds of prey

Research topic: Migration

Institution location: University of Amsterdam

As a keen birder I have long been fascinated by ecology and the complexity of natural systems. Animal movement is a particularly intriguing discipline aiming to understand how individual animals decide to move through their environment in search of resources, and how behavior of individuals translates into population dynamics and species distributions.

My research focuses on bird migration ecology and for my Ph.D. thesis I am using the UvA-Bird Tracking System to study how weather and environment influences the flight behavior and migration performance of indidivual European Honey Buzzards Pernis apivorus at multiple scales … ‘from thermal to flyway‘.

From thermal to flyway with European Honey-Buzzards

Project webpage | Youtube: Catching a Honey Buzzard

Soaring migrants are very much at the mercy of the weather conditions they encounter during migration. Indeed, soaring birds can easily be blown of course by strong winds while climbing in thermals. And when thermals are absent or weak (e.g. during or after rainy weather) soaring flight may not be sustainable without flapping, such that large birds tend to interrupt travel in absence of thermal convection. Consequently, the travel efficiency or travel speed of soaring migrants, and thus their arrival timing at their seasonal destinations may be strongly affected by the weather conditions they encountered en route. I am interested to determine the individual response of European Honey Buzzards to weather conditions during migration in order to understand how weather might shape soaring migration itineraries at a population-scale.

Honey-buzzards are soaring birds of prey which mainly feed on larvae of social wasps. Because they are insectivorous they only have a brief window of opportunity to reproduce in the temperate forests in Europe. The survival and individual fitness of Honey Buzzards is therefore likely to be affected by weather-induced variations in their migration performance and timing, making them highly suited species to investigate how soaring birds respond to weather throughout long-distance migration.

From a breeding population of Honey Buzzards in the Netherlands we (UvA and Stichting Boomtop) have fitted about 20 Honey Buzzards with high-resolution GPS-loggers to study what the migratory itineraries of Honey Buzzards look like, and how they are affected by weather at multiple spatiotemporal scales.

Batumi Raptor Count

BRC webpage | BRC Facebook

BRC is a research and conservation project working on migratory birds (of prey) at the eastern Black Sea coast of the Republic of Georgia and consists of a highly dynamic and forward-thinking team of young biologists and nature enthusiasts. Since 2008 I have been part of a team that set up a sustainable volunteer-based monitoring of migration birds of prey in the third largest bottleneck for migrating birds of prey in the world. With over 40-50 volunteers BRC monitors the migration of > 1 million birds of prey from mid August through October each autumn. I have used monitoring data collected by BRC to study how weather affects the migration routes and timing of birds of prey along the eastern flyway. Honey Buzzards are the most common bird of prey migrating through Georgia (>450,000 per year).

I have been a board member of the BRC between 2008 – 2013 and currently hold a volunteering position as a research coordinator there.

Putting science into outreach & conservation.

It is my strong belief that scientists have a duty to communicate their research to a broad audience. I have, therefore, committed to several initiatives which work around citizen science.

Vogel het Uit!

VhU webpage | VhU Facebook

In 2013 I was part of a team lead by my Ph.D. supervisors Willem Bouten and Judy Shamoun-Baranes which won the Academic Year Prize to communicate cutting-edge bird movement research to a broad public in the Netherlands. We won the prize on October 24th 2013 and will be developing an interactive website and mobile app through which users can follow the movements of individual birds which we are studying the Netherlands with the UvA-Bird Tracking System. App users will be able to experience the travels of our birds in the field through an augmented reality interface, and we will be crowd-sourcing ecological data on local habitat conditions at important foraging sites from app-users. We hope to have an active and enthusiastic community of amateur field biologists asking and solving interesting ecological questions by the end of 2014!

Popularizing birds and bird-watching in the Caucasus

Since 2010 Batumi Raptor Count has been working increasingly hard on conservation issues such as the widespread practice of illegal shooting of migratory birds along the Black Sea coast. We work with rural communities and other regional stake-holders to develop a strong eco-tourism sector in southwestern Georgia, to build capacity among regional conservationists and to develop popular education and outreach programs for regional youth.

Some important achievements which I coordinated since 2010 and supported by a.o. OSME, YIA (EU Commission), Rufford Small Grants, PBNF, IJsvogelfund (VBN), … include:

Raptors of Ajaria – an educational booklet on migrating raptors at the Black Sea coast for Georgian school curriculum (12-14 years)
Raptor migration in the classroom – a school education project developed by Mary Nasilyan and Rozita Aghamalyan for their M .Sc. thesis at the American University of Armenia. Reached > 200 pupils from 4 regional schools in 2012.
Birds and Biodiversity Camp & Environmental Education Exchange: two 2-week courses for students from the Caucasus region (Georgia, Armenia and Turkey) that have been running for multiple years


Scientific peer-reviewed

  1. W. M. G. Vansteelant, W. Bouten, R. H. G. Klaassen, B. J. Koks, A. E. Schlaich, J. van Diermen, E. E. van Loon & J. Shamoun-Baranes (2014). Regional and seasonal flight speeds of soaring migrants and the role of weather conditions at hourly and daily scales. Journal of Avian Biology. doi: 10.1111/jav.00457

  2. W.M.G. Vansteelant, B. Verhelst, J. Shamoun-Baranes, W. Bouten, E.E. van Loon & K.L. Bildstein (2014). Effect of wind, thermal convection, and variation in flight strategies on the daily rhythm and flight paths of migrating raptors at Georgia’s Black Sea coast. Journal of Field Ornithology, 85(1), 40-55. 10.1111/jofo.12048

  3. B. Verhelst, J. Jansen & W. Vansteelant (2011). South West Georgia: an important bottleneck for raptor migration during autumn. Ardea, 99 (2), 137-146.

Scientific popular

Here you find articles contributed to non-peer reviewed magazines, chapters to books, …

  1. W. Vansteelant, W. Faveyts & J. Buckens (2011). Opmerkelijke Ruigpootbuizerdinvasie in de winter 2010-2011: oorzaken in een historische en Europese context. Natuur.oriolus, 77(3), 87-98.

  2. W. Vansteelant & A. Aebischer (2010).Batumi, Adscharien. In A. Aebischer (Ed.), Vögel beobachten in Europa: die besten Plätze vom Mittelmeer bis zum Nordkap (pp. 146-153). Bern: Haupt.