Having reached the northern edge of the Sahara on Tuesday, we expected 09 to be well into his crossing of the desert by now. Instead, we have some bitterly disappointing news to report.
All of the GPS fixes we have received from 09’s satellite transmitter in the latest batch of data (from 12-15 Sept) are from exactly the same place. Furthermore, the activity meter on the transmitter is showing that it isn’t moving either. In other words, 09 – or his transmitter – hasn’t moved since 3pm on 11th September.
So what has happened? Well, there are two options. The first, which obviously we hope isn’t the case, is that 09 has died. Although the transmitters are designed to fall off once the cotton holding the teflon harness in place has rotted, we wouldn’t expect that to have happened within two years – especially as Roy Dennis has tracked some birds for five years or more. Clearly, if the transmitter is still in place, then 09 must have died. But if that is the case, then the cause of death is a real mystery. As you’ll know if you have been following his migration, 09 has been making excellent progress south. It took him just seven days to reach southern Morocco – an average of over 250 miles per day. This suggests that he was in good condition and it seems unlikely that he would suddenly have died of natural causes. Likewise, the remote nature of the site, makes human intervention improbable too. When AW died in the Ivory Coast last winter, it was clear from the satellite data that humans were almost certainly to blame. However, 09’s position is two-and-a-half miles from the nearest habitation – a small village called Taskala – and on the top of a steep ridge some 1000 feet above the village.
So if 09 hasn’t come to grief, then what has happened? The only other explanation is that the transmitter has fallen off. When 06(01) returned to breed at Rutland Water in 2003, she had lost the satellite transmitter that had been fitted to her as a juvenile just two years previously. So, although the transmitters are designed to stay on for around five years, there is a prescedent for them falling off sooner than this. We certainly hope that this is the case with 09.
Of course, the only way we will be able to solve the mystery in the short-term is to try and get someone to go and look for the transmitter. The fact that it is still providing good-quality data means that if someone can get to the area, then retrieving it is a possibility. The problem we are faced with is that this is a very remote area – and close to the disputed border with Western Sahara. However, I will be emailing some contacts in Morocco this afternoon to try and get the ball rolling.
Whatever the case, this is all desperately disappointing, especially as 09 was in the middle of such a superb migration. All we can hope is that the transmitter has dropped off and that we will be able to retrieve it. So, if you know anyone who may be able to help, please get in touch with me by email – firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll post more news as soon as we have any.