October 22, 2008

Wild Bird Migration and Influenza Research Study – Mongolia 2008

by Taej Mundkur, Flyway Programme Manager, Wetlands International

The largest mass infection and death of wild migratory waterbirds due to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 occurred at Qinghai Lake in the People’s Republic of China in mid 2005. Over the next two months, deaths of wild birds occurred at Erkhel Lake in Mongolia and in S Russia along the Kazakhstan border. These incidents suggested a possible migratory bird linkage even though there was little precise information on movements of affected species between these regions. To gain better insight on the movement of avian diseases through migratory birds, to better understand sources of virus introduction at the domestic and wild bird interface, and to gather information on the precise migratory routes of wild waterbird species in the region, FAO with partners including Wildlife Science and Conservation Center Mongolia of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the US Geological Survey (Western Ecological Research Center, and Alaska Science Center) launched a pilot project on Whooper Swans Cygnus cygnus and Swan Geese Anser cygnoides in 2006 in the Eastern Asian Flyway. As a follow up to this original project, and based on the need to learn more about migration and disease ecology in both the Central Asian and East Asian Flyways, an international expedition was undertaken to Mongolia in July-August 2008.


A Swan Goose being marked with a satellite

transmitter by USGS staff Dr Sabir Bin Musaffar
(on right) and Eric Palm, in E Mongolia, July 2008.
© Taej Mundkur.

The partners included the Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Disease Operations (ECTAD)’s Wildlife Disease Programme from United Nations-FAO-headquarters in Rome, the US Geological Survey (Western Ecological Research Center, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, and Alaska Science Center), and the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center Mongolia of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences that studied the migratory and disease ecology of Bar-headed Geese Anser indicus in west-central Mongolia and Swan Geese in E Mongolia. In addition, working in cooperation with the University of Wales Bangor, University of Birmingham, University of Tasmania, and University of British Columbia in west-central Mongolia, work was undertaken to examine flight performance and physiology of Bar-headed Geese that migrate over the mighty Himalayan range by marking 31 birds with heart rate loggers.


The bird capture sites included Terkhiin Tsagaan Lake in west-central Mongolia and Hyachin Tsagaan (Ikh Delger) Lake in E Mongolia, the latter is part of the famous Mongol Daguur Specially Protected Area. Both sites are on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance and on the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Site Network. Both areas are important breeding and moulting areas for Bar-headed Geese, Whooper Swans, Swan Geese, Ruddy Shelducks Tadorna ferruginea, Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula and other migratory waterfowl as well as staging sites for waterbirds during migration.


Overview of migratory paths of satellite marked
Swan Geese from E Mongolia to China and
the Korean Peninsula (as at 21 October 2008).
click image for larger format

Birds were captured during the short post-breeding moult period when adults are flightless. Tracheal and cloacal swabs and blood samples were collected from all the birds for avian influenza testing at the Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL) which was facilitated by the Department of Veterinary Service of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Mongolia.



Blood sample collected for influenza testing
in E Mongolia, July 2008. © Taej Mundkur

To study their migratory routes, 23 Bar-headed Geese were marked with GPS satellite transmitters and 39 with GPS tracking loggers while 15 Swan Geese were marked with GPS satellite transmitters. Updates of bird movements are posted bi-weekly on the USGS website. In addition, 113 Bar-headed Geese and 38 Swan Geese were ringed and colour marked with green and white neck collars or leg bands. One Whooper Swan was also marked with a green and white leg band. Reporting of resightings of these colour-marked birds will provide additional data on the migratory patterns on these species.



Dr. Tseveenmyadag Natsagdorj of the Mongolian Academy
of Sciences handles a Whooper Swan caught for influenza
testing and migration research in E Mongolia, July 2008.
© Taej Mundkur


Bar-headed Goose released with a green and white
neck collar marked in E Mongolia, July 2008. © Taej Mundkur

Any person observing a colour-marked bird is requested to contact Dr. Tseveenmyadag Natsagdorj (N. Tseveenmyadag) and Dr. Taej Mundkur with information on the location and date of observations, colour and number of the band, as well as other bird species (and numbers) observed with the marked bird. Photographs of marked birds will also be appreciated.

The endangered Swan Goose is a restricted range species, breeding in E Mongolia, China and SE Russia with an estimated population of 60,000-100,000 individuals. They migrate within the East Asian Flyway south to the Yangtze Valley floodplains in China and to the Korean peninsula. A pilot satellite marking project undertaken by the team in 2006 had confirmed the movement of birds from E Mongolia to the Poyang Lake Ramsar site, and demonstrated that birds may use slightly different routes on southward and northward migration. Two individuals that had been marked in 2006 (with red and black neck collars) were observed back at the Hyachin Tsagaan Lake during the 2008 expedition.


Nyambayar Batbayar and Ms Sarangerel of the Wildlife Science
and Conservation Center Mongolia of the Mongolian Academy
of Sciences, holding a Swan Goose caught for influenza testing and
migration research in E Mongolia, July 2008. © Taej Mundkur

The Bar-headed Goose also has a restricted range and migrates along the Central Asian Flyway, breeding in Mongolia, Qinghai Lake and neighbouring areas of W China and Kyrgyzstan and spends the non-breeding period (northern winter) from Tibet Autonomous Region, China to S Asia (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan). Bar-headed Geese that fly over the Himalayas to reach their non-breeding destinations will encounter spatial and altitudinal gradients that pose physiological challenges to their migration. The application of special electronic monitors on some of the birds will enable researchers to study the physiologic demands during these migrations.


Overview of migratory paths of satellite marked
Bar-headed Geese in west-central Mongolia and China
(as at 21 October 2008)

click image for larger format

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