Researchers lose track of great blue heron famous for her migratory flights

·3 min read
Harper, a great blue heron who was tagged in southern Maine before taking off on a long journey to northern New Brunswick, has gone missing.  (Submitted by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife - image credit)
Harper, a great blue heron who was tagged in southern Maine before taking off on a long journey to northern New Brunswick, has gone missing. (Submitted by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife - image credit)

A great blue heron known for making amazing, non-stop migratory flights from northern New Brunswick to the southern U.S. seems to have disappeared.

Known as Harper, the female heron was first tagged with a global positioning system transmitter in 2019.

Since then, she has shown researchers some incredible examples of the kind of flights theses birds are capable of making.

In 2019, Harper flew from the south coast of New Brunswick to Florida in a 38-hour non-stop flight over the Atlantic Ocean.

Then in 2020, she shattered that record by flying 68 hours non-stop from northern New Brunswick to the southern tip of Georgia, flying so far out into the Atlantic she was near Bermuda at one point in her trip.

Before that, scientists had thought herons had stayed pretty close to the coastline on migratory flights, allowing them to feed and rest along the way.

End of the line

But, the study of Harper's feats of strength may have come to an end.

When researchers began preparing for this year's spring migration, they realized Harper's GPS transmitter was only reporting her location intermittently and wasn't downloading any other data.

"Her battery power on the transmitter, which is information that we get when we do get a location, was pretty low," said Danielle D'Auria of Maine's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Sarah Kester/CBC
Sarah Kester/CBC

"So we're not sure why the battery was not charging, but we think that might have contributed to why it went dark."

The GPS units are solar powered, said D'Auria, and sometimes the birds will preen their feathers over the solar panels, preventing the GPS from charging.

"Or, if birds start hanging out in more of a forested setting, where they're kind of maybe on a stream that's, you know, above covered by foliage, that can prevent the charging. But where she was hadn't really changed. So I don't think it was because of the habitat."

D'Auria said she's not concerned that Harper may have been injured, given she did see some typical movement patterns before the transmission stopped in February.

The last of Harper?

While it's possible the GPS transmitter could start working again, the longer it stays dark, the less likely it is that it will spring to life again.

D'Auria admits it's a bit discouraging to lose track of a bird that has taught researchers so much.

"Oh, yeah, I feel that way with any bird that we've lost or any transmitter that's gone dark, because we, of course, look forward to seeing what else she might teach us and show us," she said.

Submitted by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
Submitted by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

So, is this the last we'll see from Harper?

"I, regrettably, think so. Yeah. But, you know, I don't give up hope, and I have not terminated her transmitter yet," D'Auria said.

There's a point where she would "tell the company we don't want to hear from this transmitter any more, which means we don't want to pay for any signals that come in.

"So, I haven't turned hers off yet, just with the fact that something could pop up. So we'll see."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting