Free as a Bird

A prestigious two year Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship has been awarded to Dr Emily Shephard to support her research studying the flight patterns of Andean condors - one of the largest flying birds in the world

Condor from below Condor mountain backdrop 

The award, worth £50K over two years, is given to provide career development opportunities for those who are at a relatively early stage of their academic careers, but with a proven track record of research.

Dr Shepard, aged 31, will be undertaking her first field trip in October to Bariloche, situated in the Río Negro Province of Argentina, as part of her project entitled “Free as a bird? A life ruled by fickle airscapes”.

Working with Sergio Lambertucci from the National University of Comahue and Diego Vallmitjana from Aonek´er GIS Solutions, Argentina, she will be fitting Andean condors with custom-made ‘Daily Diary’ data loggers in order to map their flight paths.

The data loggers, which are remote sensing systems developed at Swansea University by Professor Rory Wilson and the Smart tag research group, will be fitted to feathers on the condors’ back.

The data will then be used to examine how the birds use columns of rising air in one location in order to gain altitude and glide to the next.

Condor preens around dummy device 

Dr Shepard, who completed her PhD in the Department of Pure and Applied Ecology, School of the Environment and Society at Swansea, said: “I am absolutely thrilled to be given this opportunity.

“Condors are uniquely dependent on sources of lift in order to travel; they are, effectively, engaged in a three-dimensional game of snakes and ladders, transiting between sources of rising air (their ladders) and avoiding down-currents (their snakes), in order to find food and return to their roosts at night.

“I’m fascinated by their relationship with the changing aerial environment and I think the ‘Daily Diary’ tags, developed here at Swansea University, are going to provide insights into how the mountain winds shape their everyday lives.”

The smart tags have a special timed-release mechanism so that they automatically release from the bird at a pre-programmed time when they are back in roost. It is hoped that up to 10 tags will be fitted in the first year of the project.

The project focuses on Andean condors as they demonstrate the most extreme example of birds using rising air to gain a free ride. Incredibly they cannot sustain level flight, even by flapping, without environmentally generated lift.

This dependence restricts condors to mountainous areas where they are thought to use distinct flyways that link one reliable source of lift to the next.

Ultimately, this determines the areas accessible to condors to feed, breed, and migrate. Understanding the flight routes and schedules of these birds is increasingly important, as populations are decreasing in several parts of their range.

Dr Shepard hopes that the project will develop an approach that can be applied to other species of soaring birds, like vultures and storks, to examine how they use the aerial environment and use low-cost flight paths and whether this may help to explain where and when they fly.

The following media have covered Emily's research:

BBC Wales online

Welsh Icons news

Birdwatch News

Pictures: All Andean condor images courtesy of Diego Vallmitjana, Aonek'er GIS Solutions, Argentina


This news item has been generated by Katy Drane, Swansea University Public Relations Office, email