Lubomir Peske - tracking the curious lives of black storks

Lubomir Peske

In today's One on One Jan's guest is ornithologist Lubomir Peske, who has been involved at every stage of the Odyssey projects - a series of tracking expeditions supported strongly by Czech Radio and greeted enthusiastically by listeners - that uses satellite to monitor the lives of black storks. These days projects include New Odyssey, tracking specimens travelling south from Mongolia to winter. But in this interview we discuss the project's fist inception, African Odyssey, which tracked birds flying from the Czech Republic to countries in Africa. That was the first time anyone has attempted to track black storks by satellite for a longer period of time.

"Ten years ago when we started with African Odyssey there was very little known about bird migration. Of course there were results from 'ringing' recoveries but for black storks we had only a few 'ringing' recoveries from Africa. It was the time when satellite tracking was already known but not very frequently used. There were only a few ornithological projects using satellite telemetry. And in that time we decided that it's a really good tool to know much more. Not only 'where' these birds are flying but also what is the landscape there, what threats they face, what competition. That's why we decided to follow black storks on their migration to Africa.

There were limits, of course. The first determined [the type of bird chosen, one that could carry the extra load of a transmitter 'backpack']. At that time the smallest satellite transmitters were around 70 grams [today they clock in at around 18 - ed. note].

How did you come in as a zoologist?

"In the beginning three of us, three friends, whose background was zoology, ornithology, discussed the idea and the first thing we addressed was whether it was technically possible. Finally we found some sponsors and Czech Radio was one of the main 'actors'. And, it a great idea of colleague Mirek Bobek to give names to 'our' storks, that if we follow a fate, a history of one particular bird, this bird can become a 'friend' for children and also a friend for us."

One of the storks in the first group was called Kristyna and I understand that she was the first bird ever to be monitored with that kind of device.

"It's true: at that time all satellite transmitters were charged by batteries and the lifespan of these transmitters was one or two years. So, it was necessary to catch, after one year when the bird had returned back to its nesting ground, the bird to replace the transmitter. Fortunately we were able to catch Kristyna again. At the beginning we had three birds - all of them reached wintering grounds in Africa, all of them returned back home. But, Kristyna became famous not in the first year but because we were able to catch here again. We caught here again in following years and were able to follow her for four.

Kristyna was from Central Bohemia, Viktor was from the Rakovnik region in West Bohemia, and Zuzana was from the Northwest."

Where in Africa did Kristyna go and what do you know about her adventures?

"Well, black storks are quite a different species and have quite different behaviour: they fly solo or in very small groups and what we found and what was quite surprising was the number of different routes Kristyna used to arrive at the same place. She flew to Africa using different ways: once over the Pyrenees from the east, then from the west, and she followed different trajectories over the Sahara, different routes. But she always ended up in the same water body in Eastern Senegal. This is the place we found her in the first year.

We followed her by car, almost step-by-step, day-by-day, almost two months in expedition, following her. At the beginning of the expedition we didn't know where we would have to go: in general we knew that black storks winter below the Sahara but we had to have visas for Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and different countries. We crossed the Sahara and we found her in Eastern Senegal, near the Falémé River. We travelled from a beautiful village on foot because there was no road for cars, and Kristyna was wintering in this area. In subsequent years she always returned to this place. It became clear that some species like the black stork, know one place: a small breeding site in Europe, and a small, restricted wintering site in Africa."


"Krisytina knew Eastern Senegal, while Zuzana was always wintering in Central Ethiopia. The site they choose and ultimately always return to is determined randomly in the first year."

And after that they repeat it.

"After that they know it and repeat it again and again."

Here we are talking about the storks surviving: it must have been an adventure for those of you on the ground to survive as well, crossing the Sahara as you did!

"It was a good adventure! As you know ten years ago for people in the Czech Rep [wider travel was still an exciting new prospect]. Not too many people visited these areas and we discovered these areas for ourselves. For us! Especially what I appreciate is that these black storks - because it was not only in Senegal we were in Ethiopia, in Chad, in other African countries - these black storks 'showed' us remaining places and corners in Africa where we could see something which is quickly disappearing. Nature and also local tribes living in the Iron Age. Very, very rural conditions. Africa is changing quite quickly: deforestation, overpopulation and other factors. Nature is changing.

[Regarding the tracking of birds], it's not very easy. Even if you have general info from satellite and even if you use conventional telemetry, looking for the signal by antenna, it's not clear you will find the bird. So, I was always satisfied when, after days without a signal, we found something. In Chad I was happy because there we had real problems travelling there - again, no roads. Finally, we were slowly approaching the place where we were expecting our bird... and we had a signal."