Learn about the Motus Wildlife tracking system by watching this slideshow. You’ll learn about the technology, the network, and its contributions to understanding wildlife migration. Advance through the slides at your own pace by clicking the right arrow.
WILLISTOWN, PA (APRIL 20, 2020) — A major grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will enable a research partnership that includes the Willistown Conservation Trust in Chester County, Pennsylvania, along with a number of state agencies and nonprofit organizations, to dramatically expand a revolutionary new migration tracking system across New York and New England.
The grant, totaling $998,000, has been awarded to a partnership led in part by the Northeast Motus Collaboration (northeastmotus.com), which includes the Willistown Conservation Trust; the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Dauphin County; Project Owlnet, a nationwide cooperative research initiative; and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve in Westmoreland County.
The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is the lead agency, along with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Other partners include New Hampshire Audubon, Massachusetts Audubon and Maine Audubon.
The grant will allow the partners to establish 50 automated telemetry receiver stations in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. These receivers will track the movements of bird, bats and even large insects tagged with tiny radio transmitters called nanotags — so named because they are tiny enough to be placed on migrating animals as small as monarch butterflies and dragonflies. The receiver array will be part of the rapidly expanding Motus Wildlife Tracking System (motus.org), established in 2013 by Bird Studies Canada, which already includes nearly 900 such stations around the world.
Together, the combination of highly miniaturized transmitters — some weighing just 1/200th of an ounce — and a growing global receiver array allows scientists to track migrants previously too small and delicate to tag with traditional transmitters, like a gray-cheeked thrush that made a remarkable 46-hour, 2,200-mile non-stop flight from Colombia to Ontario.
This is the second major USFWS grant for Motus expansion that the Northeast Motus Collaboration has received. In 2018, the agency awarded the collaboration about $500,000 to build 46 receiver stations in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. The collaboration had already constructed a 20-receiver array across Pennsylvania in 2017 using private, foundation and state grant funds.
Besides significantly increasing the telemetry infrastructure across the Northeast, this new USFWS grant specifically targets several species of greatest conservation need in New England. Research collaborators will use nanotag transmitters to study the migration routes, timing and behavior of American kestrels, the region’s smallest falcon and a bird that has experienced drastic and largely unexplained declines across New England.
Other scientists will use the smallest nanotags to track the movements of monarch butterflies from the region, which have also suffered large population declines, but about whose migration little is known. The tracking information will help conservation agencies map the best areas to target for land conservation and habitat improvement, like encouraging the planting of milkweed for monarch caterpillars. Finally, researchers will also conduct testing to better understand the detection limits of newly developed versions of this new technology.
While the grant focuses on a few target species, the value of the expanded receiver network has much broader implications. Any nanotagged animal that flies within nine or 10 miles of any of the receivers will be automatically tracked.
“Conservationists are rightly concerned about kestrels and monarch butterflies, and the work funded by this grant that may give us answers that allow us to reverse their declines,” said Lisa Kiziuk, director of bird conservation for the Willistown Conservation Trust. “But by greatly expanding the overall Motus network, the grant will also provide scientists and resource agencies with a treasure-trove of information on dozens of other migratory species, from at-risk songbirds like Bicknell’s thrush and rusty blackbirds to rare bats that travel through the Northeast, and about whose movements we know little or nothing.”
“For me, this project is important because never before have we had the technology to see intimate details of an individual species’ migratory pathway in this way,” said Doug Bechtel, president of New Hampshire Audubon. “Motus technology and this particularly dense array that will be constructed in New England, especially in conjunction with the expansion in the mid-Atlantic states, will enable conservation organizations, industry leaders and legislative decision-makers to see how habitats are being used on a landscape level and make associated conservation decisions based on near real-time data.”
Lisa Kiziuk, Director of Bird Conservation, Willistown Conservation Trust. 610-331-5072, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Weidensaul, Northeast Motus Collaboration. 570-294-2335 (cell), email@example.com.
Willistown Conservation Trust, located in Chester County PA, is a land trust focused on preserving open space and habitat protection in the Willistown area. The Trust’s Bird Conservation team has operated the Rushton Woods Bird Banding Station since 2007, and has been a lead partner in the Northeast Motus Collaboration to save migrating bird species since its inception in 2016.
Birds are on the ropes in our rapidly changing world. One recent report suggests that North America’s bird populations have declined by more than a billion birds—more than a third—in the past 50 years. Among the biggest threats are habitat loss and climate change, but there are many other reasons for these declines. Willistown Conservation Trust is addressing some of these issues through our strong partnership program called the Northeast Motus Collaboration (www.northeastmotus. com), which includes the Ned Smith Center for Art and Nature, Project Owlnet, and the Powdermill Avian Research Center.
The Collaboration has achieved incredible success with support from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among many other donors and partners. Since 2017, we have been building a network of more than 70 automated telemetry receiving stations throughout the northeastern U.S., allowing researchers to track the migrations of small birds, bats and even insects like monarch butterflies and dragonflies. We are now the largest collaborator with global coordinator Birds Canada in the Motus Wildlife Tracking System (www.motus.org). For the first time, Motus is allowing us to follow the full, annual life-cycle movements of animals once too small to track across great distances.
The Motus Wildlife Tracking System has grown explosively in its first five years, expanding from a largely regional Northeast telemetry network to one with an international scope—more than 850 receiver stations on five continents, involving more than 600 research partners and collaborators. If Motus is to continue to expand to its full global potential, strategic planning is urgently needed at multiple levels—to ensure sustainability of funding for both infrastructure and maintenance; to provide more seamless data integration and processing as data upload rates increase dramatically; and to create systems to adopt and adapt to changing technology.
The Northeast Motus Collaboration, which has grown into the second-largest operator of Motus receiver stations in the world, has received support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation to help underwrite this critical strategic planning process. As the collaboration’s lead organization, Willistown Conservation Trust, together with Birds Canada, will host a strategic planning conference that will include Motus partners and experts from the Western Hemisphere. The meeting will be facilitated by the Institute for Conservation Leadership and plans to create a framework to support diverse research, conservation action, education, and continued sustainable growth and management of the Motus network for the future. The date of the conference, originally scheduled for June 2020, has yet to be determined.
Through this remarkable collaboration, we are helping the scientific community translate research into specific conservation action that will protect and conserve small migratory animals, especially birds. Through the innovative use of technology and research methods, we’re improving our understanding of what populations of birds and other wildlife need to survive.
At Rushton we do as the birds do and follow their seasons. Each season is unique in its own way, so when we look at the data, we look at each season independently.
This fall we seem to be catching more birds than we have in the past. This does not contradict the recent reports of bird declines, it simply shows that during this small window of bird migration, over the short time span of 10 years, this is the most we have captured. It’s too soon to know why there are more birds this year; maybe the habitat is just right this year. We changed the habitat slightly by increasing the shrub scrub due to a slightly altered mowing regime. We have also been able to band a little more this fall than in previous years, due to favorable weather. It could also be that we happen to be catching good migration weather, the best winds and on the right days. We have a set schedule of banding the same three days each week, but the birds travel when the weather is right, no matter what day!
A summary of 9 years of fall migration banding at Rushton:
We typically band from the last week in August until the first week in November, three days a week when conditions allow.
This year on October 10th we caught and banded our 1000th bird (a Black-throated Blue Warbler), at about halfway through the season, already surpassing our average total over the last nine years. Noting this great year, we hope this can become a tradition!
Our lowest year is likely due to fewer hours spent catching birds, more fairly, our lowest catch has been 893 birds and our highest in the last nine years was 1082 birds in 2013.
Looking forward, our winter residents and second most common bird of the fall season, the White-throated Sparrow, has yet to arrive, along with our tiniest fall migrant, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which combined, average another 200-300 birds, we can only begin to speculate how many birds we will total by November!
Table 1. Number of birds captured per year during fall migration.
Exciting news! The first birds ever to be fitted with Motus nanotags at Rushton Woods Preserve have been detected by a Motus receiving station in the Chesapeake Bay. The birds are adult female wood thrush migrating south for the winter, after having spent the breeding season at Rushton. Who knows where they are headed next? Hopefully the Motus network will tell us. Stay tuned!