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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.
Rushton Woods Preserve is a place where people gather in celebration of abundance. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members gather for their share of the soil’s bounty each week, and myriad groups from the community, schools, and universities gather at the songbird banding station to witness the bounty of the sky. Much like the agricultural harvest, our bird catch follows seasonal patterns that can help a visitor (or bird bander) develop a deep connection to the rhythm set forth by Earth’s 23.5 degree tilt.
As this was my first year participating in the Rushton Farm CSA, I noticed some interesting correlations between the harvest and the catch. My favorite crisp spring vegetables like kale, radishes, turnips, broccoli, leeks, and little gem lettuces have all made an encore appearance now that the cool fall weather is here. These I liken to our butterflies of the bird world, the “special” warblers, that we can only expect to see during spring and fall migration: Black-throated Blue Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, Magnolia Warblers, Northern Parulas, Black-and-white Warblers, and American Redstarts.
Throughout the summer, I was overwhelmed with tomatoes and zucchini. These prolific crops mirror our common birds that breed at Rushton all summer long like Gray Catbirds and Common Yellowthroats. Catbirds are a bander’s tomatoes making up the bulk of our catch August through September; they even ironically dwindled in numbers at about the same time as the tomato harvest finally ended a couple of weeks ago. And just like the tomatoes, we miss them when they’re gone.
Now CSA members are enjoying the hardy winter produce like squash and sweet potatoes, while our avifauna has shifted to tough winter birds from the north like White-throated Sparrows, kinglets, and Hermit Thrush.
Recent highlights include a young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak on October 10th, our third Yellow-breasted Chat on October 1st (thanks to our new reduced mowing regime), a couple of young female Sharp-shinned Hawks in September, and a young male Scarlet Tanager on September 23rd.
Black-throated Blue Warbler numbers are back up this year from our previous year’s alarming slump. One little female got our silverware on October 1st and decadently dined for five days, increasing her body weight by 22%. A handsome male Black-throated Blue checked in on October 10th as our one-thousandth bird of the season, making this fall our most productive yet by almost double our past records.
This local boom may seem peculiar in the wake of the recent article in Science, citing the devastating loss of 3 billion birds in the past 50 years as a result of habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and other human threats. However, the majority of our birds are hatch year birds that have yet to complete the most perilous journey of their lives: their first migration in the Anthropocene. Thank goodness we can offer them temporary sanctuary within a community of people who care about open space and the abundance it supports.
There’s a lot going on in the woods,
After peeling yourself out of bed in the pitch black of pre-dawn in deliberate disobedience of your circadian rhythm, you wander through the dark to the bathroom where you reluctantly flip on the light and stand blinking into the mirror with owl sized pupils. You go through the motions of getting yourself dressed, quiet as a mouse so as not to wake your sleeping significant other. Finally you creep to the kitchen to adeptly pour coffee into your thermos without spilling a single precious drop even though the light from the east is still woefully dim.
When you get to the preserve, it is near dawn. The air is fresh, and the trees are alive with tinkling chip notes of migrant birds. As you get to work setting the nets in the hedgerows, you take comfort in the sound of an Eastern Screech Owl singing its haunting song down in the lower woods. You smile as the familiar catbird belts out its harsh petition for the sun to rise now. Above you, a rainbow stretches from one lavender cloud to the next and now you remember what it means to be a part of nature.
Billions of birds now have their sights set somewhere over that rainbow as they travel south by starlight. Our bird banding operation at Rushton Woods helps us monitor which migrants are using our specially managed preserve, understand how long they spend here preparing and fueling up for the journey, learn about populations and lifespans, and study their movements.
This fall has been excellent so far with a catch most days of 90-100 birds despite the warm weather we’ve been experiencing. Some highlights have included Connecticut Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Nashville Warbler, and Worm-eating Warbler. Some of the most abundant species include Gray Catbird and American Goldfinch.
Songbird Banding Open House is Tomorrow Morning (9/14) from 7-10:30 am at Rushton Woods Preserve
Come on out to observe our bird banding, see incredible migratory birds up close, and chat with field scientists.
There’s a lot going on in the woods,
Summer is short for our migratory birds like this dazzling Baltimore Oriole. They grace us with their stunning tropical colors and songs for just a few months before their restless souls are again pulled southbound. The truth is, many of these neotropical migrants would likely call the lower latitudes their real home. The North’s appeal lies only in our temperate protein pulse, set in motion each spring by the freeze/thaw cycles found nowhere else. Rich nutrients from glacial soils migrate to the surface of rivers as it warms, thus supercharging an insect driven food web.
This spring’s banding season was our best spring yet with a total of 608 birds of 51 species. That total number includes 483 brand new birds plus 125 recaptures. All but one of the recaptures were our own birds either banded within the same spring season or in previous years at Rushton. The one outlier, or foreign recovery, was an American Goldfinch that was originally banded last fall as a hatch year bird in Maryland!
April and May set some other records for us as well. We were seeing stripes as Black-and-white Warblers dripped from the trees; sure enough, the data showed that we more than doubled out highest Black-and-white capture (14 in 2017) with a total of 33! Oriole numbers were up as well with 7 Baltimore and 3 Orchard. This could very well be a testament to the rich edge habitat, which is preserved around our Rushton Farm that promotes conservation.
Visitors of all ages, from grade schools to universities, flocked to our banding station this spring to learn about these incredible creatures and how our banding efforts help us understand more about them. Check out our previous blog post to learn more about why we band birds at Rushton. Also please enjoy the galleries below of the highlights from our spring banding season. (Click on the individual photos for slideshow style with captions)
April 2019 Rushton Banding Highlights
May 2019 Rushton Banding Highlights
You can visit our banding station at Rushton Woods Preserve now that we are officially opened to the public for fall migration every Tuesday and Thursday morning (weather permitting) from sunrise until about 11 am. Fall migration extends from September 3rd to the first week of November. Stay tuned here for updates and photos throughout the exciting fall season, which is already off to a roaring start with 104 birds caught this past Tuesday.
There’s a lot going on in the woods,