Nighthawks and Poor Wills: MPG Researchers Use Growing Network to Track Migration | Local news

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Don’t be sorry if you don’t know that Common Nighthawks make their summer home along the sagebrush edges of the Sapphire Mountains.

Or that the colorful Lewis Peak you spot in the Bitterroot Valley is unlikely to return next year.

And that common nightjar that you saw on thermals last summer has probably traveled thousands of miles since then to winter somewhere in South America.






A Lewis woodpecker captured in the Sleeping Child area southeast of Hamilton. The colorful peaks spend about a third of the year in the Bitterroot Valley, but don’t seem to return the following year. MPG researchers hope a new tracking system will help them know where the birds are going.


MPG Ranch Photo


With the help of a growing international collaborative research network called the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, which automatically captures Morse code transmitted by tiny nano-tags worn by birds, researchers at MPG Ranch are starting to unravel some of the mysteries of the life of local populations. avian visitors in the Bitterroot valley.

The Motus network dates back to around 2013 when Audubon’s northern counterpart – the nonprofit Birds Canada – began installing the first receivers in Ontario and around the Great Lakes to study Swainson’s Thrush and other species.

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From the start, the hope was that other research-oriented groups would rally to the cause and set up their own receivers with the idea of ​​creating a network that could provide valuable data on bird life and migration, bats and insects.

In 2018, the MPG Ranch installed its first two Motus receivers and funded a third at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, Intermountain West Motus coordinator and MPG avian scientist William Blake has helped establish 37 additional receivers in Montana, Idaho and Oregon.






Nighthawks and Poorwills: MPG researchers use growing network to track migrations

A Common Nighthawk that MPG Ranch researchers captured two years in a row as part of a study to learn more about the bird that migrates thousands of miles each year.


MPG Ranch Photo


The information captured by these receptors is already providing researchers with clues to the secret life of Common Nighthawk – whose official range doesn’t even include Montana – and Lewis’s Woodpecker.

“Lewis’ peak is only in the Bitterroot for a quarter of the year,” Blake said. “People love to come to Bitterroot to see them, but we don’t know where they go three quarters of the year.”

This year, for the first time, MPG researchers detected Lewis Peaks outside the Bitterroot Valley after their signals were detected at the Vesper Meadow Motus station in southern Oregon that Blake had set up in fall 2020. The birds had taken about a week to travel. the 500 miles between their breeding sites in the Bitterroot at this station.

“Until this fall, we hadn’t detected a Lewis peak outside of Montana,” Blake said.






Nighthawks and Poorwills: MPG researchers use growing network to track migrations

A pair of common criminals are caught in a flashlight beam along the way. The male is on the left and the female on the right. The male has a large white patch on his throat, and if we could see his tail, he would have crisp white tail tips. The female has a patch and a buff tail on the throat / brown.


MPG Ranch Photo


Motus stations at the MPG ranch also showed that the woodpeckers began their southward migration at night. Most started their journey around 10 p.m.

“We didn’t expect them to be night migrants,” he said.

MPG biologist Kate Stone helps capture Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Common Nighthawks, Little Owls and Nighthawks which are fitted with nano-tags that emit the distinctive beeps captured and recorded at the Motus sites. .

The information the researchers gleaned from the Motus towers has shed new light on the importance of habitat from far and near.

Tagged common nighthawks have been detected from Montana to the east coast, along the Florida coast and south to Panama and Colombia.

“It’s crazy to me that they do this migration twice a year,” Stone said. “It’s just one of those things that I find it hard to believe that birds can get by, that they do it over and over again, and that many survive. You might think the odds are stacked against them.






Nighthawks and Poorwills: MPG researchers use growing network to track migrations

A map captures the migration of Common Nighthawks that were captured in the Bitterroot Valley last year and detected by Motus stations.


MPG Ranch Photo


Closer to home, the Motus Local Network showed how Common Nighthawks use both uplands and river bottoms during the day.

“So even here in Bitterroot they use a wide variety of habitats,” she said. “Everything has to be in good condition, otherwise the birds will not do well, which could endanger their long migration. “

According to official range maps, the Common Nighthawk is not even believed to be in this part of Montana.

“They’re so cryptic compared to nightjars,” Stone said. “Most people don’t even know they’re here. It is one of my favorite little birds. I don’t think anybody else is studying them in the United States. So we kind of have the focus of research on bad will right here in Bitterroot. “

Over the past several years, Stone and others had learned about their local home ranges, diet, and other relevant information, but had no idea where they had gone after they left. ‘here.

This year, thanks to an increasing number of Motus sites appearing across the country, Stone learned that two of the Bitterroot birds have shown up in California and a third has been detected in southeast Colorado.






Nighthawks and Poorwills: MPG researchers use growing network to track migrations

This Motus station is located on the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.


MPG Ranch Photo


“We know they return to Bitterroot in the summer,” she said. “They may have spread throughout their range southwards during the winter months.”

For Blake and Stone, the exciting part is how many organizations are willing to collaborate on establishing new Motus sites.

Today there are 450 Motus projects around the world, including the Intermountain West Collaboration. Projects typically operate multiple Motus stations. Some can also tag birds, bats and insects with the nano-tags.

The 1,200 stations cover 31 countries on four continents. Collectively, they have tagged over 30,000 animals and over 260 species. The stations have collected more than a billion detections. Information gathered from the sites resulted in the production of 133 revised research articles.

“It’s been a pretty cool story to be a part of,” Blake said. “It was a snowball effect. We now have projects all over the west.

Birds Canada collects, stores and distributes all information collected by the sites free of charge to the public.

“We have automated receivers that constantly listen and record the coded signals that basically say ‘hey I’m Lewis Woodpecker 184’ or ‘I’m little owl 248’ or ‘I’m grizzly 105’. Blake said. “No matter what species you are using, no matter what type of research you are doing, it is designed to pick up any signal at all times.”

As the network grows, the information provided by the stations can help researchers answer questions such as migration changes impacting breeding success or habitat changes impacting. on the number of populations.

“We still have a way to go, but it’s cool to see the expansion of the network speak for itself now,” said Blake. “A lot of people know what Motus is now. Three years ago most people I spoke to had never heard of it.


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