New technology aids tagging, tracking wild birds
Tag, you’re it! And if you happen to be one of seven species of migratory birds and one species of bat, wildlife populations that have been in serious decline for years in our state, tag is not just a kids’ game these days. That’s because the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) is set to lead a “tag team” that includes the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Northeast Motus Collaboration, and other partnering organizations in their efforts to collect life-cycle information on the targeted species.
These species include Swainson’s thrush, wood thrush, blackpoll warblers, Canada warblers, rusty blackbirds, American woodcock and northern long-eared bats. Other priority species, such as New England’s Bicknell’s thrush, also are targeted by this research.
This cutting edge research is made possible by nanotags, devices that weigh as little as oneeighth that of a penny and can accomplish what much heavier telemetry gear couldn’t do as recently as ten years ago. Almost overnight they have helped strengthen the science used in wildlife conservation.
Radio transmitters so small they can be fitted to monarch butterflies, nanotags transmit a signal that can reach out about 10 miles. This project aims to provide more receiver stations to collect those nanotag transmissions. Currently, there are more than 40 in Pennsylvania. The expectation is that about 12 more receiving stations would be added under this proposal.
“Pennsylvania already is well equipped with receiving stations in western and southern counties,” explained Dan Brauning, who supervises the Game Commission’s Wildlife Diversity Division. “Clusters of new receiver stations will be established on the Pocono Plateau, as well as across the northern tier, and along the Kittatinny Ridge/South Mountain system.”
“This project embodies contemporary wildlife conservation: state and federal government agencies working with private conservation organizations and universities to help species that demand more attention than traditional wildlife management can provide,” explained Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans. “The agency is indebted to partner organizations such as the Willistown Conservation Trust and the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art for their commitment to wildlife. Today, conservation counts on partners more than ever before.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has agreed to support a proposal for further expansion of the Motus Wildlife Tracking System in Pennsylvania and four other neighboring states (New York, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware) to monitor eight migratory species and other wildlife.
The Northeast Motus Collaboration is a partnership of the Willistown Conservation Trust, Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, Project Owlnet and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve. The collaboration is housed under the Motus Wildlife Tracking System established in 2013 by Bird Studies Canada. The network currently tracks wildlife from more than 500 stations around the world.
The USFWS is providing $497,929 to help underwrite this wildlife surveillance which tracks migrating animals with nanotags. Collaboration member organizations and others are providing more than $225,000 to meet federal matching funding requirements.
Receiver stations already are collecting information that has been pondered by ornithologists and bat biologists since the dawn of American wildlife conservation. Soon, they will know more about the specifics of migration than ever before.
“Riding on the back of a migrating bird is the best way to collect migration information,” Brauning noted. “And now nanotag transmitters can do that. It’s like a new chapter in migratory bird behavior opening before us, and we all are eager to see what those transmitters continue to detect.”
Other objectives of the telemetry surveillance project include the tagging of Northern long-eared bats at a Centre County maternity colony and tracked to establish their migratory routes and use of hibernacula during the summer and winter of 2019. American woodcock and wood thrushes, captured at banding stations and rescued from window collisions will be tagged and their movements and survival will be tracked. Swainson’s thrushes will be tagged to measure their migratory movements and use of hemlock habitat in Forest and Warren counties with an aim to protect critical thrush habitat.
Overall, the project intends to shed more details on bird migration routes, timing, even post-breeding dispersal movements. It also has the potential to provide life-cycle data that would help protect currently unrecognized important habitat, such as high-use migratory stopovers.
“This work has the potential to increase our knowledge of one of North America’s most important inland migratory corridors,” Brauning explained. “Little is really known about migratory stopover and staging of birds. Migration also is believed to cause an estimated 85 percent of annual adult bird mortality.”
For these reasons, and many more, the folks at the PGC look forward to the expansion of the Motus Wildlife Tracking System and the emerging technology that offers fresh new insights at a time when migratory birds, particularly neotropical birds, need all the help they can get.
**** SHARK TRACKING. At the same time scientists are tracking airborne critters like bats and birds, seagoing creatures are also subject to radio transmitting technology. My friend outdoor writer and charter captain Mark Sampson, himself an expert on sharks, has been helping out with this research and has tagged a number of hammerhead sharks in the process. You can check out the fascinating offshore meanderings of tagged sharks by going to the Guy Harvey Research Institute at GHRITracking.org.
**** ELK CAM UP AND RUNNING. Pennsylvania’s elk herd is more active than ever, bugling and sparring in anticipation of the rutting season. If you can’t make it up to Pennsylvania’s elk country around Benezette, PA, to view these big guys in action, no problem. You’ll get a ringside seat via the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s elk cam online. Just visit https://www. pgc.pa.gov/Wildlife/WildlifeSpecies/Elk/Pages/default.aspx. The best time to view elk here is at dusk and dawn. You may also see white-tailed deer, turkeys, ground hogs, and any other critters that stray within camera range.