Wildlife Tracking With “Motus” Radio Telemetry

Birds, bats, and insects present unique challenges for researchers due to their ability to travel long distances at heights that make them difficult to detect. So how are researchers able to determine if an individual observed in Canada one summer is the same as the one observed in Mexico the following winter? Although there are a number of ways to answer this question, one of the most useful among them is the use of the Motus Wildlife Tracking system. 

What is Motus?

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus) is an international collaborative network of researchers and educators that use automated radio telemetry to track birds, bats, and insects. This is done by attaching small radio transmitters to flying species that will then pass by a Motus Tower. If a tagged species passes within 20 kilometers of a tower, its information can be recorded including: date, species, when, where, and by whom it was first tagged.

Data collected by Motus is integral to furthering our understanding of migratory animals. Used for a wide variety of studies, Motus research has aided in:

  • Recovery planning for species at risk
  • Understanding how species may be impacted in areas of development and how to alleviate these threats
  • Learning about species migration including where they overwinter and when they begin migrating
  • Identifying where birds stop during migration (stop-over sites) to protect habitat that is key to their survival during this period

Motus in the Georgian Bay Biosphere

With funding support from Environment Climate Change Canada through Community Nominated Priority Places, locally called Maamwi Anjiakiziwin, seven Motus Towers have been installed within the Biosphere Region. These towers supplemented existing towers and were strategically placed in areas along the coast where they would provide further coverage and where partners could host and use them. 

Installed in 2020, these 7 towers can be found at the following locations:

  • Thomson Reserve 
  • Little McCoy 
  • Sandy Island 
  • Shawanaga First Nation 
  • Grundy Lake 
  • Mallet Property 
  • Killbear Provincial Park 

These seven sites complement the towers which were already installed along the coast by Georgian Bay Land Trust and Magnetawan First Nation.

In the two years that these towers have been operational, 22 species and 49 individuals have been detected. Of these observations, 4 species or 31 individuals are designated Species at Risk (SAR). Species have been detected that help support research projects across the Americas including the Ovenbird as part of a Costa Rican study and the  Northern Saw-Whet Owl as part of the Indiana Audubon.

As a UNESCO biosphere site, GBB  has a role in facilitating collaboration with partners for the placement and installation of these towers, however, it is other partners along the coast that are currently conducting research with them. Studies led by both Shawanaga First Nation and the Georgian Bay Land Trust are profiled below, followed by a list of studies with international scope.

Partner Spotlight: Shawanaga First Nation

In an effort to help preserve and better understand Ontario’s bat species, Shawanaga First Nation has launched the Apakwaanaajiinh Mnidoo Gamii (Bats of Georgian Bay) Project. This project assesses bat population sizes, health, and distribution within SFN and across eastern Georgian Bay. 

By mist netting (a method used to capture bats entering and exiting caves, tunnels, and other structures used as bat habitat), captured bats are then affixed with tiny pea sized radio transmitters. This process allows the Lands Department at Shawanaga First Nation to track bats using these transmitters and the Motus towers installed across Georgian Bay. 

For Shawanaga First Nation, Motus is essential to the success of their bat project and makes it possible to be regional in scale. Without the use of Motus towers, bats would have to be radio tracked by hand, which would have involved a significant level of effort. It would also limit the team to surveying one location at a time, meaning that bats who traveled outside of Shawanaga would not likely be detected. 

Local bat research is just the beginning. Shawanaga First Nation hopes to develop a long-term monitoring and conservation project to fill the many knowledge gaps that exist for Ontario’s bats. Using Motus as a tool, they are building a greater understanding of critical habitat hotspots for bats around Georgian Bay. As Motus coverage expands to fill gaps in Georgian Bay, more will be understood about bats and their short- and long-distance movement patterns. 

To learn more about the work that Shawanaga First Nation is doing and to follow along with the Apakwaanaajiinh Mnidoo Gamii (Bats of Georgian Bay) Project, you can find them on Facebook and Instagram.

Partner Spotlight: Georgian Bay Land Trust

The coast of eastern Georgian Bay is used extensively by migratory songbirds. Understanding the needs and behaviours of migratory birds is key to making informed land management and conservation decisions intended to benefit all bird species throughout their life cycles. To better understand the role land trust properties play and how they can better serve birds, the Georgian Bay Land Trust (GBLT) partnered with Western University to research the breeding and post-breeding movement of adult and juvenile songbirds.  While the island archipelago of Georgian Bay provides habitat crucial for bird populations, it is unclear how songbirds use this landscape after the breeding season. Some of these questions include: 

  • How do young birds use habitat once they leave the nest? Do they use the surrounding area or immediately travel far?
  • Do birds use the coast to refuel their bodies during migration?
  • What do breeding adults do once their young have left?
  • Birds need lots of energy to raise young and migrate. Does this landscape have enough food adult birds need to recover from having raised young and undergoing molt (growing fresh feathers)? 
  • How do both demographics of birds use the island archipelago for their needs?
  • Are particular habitats better than others for conservation? 

In the summer of 2021 and 2022, four species of songbirds were captured and radio tagged by Western University researchers on properties owned or stewarded by the GBLT. Motus stations

in the surrounding area monitored the movements of radio tagged birds, with almost 45 million detections collected across the summer months and into fall migration! 

Preliminary results from manual tracking suggest that birds remained within 500 meters of the capture location on island and mainland habitats during the 2021 observation period. Most birds initiated fall migration from the Go Home Bay area in early to mid-September. Analysis of data collected in 2022 is ongoing. Once birds depart Georgian Bay for fall migration, their long-distance migratory movements were able to be tracked using collected data from Motus towers located throughout the Motus Network.

To learn more about the Georgian Bay Land Trust, you can find them on Facebook and Instagram.

A Global Network to Help Species

Several studies have found benefit in the Motus towers located in eastern Georgian Bay. For example:

  • A Wood Thrush was detected in a study by researcher Ernest Carman about “the stopover duration of Cerulean Warblers in Costa Rica, as well as habitat selection and home range.” The Wood Thrush was tagged in Nicaragua in March 2021 before being detected here in May 2021.
  • A Northern Saw-Whet Owl, first banded in 2020 at the Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary in Indiana, USA, was detected several times here as part of a stopover and wintering project with the Indiana Audubon.
  • An Ovenbird that had been tagged on May 20, 2021 at the Powdermill Avian Research Centre in Carnegie, Ohio flew past a number of towers in southern Ontario and New York state, before flying through Algonquin Park and along the coast of Georgian Bay.
  • A Black-throated Blue Warbler was banded at Long Point Bird Observatory in May 2021 as part of Dr. Chris Gugliemo’s work dealing with migration and stopover ecology of migratory songbirds and bats at Long Point and throughout Canada.
  • A Nightjar study by the University of Guelph is “Investigating breeding ground survival, departure dates, and migratory connectivity for Common Nighthawks and Eastern Whip-poor-wills breeding in Ontario” and have also used motus data from Georgian Bay.

Get Involved!

In 2022, the Georgian Bay Biosphere acquired two more motus towers, with the intention of keeping these towers for mobile field studies. Rather than installing them permanently, they can be used in various locations for short-term projects and loaned to researchers with projects in an area where there is limited motus coverage. Researchers interested in use of these mobile motus towers along the Georgian Bay’s coast can contact Tianna Burke at [email protected]

If you’re interested in getting involved by hosting or supporting a Motus station please contact: [email protected]

This story was first published at www.gbbr.ca/partnership-stories-wildlife-tracking-with-motus-radio-telemetry/

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