A major grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will enable a New England research partnership to dramatically expand a revolutionary new migration tracking system across New England. The three-year, Competitive State Wildlife Grant of $998,000 will be matched by $355,500 in private funds.
The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is the lead agency for this collaborative project; partner agencies include the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Non-governmental partners include New Hampshire Audubon, Maine Audubon, Massachusetts Audubon, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve, and Willistown [PA] Conservation Trust.
The grant will enable project partners to establish 50 automated telemetry receiving stations in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. These receivers can track movements of birds, bats and even large insects tagged with 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. Taking its name from the Latin word for movement, the Motus network currently includes nearly 900 receiving 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 enables scientists to track migrants previously too small and delicate to tag with traditional transmitters. This technology is revolutionizing migration research by documenting the travels of individual birds, such as a gray-cheeked thrush that made a remarkable 46-hour, 2,200-mile non-stop flight from Colombia to Ontario.
“This will be a game-changer for Maine,” says Director of Conservation Sally Stockwell. “Once the array of receiving stations is fully built out, we will have a much better picture of where certain species are migrating across the state, including in the interior of the state in addition to along the coast; where they are coming from and going to; how best to protect their migratory pathways; and how to steer new development projects away from the most important and sensitive sites. We are particularly excited that this work is part of a larger coordinated effort with other New England and Atlantic states.”
In addition to significantly increasing the telemetry infrastructure across the Northeast, the new USFWS grant specifically targets several species of greatest conservation need in New England. New Hampshire Audubon biologists will use the smallest nanotags to track fall movements of monarch butterflies, which have suffered large population declines. The tracking information will help to identify target areas for habitat improvement, such as planting fall-blooming nectar sources to support migrating monarchs. Researchers from Massachusetts Audubon and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife 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. Finally, researchers will also conduct field tests to better understand the detection limits for newly developed transmitters and receivers.
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 documented. A receiving station installed in Dixville, NH to monitor rusty blackbird activity detected several shorebirds migrating from Churchill, Manitoba and James Bay, Ontario to the Atlantic coast in 2019.