International bird-tracking project alights in Wrangell

Wrangell may not be on the road system, but that doesn't mean it's not connected to the rest of the world. Last week, a U.S. Forest Service project put Wrangell on the map - the Motus map.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is an international collaborative research network that uses radio telemetry technology to study the migratory patterns of birds and other animals. After scientists put a nanotag on a bird, its movements can be tracked by hundreds of Motus antennae all over the world. These tags can weigh less than a gram.

The program's results, which are publicly available for scientists and laypeople alike, are used for research and conservation purposes.

On April 19, the Forest Service installed a Motus tower on nearby Kadin Island. This tower is focused specifically on the upcoming shorebird migration.

"The cool thing about this is that it's a huge citizen science project and everyone's working together," said Forest Service wildlife biologist Joe Delabrue, who led the effort to put up an antenna near Wrangell. Anybody can view an international map of Motus towers, plus the data that the towers are collecting, on

The project started in Canada in 2012. Since then, it has grown to more than 1,500 stations in 34 countries across four continents.

The program has been used to identify areas of land that are important for conservation purposes, so that land management officials know what to prioritize. By tracking Swainson's thrushes using nanotags and Motus towers, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that the city's Grand Parc de L'Ouest is a significant stop on these birds' migratory route.

Bird conservation has become increasingly important in recent years, Delabrue explained. "Some of these populations are only half of what they used to be 50 years ago," he said. The rate of decline is "scary fast."

Though some nanotags can get small enough to record the movements of butterflies, the Kadin Island tower is focused specifically on tracking shorebirds, since it stands near the Stikine River flats - a popular feeding site for these species. "Any (tagged) bird that passes by within 15 kilometers of the antennas, it will detect it and the data is transferred to the Motus server," explained Delabrue.

As of Monday, the tower hadn't recorded any birds, but "it's a little early yet," he added. "They should be migrating soon."

The tags Motus tracks are a higher-tech version of the colored leg tags that Juneau-based Forest Service bird bander Gwen Baluss will be attaching to songbirds during the upcoming Stikine River Birding Fest. Colored leg tags are only identifiable by sight - Motus does not track them.

Wrangell's tower was funded by the Forest Service branch of international programs. Delabrue organized the effort and helped get the antenna installed, along with four other workers.

The tower has five antennae, powered by solar panels and a lithium battery.

Delabrue hopes the community will keep an eye on the tower for him, since it's a delicate scientific instrument standing out in the open. "It's OK to look at it, but don't touch it," he said. "And if you see anything that's wrong with it, you can report it back to me. That would be great."


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