Avian movement projects

Motus Wildlife Tracking System

Coded radiotelemetry within an automated radio telemetry infrastructure facilitates the simultaneous and continuous tracking of animals without many of the organism size and logistical constraints of other technologies. Provided adequate infrastructure, it is well-suited to local scale investigations into the ecology and behavior of migratory individuals (e.g., during resting and refueling stops in between migratory flights) as well as landscape scale questions relative to anthropogenic influences. The rapidly growing Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus) provides this coordinated infrastructure. In short, Motus is sufficiently established to answer compelling, multiple scale research questions related to the ecology of migratory animals. I currently maintain 20+ permanent stations on National Wildlife Refuges along the Atlantic and Florida Gulf Coast for the Southeastern Inventory and Monitoring Branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as collaborate on multiple projects employing the technology (see below).

Migration timing and routes on northbound, southeastern-US wintering Red Knots

Collaborators: Felicia Sanders, South Carolina DNR; Tim Keyes and Fletcher Smith, Georgia DNR; Kevin Kalasz, USFWS; Kara Lefevre, Florida Gulf Coast University

We've deployed over 100 nanotags on threatened rufa Red Knots wintering or stopping over in the southeastern United States during northbound migration to evaluate the use of the southeast as a landscape-scale stopover and the tendency of these knots to depart directly for more northern staging areas (e.g., James Bay) or the Arctic rather than use more expected staging sites in the mid-Atlantic such as Delaware Bay.

Seasonal connectivity of Saltmarsh Sparrow

Collaborators: Rhode Island, Parker River, and Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuges; Dr. Chris Elphick, University of Connecticut; Aaron Given, Town of Kiawah Island, SC; Tim Keyes, Georgia DNR

In the falls of 2014-2016, we deployed nanotags on southbound Saltmarsh Sparrows captured at three National Wildlife Refuges in the northeast. Additionally, in the springs of 2016 and 2017, we deployed tags on northbound Saltmarsh Sparrows in South Carolina and Georgia. This work seeks to document the seasonal movements and phenology of a species particularly vulnerable to climate change and human encroachment.

Black Rail breeding ecology and movements

Collaborators: Clint Moore, US Geological Survey; Bob Cooper and David Tilson, University of Georgia

This recently initiated project uses automated telemetry and a grid of wireless nodes to track the local movements of Black Rail during their breeding season and beyond in Florida.

Ruddy Turnstone stopover, migration routes, and association with disease prevalence

Collaborators: Rebecca Poulson and Deb Carter, Southeast Coastal Wildlife Disease Study; Felicia Sanders, South Carolina DNR

Similar to the Red Knot work, this project aims to better understand the migratory pathways Ruddy Turnstones take towards their Arctic breeding grounds and how important the south Atlantic coast is as a staging area compared to more touted areas (e.g., Delaware Bay). In addition, we will explore the association between staging site connectivity and the transmission, prevalence, and distribution of shorebirds with various strains of influenza A and avian avulaviruses.

Stopover ecology of Whimbrel in coastal South Carolina

Collaborators: Maina Handmaker and Nathan Senner, University of South Carolina; Felicia Sanders, South Carolina DNR; Tim Keyes and Fletcher Smith, Georgia DNR

This project employs GPS logging tags that offload data via VHF at communal roosts. We will examine the scale and ecology of Whimbrel spring stopover along the south Atlantic coast, as well as learn more about the migration routes of this cohort of the Whimbrel population, rounding out the picture provided by some recent satellite tracking data.

Molt-migration and migration ecology of eastern Painted Buntings

Collaborators: Aaron Given, Town of Kiawah Island, SC

We deployed 30 nanotags in summer 2019 on Painted Buntings breeding on Kiawah Island, SC, as well as 5 Motus stations to monitor their movement around the island. We are evaluating whether eastern Painted Buntings use a molt-migration strategy similar to western Painted Buntings, as well as the migration timing, routes, and winter destinations of this breeding population.

Merlin migration along the Atlantic Coast

Collaborators: Biodiversity Research Institute; Scott McWilliams, University of Rhode Island

In the falls of 2014 - 2015, we deployed ≈ 70 coded telemetry tags on southbound Merlins captured on Block Island, RI. Merlins tend to migrate coastally and so made an ideal candidate for coded telemetry work given the automated telemetry network existing along the Atlantic Coast at that time. The primary purpose of the project was to explore how Merlins use southern New England (and Block Island in particular) and the mid-Atlantic coast during fall migration, including questions related to stopover on Block Island, rates and routes of migration upon departure, associations between these movements and atmospheric conditions, and differences in migratory strategies among the sexes.

Completed projects

Seasonal connectivity of MacGillivray's Seaside Sparrow

Collaborators: Aaron Given, Town of Kiawah Island, SC

We used GPS logger technology to document the seasonal movements of MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus macgillivraii) between wintering and breeding sites. We deployed GPS loggers on 43 wintering (December 2016 to March 2017) and 8 breeding (April to June 2017) sparrows. Winter deployments occurred at six sites along the Kiawah River on Kiawah Island, SC. Breeding season deployments occurred at a single site along the Stono River on Headquarters Island, Johns Island, SC. We recovered only three GPS loggers from wintering sparrows that provided seasonal movement data, and only one from a suspected MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow. This individual spent the summer on Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, outside the subspecies’ range as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Species Status Assessment team. We failed to recover any GPS loggers from breeding individuals. Local movements among six individuals providing within-winter data were typically restricted to areas less than 0.25 km2. Unfortunately, the lack of recovery of any “definitive” MacGillivray’s seaside sparrows left us unable to make any inference about the seasonal movements of the subspecies.