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Sharon Audubon listens for pinging birds

Nature's Notebook


Updated October 19, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

In August, the Sharon Audubon Center launched a new way to track birds, thanks to Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative, a grant from the William T. Wharton Trust, and the willing hands of volunteers from Drake Real Estate Partners.

By installing a 34-foot tower equipped with antennas and a solar-powered computer, the Center joined the international Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus),  a fast-expanding technology that gathers data about bird movements in stunning detail.

This new equipment will enhance the Center’s work of monitoring birds and supporting community participation in bird conservation. Many of our declining “local” birds are migratory, spending most of their year hundreds or thousands of miles from our neighborhoods. A pressing need in conserving them is a better understanding of how and where they move throughout the year. Motus tracking can provide that.

Motus, which gets its name from the Latin word meaning “movement,” is a wildlife tracking system run by Birds Canada, a partner organization to Audubon. The system includes a network of antennas that is being deployed worldwide — so far, over 1,000 on four continents. These towers detect signals from birds that have been fitted with tiny radio transmitter “backpacks” known as nanotags. Nanotags can be put on flying animals as small as hummingbirds and even butterflies!

The tags emit unique signals that a Motus antenna detects at a distance up to 15 miles (depending on terrain and other conditions). Each “ping” from a tagged bird is recorded and automatically uploaded to a central database curated by Birds Canada.

The result is a truly a game changer. Everyone, whether scientists or concerned citizens, can log into Motus.org and see the travels of birds from northern Canada to the diverse habitats of South America.

This information is also incorporated and visualized in Audubon’s newly released online tool, the Bird Migration Explorer. As we see where birds go and where they encounter challenges, we can more precisely apply resources to help them. Motus-based research has already shown impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides on songbird migration and has revealed previously unknown routes and schedules of migrants.

Here at Sharon, we plan to use Audubon’s online Bird Migration Explorer and Motus data for education, engagement, and conservation action. We look forward to programs and youth projects that highlight migration research, community science, and career preparation.

So far, our tower listens for birds tagged by others, but we’ll explore opportunities to tag birds too. Tagging requires training, permits, and funding. It would be fascinating to track the young American Kestrels from the local nest boxes we monitor, or the rehabilitated Chimney Swifts that we release into wild flocks headed for South America. Meanwhile, we’ll tune in to whatever flies by!

This just in! A Swainson’s Thrush that was the first bird to ping the new tower at the Sharon Audubon Center on Sept. 14 as it flew southbound from Maine has arrived in the  Veragua Rainforest in Costa Rica.

Somehow it managed to navigate the obstacle presented by Hurricane Ian!

On Oct. 1, the small flyer was recorded on a tower in the Central American rainforest, a flight of more than 4,000 miles. It’s flight path, after registering in Sharon, included: a tower at Deer Pond Farm, a Connecticut Audubon Society property in Sherman;  on Sept. 21 by a tower at Mountain Meadow in Pennsylvania;  on Sept. 22 at Buck Run, Pennsylvania and then at Bluestem Farm in Maryland.


Eileen Fielding is the Center Director at the Sharon Audubon Center.

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