Tracking Migratory Birds Across the Great Lakes

Audubon Great Lakes' network of Motus Wildlife Tracking System towers helps scientists better understand bird movements

Motus Wildlife Tracking system receiver tower at Lake St. Clair Metropark, Michigan. Photo: Photo: Erin Ford/Audubon Great Lakes

Tracking Bird Movements

Great Lakes nesting birds spend just a fraction of their lives in our region. Much of their lives is spent migrating and in other, warmer regions. Additionally, nearly 200 species of songbirds, waterfowl, raptors, marsh birds, and shorebirds migrate across the Great Lakes region each spring and fall. Many of these birds rely heavily on nearshore habitat to provide refuge so they can rest and refuel along their incredible migratory journeys. By understanding where our birds are traveling, we can better protect them.

Audubon Great Lakes has launched a network of wildlife tracking radio towers to aid in research and protection efforts for migratory birds. Motus towers, or stations, help track migratory birds by picking up radio signals from any bird with a radio tag that flies within 11 miles of the site. “Motus” means “movement” in Latin and refers to the network’s ability to track bird, bat and insect migrations from Canada south to Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. More stations are now being deployed in the Eastern Hemisphere as well.

Since 2019, Audubon Great Lakes and partners have installed seven stations across the Great Lakes region that are connecting important bird habitat in Illinois, Ohio and Michigan to the global Motus network, increasing the network’s coverage along the Great Lakes’ coastline and contributing to bird migration research across the entire hemisphere.

The Power of NanoTags: Small, Lightweight Radio Tags

NanoTags are tiny radio tracking devices, often as light as an aspirin tablet, that are temporarily attached to migrating birds, insects and other animals to help researchers study the movements of small wildlife. NanoTags provide an alternative to heavier and more costly radio transmitters, such as those that communicate with satellites, that researchers use to track movements of large bird species such as hawks and owls. With their smaller size and weight, NanoTags allow researchers to track the movements of much smaller wildlife species, accurately, for the first time. 

When a radio-tagged bird flies nearby, it sends a unique signal to the Motus tower’s antenna. Data from the TanoTags are transmitted to ground-based receivers, rather than an orbiting satellite. The data are either then automatically or manually uploaded to Motus's online data platform, where anyone around the world can view the results. 

Understanding Bird Movements to Help Vulnerable Migratory Birds

Migratory marsh birds such as Black Tern and Least Bittern rely on Great Lakes coastal wetlands for habitat to raise their young in the spring and summer, but, like many secretive marsh birds, their numbers are in steady decline. They, and many other migratory birds, rely heavily on the coastal habitats of the Great Lakes to rest and refuel while on their migratory journeys each spring and fall. Motus technology has the potential to track individual birds and reveal what areas of coastal habitat are used during migration, and where they might encounter difficulties. 

North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds over the last several decades, and two-thirds of North American bird species are at-risk of extinction from climate change. Audubon’s Motus towers are helping to gather important data on the movement of birds, ultimately helping us better understand birds and protect them throughout their life cycles. 

The data collected through the Motus network also support Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative, which brings together migration tracking, bird banding, and eBird data from across the Western Hemisphere to help improve conservation planning for imperiled birds. Visit Audubon’s Bird Migration Explorer to explore the heroic annual journeys made by over 450 bird species, including those tracked by the Motus network, and the challenges they face along the way.

Audubon Great Lakes Motus Tower Locations & Partners

  • Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum - Chicago, Illinois
  • Greenbelt Cultural Center, Lake County Forest Preserves - Chicago, Illinois
  • Chicago Botanic Garden - Glencoe, Illinois
  • Lake St. Clair Metropark, Huron-Clinton Metroparks - Harrison Township, Michigan
  • City of New Baltimore Water Department, City of New Baltimore Parks and Recreation Department – New Baltimore, Michigan
  • Wigwam Bay State Wildlife Area, Michigan Department of Natural Resources – Standish, Michigan
  • Grange Insurance Audubon Center – Columbus, Ohio

Black Tern

Latin:  Chlidonias niger

Illustration for Black Tern

Common Nighthawk

Latin:  Chordeiles minor

Illustration for Common Nighthawk

Stilt Sandpiper

Latin:  Calidris himantopus

Illustration for Stilt Sandpiper

Kirtland's Warbler

Latin:  Setophaga kirtlandii

Illustration for Kirtland's Warbler

Stay Up-To-Date on Our Motus Towers Across the Great Lakes

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