Bird-tracking radio antenna is a first for Chicago

Motus system at Big Marsh will detect presence of migrants as they make their way through the region.

Humans have been affixing items to birds for a long time. In 3,000 BCE, ancient Egyptians utilized homing pigeons as a form of long-distance communication. In modern times, we’ve had the metal and plastic leg bands that can provide insight into bird migration. We also have various other tracking technology in the form of radio micro-transmitters, light-sensitive geo-locators and acoustic sensors that can detect bird calls. One of these systems is Motus, a program of Birds Canada in partnership with collaborating researchers and organizations.

Motus, which is Latin for movement or motion, can detect astounding feats of bird migration when paired with tiny radio transmitters attached to birds. Until last month, though, Chicago was a surprising void among the Motus data set. There have been Motus receiver stations to the north, west and south, but nothing in the city itself or the nearest suburbs to track our major flyway along Lake Michigan. Since its inception in 2014, the Motus network has grown into a network that is maintaining more than 850 receiving stations across 28 countries on six continents.

In October, the nonprofit Chicago Ornithological Society (COS) installed a Motus antenna at Big Marsh on the Southeast Side in partnership with the Chicago Park District. In fact, the antenna is right on top of the brand-new Ford Calumet Environmental Center, which showcases the rich cultural and natural history of the Calumet Region that spans the southern flank of Lake Michigan. The receiver station will track birds, bats and butterflies during migration.

From left, Claire Halpin, Stephanie Beilke, Dan Lory and Edward Warden, all of the Chicago Ornithological Society, installed the Motus antenna at Big Marsh.

“We know that the Chicago region sits on a major migratory flyway which sees billions of birds pass through every year,” said Stephanie Beilke, Chair of the COS Calumet Initiative and Conservation Science Manager for Audubon Great Lakes. “By placing Motus towers in Chicago, we can begin to fill a big data gap and greatly improve our understanding of bird movement not just in Chicago but across the country.”

Of course, people have been reporting and documenting bird sightings for ages. And the modern eBird citizen science database does an amazing job tracking that. But Motus gives folks a chance to better understand an individual bird. A scientist in Colombia can tag a Gray-cheeked Thrush in early April and find out within a few weeks that it has reached the Hudson Bay for breeding. This map shows exactly that. Motus was used to determine the effect of fuel load on migration; on spring migration Gray-Cheeked Thrush with higher fuel loads migrated faster, stopping less often to refuel, than birds with lower fuel loads.

So how far can the Motus antenna at Big Marsh detect a bird? This map shows an estimated range of several miles, all the way out to Lake Michigan:

COS and the Park District are still working out a few kinks before there will be a fully operational Motus receiving station. But the data should be flowing in time for spring migration. It’s estimated more than 100 peer-reviewed publications have been the result of Motus projects.

To read more about Chicago Ornithological Society’s Calumet Initiative, or to make a contribution, please click here.


A little clout on the prairie

The Greater Rockford Airport Authority was downright chatty last week after months of silence regarding the roadway it’s putting through Bell Bowl Prairie, a state natural area and one of the rare gravel prairies in all of Illinois.

First came a press release regarding the airport expansion process that essentially tied its reasoning to the pandemic.

“We have a responsibility to the Rockford region and our taxpayers. We know the importance and impact our operations have on the lives of every resident,” [Airport Authority Chairman Paul] Cicero said in the release. “Our cargo operations have provided access to critical products for COVID response, materials that fuel the supply chains of our businesses, and other essential daily supplies for our residents.”

Then the statement avows that the airport’s never had any agreement with Rockford’s Natural Land Institute to steward the land, a comment that stems from a suit filed to stymie the development.

“If any such agreement does exist, notice is hereby given that any such contract or agreement is terminated effective immediately,” Cicero said.

The prairie’s advocates have understandably continued to warn that the ecosystem is far from saved. Then on Wednesday, the airport’s deputy director of operations and planning aired additional thoughts with a local news outlet, the Rock River Current. It wasn’t promising for the prairie: essentially the road designed through the prairie isn’t going to change.

“There’s no way to move that road where it doesn’t affect the prairie,” RFD’s Zack Oakley said.

It appears much of this could be mitigated if the airport authority would just talk to the Natural Land Institute, the environmental nonprofit that’s taken the lead on advocating for the prairie.

It’s looking more and more like March 1, 2022, will be a fateful day. That’s the date construction may resume after additional analysis of the presence of the federally endangered Rusty-patched Bumble Bee.

This isn’t the news many folks were looking for heading into winter and with the project on hiatus.


The mysteries of “The Magic Stump”

Join us on Saturday at 11 a.m. for the release of “The Magic Stump” documentary trailer AND the release of Marsh Hawk Red Ale! It all takes place at Imperial Oak Brewing, 501 Willow Boulevard in Willow Springs. “The Magic Stump” is my follow up to “Monty and Rose 2: The World of Monty and Rose.” We’ll have some merchandise available and plenty of beer on tap and in cans to go.


TWiB Notes

WTTW’s Patty Wetli had an outstanding piece that explains what a prairie is. It’s not as simple as one may think, and many, many people mistake all sorts of eco-types for prairies. Check it out here…..The Compelling Voices in Birding and Conservation continues on Thursday with an in-person event at Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. Dr. Abby Sterling, a shorebird biologist working on the Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative, will highlight some of these incredible shorebird stories, and explain how protecting shorebird habitat at strategically important locations can have positive impacts across the Western Hemisphere……The Cornell Lab’s Project Feederwatch got under way this weekend, and there is still time to participate. Go here for all the information you need……A Purple Sandpiper turned up in Waukegan this week. This Atlantic shorebird winters in small numbers in the Great Lakes.