Motus captures migration in motion

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The back-to-school season in early fall brings restlessness and routine to my house. I’m struck by how it parallels the flurry of fall migration across the natural world: a return to the patterns of movement ingrained over generations.

At Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods—part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois—I observe ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) tucking their heads quickly in and out of crimson cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) blooms, fueling up for long flights across the Gulf of Mexico.

Green darner (Anax junius) dragonflies skim the skies by the dozens along the lakefront at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest, their wings glittering. Fields of bee balm (Monarda didyma) along the 31.4-mile Des Plaines River Trail quiver with monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) nectaring to gear up for their epic journey. And, sporting less vibrant feathers than in the spring, migratory birds take flight in muted autumnal tones, heading south. As the sun sets in September and the harvest moon rises, this silent surge of fall migration commences.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) rests on a twig. This species migrates south to wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America and along the Gulf Coast. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A female ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) rests on a twig. This species migrates south to wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America and along the Gulf Coast. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) undertake long migrations, discussed in this post from our archive. Stock photo.
Green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) undertake long migrations, as discussed in this post from our archive. Stock photo.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) east of the Rocky Mountains undertake long journeys to overwinter in oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) trees in Mexico. Stock photo.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) east of the Rocky Mountains undertake long journeys to overwinter in oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) trees in Mexico. Stock photo.

Migration is an extraordinary phenomenon of great scientific inquiry and mystery. A new, groundbreaking effort to study animal migrations and connect researchers, scientists and students to real-time migratory data across the globe is underway. Lake County, Illinois is one of the newest links in the chain.

The Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus) uses automated radio telemetry to study the movements of birds, bats and large insects. Tiny, digitally encoded tags are safely attached to an animal and detected by receiving stations on the landscape. Stations come in many configurations, but at their basic level consist of a radio receiver, one or more antennas and a power supply. Chain o’ Lakes State Park and Illinois Beach State Park currently host stations. The newest local site is under construction this fall at Ryerson Conservation Area. The Motus station at Ryerson Conservation Area is funded by a grant from the Margot Merrick Fund and an Annual Fund grant from the Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves. We are grateful for the support of these donors!

An infographic outlining how the Motus system works. Graphic © Motus Wildlife Tracking System, Bird Studies Canada.
An infographic outlining how the Motus system works. Graphic © Motus Wildlife Tracking System, Bird Studies Canada.

Previous efforts to track migration have faced many challenges. Bird banding and GPS tags require recapturing animals, which has proven somewhat unreliable. Large movements of groups of birds can be detected on radar, such as with Birdcast. This is valuable and fascinating to watch in real time, but it can’t distinguish between individuals or species. Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT tags), like those we use in our Blanding’s Turtle Recovery Program, can only operate in close proximity to a receiver and are impractical for aerial species.

While all these methods provide important information, none are able to accurately track very small birds and insects. Motus has solved this by using solar-powered nanotags weighing as little as 0.15 grams and measuring smaller than a paperclip. They can be used on bees, butterflies, dragonflies and diminutive bird species.

Recent assessments report that one-third of North America’s bird populations are at risk, and pollinators, such as native bees and monarch butterflies, are in decline. Almost 200 species of avian adventurers, though, have been tagged for Motus tracking, crisscrossing continents on their annual trips and potentially passing 800 receiving stations installed across the Americas.

What’s gained are invaluable, real-time migration mapping data that provide ecological insights into the animals’ journeys, which can be used collaboratively in scientific research, conservation efforts and education. Motus is the ultimate hands-on community science project with real-world impacts both globally and locally here in Lake County.

Learn more about fall bird migration in the fall 2021 issue of our Horizons quarterly magazine. Want to spot birds following their migration routes? Attend one of our FREE Birdwatching Hot Spots programs on October 8 at Hastings Lake in Lake Villa and November 12 at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. All ages. Adult supervision required. No registration required.

The bird that wears a tuxedo backwards

Guest post by Jenny Sazama

One May many years ago, I was biking the Millennium Trail and Greenway from Lakewood in Wauconda to Singing Hills in Round Lake—two sites of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois—to time out an activity for summer camp. That’s when I first noticed a distinctive blackbird magically appear from within the tall grasses.

This happened at least 30 times as I cycled the winding 1.62-mile trail section from Gilmer Road to the Singing Hills parking lot. As I coasted by these birds, I detected a “chunk” call and noticed their color pattern, which has been described as a classic black tuxedo worn backwards.

I wondered who this dapper fellow was and why there were so many along this route, emerging from this habitat. I would soon learn this pop-up-from-the-grasses blackbird was none other than the bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). It’s eastern North America’s only songbird whose feathers are black below and mostly white above, with a buttery, cream-yellow nape. Keep watch for a white rump, too, as he takes flight.

A male bobolink calls at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Now is a good time of year to try to spot bobolinks in preserves with meadows and prairies. Photo © Phil Hauck.
A male bobolink calls at Rollins Savanna in Grayslake. Now is a good time of year to try to spot bobolinks in preserves with meadows and prairies. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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Enjoy the hooting season

Post by Jen Berlinghof

In February, sensational sunrises and sunsets break up the stark days and cold, dark nights of a waning winter. Dawn and dusk not only bring the thrill of color to a monochrome landscape, but also the best chance of hearing and seeing nocturnal raptors. As the mercury drops, owl courtship heats up. While many other birds head south for winter, owls pair up and hunker down. At night, the soundtrack of our resident species’ hoots and hollers fills the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, offering us a glimpse into an otherwise hidden world.

Winter is a time of snow, beautiful sunsets—and mating season for local owls. Photo © John D. Kavc.
Winter is a time of snow, beautiful sunrises and sunsets—and mating season for local owls. Photo © John D. Kavc.
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Bringing back the buzz

Post by Jen Berlinghof

All summer long, swaths of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) quake in the presence of thousands of native bumble bee wings beating away. These pollination dynamos use a technique called buzz pollination, vibrating their bodies to trigger nearby flowers to release pollen. At the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, a similar buzz of excitement arrived in summer 2020 when staff spotted the federally endangered rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) at Greenbelt in North Chicago.

Fast forward to summer 2021. The hum continues to reverberate after multiple sightings of this keystone species were documented across the county from Flint Creek to Wadsworth Savanna in Wadsworth. While summer’s the height of hive activity, the shoulder seasons—usually defined as May, June, September and October—might be key to the success of the rusty patched bumble bee. This is partly due to the timing, or phenology, of the species’ lifecycle. It’s one of the first bees to emerge in spring and the last to enter hibernation in fall.

A worker, or male, rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) sits atop mountain mint. Photo © Dan Mullen.
A rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) sits atop mountain mint. Photo © Dan Mullen.
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Behind the bandit mask

Post by Brett Peto

You know them as raccoons (Procyon lotor). Though maybe trash pandas is more your style, a phrase that’s taken off since it first appeared on Reddit in 2014. (I can’t help but note the Rocket City Trash Pandas, a Minor League Baseball team, plays ball in Madison, Alabama). Or you could even know them as washing-bears, an old Germanic nickname bestowed on the species “because they have a habit of rinsing and softening their food in water before they eat it.” This moniker actually has a connection to the legendary naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, who created the Latin-based binomial nomenclature system and originally labeled the raccoon as Ursus lotor (“washer bear”). Whatever you call them, raccoons are commonly found in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

It’s easy to spot one, of course, by its bandit mask: the patches of black fur bending below each of its eyes. This mask is nothing short of iconic, but it’s likely an icon with a purpose: “one hypothesis for the dark fur is that it may help reduce glare and enhance the nocturnal animal’s night vision.” There’s more to know, though, about these medium-sized mammals beyond face value—or just one feature of their faces.

A raccoon (Procyon lotor) peeks out of its tree den. Photo © John D. Kavc.
A raccoon (Procyon lotor) peeks out of its tree den. Photo © John D. Kavc.
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The joy of a feather found

Guest post by Nan Buckardt

I found a feather today and it stopped me in my tracks. There it was, tucked into the dewy grass—a single, beautiful feather just lying next to my sidewalk.

It’s not uncommon to come across feathers in my work at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. My naturalist brain immediately started to assess the discovery, analyzing it on a few key points.

The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The feather the author found just outside her front door. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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The solace of purple martins

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There’s solace to be found in the fact that the rhythms of nature march on. This spring, the sun still rises. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum) still pulses its verdant green arms through the pulpy leaf litter of the forest floor. The birds still surge through the skies as they migrate to and through the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Like us, some of these birds are inclined to congregate in large communities. Over the years, the colonies of a particular species, the purple martin (Progne subis), have become largely reliant on people to provide shelter for their nesting flocks.

Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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Get to know groundhogs

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Late last summer, I literally watched a groundhog (Marmota monax) fatten up before my eyes. He’d made a burrow in the field outside my office window and frequently visited the rain gardens around the Edward L. Ryerson Welcome Center in Riverwoods, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. We watched him scamper back and forth, snipping flower tops here and there, always with a mouth crammed full of flora.

Fast forward to early February, and as I look out across the same field, now dotted with small snow drifts punctuated by tufts of grasses gone tawny, I think about that groundhog curled tight in his burrow and deep in hibernation, oblivious to the hubbub of a day in his honor.

Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are active during daytime, particularly early morning and late afternoon. Stock photo.
Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are active during daytime, particularly early morning and late afternoon. Stock photo.
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The din of the dog days

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The dog days of summer are a bounty for the senses. We see the lemon-yellow of whorled sunflower blooms, taste the ripe flavor of a homegrown tomato, smell the spicy sweetness of bee balm flowers, feel the heat of the day and the cool of the evening. Yet the most quintessential sensation of these end-of-summer days is hearing the overwhelming cacophony of cicada songs around the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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The wonder of wood ducks

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Spring is the starting block for wildlife in the race to find suitable mates and nesting sites. With the increased flurry in wildlife activity, staff at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois also get an increased flurry of phone calls with questions from the public. One recent call came from a gentleman in disbelief upon seeing ducks perched in his trees. He was utterly transfixed by the phenomenon. The call brought back a flash of memory for me of the first time I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa) as a child, on my maternal grandfather’s property in northern Illinois. Grandpa “Duck,” as we affectionately called him, was an avid outdoorsman. He spent a few moments that spring day pointing out the distinct, vibrantly hued male and the more muted female near a nest hole in an old maple tree. The pair then took off into the woods to the soundtrack of their high-pitched whistling calls.

Male wood ducks are easily identifiable by their glossy green head, chestnut breast, and other vibrant colors. Stock photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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