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.

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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The curious courtship of the American woodcock

Post by Jen Berlinghof

March is the demarcation of spring. This new season is brewing now as snowmelt percolates through the thick mats of leaves on the forest floor into swollen creeks. Sap is rising in the sugar maples (Acer saccharum), with its promise of sweetness after a harsh winter. The purple, mottled crowns of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) peek out of the thawing mud, surging toward the sun. And the quiet of winter is replaced with the cacophony of western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata) accompanied by the “peent” and “whir” of American woodcocks (Scolopax minor) in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
The American woodcock (Scolopax minor) is a curious species to study. Stock photo.
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The feathered friends of fall migration

Guest post by Ken Klick

Fall bird migration is happening now at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, and each day (and night) brings tens of thousands of newly arrived birds. Yet finding fall migrants can be challenging. Their subdued palettes of brown, tan, and olive feathers hide in sharp contrast to their resplendent springtime colors.

Unlike spring migration, most birds travel quietly in the fall, barely whispering a note to indicate their presence. In Lake County, fall migration starts in July, when our forests and prairies are green and full of blooming flowers. It’s a five-month-long period involving more than 200 species that rest and feed in our nearly 31,000 acres of preserves.

Spotting a bird can be difficult when vegetation conceals fleeting glimpses, making observations tricky and identification nearly impossible. Besides, who’s thinking of fall migration in July’s summer vacation mindset?

Either way, here are some of my favorite fall birding observations by month, over my past five decades of birdwatching.

July brings our first fall migrants: shorebirds. A visit to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest finds sanderlings (Calidris alba), sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and yellowlegs (Tringa spp.) avoiding people and surf while searching for food. Many migrating shorebirds have just finished raising young in the tundra’s perpetual daylight and have embarked on a 6,000-mile round trip journey.

Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
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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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Give thanks for turkey vultures

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Come late November, most of us have turkeys on the brain. But a different type of turkey is taking to the skies at this time of year on its annual migration south: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). You can spot them in the sky or on the ground in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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A world of warblers

Guest post by Alyssa Firkus

In my early twenties, I believed adventure was found in the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the largest cavern. I chased whales, orca, brown bears, bald eagles, and other charismatic megafauna. It took decades to realize I didn’t need to seek these animals or climb these mountains to find adventure. Some of the best adventure awaited me in my own backyard. This led me to join the Education Department at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in October 2018. What an adventure it’s been!

Anyone who’s attended a program taught by our staff or volunteers knows these educators are knowledgeable and passionate. This group ignited my latest adventure—birding—though I can’t point to a single component that sparked my newest hobby. It could have been my awe for the birders in this group, their love for birds and their impressive ability to bird by ear. It might have been my draw to a new challenge. The patience, attention to detail, and dedication it takes to be an effective birder. It may have been the rush of excitement, getting a glimpse of a rare species for a brief moment as it makes its annual migration. Perhaps all of these were feathery factors. Regardless, I’m hooked.

Birding is a rewarding activity that requires patience and knowledge. Photo © Tim Elliott.

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A snowy spark

Many years ago, while running along the Lake Michigan shoreline late on an evening in January, a feathered ghost appeared on top of a flag pole. It was the first time I had ever seen a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) and it stopped me in my tracks. This was the spark on that frozen night that lighted my fire of curiosity about birds. This winter, snowy owls have left their Arctic homes in record numbers, causing one of the largest irruptions (sudden increase) in northern Illinois in decades.

Although it seems natural to correlate the arrival of these boreal birds with the extremely cold, snowy winter northern Illinois is having, experts say the motivator is more likely linked to food. On their Arctic breeding grounds, snowy owls feast under 24-hour sunshine. Their food of choice is lemmings, small mammals with an extremely cyclical population. Bird expert Kenn Kaufman explains in a recent Audubon magazine article, that when the lemming population explodes, like it did last summer in northern Quebec, snowy owls have great breeding success, producing large broods of up to 11 chicks. As these chicks quickly grow into juvenile birds, the competition grows for the now dwindling numbers of lemmings. Thus, the young birds get nudged further and further away to find a meal, resulting in them moving to areas that mimic their treeless tundra home, such as the Lake Michigan shoreline. Continue reading

“Kwirr, churr, cha-cha-cha”

Walking through the woods in late fall, everything seems to be settling in—the colors calming to variations of brown, the dull roar of the wind the only sound. That is, until the staccato “cha-cha-cha” call of a red-bellied woodpecker breaks the lull of the wind, and a tiny black and white tuxedo (complete with a red cap) flashes past me, announcing the bird’s entrance into the woods.

Red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are year-round residents of Lake County, Illinois. The sounds and sights of these birds in the woodlands and at backyard feeders command attention, especially against the bland backdrop of late autumn and early winter. Like its six fellow species of woodpeckers in Illinois, the red-bellied woodpecker excavates holes, commonly called cavities, in trees for nesting and shelter—all the while snacking away on the tiny critters crawling under the bark. Continue reading

Warbler fever

Birding fever hit a high this past weekend in natural areas throughout northern Illinois. Birders flocked in throngs with binoculars strung on their necks like potential Olympic medals and a hope of spotting some of the most coveted migratory birds— wood-warblers. Members of the family Parulidae, wood-warblers are the colorful jewels of migration from the sapphire blue of a cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea) to the amber orange of a Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca). Yet, as these birds flit about in the treetops, no color is as visually striking as the lemony-yellow citrine that adorns so many warblers as they pass through our area on a flyway. Once these impish birds reach their destinations (as far as northern Canada for some species) and breed, they will molt their flamboyant plumage and become far less conspicuous, which is why seeing them in the spring is considered such a prize for birders.  Continue reading