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.

Des Plaines River Trail Challenge

Post by Jen Berlinghof

The trail is complete! The final section of the Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway was completed in late 2015. This fulfills a vision 54 years in the making—an unbroken greenway along the Des Plaines River. The contiguous 31.4-mile trail spans the entire length of Lake County, Illinois. To celebrate this amazing gem, we at the Lake County Forest Preserves are challenging you to travel the entire length as part of our Des Plaines River Trail Challenge. Last year, Allison and I hiked the entire trail and chronicled it here on the blog. This month, we’re taking you on the water with us to highlight the lifeblood of this vision—the river itself.

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Des Plaines River Trail—Route 60 to Route 22

Post by Jen Berlinghof

As the hours of daylight drastically shorten in November, the miles of our hike along the entire Des Plaines River Trail quickly stack up. The trek south along this stretch of the trail from Route 60 to Route 22 was summed up in the stillness of bare branches that were silhouetted against the sky and reflected back from mirrors of water in the surrounding floodplain forest. Continue reading

Des Plaines River Trail—Independence Grove to Route 60 Canoe Launch

Post by Jen BerlinghofIMG_8215

As our hike continued south along the Des Plaines River Trail, we began to see, feel and hear the palpable signs of the seasons shifting from summer to autumn. We were not the only ones heading south along this greenway. Small flocks of Swainson’s thrushes and yellow-rumped warblers created a ruckus of fluttering feathers in search of sustenance. Continue reading

Des Plaines River Trail—Kilbourne Road to Independence Grove

Post by Jen BerlinghofIMG_7700

Our adventure to traverse the entire length of the Des Plaines River Trail continued with our trek from Kilbourne Road to Independence Grove Forest Preserve under the shining sun and heavy air of late summer. The air was heavy not only with humidity, but with the calls of cicadas, tree crickets, and katydids melding into a three-part harmony that signaled the end of summer. The air was also pregnant with the perfume of flowering plants. It was clear that this hike belonged to the bugs and blooms. Continue reading

Des Plaines River Trail—Wadsworth Road to Kilbourne Road

Post by Jen BerlinghofIMG_4642

We continued our hiking journey along the Des Plaines River Trail this month, starting where we left off last time: Sedge Meadow Forest Preserve in Wadsworth, Illinois. We were lucky to have a sunny, clear day for this “heart of the summer” hike. Surprisingly, we weren’t burdened with heavy humidity, which is typical this time of the year. This section of the trail was busy with cyclists, more so than the far northern section. Everyone we passed held up a hand for a friendly greeting. Continue reading

April Fools’ bird

Post by Jen Berlinghof

It was a windy, but bright, April 1 this year. I was on a trail at Ryerson Woods with a group of volunteers. Most of our heads were focused downward, inspecting the minutiae of a bloodroot bloom. Then, someone shouted, “EAGLES!” I truly thought the next thing shouted would be “APRIL FOOLS’!” but when we snapped our heads skyward, we saw two ivory-headed eagles swooping back and forth above the trees. No joke!

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Army of frogs

My young sons and I recently read a library book together about the names of animal groups. I was struck by how many of the group names match the animals’ behavior or movement: a parliament of owls, a flutter of butterflies, a walk of snails. The boys and I agreed our favorite group name was an army of frogs. Continue reading