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.

How animals survive the winter

Guest post by April Vaos

Living in Illinois, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a change of seasons. Though I often find it difficult to switch from the crunch of fall leaves to the crunch of snow, it can be a peaceful time to head outdoors. Recently, I went walking in Independence Grove in Libertyville, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. As I looked around in the quiet, contemplative landscape, I thought about the life that teemed all around me, and how it was now hidden from view or departed on a migration.

While leading winter walks, I’m often asked, “Where are all the animals?” It depends on the animal. Each employs different survival strategies that help it adapt and even thrive in winter. What, exactly, do animals do to make it through the challenges of cold temperatures and a lack of food? Well, I like to say they have MAD strategies: migrate, active and dormant.

When cool temperatures arrive in northern Illinois, so do dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Not only do they visit Illinois, they migrate into all of the lower 48 states to spend a milder winter than where they’re from: Canada. Stock photo.
When cool temperatures arrive in northern Illinois, so do dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis). Not only do they visit Illinois, they migrate into all of the lower 48 states to spend a milder winter than where they’re from: Canada. Stock photo.
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A thousand-mile journey on two-inch wings

Post by Jen Berlinghof

I’ve spent many days this summer living the “lake life,” from the sandy dunes of the Great Lakes to the cattail-studded coves of inland waters. The waterways found within the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois have been especially rewarding. Each shoreline has provided unique glimpses of wildlife, including an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) diving full throttle to catch a fish at dawn, and a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) pouncing on prey hidden among the beach grass at dusk.

Also present at every waterway this summer has been the jewel-hued, common green darner dragonfly (Anax junius). These ubiquitous insects effortlessly nab multitudes of mosquitoes on the wing. While the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) reigns in our minds when it comes to insect migrations, recent research reveals the green darner takes a multi-generational, miles-long journey of its own each year.

Common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) are found in the forest preserves. Stock photo.
Common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) are found in the forest preserves. Stock photo.
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Hordes of hummingbirds

Post by Jen Berlinghof

hummingbirds 003

For me, most days on the job consist of time in my “office” outdoors—a woodland, prairie or wetland in the Lake County Forest Preserves—with my “clients”—students, teachers, and families interested in learning more about local nature. On those rare days spent plunking away at a computer indoors, the photo above is my view. Recently, this view is bustling with activity, as hordes of ruby-throated hummingbirds buzz around the feeders, bulking up for a long flight south.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 11.46.50 AM

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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

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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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

Heron highrise

This past weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Kenn Kaufman, a naturalist and bird expert, speak at the Smith Nature Symposium. He is somewhat of a “rock star” in the birding world. His novel, Kingbird Highway, chronicles a personal adventure hitchhiking around the country at the age of 16 on a quest to find birds—a story that has reached the status of folklore. Many years later, and surely a much longer “life list,” his keynote address at Ryerson Conservation Area focused on warbler migration: the phenomenon of these teeny tiny birds in every hue of the rainbow that travel thousands of miles across entire continents each spring and fall. He presented complicated doppler maps and in-depth scientific research on these migratory dynamos, but by the end of the discussion the focus had shifted to something more simple: the children from his young birders club.

guide-bookLate that evening, as I settled down with one of his many guide books, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, I was struck by this same theme of simplicity. Kaufman urges folks to slow down and focus not on looking for the birds, but instead to spend time looking at the birds. He stresses getting to know the common birds of an area very well. By doing so, we are well on our way to knowing when a rare bird may enter the scene. This concept brought to mind one of the best places to take a long look at one common bird of Lake County, Illinois: a great blue heron rookery.

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Where do insects go in the winter?

Post by Allison

Earlier this week, my husband came in from the yard with a mosquito on his forehead. Had it been summer, that little tag-along would never have made it so far—but not in December. In the colder months, critters that are commonplace during the Midwestern summer are often the farthest things from our minds. It always amazes me when the weather has been cold for an extended period, then, at the first sign of warmth, insects seem to magically reappear. Where have they been hiding? How did they survive the frigid air that makes me shiver in my sweater when I’m outdoors longer than a few minutes?

Where do insects go in the winter?

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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