Study tracks waterbird use of Chicago-area wetlands

Read the full story from the University of Illinois.

A three-year study in northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana found that – even at small scales – emergent wetlands or ponds support many wetland bird species. The study also found that, at least in the years surveyed, the level of urbanization had little effect on most of the studied species’ use of such sites, provided the right kinds of habitat were available.

Birds migrate along ancient routes – here are the latest high-tech tools scientists are using to study their amazing journeys

Migrating waterbirds over South Dakota’s Huron Wetland Management District on North America’s Central Flyway. Sandra Uecker, USFWS/Flickr

by Tom Langen, Clarkson University

Although it still feels like beach weather across much of North America, billions of birds have started taking wing for one of nature’s great spectacles: fall migration. Birds fly south from the northern U.S. and Canada to wintering grounds in the southern U.S., Caribbean and Latin America, sometimes covering thousands of miles. Other birds leave temperate Eurasia for Africa, tropical Asia or Australia.

Using observation records and data collected through bird banding, 20th-century ornithologists roughly mapped general migration routes and timing for most migratory species. Later, using radar at airports and weather stations, they discovered how weather and other factors affect when birds migrate and how high they fly.

Today, technological advances are providing new insights into bird migration and showing that it is more complex and wonderful than scientists ever imagined. These new and constantly improving technologies are key aids for protecting migratory birds in the face of habitat loss and other threats.

Migratory flyways are paths that birds have traveled for centuries. Scientists are working to better understand how birds use these routes.

Birding across borders

The power of the internet has greatly aided migratory bird research. Using the popular eBird network, birders all over the world can upload sightings to a central database, creating a real-time record of the ebb and flow of migration. Ornithologists have also learned to use NEXRAD, a national network of Doppler weather radars, to visualize birds migrating down the North American continent.

Now, scientists are setting up a global network of receiver stations called the Motus Network, which currently has 1,500 receivers in 31 countries. Each receiver constantly records the presence of any birds or other animals within a nine-mile (15-kilometer) radius that scientists have fitted with small, lightweight radio transmitters, and shares the data online. The network will become increasingly useful for understanding bird migration as more receiver stations become active along migration tracks.

Tracking individual birds via satellite

Three new technologies are rapidly expanding what we know about bird migration. The first is satellite telemetry of bird movement. Researchers fit birds with small solar-powered transmitters, which send data on the birds’ locations to a satellite and then on to a scientist’s office computer. The scientist can learn where a bird is, the route it took to get there and how fast it travels.

For example, the bar-tailed godwit, a pigeon-sized shorebird, breeds in Alaska and then migrates to New Zealand. Satellite transmitters show that godwits often fly nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand. Recently, a godwit set the record for the longest nonstop flight by a land bird: 8,100 miles (13,000 kilometers) in 10 days, from Alaska to Australia.

Bar-tailed godwits have the ability to correct course if they are blown off track on their epic migratory journey.

Satellite telemetry studies show how much individual birds, even those from the same breeding location, vary in their migratory behavior. Individual differences in migratory behavior are probably due to differences in physical condition, learning, experience and personal preferences.

Another shorebird, the whimbrel, also makes a phenomenally long journey over the ocean. Satellite telemetry has shown that some whimbrels travel from northwest Canada, across the North American continent to Canada’s east coast, then set off over the Atlantic Ocean on a 3,400-mile (5,400-kilometer), six-day nonstop flight to the coast of Brazil. In total, they may travel 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers).

Sadly, hunters kill some of these birds when they land to rest on islands in the Lesser Antilles. The unfortunate fate of two satellite-tracked whimbrels has catalyzed a campaign to tighten regulations on shorebird hunting in the Caribbean.

Geotagging small birds

Many birds are too small to carry a satellite transmitter. Given the energetic effort required for migration, a device must weigh less than 5% of a bird’s body weight, and many migratory songbirds weigh under 0.7 ounces (20 grams).

An ingenious solution for small birds is a geolocator tag, or geologger – a tiny device that simply records time, location and presence or absence of sunlight. Scientists know the timing of sunrise and sunset on a given date, so they can calculate a bird’s location on that date to within about 125 miles (200 kilometers).

Colorful songbird with a small geolocation tag attached to its back.
A painted bunting equipped with a 0.024-ounce (0.7-gram) solar geolocation datalogger. Jeffrey F. Kelly, CC BY-ND

Birds carrying geologgers must be recaptured to download the data. That means the bird must survive a migration round trip and return to the same place where it was first captured and tagged. Amazingly, many geologger-tagged small birds do.

Geologgers have shown that Blackpoll warblers – small songbirds that breed in the boreal forests of North America – fly long distances over the Atlantic in fall, heading to the Amazon basin. Birds breeding in eastern North America head out over the Atlantic in maritime Canada or the northeastern U.S. and make a 60-hour, nonstop, 1,500-mile (2,500-kilometer) flight to the Greater Antilles. There they rest and recuperate, then continue across the Caribbean to South America.

Blackpolls breeding in Alaska fly across the North American continent before leaving shore on the Atlantic coast and flying to South America. In total, they journey 6,600 miles (10,700 kilometers) over 60 days.

Even more amazing, geologgers show that another small songbird, the northern wheatear, migrates from North America to sub-Saharan Africa. Wheatears that breed in Alaska fly 9,100 miles (14,600 kilometers) across Asia to East Africa, taking three months to do so. Those breeding in eastern Canada journey 4,600 miles (7,400 kilometers) across the Atlantic to Europe and then on to West Africa – including a 2,100-mile (3,400-kilometer), four-day nonstop overwater flight.

Recording birds’ night migration calls

Two hours after sunset in fall, I like to sit outside and listen to birds migrating overhead. Most birds migrate at night, and many give a species-specific “chit,” “zeep” or other call-note while in flight. The calls may serve to keep migrating flocks together, including different species heading to the same destination.

Ornithologists are using automated passive acoustic recording to study these nocturnal calls and identify the species or group of related species that make each sound. The technology is a microphone directed at the sky, connected to a computer that continuously records the sound stream and is aided by sound recognition software. Sometimes it reveals migrants overhead that are rarely seen on the ground.

Scientists use infrared cameras and birds’ nocturnal migration calls to assess the risks birds face from colliding with buildings.

Nick Kachala, an honors student in my lab, set up recording units on three university properties in the fall of 2021. One of the most common migrants recorded was the gray-cheeked thrush, a shy bird of the northern boreal forest that is rarely seen in the northeast U.S. during fall migration. He also detected the dickcissel, a grassland bird that I have never seen in our area.

Many birdwatchers are now building do-it-yourself backyard recording units to identify the birds flying over their homes during migration.

Conserving migratory birds

Radar monitoring indicates that the number of North American migratory birds declined by 14% between 2007 and 2017. There probably are multiple causes, but habitat loss is likely the principal culprit.

Satellite telemetry and geologgers show that there are special stopover sites along migration routes where migrants rest and refuel, such as the Texas Gulf Coast, the Florida Panhandle and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Conservation experts widely agree that to protect migratory birds, it is critical to conserve these sites.

Effective conservation measures require knowing where and how birds migrate, and what dangers they face during migration. Ornithologists, using these new technologies, are learning things that will help to stop and reverse the global decline in migratory birds.

Tom Langen, Professor of Biology, Clarkson University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bioacoustics is helping conservationists monitor wildlife, but the tech needs improvement

Read the full story at Fast Company.

The ability of audio recorders to gather large amounts of data can make them more efficient than traditional camera-trapping and remote-tracking methodologies, but it’s still too labor-intensive.

Armadillos are on their way to Chicago

Read the full story from WBEZ.

Armadillos, with their shells and long snouts, are often found waddling through the Texas desert.

But over the past decade, the animals have started to migrate into Illinois — and now they’re overwhelming the southern part of the state and showing up as far north as Peoria and Springfield. Experts say the shift is partly because of wetter summers and milder winters.

Almost 90% of marine species at risk under high emissions scenarios: ‘Mitigation needs to occur now’

Read the full story at Food Navigator.

Fresh research shows that high emissions scenarios place the vast majority of ocean life at ‘high’ or ‘critical’ risk, with implications for the economic wellbeing of costal economies and future food security.

Where are the venomous snakes? An app created by a Clemson scientist can tell you

Read the full story from Clemson University.

Recent Clemson University Ph.D. graduate Rhett Rautsaw wanted to explore whether the evolutionary theory of character displacement — when two species live in the same area and evolve to avoid competing over resources such as food — extended to pit viper venom.

There was one problem. To study competition, Rautsaw had to know where each pit viper species lived, and there wasn’t a comprehensive source of that information readily available.

Rautsaw created VenomMaps, a database and web application containing updated distribution maps and niche models for all 158 pit viper species living in North, Central and South America. Pit vipers are a group of venomous snakes, including rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths. While Rautsaw needed the information for his evolutionary biology research, the maps provide vital information for conservation efforts, citizen scientists and medical professionals.

Photographers don’t (always) harm bird nesting behavior

Read the full story from Treehugger.

The newfound interest in bird-watching and bird photography might be great for human mental health and social distancing. But scientists have been concerned about how all this up-close observation is affecting birds in their nests.

New research finds they didn’t have to worry as much as they thought.

60+ years of monitoring large river fishes in Illinois

Read the full story in Outdoor Illinois.

Survey and Assessment of Large-River fishes in Illinois (commonly referred to as LTEF for Long Term Electrofishing) has been tracking changes in the Illinois River fish community, water quality and habitat since 1957. Over the years, funding and program leadership has periodically changed, but monitoring has always been conducted by Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) biologists out of Havana, Illinois, currently at the Illinois River Biological Station (IRBS). Since 1989, funding for the LTEF program is provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Federal Aid in Sportfish Restoration program.

Plastic pollution: Birds all over the world are living in our rubbish

Read the full story from the BBC.

Birds from every continent except Antarctica have been photographed nesting or tangled in our rubbish. Photos were submitted by people from all over the world to an online project called Birds and Debris. The scientists running the project say they see birds ensnared – or nesting – in everything from rope and fishing line to balloon ribbon and a flip-flop. Nearly a quarter of the photographs show birds nesting or entangled in disposable face masks. The focus of the project is on capturing the impact of waste – particularly plastic pollution – on the avian world.

California fire and floods turn a river to ‘sludge,’ killing thousands of fish

Read the full story in the New York Times.

The McKinney fire began on July 29 and has exploded to more than 60,000 acres, killing four people and becoming California’s largest fire so far this year. According to local tribal leaders, the fire has also led to the mass fish kill in the Klamath River, which runs for more than 250 miles from southern Oregon, through Northern California and out to the Pacific Ocean.