Audubon Great Lakes Expands Michigan Motus Network to Study Vulnerable Black Terns

Black Tern with NanoTag. Photo by Jenni Fuller.
Black Tern with NanoTag. Photo by Jenni Fuller.

Erin Rowan, guest author, is the Senior Conservation Associate with Audubon Great Lakes and is based in Michigan.

The Black Tern (Chlidonias niger surinamensis) is a marsh bird species that has experienced severe long-term population declines in the Great Lakes region, with a 70% loss in Michigan alone. Precise estimates of Black Tern fledging success are non-existent and knowledge of the demographic drivers of Black Tern population dynamics is limited. The Upper Mississippi River and Great Lakes Region Joint Venture (UMRGLRJV) Waterbird Habitat Conservation Strategy highlights the need for more demographic data for Black Terns to clarify whether recovery efforts should focus on breeding grounds or on stopover/wintering areas. Specifically, given that the stage between hatching and dispersal/migration can have a major effect on bird population dynamics, recent work has identified characterization of Black Tern fledging rates as a high-priority information need. It is clear that evaluation of population parameters encompassing the full annual cycle is necessary to ascertain the demographic source(s) most responsible for Black Tern population trends.

With the help of project partners, Audubon Great Lakes built three Motus towers throughout Southeast Michigan to detect fledged Black Tern chicks as they depart their nesting grounds. 19 NanoTags were deployed on pre-fledged Black Tern chicks in 2019-2020, four of which were redetected as fledglings outside of their nesting grounds. “Our early analysis shows that Black Tern colonies in the Great Lakes are successfully producing young, suggesting that the greatest threat could likely occur during migration or winter on the open ocean,” said Sarah Saunders, Qualitative Ecologist for National Audubon Society. “We’re on the edge of solving this conservation puzzle. By tagging more birds and adding additional towers this year, later this fall we hope to have a clearer picture on what is driving population loss.” 28 pre-fledged Black Tern chicks were successfully tagged during the 2021 field season and we are excited to learn from them as they travel south.

Read more: Audubon Great Lakes Expands Michigan Motus Network to Study Vulnerable Black Terns

American Kestrel project sets the stage for Motus expansion in Minnesota

Written by Kristin Hall
Kristin Hall (MN DNR) with an American Kestrel fledgling

Kristin A. L. Hall is an MMN member and State Wildlife Action Plan Coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The decline of American Kestrels in North America is alarming. The Minnesota DNR prioritized the need to conduct research on this species as an action item within our Wildlife Action Plan. Population trends for American Kestrels based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) indicate a significant decline of −2.68% per year from 1967 to 2015 in Minnesota. Our research approach is guided by a paper titled Research Recommendations for Understanding the Decline of American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) Across Much of North America (McClure 2017), specifically our research is focused on:

  1. Better understanding fledgling survivability through tracking fledglings using the Motus network for at least 1-year post-fledging.
  2. Understanding full-life cycle needs of adult kestrels by tracking them from known nest boxes via Motus telemetry.

Our project will help us better understand which of the kestrel’s life phases is most vulnerable to mortality, narrowing the current information gap on primary threats.

Read more: American Kestrel project sets the stage for Motus expansion in Minnesota

Grant Award Broadens Motus Network in Midwest and Neotropics

Written by Sarah Kendrick
Motus tower installation in Wisconsin

In early 2020, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) was awarded a USFWS Competitive State Wildlife Grant with 4 other state agencies and 5 non-profit or academic partners to install 57 new Motus receivers: 46 in eight Midwestern states and 11 in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia.

The grant also supports three research projects:

  • University of Maine’s Golden-winged Warbler tagging and tracking
  • American Kestrel tracking in Minnesota and Wisconsin
  • Spring-migration tagging of Golden-winged Warblers and Wood Thrush on the wintering grounds by MDC and SELVA (Colombia)

The Midwest Migration Network has provided a solid network of support for the grant proposal and helped in its facilitation.

New receiver stations placed with this grant award will strengthen the Motus network substantially across the region and on stop-over sites and wintering grounds to provide new and accurate data on many Motus-tagged species of migratory birds including three of interest to the project’s partners: the golden-winged warbler, wood thrush and American Kestrel. The data will help inform the USFWS's status review of the Golden-winged Warbler for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. The project will also add to the strategic Motus network in the Midwest, allowing other researchers to collaborate and collect new information on a wide variety of birds, bats, and insects identified in State Wildlife Action Plans. Motus stations are planned to be placed by spring 2022 and research projects partially funded by the grant will run through 2022.

Read more: Grant Award Broadens Motus Network in Midwest and Neotropics

MMN Participates in Connectivity Challenge: Birds Connect Us

Screen capture from Connectivity Challenge pitch

In 2020, the Midwest Migration Network was part of a collaborative grant proposal for the Connectivity Challenge, created to fund meaningful change in the field of conservation by the Salazar Center for North American Conservation in partnership with Colorado State University’s  inaugural Conservation Impact Prize.

The Audubon Great Lakes engagement team, with support from several MMN Steering Committee members, led the proposal titled “Birds Connect Us: Empowering Communities through Migratory Bird Technology.” Our team was one of five finalists in the running for the Connectivity Challenge. We are honored to have been selected to participate in a live virtual pitch event hosted by the Salazar Center on September 16. You can view a recording of that pitch, delivered by Audubon Great Lakes’ Jeremiah Steen, in the embedded video below or by clicking here.

Our vision for this project is to bring together community members in Detroit and Milwaukee, two major urban centers and migratory bird hotspots along the Great Lakes, and connect them to exciting migratory science research happening where they live. Audubon Great Lakes’ Wild Indigo Nature Explorations Program already works extensively with communities of color in these two cities, with emphases on program co-development and meeting communities where they are. Our goal was to enhance Wild Indigo’s work by incorporating Motus wildlife tracking technology into curricula and providing STEM education, career-building activities, and mentorship opportunities for community members. This important work aims to connect community members to research and researchers. By engaging community members more deeply in the process of understanding how migratory birds use the landscapes in their neighborhoods, we seek to foster the importance of preserving local green spaces for migratory birds and people. Our hope is for this project to serve as a model for future projects connecting communities to Motus technology across the continent and beyond.

Although we were not selected as the winner, we will continue to seek funding opportunities to support program development and Motus tower installation in communities where the Wild Indigo team is working. We will also continue taking steps toward some of the initiatives set forth in our proposal, such as further integrating community engagement with MMN initiatives.


If you would like to learn how you can help in making Motus come to life through community engagement programs in the Great Lakes region or beyond, please contact Stephanie Beilke, Audubon Great Lakes Conservation Science Manager:

To learn more about MMN’s Telemetry initiative, which focuses on Motus Wildlife Tracking, click here.

Thanks for making our first virtual conference a success!

We did it! We want to thank over a dozen speakers and over 300 participants for making our first ever Midwest Migration Network Virtual Conference “Connecting Birds and People in the Midwest” a great success! Event highlights included two excellent keynote presentations from Pete Marra and Fabiola Rodríguez, research updates from all the MMN initiatives, as well as some spectacular visualizations of bird migration from the Radar & Acoustics initiative.

In case you missed the conference, you can still view recordings from all of the sessions on our YouTube channel. Individual sessions are also linked below:

If you want to stay up to date on the latest MMN news and happenings, don’t forget to become a member by joining here.

MMN Virtual Conference: Connecting Birds & People in the Midwest, July 21-23, 2020

The Midwest Migration Network (MMN) invites you to join our first ever virtual public conference “Connecting Birds & People in the Midwest” on July 21-23, 2020, featuring special keynote speakers Pete Marra, Director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative, and Fabiola Rodríguez, Ph.D. candidate at Tulane and research collaborator with the Mesoamerican Development Institute.

Join us to:

  • Discover the latest findings in the world of migration science and conservation from leading experts from across our region and beyond.
  • Be inspired by advances in innovative technology used to track migratory birds, from radar to telemetry.
  • Join researchers and conservationists working at the forefront of bird migration science and learn how this information is informing conservation actions.

Over the course of this three-day conference, our program will feature two keynote sessions that will provide a broad overview of MMN’s work and how we connect with research from throughout the western hemisphere. Four working sessions will delve into MMN’s initiatives seeking to address regional questions by implementing the latest technologies with collaborative approaches: Banding and Ground Surveys, Great Lakes Wind-Wildlife Coalition, Radar and Acoustics, and Telemetry.

This event is free for all attendees, though we welcome donations of $10 or more to support our mission to advance collaborative bird migration research and conservation.

To learn more and for a full meeting schedule, please review the Conference Program.

Register now through Zoom: