Motus, the Latin word for movement, has become an essential tool in wildlife migration tracking over the last decade. Audubon South Carolina has invested in working with partners to build a network of these new tracking towers, which use an old form of technology to track migrating birds, bats, insects, and more.
The Motus tower network uses vhf radio receiving antennas to detect birds or other animals, wearing "nanotag" transmitters. When an organism travels within 10-15 km of a tower, data from the organism is sent to the antenna on the tower and their information is downloaded to the online Motus platform where researchers and tower hosts can watch their research subjects move in almost real time. Towers can be hosted by almost anyone if they have the right location for a tower, making the Motus network an extensive continental collaboration.
With the information that Motus detects, we can understand a lot more about different species' annual cycles, and thus learn what habitat is the most crucial for migratory species, threats, obstacles, and changes in migration timing from climate change. The more we understand about these species the more we can do to protect them through policy, habitat protection, restoration, and international conservation efforts to preserve and restore wintering grounds, migration stop over locations, and breeding habitat.
With Motus, the more detections you get from the tags you deploy on birds or other animals, the more precise the information. So, there must be an extensive network of towers in order for the information from these tags to be more accurate and richer. Audubon South Carolina is working with partners like the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, US Fish & Wildlife Service, SC State Parks, the National Park Service, schools and universities, and more to create a network of towers to span our coast, run up the I-26 corridor which bisects our state, and across the upstate. Thanks to funding from Dominion Energy, we have installed Motus towers at our own Silver Bluff Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Aiken SC, as well as a tower covering Beidler Forest Audubon Center that is hosted at the Dorchester County Career and Technology Center. Both locations will serve as a basis for developing educational programs for school groups, visitors, and students.
We know our sanctuaries provide critical habitats for many species, and through Motus we are finding out how connected and crucial they really are for birds across the hemisphere. The first detections on the Silver Bluff tower were from a Red-eyed Vireo that was originally tagged in western Pennsylvania, and a Common Nighthawk that was tagged in Montana! The tower at Caesar's Head State Park, funded by the Duke Energy Foundation, recently detected a Sora from Illinois. Sora are a type of rail that inhabit marshes and other wetlands, and it was detected at the top of a mountain, one of the highest elevations in the state of South Carolina!
While these towers are new, we are already getting exciting and surprising data from them this migration season. As we expand the network in the state, we hope to begin deploying nanotags on our own priority species here in South Carolina to follow our beloved birds along their perilous journeys to unravel the mysteries surrounding the phenomena of migration. One such pilot project that we’re currently working on is part of a regional effort to learn more about the migration of Swainson’s Warblers. You can read more about that project and follow along with our research here.