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'Fly-by' science helps at-risk birds and bats

The B.C. Peace region sits on an important intersection of the Central and Western Flyways—or bird migration routes
White-throated sparrows are among the species that have been affixed with a radio tag.

Many people may agree that the best approach to conserving species in our watersheds is through collaboration: working together to pool our resources, sharing ideas, knowledge, and results. We, the Fish & Wildlife Compensation Program (FWCP), are funding a project, led by Birds Canada, that is a prime example of this: the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, or Motus for short.

Motus is an international collaborative research network that uses automated radio telemetry to provide data on migratory bird and bat species. Birds and bats of interest are safely captured, and then affixed with a small radio transmitter before being released, and, if they fly past a Motus receiving station, the movement is recorded.

The FWCP’s mission is to compensate for fish and wildlife in watersheds impacted by BC Hydro dams, which is why funding for the program is provided by BC Hydro. The creation of reservoirs impacted wetland habitat rich in insect life for birds and bats, and removed low elevation bird breeding, and bat roosting, habitat.

The FWCP’s Peace Region is a perfect location for Motus stations because it sits on an important intersection of the Central and Western Flyways—or bird migration routes. Seven Motus stations were installed in 2021, including one at the Mugaha Marsh bird banding station run by the Mackenzie Nature Observatory—another project receiving FWCP funding. Eight new stations were installed in 2022, so there are now 15 receivers in the region located from Prince George in the south, to Tsay Keh Dene in the north, and to Dawson Creek in the east.

Each Motus station, in ideal conditions, can detect signals up to 10 kilometres away and allow researchers to track birds and bats across thousands of kilometres. The radio tags weigh significantly less than satellite tags and can be attached to much smaller animals at a fraction of the cost. Radio tags range in mass, lifespan, and attachment method, allowing for a variety of configurations that are appropriate for various animals. The tags can be as light as 0.15 grams and last from two weeks to indefinitely, depending on their size and whether they are battery or solar-powered.

The Motus project that we’re funding in 2022-2023 involves Birds Canada working with many collaborators, including community groups, to install Motus stations at various strategic locations, including schools. Birds Canada is working to share the Motus Education Program as an additional benefit to this conservation project. This program provides education for students from grades 7 to 12 on birds, bats, and conservation.

Installation of some Motus stations was undertaken in partnership with First Nations, including Tsay Keh Dene Nation, who continue to host the stations.

Data generated through Motus can help local, provincial and national conservation organizations fill important knowledge gaps, which can inform the implementation of priority projects. Such data could help determine population distribution, species dynamics, stop-over and full life-cycle information, and inform use of flyways and landscapes. The data can also potentially identify and support protection of critical habitat. For example, researchers from a Colombian conservation organization were able to use Motus to track the flights of birds migrating from South America to North America. They identified a key site in northern Colombia where gray-cheeked thrushes were able to build fat reserves to fuel 3,000-km flights to North America, demonstrating the importance of this site for the species.

A Motus station. There are now 15 receivers in the region located from Prince George in the south, to Tsay Keh Dene in the north, and to Dawson Creek in the east.(Amie MacDonald)

In B.C. we’re keen to learn more about species-at-risk like the little brown bat, northern long-eared bat, olive-sided flycatcher, and bank and barn swallows, as well as more common species like white-throated sparrow. Many of these species have experienced significant declines in the last few decades. The population of Canadian bank swallows has, for example, declined by 93% in the last 50 years according to long-term Breeding Bird Survey data. Given these declines, and that White Nose Syndrome—which is killing bats by the thousands to the east and south of the province—may soon arrive in the region, time is of the essence.

Motus is an international initiative across 34 countries and comprises of more than 1,400 receiver stations. More than 37,000 animals from over 300 species have been tagged and tracked, and nearly 600 projects are using these stations. It is an excellent example of collaboration because many groups are using a centralized database and management system: feeding data into it and getting valuable knowledge from using it. Motus works because it combines local, regional and even international projects into one massive collaborative effort, making funding dollars, like those from the FWCP, go even further.

Chelsea Coady is the Peace Region manager for the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program.

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