Written by Alexa Martinez, MNWR Wildlife Biologist
The Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus) is an international collaborative network that uses coordinated automated radio telemetry to facilitate research and education on the ecology and conservation of migratory animals. Motus is a program of Birds Canada in partnership with collaborating researchers and organizations. (www.motus.org)
On November 2021 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge became a project partner when two Motus towers were installed. One stationed at Malheur NWR headquarters and a second near Boca Lake at the south end of the refuge. With the help of Legacy Region One, Inventory and Monitory Plan staff and their partnership with MPG Ranch from Montana, we were able to bring Motus to Malheur.
This new technology can help provide information on already tagged birds in North America that may be utilizing the Refuge during migration, particularly within the Pacific Flyway. In the future, the Refuge will have the opportunity to purchase and deploy tags on specific species to answer our own questions about breeding and migratory behaviors.
The reason for the chosen locations is because the Refuge is very much interested in participating on understanding the shorebird use on Malheur Lake as well as other locations on the Refuge. Headquarters tower can detect tagged individuals utilizing Malheur Lake. Whereas the Boca tower can detect the tagged individuals utilizing Boca Lake and its surrounding wet meadows and sagebrush. Why Boca Lake when it’s not normally where you think shorebirds? Good questions! Refuge biologist have seen a large count of shorebirds in the past seven years located in Boca Lake during duck impoundment surveys in the months of June-August. As much as refuge staff would like to have set a station on Harney and/or Stinking Lake we all agreed this would be a good start and accessible to staff.
As you notice through the photos our Motus stations differ from one another. One is connected to our direct network where it sends updated information to the online site for all to see at motus.org. The second tower near Boca is ran by solar power, which means Refuge staff must manually download the data to upload the information onto the Motus website.
Recently, Refuge biologist collected the data from Boca Lake. Unfortunately, after a whole year of data collection, the Boca Lake tower did not pick up on any tagged shorebirds as we were hoping. With that said it did pick up a surprising individual; a Saw-whet owl that was tagged at the MPG Ranch back in 2021!
According to the MPG Ranch avian biologist and Motus Coordinator, William Blake, it is their first owl detection in Oregon! This information helps them understand why they do not detect this bird south of our study area in the Bitterroot Valley. Looking at tagged information of this bird (you can see the detection time line on the Motus website at https://motus.org/data/tagDeploymentDetections?id=35926 ) you will see that the owl was tagged on 9/6/21 and left MPG on 9/8/21. Then, it was picked up at Boca Lake on 12/5, and detected it back on MPG this year on 6/20/22. Without Malheur NWR detection MPG biologists never would have guessed this owl went down to migrate through Oregon, and who knows where it wintered.
According to William, the fact that we detected this owl Southwest of Montana makes him wonder if this owl, like several others, took a quick turn west to head into the rugged terrain of the Bitterroot Mountains and thus moved away from all Motus coverage. Their collaborative Motus expansion with ODFW and USFS in the Blue Mountains of NE Oregon will partially fill a gap in this immense landscape. Still, undoubtedly, Malheur and Boca Lake are helping too!
If you’d like to understand more about Motus and see updates on the Malheur NWR motus stations or other stations, please visit the Motus main website at htts://www.motus.org. Thank you!