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The Tipping Point for Motus in the West?

By Jeremy Halka, IBO Research Biologist

This year proved to be another exciting one for the Motus Wildlife Tracking System network in the West as IBO continues to partner with MPG Ranch. This partnership has led to the expansion and ability to maintain the network in Idaho and numerous other organizations/agencies continue their expansions in other states and countries.

a view of a Motus antenna and solar panel setup. The antenna looks like the old TV antennas people used to have at their houses. A somewhat T shape with some smaller crossbars. The solar panel sits on an A frame at the base of the antenna. In the distance you can see Bear Lake refuge with grasses and marshy cattails, with mountains in the hazy distance
Newly installed Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge Motus station. Photo by Jeremy Halka.

Our hopes and dreams of creating a sort of “domino effect” in the Intermountain West are turning into reality!

We are seeing our initial “web” of station installations in the southern part Idaho beginning to generate a lot of interest among different agencies in the region. Two new tagging projects have begun in the state involving monarch butterflies and bats by Idaho Department of Fish and Game (check out page 8 of this Windows to Wildlife Newsletter for more info) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with lots of tag deployments this year!

A person in a gray t-shirt with an Idaho Fish and Game logo is gently securing the wings of a beautiful orange monarch butterfly. There is a white surveillance tag with an antenna attached to its abdomen
By affixing a small nanotag to monarch butterflies, biologists with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will learn more about their migration timing and routes as well as what habitats are crucial for roosting. Photo Credit: Idaho Department of Fish and Game

In conjunction with those tagging projects, IBO assisted with the installation of two new Motus stations for Idaho Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Curlew National Grassland and Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Adjacent states (and countries) are seeing significant increases in Motus stations and tag deployments as well.

As the network expands, so does the amazing potential to unlock new knowledge of the movements of many kinds of wildlife!

While the overall amount of tag detections at our Idaho stations currently remains low, I have been tickled pink by the proportion of deployed tags that we pick up from projects in other states and even other countries like Canada and Mexico. Very often when researchers tag birds or bats that utilize flyways over Idaho, our stations pick them up!

A map of south and central Idaho shows 18 red triangles marking the locations of Motus stations throughout the state. Most are concentrated along the Snake River Plain across the southern portion of the state. One is located near Salmon, Idaho and two more are in the far southeastern corner near the border with Utah.
Motus station locations in Idaho as of 2023. Map Image: Arc Map GIS

For example, this year we have picked up a handful of tag detections for Willow Flycatchers and Northern Saw-whet Owls that were tagged in Canada over the summer and fall — which I have highlighted below. As the number of stations and the number of tag deployments increase, I fully expect to see the number of detections increase significantly.

And now for some super cool 2023 tag detection highlights!

A Willet. This is a shorebird with brown flecked feathers, long legs, and medium-length bill. It is perched on a wooden fence post
Willets are ground-nesting shorebirds that utilize a “broken-wing” display to lure predators away from their eggs. Along with using their keen eyesight to locate aquatic invertebrates, they also have a specialized bill with a sensitive tip allowing them to forage day or night. Loss of habitat has landed this species on the “State of the Birds” Watch list. Photo Credit: Mary Long

A Willet that was tagged in Mexico over the winter took flight at the end of April and followed the eastern flank of the Rockies up through Canada. Then when it migrated back south in the fall, it followed a different flightpath on the western side of the Rockies and was picked up by 4 of our stations in Idaho and 2 in northern Utah all on the same day.

a map of western North America shows two migration tracks of a Willet. On April 28th it was tagged in coastal Sinaloa, Mexico. One April 30th it was detected in northern Colorado. On May 1st the bird was in southern Saskatchewan near the Montana border. After the breeding season, the bird was detected near Salt Lake City on July 15th, then northern Sinaloa on July 17th. It returned to the wintering location where it was first tagged on July 19th.
The northbound and southbound tracks of a migrating Willet. The Willet was tagged in Mexico, then migrated north to Saskatchewan along the eastern edge of the Rockies. After the breeding season, the bird headed south and was picked up by Motus towers west of the Rockies. (7/15; Birds Canada 2023)

 Within a few days it was back in Mexico, eventually being detected back in the same spot it was originally tagged!

This year we detected a handful of Northern Saw-whet Owls, including a few that were tagged way up in Alberta, Canada near Edmonton.

a Northern Saw-whet Owl sits on a perch looking straight down at the photographer
Northern Saw-whet Owl migration is not well understood due to their reclusive nature. Weighing roughly that of a small apple (~75-100 grams), these forest owls are mostly nocturnal and prey upon small mammals, birds and insects. Photo Credit: Ceredig Roberts

A Northern Saw-whet Owl tagged on 9/28 at Beaverhill Bird Observatory in Alberta, Canada was detected at a station in southern British Columbia, Canada, about 2 weeks later and then again at one of our CJ Strike Wildlife Management Area (WMA) stations another 2.5 weeks after that.

A map of southern Canada and the northwestern USA shows the southbound migration route of a Northern Saw-whet Owl. The bird was tagged on September 28th near Edmonton, Alberta. On October 12th it was picked up at a station near the north Idaho-Montana-Alberta border. Then it was detected again on October 29th at CJ Strike headquarters in southern Idaho.
Migratory route of a Northern Saw-whet Owl from where it was tagged in Alberta, Canada in 2023. This owl traveled roughly 740 miles in appoximately 4 weeks and was detected by 2 separate Motus stations along its southbound journey- the first in southern British Columbia, Canada and the second at the CJ Strike WMA headquarters, Idaho. (Birds Canada, 2023)

Our first Willow Flycatcher detection was from a bird that was tagged on 6/5 at Vaseux Lake Bird Observatory up in Okanagan, British Columbia. It appeared to have left its summer breeding grounds on 8/4 to be detected a few days later at our CJ Strike WMA headquarters station.

a Willow flycatcher perched on a lichen-covered branch
Willow Flycatchers can be found across the US and overwinter in Central and South America. Their “fitz-bew” call can be heard from the tops of willow and shrubs near water, especially May through June as they arrive back on their breeding grounds. Unlike most songbirds, Willow Flycatchers are hatched already knowing their call and do not learn the patterns from their parents. Photo Credit: Ceredig Roberts

Then it was detected again 13 days later all the way down on the coast of western Mexico!

A map of a Willow Flycatcher's migration route. On August 4th the bird was tagged in southern British Columbia. On August 8th it was picked up at the CJ Strike Motus station in southern Idaho. Then it was detected at a station near Nayarit, Mexico on August 21st
Motus detections of a Willow Flycatcher tagged in British Columbia, Canada. This tiny songbird traveled southbound approximately 2,000 miles in only 18 days before being picked up at a Motus station on the coast of western Mexico! (Birds Canada 2023)

Installing Motus stations over the last few years now has definitely been an exercise in “delayed gratification” for me — putting in a ton of very hard work upfront and now finally starting to see the true benefits of it all. I’ll admit there were some points where I questioned if it was all going to be worth it, but now I’m feeling pretty heckin’ good about it. There’s one thing for certain, Motus is RED HOT right now!

We would like to thank MPG Ranch for the continued Motus support and all the folks hosting stations in Idaho!

Motus Data and Maps

Motus Wildlife Tracking System. 2023. Birds Canada, Port Rowan, Ontario. Available: Accessed: [11-15-23].

Want to keep tabs on the latest exciting detections?

This cool migratory movement data is available to everyone! Check out to learn more about the network and to look at detections and receiver locations!

This article is part of our 2023 end of the year newsletter! View the full newsletter here, or click “older posts” below to read the next article.

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