Tag Archives: nanotags

Tiny Technology That’s Making a Big Difference

Technology is amazing. Here in the Northeast Region, new advances in technology are allowing us to find out so much more about animal behavior than we have ever known before. Armed with this knowledge, we are able to make much better choices about how to protect these animals. One example of an animal that is benefiting from these technological advances is the saltmarsh sparrow.

JuvenileSparrow - Copy

Credit: Katrina Amaral

These are tough times for the tiny saltmarsh sparrow. Their only home, the saltmarshes along the Atlantic coast of the United States, are becoming increasingly scarce due to development and rising sea levels. With fewer places to live, saltmarsh sparrow populations are decreasing as well.

In order to determine the best way to help the sparrows, researchers need to know more about their behavior, how they are using the marshes, and which locations are most important to their survival.

Saltmarsh Sparrow

Credit: Bri Benvenuti

Because these birds are so small, only weighing about as much as 8 pennies, individual birds have been difficult to track with traditional tracking devices, which were much too large and heavy for them. However, researchers from several of our region’s National Wildlife Refuges, along with other partners, are using today’s tiny tagging technology to find out exactly what these birds are up to!


The MOTUS tracking system uses nano-tags, miniature radio transmitters that are extremely lightweight. All nano-tags transmit at the same frequency, but each tag has its own identifiable pulse rate.


Credit: Bri Benvenuti

Receiving towers pick up these pulses when a tagged bird flies within a radius of 12 kilometers. Researchers have installed these towers in an expansive network up and down the eastern coast of North America, among other areas. The yellow dots in the map below represent current tower locations.


Credit: Bird Studies Canada- Motus Wildlife Tracking System, http://www.motus-wts.org


Credit: Kate O’Brien


One of the most exciting things about this system is the collaboration between researchers and organizations, all working together to collect and share data in an effort to conserve wildlife. The data that they are collecting is not restricted to saltmarsh sparrows. Researchers are studying bats, butterflies, and various other bird species using the nano-tag system as well. Data from the network of towers is downloaded and shared with researchers, providing a service to conservationists everywhere.

So what does this mean for our little saltmarsh sparrow?


Credit: Brian C. Harris

Actually, we aren’t sure yet. This system is so new that data is just beginning to come in. However, we are already discovering some amazing things!


Credit: Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program

For example, preliminary data shows that a few saltmarsh sparrows flew from the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, ME to the Connecticut coastline, a distance of over 150 miles, in just one day!


Migratory route of three saltmarsh sparrows. Credit: Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program

As we learn more about the behavior of these tiny birds, we will begin to answer many questions that we could only guess at before. This knowledge will guide us as we work to conserve their most important habitats in an effort to ensure their survival for generations to come.

This saltmarsh sparrow project is a collaboration of several partners, including the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, the Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Connecticut, and the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program.

For more information, please explore the following links:

Past blog posts about the Region’s nanotag programs

Saltmarsh Habitat & Avian Research Program

Motus Wildlife Tracking System

Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook

Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex on Facebook

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook

Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook

Latino Conservation Week! Engage, Experience, Advocate

This week, the Service is taking part in Latino Conservation Week, an initiative spurred by the Hispanic Access Foundation to support the Latino community in efforts to get outdoors and participate in the conservation of our natural resources. Latino communities, faith-based organizations and local partner organizations will hike, camp, and paddle, learn about conservation in their community, and show their support for the protection of our land, water, air, and wildlife.


  • provide Latino families and youth with outdoor recreation opportunities near their homes
  • demonstrate the Latino community’s commitment to conservation
  • partner with Hispanic community leaders and organizations to support local and national conservation initiatives
  • inform policymakers, the media, and the general public of the Latino community’s views on important local and national conservation issues

In celebration of Latino Conservation Week, we’ll be highlighting the activities of Service staff and programs that have engaged, educated and advocated for Latino participation in conservation.

Pablo gazes through the spotting scope at shorebirds on the Rhode Island coast.

Pablo Andres Montes Goitia, international conservation fellow from Uruguay, gazes through a spotting scope looking at shorebirds on the Rhode Island coast. Pablo joined another international conservation fellow and shorebird biologist and doctoral candidate, Pam Loring, during field work for her Atlantic seabird and wind turbine study.

This summer, our Northeast regional office in Hadley, Massachusetts had the pleasure of hosting Alberto Martinez Fernandez and Pablo Andres Montes Goitia, international conservation fellows from Mexico and Uruguay. Alberto and Pablo joined our staff in the field and in our regional office, and engaged with the many science-based, partnership and regulatory aspects of our organization. Alberto works for Orígenes Conservación de Especies y Espacios A.C. in Chiapas, Mexico as a biologist and field ornithologist. His recent work in Cloud Forest restoration engaged the local community to participate in habitat restoration efforts across the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor. Pablo joined us from the National Directorate of the Environment (DINAMA) in Uruguay. As a biologist and project manager, he has participated in the design and implementation of public policy and plans to kickstart a conservation NGO with other Latin American colleagues.

Alberto and Pablo joined University of Massachusetts Amherst doctoral student, Pam Loring, in the deployment of nanotag tracking devices used to track offshore movement of piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) on the Rhode Island coast. The results from this pilot study will demonstrate the utility of nanotag technology to track shorebird movements, and will be used by federal agencies, such as the Service and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to inform conservation decision making in marine spatial planning.

Alberto observes as biologists apply a nanotag to a piping plover. Nanotags are lightweight (less than three grams) digital VHF transmitters used to track offshore and coastal movements of shorebirds.

Check back this week for updates on Latin American partnerships and youth education as we continue to commemorate Latino commitment to conservation!

Closeup of an American oystercatcher. Credit: Pam Loring, UMass

New study following Atlantic seabirds to help siting of wind turbines

An American oystercatcher released.

By following Atlantic seabirds, federal agencies will obtain important information on bird movement and migration. Here a researcher from the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, a study collaborator, releases an American oystercatcher with a backpack-style VHF (very high frequency). Credit: Pamela Loring/USFWS.

Most of this post is from an article by Bureau of Ocean Energy Management‘s Jim Woehr and Marjorie Weisskohl, originally published in the May/June 2013 edition of ECO magazine. We are managing the study, which is funded by BOEM and led by the University of Massachusetts.

University of Massachusetts student Pam Loring is the principal investigator for the study (see a post written by her last year). Photo courtesy Pam Loring.

University of Massachusetts student Pam Loring is the principal investigator for the study (see a post written by her last year). Photo courtesy Pam Loring.

In making decisions on where to permit construction of offshore Atlantic wind turbines, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is engaged with offshore wind energy permitting as well) will need information on the movements of priority bird species such as common terns and American oystercatchers up and down the east coast, from Massachusetts’ Nantucket Sound south throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

The movement patterns of these two species are not well documented and, although they are not protected under the Endangered Species Act, they are species of high concern.

To help fill the information gap, BOEM recently awarded a $292,000 study to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to research the movements of these birds over the next 12 to 18 months using VHF (very high frequency) backpack transmitters.

Biologist Caleb Spiegel working on New Providence Island. Credit: USFWS

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Caleb Spiegel is heading out this week with Pam this week to capture and tag American oystercatchers at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Caleb says, “The study, which our migratory bird program helped design, will test the ability of cutting edge technology, called NanoTags, to track offshore movements of the birds off southeast Cape Cod and Nantucket, with possible expansion of the work pending success of what is essentially a pilot season. Credit: USFWS

The Service, in partnership with the University of Massachusetts, will capture up to 15 American oystercatchers and 75 common terns during the nesting season, and will attach external backpack VHF NanoTag transmitters that send signals to receiving stations in and around Nantucket and southeastern Cape Cod.

Because the common tern in Nantucket Sound is commonly found in mixed flocks with the endangered roseate tern, the common tern could serve as a surrogate for that endangered species in future research.

Information gathered will improve BOEM’s ability to discriminate between sites potentially suitable for wind energy development and sites that are unsuitable because of local activity of birds of high conservation concern.

The study is scheduled for completion in 2014. For more information, read the BOEM study plan (p. 175).