Geolocators on Gray Catbirds

Geolocators are tiny devices that measure light levels for up to two years. This data can be used to calculate latitude and longitude when compared with sunrise and sunset times and light levels at noon in different geographic locations. They are accurate to about 200 km for latitude, with better resolution for longitude.

When mounted on a bird, a geolocator records light intensity data at intervals throughout each day. Retrieved later, the data can be downloaded and migration routes, pace, and destination can be determined. For species with broad breeding and wintering ranges, this can provide important information on exactly where particular breeding populations spend the winter. Given that we have long-term Breeding Bird Survey data indicating that populations of some species are declining in particular regions of North America, figuring out where these birds spend most of the year helps us identify what may be causing their declines, and helps us devise more effective conservation measures.

A geolocator, attached with a leg harness, above the rump of a catbird at RRBO. The little wand pointed toward the tail is the part with the light sensor.

In fall 2011, RRBO placed geolocators on a sample of summer resident Gray Catbirds. This project is a joint effort between RRBO and Dr. Melissa Bowlin, who joined the UM-Dearborn faculty late last year and who is a research partner of the Environmental Interpretive Center. Dr. Bowlin’s interest is in how physical traits of birds influence their migratory performance. In our catbird study, she will be looking at how the wing shape of individual birds impacts the pace of their migration. The geolocator data will allow us to determine the time it takes for each of the birds to reach their wintering destination, and hopefully where the birds stop each day, so we can calculate the rate of migration for each bird.

When the feathers are smoothed out, only the light wand sticks out.

RRBO is interested in the approximate route followed by catbirds breeding in this area, as well as where they spend the winter. Previous data from other researchers have indicated that Midwestern catbirds winter in Central America, whereas catbirds Mid-Atlantic nesting catbirds winter in the southern U.S. and the West Indies. This information is based on small sample sizes: recoveries of 17 banded birds and 6 birds with geolocators. Our data will add to this knowledge.

The geolocators are tiny, and are carefully fitted on the birds with a flexible harness that loops around the bird’s legs. The total weight of the geolocator plus the harness is less than a gram, or about 2.5% of the weight of an average catbird. The recommendation for any kind of radio transmitter or attachment to a bird is 4% or less. The geolocator rests just above the bird’s rump. Dr. Bowlin has done careful studies, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, determining the effect of drag and weight of various types and configurations of geolocators, using preserved bird bodies in a wind tunnel. The set-up we are using is the best available configuration to minimize these effects.

Because the geolocators are hard to see in the field (the arrow is pointing to the wand on this one), catbirds are also getting a single green color band to help us relocate them next year. (The dark "mustache" on this bird is a juice stain from a meal of berries!)

Catbirds were chosen for this pilot project because it is not only our most frequently banded long-distance migrant, but also because we recapture a lot of individuals in subsequent years. This is critical because in order to get the data, we have to recapture the bird next year, remove the geolocator, and download the information! Geolocators are typically put on nesting birds, because they have the highest probability of returning to the same site in subsequent years. RRBO banding data has indicated that both adult and young birds (hatching year) captured in early autumn, after hatching year birds have become independent, also have a high return rate. This study will also help us determine if deploying geolocators on hatching year or post-breeding birds is viable. If so, it could help expand the use of these devices by migration banding stations that do not operate during the breeding season. Since we are putting geolocators on both adult and young of the same species from the same population, we hope to also see if age is a factor in the choice of migration route or wintering site.

As you can see, the potential for these little devices to unravel basic life history mysteries is huge. The pioneering study with bird and geolocators was done by Dr. Bridget Stuchbury and published in the journal Science. The study looked at Wood Thrushes and Purple Martins, and is summarized here. Geolocators are being used to study Bicknell’s Thrushes, Bobolinks, and Golden-crowned Sparrows, among other species. Much more information on this technology, as well as the importance of what we can discover is available at the web site of the Migratory Connectivity Project.

List of relevant publications:

  • Fudickar, A. M., M. Wikelski, and J. Partecke. 2011. Tracking migratory songbirds: accuracy of light-level loggers (geolocators) in forest habitats. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, early online.
  • Ryder, T. B., J. W. Fox, and P. P. Marra. 2011. Estimating Migratory Connectivity of Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) using geolocator and mark–recapture data. Auk 128:448-453.
  • Heckscher, C. M., S. M. Taylor, J. W. Fox, and V. Afanasyev. 2011. Veery (Catharus fuscescens) wintering locations, migratory connectivity, and a revision of uts winter range using geolocator technology. Auk 128:531-542.
  • Bowlin, M.S., P. Henningsson, F. T. Muijres, R. H. E. Vleugels, F. Liechti, F. and A. Hedenström, A. 2010. The effects of geolocator drag and weight on the flight ranges of small migrants. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 1:398–402.
  • Stutchbury, B.J.M., S. A. Tarof, T. Done, E. Gow, P. M. Kramer, J. Tautin, J. W. Fox, and V. Afanasyev, V. 2009. Tracking long-distance songbird migration by using geolocators. Science, 323:896–896.

News on other studies using geolocators:

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