Monarch butterfly

Grace Pitman

N.H. Audubon biologists plan to use tiny tags to track fall movements of monarch butterflies.

A major grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will enable a New England research partnership to expand a revolutionary new migration tracking system across New England. The three-year Competitive State Wildlife Grant of $998,000 will be matched by $355,500 in private funds.

The N.H. Fish and Game Department is the lead agency for this collaborative project; partner agencies include the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife and the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Non-governmental partners include N.H. Audubon, Maine Audubon, Massachusetts Audubon, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve and Willistown (Pa.) Conservation Trust.

The grant will enable project partners to establish 50 automated telemetry receiving stations in all New England states. The tiny receivers, called nanotags, can track movements of birds, bats and even insects as small as monarch butterflies and dragonflies. The receiver array will be part of the rapidly expanding Motus Wildlife Tracking System (motus.org), established in 2013 by Bird Studies Canada.

The combination of highly miniaturized transmitters and a growing global receiver array enables scientists to track migrants previously too small and delicate to tag with traditional transmitters.

N.H. Audubon biologists will use the smallest nanotags to track fall movements of monarch butterflies, which have suffered large population declines. The tracking information will help to identify target areas for habitat improvement, such as planting fall-blooming nectar sources to support migrating monarchs. Researchers from Massachusetts Audubon and the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife will use nanotag transmitters to study the migration routes, timing, and behavior of American Kestrels, the region’s smallest falcon and a bird that has experienced drastic and largely unexplained declines across New England.

Finally, researchers will also conduct field tests to better understand the detection limits for newly developed transmitters and receivers.

While the grant focuses on a few target species, the value of the expanded receiver network has much broader implications. Any nanotagged animal that flies within nine or 10 miles of any of the receivers will be automatically documented.

“New Hampshire’s Wildlife Action Plan identifies dozens of migratory birds, bats, and insects as Species of Greatest Conservation Need,” said Michael Marchand, supervisor of the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program at N.H. Fish and Game. “Conserving these species requires knowledge of how they use and move through New Hampshire’s landscape, as well as across other political boundaries. Information gathered from this new technology, coupled with other ongoing research and conservation efforts, will be important in implementing effective conservation measures for these species.”