Researchers have a new way to track song sparrows, dark-eyed reeds and other birds that fly around the Laurel Highlands.
Some species eventually make their way through Canada, while others head to other parts of the United States or farther south in the winter to the warmer skies of Latin America.
Traditionally, researchers seeking to trace the migration of birds attached an identification band to the leg of a bird and hoped that someone, somewhere, would find it. That day could come when the bird died, and a person who tripped over his body noticed the band and reported the information that it contained to the wildlife officials.
"We made these incredible discoveries with bands and it's still an incredible tool, but when it comes to figuring out where the birds are going, it's pretty inefficient," said Luke DeGroote, avian research coordinator at the Powdermill Nature Reserve.
The Powdermill staff sold 10,000 birds a year, only to recover two or three.  That changed in 2016 after DeGroote learned of the Motus tracking system.
Developed in Canada, there are now 400 Motus stations in North and South America. The researchers install these antennas to detect marked birds that fly within a radius of several miles.
Of the 50 birds tagged using Motus transmitters in the first year of Powdermill, 40 percent have been detected on both continents.
How Motus works
Motus means "movement" in Latin.
The first step is to catch a bird.
That's what the organizers of a recent workshop in Powdermill set out to do in the wee hours of the morning. They conducted a training for researchers from all parts of the Americas who wanted to learn about Motus technology.
The staff opened networks to catch birds passing by. DeGroote also cleaned some snow from a table to place several metal cages.
"I removed it with a shovel, and I'm going to pour some bird seeds to attract them," he said.
An hour later, some birds had already entered the cages and bitten the hook.
Indoors, workshop participants observed how DeGroote applied a label to one of the birds.
Each transmitter the size of a fingernail, with strings protruding to transmit a radio signal. It is attached to a small harness made of elastic sewing thread.
"We will put the legs of the birds through those loops and will fit the knob that the birds have on their legs," DeGroote explained to the group. "He's going to sit on the rump, something like a fanny pack."
Later, in a nearby field, the workshop participants tried to install one of the antennas.
Bob Frey of the Klamath Bird Observatory in Oregon struggled to drive a metal anchor on the wet ground
"It's being difficult, but it's coming in," he said.
What researchers hope to learn
Frey worked on the anchor next to Pablo Elizondo, executive director of Bird Observatories of Costa Rica.
Elizondo plans to install five Motus stations this year, the first at Cerro de la Muerte or Cerro de los Muertos. He said that it should really be called the "Hill of Life" because it is home to many of the 83 species of birds that live exclusively in the highlands of Costa Rica and Panama.
"It is extremely important for us to deploy this type of technology because it will allow us to track movements in some of those resident species that we know very little about," he said. "For some of these species, we do not even know if they move or not between seasons."
In addition, there are only a handful of Motus stations in Latin America compared to North America, however, many birds fly from one place to another throughout the region. They include the Swainson's thrush, the species that Frey wants to study in Oregon.
"It's a really great bird," said Frey. "It has a beautiful, very fluid song."
The bird spends at most a few weeks in Oregon each year to gain weight before continuing its migration.
"We hope to use this Motus system that we are going to use, to be able to describe very precisely within a meter or so where that bird is," he said. "We can go out and do vegetation studies and see where that bird has been looking for, where it has been seeking refuge."
The population of Swainson's thrushes is declining. Information about this and other species collected through the Motus system helps researchers identify threats to birds and best conservation practices.
DeGroote said Powdermill is using Motus to discover what happens to the birds that hit the windows.
Some people think that a bird survives a collision, it is fine when it flies.
"There are other people who say no, have a concussion, with all this awareness about soccer players and boxers, and that this is going to have some kind of" lasting effects, either immediately or possibly in the future, "he said." That's what we're trying to solve. "
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, DeGroote said.It's important to point this out because it will help determine how severe the windows of a problem are to birds and promoting ways to update windows to avoid such collisions.