Steve Alfano installing bird tracking antenna at Vero Beach High School

Steve Alfano, the school district’s electronic technician, installing the bird tracking antenna at Vero Beach High School.

VERO BEACH – Thanks to an antenna provided by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Vero Beach High School is now part of an international system to study bird migration.

The antenna that was installed on top of VBHS will help scientists, students, and bird watchers around the world track migratory bird movements through Indian River County.

The antenna is part of a Canadian wildlife tracking system called Motus, which is Latin for “movement.” The purpose of the antenna is to track the migratory movements of birds and bats.

“There are numerous antennas across the eastern U.S. and in Canada,” Tim Breen, Supervisory Biologist, Everglades North Team, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told Hometown News. Mr. Breen is based in the Vero Beach office of FWS.

“Until recently there weren’t many stations in Florida at all. I would look at the tracking of the birds at the website, and you’d see that the last place they were picked up was in Georgia or South Carolina. Then the bird was not picked up for a few months, and then we saw the tracking of the bird going north again. Did that bird stop in South Carolina, or did he go to South America? There were no tracking stations to pick it up. The more stations, the more information we can get, the more precisely we can see where these birds are migrating.”

The antenna can serve many different studies being performed in multiple locations, and the data picked up by the antenna and displayed at the Motus website can be accessed by students and other scientists for their studies.

“This is going to advance our knowledge of bird migration,” Mr. Breen said. “We might be able to determine what areas are important for some of these species. We will be able to see where the birds stop and hang out as they’re migrating south. If you continue to get a ping from a bird at the same location during a migration, you know that bird is stopping over there, maybe wintering there. So it will help us determine which particular areas are important to migratory birds. Once we know that, we can examine the environment there, such as whether there is a wetland, and figure out what environment is preferred by this species.”

The antenna costs about $1,500, paid by FWS. The school district contributed the hours of labor to put up the antenna, and the antenna is connected into the school district’s network.

“It’s very cost effective,” said Mr. Breen. “You can have as many studies as you want. As long as they have the right transmitter, they will be picked up by all the antennas throughout the United States, with more and more stations going up all the time.”

The birds have the tiny, lightweight transmitters put on like a backpack in numerous studies throughout the U.S. and Canada. Most are attached with thread that eventually dissolves and the transmitter falls off.

“There is a lot of wildlife research and migratory bird projects going on all the time,” Mr. Breen said. “There are many different kinds of studies associated with migratory studies. Once we start picking up birds at this station, then there is added educational value. We can go into the schools and talk to students about the specific birds, where they were banded, what study they are in. You can start to tell the story about that bird and that species. It opens up a lot of opportunities for education.”

Steve Alfano, the school district’s electronic technician, installed the antenna at Vero Beach High School.

“I’m pretty excited about this project,” Mr. Alfano said. “I’m looking forward to tracking the bird migration.”

Robert Michael, Director of Physical Plant, School District of Indian River County, agreed: “We think this is great. When Tim approached me about installing the antenna, and using it for the students to be able to track the birds and learn, we were pretty excited. That’s the type of stuff that gets us excited, this was something out of the ordinary. Everybody was very supportive. We considered various locations, but determined this was the best because of the infrastructure we already have here.”

There are now about 15 antennas in Florida, and each can pick up transmitters that fly within 15 miles. The closest antenna to the north of VBHS is at Pelican Island. The closest to the south is in Hobe Sound. The FWS wants to install as many antenna as possible.

“The idea is you have these stations all over the eastern United States and Canada,” Mr. Breen said. “So if you were doing a study on the migration of a certain shore bird, you put transmitters on different birds, and as they migrate south, they’ll be picked up by various stations. In time you can see the migratory movements of these birds.”

“Some of these birds now transmitting, there may have been no migration information available before. Larger birds like eagles and falcons can have larger GPS transmitters placed on them for tracking, and we can track all the movements of those individual birds, but smaller birds and bats are simply too small for those transmitters. So there hasn’t been a way to really see migration in those species until this system came out.”

“Fall migration is the next big thing that will happen, starting in August,” Mr. Breen said. “A lot of birds migrating south through Florida come down through the coast. That might be our first opportunity to get a bird with a transmitter. Once we get a bird ping here, we might be able to show the kids a photo of that very bird getting banded in the Arctic six months ago. That to me is very exciting.”

Beginning in about two weeks, the public can track the movements of birds through Indian River County at www.motus.org, where you can also learn more about the system and view results of numerous studies.

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