The Northern Montezuma crew was out banding rails again this past field season. This project began in 2016, and over the past 3 years we have banded a total of 142 Virginia Rails and 15 Soras. A new element to the project in 2018 was the attachment of radio transmitters to the captured rails. A total of 11 nano-tag transmitters and 2 traditional transmitters were attached to Virginia Rails. Nano-tags are a relatively new technology that allows for the tracking and identification of multiple birds on a single frequency. It is used in conjunction with a network of automated tracking towers like those that were installed in 2017 at the Northern Montezuma Field Office and the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. There are currently over 350 of these tracking towers under a project known as Motus wildlife tracking. Towers are located throughout North America (with a few in Central and South America) and are continuously scanning and detecting nano-tagged birds and other wildlife (such as bats) as they pass by or drop in. Those detections are then uploaded to a central database where they can be viewed by researchers and the public. Find our tagged rails under “New York Lake Plains Motus”. View detections by our antennas of other animals (over ten species of birds and one bat) that were tagged in other studies at https://motus.org/data/receiverDeploymentDetections?id=4286.
What are we hoping to learn you ask? Rails have very specific habitat requirements. They prefer emergent marshes with good sturdy cover (think… cattail, bur reed and bulrushes) and relatively shallow water. These habitats provide everything a rail needs to breed and rear young. Many of the marshes within the Montezuma Wetlands Complex provide exactly that type of habitat – with one catch. It takes active management of water levels in our impounded marshes to maintain that perfect, diverse community type with just the right mix of cover and open water. Sometimes that includes de-watering them to promote the right vegetative community. So, our question is… where do rails go if they’re present when we de-water a marsh? One theory is that they will simply move to a nearby marsh that will provide a happy home. Our preliminary banding and telemetry results have been a bit surprising.
Last year’s radio-marked rails were found to leave the area regardless of whether or not we had de-watered their marsh. A similar project undertaken at Winous Point Marsh Conservancy in Ohio suggests that many of the rails we assumed were breeding at this latitude are migrants moving through. Of our 13 radio-tagged birds, only one was found to stay in the area more than 15 days, two stayed for about two weeks and the rest left the area within a few days of being tagged. Because of these preliminary results, we will expand our effort to another of our secretive marsh birds, the Common Gallinule; hoping that they will provide a better study subject. In 2019, we’ll test techniques for capturing gallinules and make use of the Motus network to take a closer look at their secret life in the Montezuma marshes. Let’s just say that there’s quite a bit of research still to go, so stay tuned for updates as we learn more about our secretive and fascinating marsh birds.