In 2011, RRBO embarked on a collaborative research project with Dr. Melissa Bowlin, a member of the UM-Dearborn Natural Sciences faculty. Dr. Bowlin had a number of geolocator devices left over from a previous project. Geolocators are tiny devices that measure light levels. 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 can be placed on a bird, and if the bird can be recaptured the following year, the data can be downloaded and migration routes, pace, and destination can be determined. You can read a full explanation of how geolocators work and the goals of the project on the RRBO web site.
In 2011, we placed 11 geolocators on catbirds. In spring 2012, we resighted 3 birds with devices, and recaptured 2 of them.
We did get data from the 2 retrieved geolocators. As it turns out, the data was not high quality; not only do catbirds spend a fair amount of time in shaded areas, but the light-collecting stem on the devices we used was a little short and we suspect ended up being covered by feathers a good amount of the time. Without a good reading on the light, the data from one was deemed inaccurate. The other bird seems to have wintered in Florida -- which is unexpected as preliminary data from other researchers (based on banding and geolocators) indicates that Midwestern-nesting birds winter in Central America. We put the geolocator on this bird on September 29, 2011, it appears to have left Dearborn on October 12, arrived in Florida on the October 16, left the wintering grounds on March 30, 2012, and arrived back in Dearborn on May 8, 2012. We recaptured it May 17, 2012 (here's the story of its recapture).
In fall 2012, we put 2 more geolocators on birds, but did not see any birds with geolocators in spring 2013, despite a lot of patient observation of the catbirds on site.
Earlier this year, Dr. Bowlin received a grant to purchase 26 new geolocators with longer light-collecting stems better suited for catbird study. You can see the older device below in the top picture, and a newer one with the longer "stem" in the bottom photo. They both weigh the same, 1 gram including the harness.
During my spring bird surveys, I spent time locating territories of catbirds that I thought would be easiest to catch and re-find next year. Two of Dr. Bowlin's students, Kelli Gutmann and Quen Watkins, then staked out these birds to see where they tended to hang out so they could be captured with a minimum of fuss. I also set up our regular fall banding site, and began banding a month earlier than usual.
We have had good success so far this summer. We have put 14 geolocators on resident catbirds. Even more exciting, one of the birds I recaptured was a male with a geolocator from 2011! The batteries on the devices can last for 2 years, so if it is good quality we could conceivably get 2 years of data from it.
We feel confident we can catch enough catbirds for all of our devices, and look forward to finding out what routes they use on migration; if the routes differ for males and females, or adults and young; where the birds stop during migration and how long they stay at each stopover; and where they spend the winter. Stay tuned for more updates!