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Rogue River installation will track migration

EAGLE POINT — A wildlife preserve along the banks of the Rogue River will help researchers better understand migration (everything from woodpeckers to bumblebees) as part of a new effort to track the patterns of small critters in the West.

The Rogue River Preserve just north of Highway 234 is the first site in Oregon to house a special electronic receiver to track the movements of specially tagged aerial animals as they migrate through Western Oregon along the Pacific Flyway from Canada to Mexico.

The first receiver, called a Motus system, went up Wednesday on a 40-foot pole on the preserve owned by the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy. A second is set to be erected later this week at the Vesper Meadow in the High Cascades east of Ashland.

The plan is to capture data from various tagged birds, bats and even larger insects such as bumblebees as they migrate through the Rogue corridor from places as far away as Canada.

The data can be shared with researchers tracking migration habits of these often obscure animals and also with a public data base so that animal enthusiasts can see where some of these critters are from and where they’re going as they stamp their passports in the Rogue Valley.

Many of these species are too small for traditional radio-telemetry and GPS transmitters.

“This allows us to track the smallest of wildlife, small animals that right now we don’t know where they move,” said Jaime Stephens, science director for the Ashland-based Klamath Bird Observatory, which is one of the partners in the project. “This is novel to us. Cutting-edge.”

The Motus tracking stations have been a staple on the East Coast since the turn of the century. However, they are sparse in the West Coast, with only a handful so far in British Columbia and California.

The construction efforts are spearheaded by the Montana-based MPG Ranch, with the ranch’s William Blake on hand for raising of the antenna structure.

The antenna can capture readings from tagged animals within a 15-kilometer radius.

Plans are to have similar stations throughout Oregon so researchers and others will get a better idea of where their tagged critters travel as part of their lifecycle.

“Our vision is to have many more,” said Kristi Mergenthaler, SOLC’s stewardship director. “That’s how we can look at what’s trending across large landscapes.”

In the short term, the Klamath Bird Observatory plans to tag and track some rare Lewis’s woodpeckers as they migrate to wintering grounds that include the oak savannas of the 352-acre preserve.

The woodpecker’s population has dropped by 70 percent in the past 50 years, but little is known about whether their wintering months have played a role in their decline, Stephens said.

The Lewis’s woodpecker, named for explorer Meriwether Lewis, who discovered it, is one of America’s largest woodpeckers, and it catches more insects in flight than it does by boring into woody snags as other woodpeckers do.

“The Lewis’s woodpecker is perhaps the most beautiful bird in Oregon,” Mergenthaler says. “It’s a woodpecker that doesn’t act like other woodpeckers.”

The Motus site costs about $5,000 to construct, and tags for birds to be inventoried cost less than $200, so it is a relatively cheap way to monitor mass migrations of smaller birds and bats, Blake says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter, @MTwriterFreeman.

William Blake attaches antennas to the top of the base of a wildlife tracking station Wednesday morning near Dodge Bridge. (Andy Atkinson - Mail Tribune)