Trans-Gulf of Mexico Migration

Twice a year millions of birds migrate across the Gulf of Mexico on their way to and from their wintering and breeding grounds. While a 1000 km non-stop flight across a large water body may (or may not) be a significant obstacle, no other research has tracking small individual birds across the gulf with the precision to determine how long it took them to cross the gulf, how weather conditions may impact their journey, and simply whether or not they were able to survive the crossing.

In collaboration with Dr. Jill Deppe (Eastern Illinois University), Dr Robb Diehl (University of Southern Mississippi/USGS), Dr. T.J. Zenzal, Dr. Rachel Bolus, Dr. Frank Moore (University of Southern Mississippi), Dr. Antonio Celis-Murillo, and Dr. T.J. Benson (INHS), and we used automated radio telemetry units to create a radio telemetry fence across the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula to investigate the migratory behavior of birds crossing the Gulf of Mexico. This research was funded by the National Geographic Society and is currently funded by the National Science Foundation. We found that most individuals can cross the 1000 km in less than 24 hours and that a combination of wind direction and body condition (fat levels) predicts much of their departure behavior and the ability to successfully cross the Gulf of Mexico.

A schematic of the coverage of the telemetry fence in the Yucatan

Some of the papers produced via this research include:

  • Ward, M. P., T. J. Benson, J. L. Deppe, T. J. Zenzal, R. H. Diehl, A. Celis-Murillo, R. Bolus, and F. R. Moore. 2018. Estimating apparent survival of songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico during autumn migration. Proceeding of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.285: 20181747.
  • Schofield, L. N. J. L. Deppe, T. J. Zenzal, M. P. Ward, R. H. Diehl, R. T. Bolus, and F. R. Moore. 2018. Using automated radio telemetry to quantify activity patterns of songbirds during stopover. The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135: 949-963.
  • Zenzal, T. J., F. R. Moore, R. H. Diehl, M. P. Ward, and J. L. Deppe. 2018. Migratory hummingbirds make their own rules: factors influencing the decision to resume migration along an ecological barrier. Animal Behavior 137: 215-224.
  • Schofield, L. N., J. L. Deppe, R. H. Diehl, M. P. Ward, R. T. Bolus, T. J. Zenzal, J. Smolinsky, and F. R. Moore. 2018. Occurrence of quiescence in free-ranging migratory songbirds. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 72: 36.
  • Bolus, R., R. H. Diehl, F. Moore, J. L. Deppe, M. P. Ward, J. Smolinsky, and T. J. Zenzal. 2017. Swainson’s thrushes do not show strong wind selectivity prior to crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Scientific Reports 7:14280.
  • Deppe, J. L., M. P. Ward, R. H. Diehl, A. Celis-Murillo, R. Bolus, T. J. Zenzal, F. Moore, J. Smolinsky, L. Schofield, D. Enstrom, E. Paxton, G. Bohrer, T. J. Benson, T. Beveroth, D. Delaney, and W. Cochran. 2015. Fat, weather, and date affect migratory songbird’s departure decisions, routes, and time it takes to cross the Gulf of Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112: E6331-E6338.                

Over the last year TJ Zenzal, and his team have been attaching transmitters to migrants in the fall at Fort Morgan Peninsula in Alabama to determine when and in what direction they depart. An array of seven automated receiving units with high-gain antennas was installed to create a telemetry fence across the northern shores of the Gulf of Mexico from Port St. Joe, Florida to Pearl River, Louisiana. An active hurricane season in 2020 hindered data collection efforts, but further research is anticipated in the coming seasons.

A Magnolia Warbler is fitted with a small radio transmitter before release.
Mike Ward and TJ Zenzal attach high gain antennas to an existing tower near Pearl River, LA.

Motus Network

In 2020, the lab–through the support of a grant–worked to install eight radio telemetry towers across a latitudinal line in Illinois to help increase the detection of tagged birds in the Midwest (Motus Region 3). This is also in line with one of the major initiatives of the Midwest Migration Network. Sites include:

  • Orr Agricultural Research & Demonstration Area near Perry, Illinois.
  • Clinton Lake State Recreation Area near Farmer City, Illinois
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Kennekuk County Park near Danville, Illinois
  • A cluster of four towers in the Illinois River valley located near Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge will be utilized for telemetry research with waterfowl and rails at Forbes Biological Station.