Understanding the Mysteries of Bird Migration

With the installation of a new tracking system, Colby’s Island Campus is now part of an international research network that monitors birds, bats, and insects

A female red-winged blackbird (starting top left and going clockwise), a song sparrow, a female mallard duck with ducklings, a laughing gull, and a male red-winged blackbird were spotted earlier this summer on Allen Island.
By Abigail CurtisPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
August 7, 2023

Allen Island has an end-of-the-world feel about it, at least where humans are concerned. 

To get there, you must first navigate the meandering, lupine-lined roads of the St. George peninsula all the way to its southern tip, where the fishing village of Port Clyde perches at the eastern edge of Muscongus Bay. From there, board a boat—the Colby boat, appropriately, is named the Otherworld—and travel over the gray-green waves for just over five miles, past channel markers, harbor seals, and the many spruce-and-granite islands dotting the bay.   

It’s a journey, and it feels like it. When the island finally emerges from the early-summer haze  and the Otherworld’s captain neatly slides the boat into position on the Allen Island dock, sleepy passengers rouse and grab their backpacks, eager to spend a few hours or days away from the hustle and noise of civilization.  

For birds, though, it’s a different story. 

Illustration by Dominick Leskiw ’21

Allen and Benner islands, together known as Colby’s Island Campus, are squarely in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway, a major north-south route followed by migratory birds that stretches from Greenland down the Atlantic coast to South America and the Caribbean. Spring and fall are the busy seasons for this avian superhighway, when large seabirds like northern gannets and smaller shorebirds like the purple sandpiper and the red knot pass through, or over, Maine on their way to somewhere else. Some of these birds fly more than 9,000 miles to get to where they’re going, and they do that twice a year. 

Bird migration may be as predictable as the tides or the sunrise, but despite its timelessness and constancy, it remains little understood by scientists.  

Mysteries of migration

“Bird migration is very mysterious,” said Don Lyons, the conservation science director at Audubon’s Seabird Institute. “It’s so amazing that birds make this leap of faith and fly off. Many of them, when they’re young, have never made the trip. They don’t know where they’re going, but they get there. They have an instinctual map that allows them to navigate and be where they need to be.” 

But there are many unanswered questions about the ways that birds like the northern gannet and the red knot migrate through Maine. When do they get here? And when they do arrive, are they just passing through, or do they stay for a while? 

One tool that should help shine light on migration’s mysteries is the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, a collaborative international research network that uses a system of coordinated automated radio telemetry to track birds, bats, or insects by locating tiny transmitters attached to them. In early June Todd Alleger, the New England Motus coordinator, and Eric Snyder of the National Audubon Society worked together on Allen Island to install one of the newest towers in the Motus network.

Eric Snyder of the National Audubon Society and Todd Alleger, the New England Motus coordinator, connect the cables that will control the new Motus Wildlife Tracking System on Allen Island.

The network, which began in Canada, facilitates research and education on the ecology and conservation of migratory animals. And it relies on partnerships, such as a new one happening now between the National Audubon Society and Colby, to make that work happen.  

“A really terrific aspect of this network is that it’s collaborative,” Lyons said. “It’s an amazing collaborative science venture that is providing new insights that we really struggled to get previously.” 

For Whitney King, Colby’s Dr. Frank and Theodora Miselis Professor of Chemistry, the new tower is an exciting symbol of the Island Campus’ vast potential for scientific and other research opportunities. 

Eric Snyder of the National Audubon Society removes old cables of an obsolete satellite system before installing the new Motus tower on Allen Island.

In the future, he said, it’s possible that Colby students will be able to do more with migratory bird research, such as learning to tag birds and doing their own experiments. Establishing the partnership with the National Audubon Society is also a positive development, one which hopefully will lead to more projects and collaborations in the future. 

“We’re part of a larger global research project,” King said. “So many times you read about these kinds of things in books, or you take an ornithology class. The opportunity to do science, to be in a place and see the facility and have data that we’re collecting here, I think that’s important. That’s exciting.” 

Another set of listening ears

Over the course of a sunny day redolent with the rich smell of freshly cut grass and alive with the songs of sparrows and red-winged blackbirds, Alleger and Snyder clambered atop the Allen Island barn to take down an old satellite dish. 

Betsy Wyeth, who purchased the 450-acre island in 1979, had the dish installed so that she could communicate with the mainland by telephone when she and her husband, the painter Andrew Wyeth, stayed on the islands. Advancements in technology have rendered the dish obsolete, King said, adding that the islands are now connected to the internet through Starlink satellite.

Eric Snyder, the Hog Island facilities manager for the National Audubon Society, holds the satellite dish after removing it from the Allen Island barn.

In place of the old dish, Alleger and Snyder erected a modern radio tower that bristled with antennae pointing in the four cardinal directions. 

The new tower, like all the Motus towers, is a receiving station. It will perch on the barn listening all year round for birds, insects, or bats that have been tagged by researchers. Every time a tagged bird that is compatible with the tower flies by, it will be detected, Lyons said, even at a distance of five or 10 miles. Information about the bird’s direction of travel, and speed, will be downloaded regularly to an accessible, centralized database that is managed by Birds Canada, Canada’s national bird conservation organization. 

Without the network of receiving stations, the information from the tags would need to be transmitted to a satellite, a process that requires more power and fancy electronics, he said. The Motus system makes it more efficient and simpler, a kind of community science project with data shared all over the world. 

“You can see when individual birds have flown by particular points in their migration and get new and amazing insight into how far they go, what their route is, and when they move, and you have it for very specific individuals,” Lyons said, adding that researchers often collect other data on the birds when they are tagged. “You can relate these migration patterns to what we know about individual birds. It’s exciting to collect these dots. It’s an amazing advance in what we know about migration.” 

Eric Snyder measures the correct length of new cables while installing a Motus Wildlife Tracking System on Allen Island.

The Motus tower on Allen Island will allow researchers to listen for bird data in an expanded section of Muscongus Bay. There already is a tower on Hog Island, the National Audubon Society’s outpost at the mouth of the bay, and in the future, the organization hopes to add a station on Monhegan Island. 

“It’s super exciting to see this network expanded. It represents a new part of Maine where we’ll be listening,” he said. “We’re really excited to work with Colby on this project.” 

“Betsy’s Village” 

Until very recently, Allen and Benner islands have been better known for the important role they played in American art in general and to the Wyeth family in particular. Allen and Benner, which sit next to each other, were among three Maine islands that collectively were known as “Betsy’s Village.” (The third is Southern Island at the mouth of Tenants Harbor, where son Jamie Wyeth still lives and paints). 

For Betsy Wyeth, an artist in her own way, the islands were her canvas. She spent decades shaping the environment and restoring vernacular Maine architecture on them, an effort that inspired some of her husband’s best-known paintings. 

One example is the three-story sail loft and general store building that perches on the edge of Allen Island, spare, dignified, and for all the world looking as if it had been right there for a century or more. In fact, the structure was slated to be burned as practice for a local volunteer fire department on the mainland before she rescued it and transported it to Allen Island. 

Andrew Wyeth wound up using the sail loft as the subject of his last tempera painting, Goodbye My Love, also called Goodbye, completed three months before his death at 91 in 2009. 

On Allen Island, the ocean is never far away.

Beginning in 2016, Colby began partnering with the Up East Foundation to develop projects and programs on Allen to complement the College’s academic programs, especially in the sciences. Last year Colby purchased Allen and Benner from the Up East Foundation and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art with the intention of preserving these extraordinary areas and continuing to utilize them as centers for learning, research, and creative inspiration through the creation of a dynamic island campus.

On a busy early June day, that vision is coming squarely into focus. Several Island Campus summer fellows helped get the property ready for some of the more than 2,000 guests expected to visit the islands this year. 

They’ll also work on their own research projects this summer, with interests that span the gamut of environmental studies, art, soundscapes, and parasites in the intertidal zone. Other Colby programming, from history to science to environmental humanities and archaeology, will unfold on the Island Campus this year, too. 

But despite the buzz of activity, serenity still ruled the day. A family of ducklings placidly paddled around a small pond nestled in verdant grasses just steps away from the barn, where the tower was being installed. Seagulls soared overhead, their hoarse calls louder than the lawnmowers, and curious barn swallows swooped gracefully around the installation work. On a mossy path that wound through spruce trees southeast of the cluster of buildings at the northern tip, sharp-eyed ospreys circled high above the ocean looking for their lunch. 

Allen Island is a special place, something that’s obvious to the people on ground level— who are looking forward to getting a deeper understanding of the birds, bats, and insects that see it from above.