In 2011, Kiawah started intensely trapping and banding Painted Buntings for a long-term project with PBOT (Painted Bunting Observer Team). This group of volunteer citizen scientists could then easily identify individual birds by sight of their leg bands and record activity in their yards and environs. Through PBOT, several thousand PABUs were banded and monitored across 60 locations in North and South Carolina until the program ended in 2015. This produced an extensive dataset of their habits and migration patterns.
The SMBC (Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center) contacted Aaron in 2017 to collaborate with them on a geolocation study using light-level tags that attach to the birds like tiny backpacks. Sunrise and sunset times recorded on the tag give a broad idea of the latitude and longitude. From these you can determine the basic route and timeline of their journeys. The study is ongoing, however one drawback is data are stored on the geolocator itself, so you need to recapture the birds to collect it.
NEW TECH: NANOTAGS
For a while now, in addition to the studies mentioned above, each year Aaron manages a fall banding migration station on either end of Kiawah Island: one at Captain Sam’s Spit (west end) and another at Little Bear Island (east end). This year he and his team banded 7,199 birds of 92 different species. Among those, 323 were Painted Buntings.
From end to end observations, he’s been curious about intra-island bird movements and was looking for more precise far-range data as well, so they are now using the latest migratory animal geolocation technology — nanotags from the Motus network. (Motus, surprisingly, is not an acronym. It’s the Latin word for movement.) These tiny radio transmitters attach in the same backpack fashion, and are tracked by a fast-growing network of almost 1,000 automated receiver stations set up in 30+ countries across the hemisphere, delivering almost by-the- second details of a bird’s movements. The information is shared by scientists around the world.
Timbers Kiawah’s west-end location and building height presented an ideal spot for a Motus receiver. Aaron’s request was enthusiastically approved by Timbers management, and the receiver is in its second year of operation, tucked away on the rooftop where he goes up every other week to download data.
Tracking information from this project will fill several knowledge gaps needed to effectively define conservation strategies for the Painted Bunting and other at-risk birds.
We’re excited for Aaron to share his discoveries with us, and look forward to related on-site programming for our Owners to learn more about the ongoing ornithology research on Kiawah.
A sincere thank you to Aaron Given for his help with this article. Aaron has been a Wildlife Biologist for the Town of Kiawah Island since 2008. His primary research interest is in ornithology with a focus on avian ecology and management, passerine migration ecology, and secretive marsh bird ecology. He currently manages two of the most ambitious bird banding stations in the Southeast focusing on fall migration, wintering marsh sparrows, Painted Buntings, and Wilson’s Plovers.