Wildlife tracking at Huron Hills GC

The Michigan golf club is helping the state observe and report on wildlife behavior.


Filed to: Michigan, Wildlife

Huron Hills Golf Course at sunrise
A sun-dappled No. 2 green at Huron Hills Golf Course. Photos courtesy of Huron Hills Golf Course

When Becky Hand was first contacted by the Kalamazoo Valley Bird Observatory about a project that would close a noticeable gap in a global radio network to track wildlife behaviors, she knew her Ann Arbor (Mich.) Parks & Recreation Department would be able to help.

And she knew just whom to call.

“We pretty quickly settled on the golf course,” says Hand, stewardship supervisor at the Natural Area Preservation division of Ann Arbor Parks & Rec. 

The KVBO and Kalamazoo Nature Center landed a grant in 2021 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to oversee the installation of up to six grant-funded Motus wildlife tracking towers — and up to four additional privately funded Motus towers — throughout Michigan.

A glance at the existing network of receivers showed a pretty glaring hole in the coverage. Though the previous 18 statewide towers established a nearly unbroken string from east to west — basically, from the base of the “thumb” of the Mitten State directly across to its eastern border on the shores of Lake Michigan — there was a noticeable void about 50 miles west of Detroit.

“Ann Arbor was the last gap in the chain of towers they needed to fill,” Hand says, “so they asked if there was any place in Ann Arbor they could put one of these. It needed to be in an open area with not a lot of trees nearby. It needed to be near a power source. Most of our parks have trees — forest — and where there are open spots, they’re not usually near power.”

Given successful previous collaborations between the city and its two golf courses — Huron Hills Golf Course and Leslie Park GC — Hand reached out to Victor Morales-Rios, the GCSAA Class A superintendent over both, and asked if he could find a place appropriate for the roughly 18-foot automated radio telemetry tower and receiver.

“When they reached out to me, I was all on board,” says Morales-Rios, an 11-year association member. “It was the first time I had heard about such a program, and it was really interesting for us to take part and learn about it.”

All parties involved quickly agreed the best location would be an out-of-play area near Huron Hills GC’s No. 6 green. The course runs parallel to the Huron River, and the spot they picked was close to HHGC’s pump house and its recently installed solar panels.

“They felt it was the perfect place to track more birds — an open space, near water — and close to power,” Morales-Rios says.

Motus wildlife tracking tower
The Motus wildlife tracking tower (right) recently installed off No. 6 green.

The tower became operational on Sept. 22. On Sept. 23, it had recorded its first detection: an eastern whippoorwill that had been tagged by a Birds Canada tagger in August not far from London, Ontario.

Such is the granular nature of the data collected by the global Motus network. The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is a program of Birds Canada that “uses coordinated automated radio telemetry to facilitate research and education on the ecology and conservation of migratory animals.” The network boasts 1,779 receiver stations in 34 countries, tracking 43,294 animals covering 337 species. Though Motus tracks tagged bats and butterflies, too, its primary focus is migratory birds. The data is available to all and has spurred 200 publications so far.

Michigan is in the Mississippi Flyway, one of four major North American migratory bird superhighways.

So far, the Huron Hills GC tower has made five detections: two eastern whippoorwills, two olive-backed Swainson’s thrushes and a Kirtland’s warbler. The whippoorwills are considered state-threatened species. The warbler is a state-endangered species.

“We weren’t really sure what to expect going into it,” Hand says. “We weren’t sure if we’d get hundreds of birds or a few. We’re just taking the first year — maybe the first couple of years — and maybe make a plan, to see if there’s something we can do to enhance habitat for the rare species. Are they stopping and using the parks, or just passing through? Maybe there’s something we can do, maybe plant a certain species or get rid of a certain species.”

Regardless of potential future applications for the Motus data, Huron Hills GC’s golfers are already pleased to hear the course is contributing to this citizen science project.

“They’re pretty appreciative of the fact we’re doing something for the community, for nature,” Morales-Rios says. “Our goal is to break away from the stereotype that golf courses are all about pesticides and chemicals, just killing the environment. Every time we do something, like when we joined the Monarchs in the Rough program, they take pride the golf course is doing good for the environment. They have a sense of pride.”

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor.