Telemetry is a powerful and indispensable tool for evaluating wildlife movement and distribution patterns, particularly in systems where opportunities for direct observation are limited. However, the effort and expense required to track individuals often results in small sample sizes, which can lead to biased results if the sample of tracked individuals does not fully capture spatial, temporal, and individual variability within the target population. To better understand the influence of sampling design on results of automated radio telemetry studies, we conducted a retrospective power analysis of very high frequency (VHF) radio telemetry data from the Motus Wildlife Tracking System for two species of birds along the United States Atlantic coast: a shorebird, the piping plover (Charadrius melodus), and a nearshore seabird, the common tern (Sterna hirundo). We found that ~ 100–150 tracked individuals were required to identify 90% of locations known to be used by the tracked population, with 40–50 additional individuals required to include 95% of used locations. For any number of individuals, the percentage of stations included in the sample was higher for common terns than for piping plovers when tags were deployed within a single site and year. Percentages of stations included increased for piping plovers when birds were tagged over multiple sites and, to a lesser extent, years, and increased with average length of the tracking period. The probability that any given receiver station used by the population would be included in a subsample increased with the number of birds tracked, station proximity to a migratory stopover or staging site, number of receiving antennas per station, and percentage of the tracked population present. Our results provide general guidance for the number and distribution of tagged birds required to obtain representative VHF telemetry data, while also highlighting the importance of accounting for station network configuration and species-specific differences in behavior when designing automated radio telemetry studies to address specific research questions. Our results have broad applications to remotely track movements of small-bodied migratory wildlife in inaccessible habitats, including predicting and monitoring effects of offshore wind energy development.