Spring bird migration predicted in daily forecasts

Spring bird migration predicted in daily forecasts

Just as meteorologists use radar to predict your weather, scientists are using radar to make daily forecasts and real-time illustrations of the spring bird migration. And you can check their forecast whenever you wish.

The migration maps and live-tracking radar are available at Cornell University’s BirdCast website. Scientists from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and the University of Oxford worked together to create this first-of-its-kind technology. Tonight’s migration forecast appears at the top of this post, and below is an animated example of its real-time visualization that you can check at any time. From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s press release:

Cornell Lab postdoctoral associate Adriaan Dokter designed an algorithm to rapidly estimate the intensity and flight directions of migrating birds detected by the weather radar network. The system processes incoming radar data continuously, and updates the animated map every 10 minutes.

Notice the intense migration wave starting right after sunset in Missouri, and how it slowly makes it way up into Iowa over the course of the night. These birds are covering about 400 miles in one night. The moving red line follows the time of sunset, east to west. The yellow line tracks sunrise. Arrows indicate the direction in which birds are flying. Adriaan Dokter, 2018.


“We’re able to isolate bird data from atmospheric information because of the way weather radar works—a process called dual-polarization,” said Dokter. “This means the radar stations transmit and receive radio waves in both vertical and horizontal directions. It provides a much clearer picture of the size, shape, and direction of the targets it picks up. And with the power of cloud computing, we can analyze all radar data incredibly fast.”

Why are the daily maps focused on the nighttime? That’s when most birds migrate. Weather conditions are likely to be more favorable. One rule of thumb: if a changing weather forecast is about to bring warmer temperatures and a wind out of the southwest, a lot more migrating birds will be traveling through your area. The BirdCast maps can help you to see the bigger picture, in addition to giving you a sense of what is coming to your local area. And that bigger picture is a key part of their purpose. “These forecast and live migration maps, and the research that produced them, represent a breakthrough nearly 20 years in the making,” said Cornell Lab migration researcher Andrew Farnsworth. “We hope these maps will provide perspective to the expert and novice alike on the amazing spectacle—and the sheer magnitude—of migration. Beyond that, we believe these maps will become powerful tools for conservation action to help reduce the impacts of human-made hazards birds face during their incredible journeys.”

If you’re interested in finding and identifying all the species migrating through your area, then you’ll also want to bookmark the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site. It provides tons of information, and allows you to see daily lists of bird species seen right where you live, as submitted by other site users. It includes interactive maps showing where the birds were seen, as well as locations of “hot spots” that consistently host larger-than-usual numbers of breeding and/or migrating bird species.

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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