Article ID: 692302
Released: 5-Apr-2018 11:05 AM EDT
Source Newsroom: Cornell University
Available for logged-in reporters only
Newswise — Ithaca, NY—With spring bird migration just getting underway, anyone captivated by these twice-yearly epic journeys will enjoy delving into new online maps that predict large movements of birds and show where they are occurring in near real-time. Scientists with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the University of Oxford have developed the new maps, available right now via the Lab's BirdCast program (birdcast.info). The visuals are created using data from the U.S. NEXRAD radar surveillance network. The processes used to make the maps are fully automated, following years of cooperative research by ornithologists and computer scientists.
"This is the most significant update since we first began using radar to study bird movements," notes Cornell Lab postdoctoral associate, Kyle Horton. "If you know where and when migrants will be flying at night, you stand a better chance of seeing them, especially if the birds make a stopover in your area."
Most songbirds migrate in darkness, usually when weather conditions are favorable. Tailwinds can produce massive migratory movements. Rain can shut down flights entirely.
"Knowing when and where a large pulse of migrants will pass through is also useful for conservation purposes," says Benjamin Van Doren, a former Cornell undergraduate and now Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oxford. "Our forecasts could prompt temporary shutdowns of wind turbines or large sources of light pollution along the migration route. Both actions could significantly reduce bird mortality."
Van Doren and Horton designed the system that generates colorful maps predicting when and where migrating birds will take to the air, up to three days in advance. They used machine learning models based on 23 years of radar and weather data to predict the numbers of birds aloft three hours after local sunset.
The other new radar-based map is an animated visualization of near real-time migration (below). Cornell Lab postdoctoral associate Adriaan Dokter designed an algorithm to rapidly estimate the number and flight directions of migrating birds detected by the weather radar network. The system processes new incoming radar data continuously, and updates migration maps every 10 minutes.
"We're able to isolate bird data from atmospheric information because of new feature of modern weather radars—so-called dual-polarization measurements" Dokter explains. "This means the radar stations transmit and receive radio waves in the vertical and horizontal direction independently. 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."
"These forecast and live migration maps, and the research that produced them, represent a breakthrough nearly 20 years in the making," adds Cornell Lab research associate 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 that birds face during their incredible journeys."
This research was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, Leon Levy Foundation, and NASA. Additional funding was provided by the Edward W. Rose Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission in the United Kingdom, and Amazon Web Services Cloud Credits for Research.
The BirdCast project is a collaboration among the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Oregon State University, and was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and Leon Levy Foundation.