Migratory birds face many changes to the landscapes they traverse and the habitats they use. Wind turbines and communications towers, which pose hazards to birds and bats in flight, are being erected or proposed across the United States and offshore. Human activities can also destroy or threaten habitats critical to birds during migratory passage, and climate change appears to be altering migratory patterns. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and other agencies are under increasing pressure to identify and evaluate movement patterns and habitats used during migration and other times.
Few tools for deciphering migratory travels exist, but radar-based studies of movements and habitat use patterns in songbirds, waterfowl, and bats hold promise. The U.S. system of over 150 Doppler weather radars provides continental coverage, similar to the scale of bird migration. Although data stored from weather radar represent perhaps the second largest biological data archive in the world, use of those data is currently limited to technically savvy biologists who can handle the obscure data formats. Complementary mobile radar units and thermal and acoustic monitoring are also used in site-specific studies. Efforts to advance bird conservation and management through the use of radar arose independently in several USFWS/USGS collaborations. Recently, this coalition of scientists and resource managers identified the need to work together more closely to foster radar-related research and software development.
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists at Fort Collins Science Center, National Wetlands Research Center, Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, and Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, as well as USFWS Migratory Bird biologists across the country, are collaborating with university partners to develop a suite of products for managers. The goals are to identify migratory pathways and stopover sites for conservation, mitigation, and landscape planning; convey the importance of functional landscapes and unobstructed airspaces for migrating wildlife; enable use of radar by the wider biological, wind power, and related communities; and simplify the analysis of radar data. The long term focus is to use radar technologies to better understand movement patterns and habitat associations of migratory birds and other wildlife. Land managers and industry may use the knowledge and tools developed to optimize the siting of energy projects, other facilities, and migratory bird habitat projects.
The complementary endeavors, not all of which are funded, concentrate on four fundamentals: (1) develop software, in collaboration with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists, that enables biologists to access unfiltered weather data and integrate it into standard geographic information systems; (2) develop artificial intelligence-based filters that separate bird from nonbird radar echoes; (3) determine characteristics of bird migration in terms of altitude, speed and direction, daily movements, seasonality, and associations with habitats and landforms; and (4) examine specific movement patterns in relation to towers, wind generation facilities, and tall obstructions.
Many technical issues make this work difficult, including complex data structures, massive data sets, digital recognition of birds, large areas not covered by weather radar, and model validation; however, progress will only be furthered by tackling the challenge. The new coalition will meets its goals by: (1) facilitating a productive collaboration with NOAA, Department of the Interior bureaus, state wildlife agencies, universities, power companies, and other potential partners; (2) building and strengthening scientific capabilities within USGS; (3) addressing key migratory bird management issues; and (4) ensuring full funding for the collaborative effort.