Predicting Songbird Migration with BirdCast

Artwork by  Luke Seitz

Artwork by Luke Seitz

BirdCast is an exciting bird migration prediction application now in its third year of operation at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Dr. Andrew Farnsworth will introduce audiences to BirdCast in the SongbirdSOS documentary when it is broadcast next year.
Farnsworth says the BirdCast project aims to provide real-time forecasts of songbird and other species migrations, much like a weather forecast substituting ‘migrations’ for ‘storms’ and ‘birds’ for ‘rain.’

Launched in 2011, BirdCast can now forecast bird migration on a continental scale by merging radar, eBird, acoustic, weather, and habitat data.  The migration models will also allow researchers to better understand bird behavior in response to environmental change. This article from Cornell’s All about Birds website explains how Eight Intriguing Migration Mysteries were solved with Birdcast. 

Farnsworth told us the Birdcast project idea came about after he spent many hours atop Mount Pleasant in Ithaca with Bill Evans listening to bird ‘night flight calls’ during spring and fall migration and then doing his graduate years with  Dr. John Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the Lab of Ornithology and Dr. Sidney Gauthreaux, a pioneer in analyzing radar for bird migration .

Today Farnsworth says he’s trying to keep up with a creative and talented graduate student Benjamin Van Doren who has been a analyzing all the BirdCast data  to help the project study wind drift and how birds behave in windy conditions across the North East US.

For more on the basics of bird-watching by radar, check out this article on eBird.

BirdCast is a collaborative effort funded by the National Science Foundation and the Leon Levy Foundation, with partners at Microsoft, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Artwork  from  the blog post – Eight Intriguing Migration Mysteries Solved With BirdCast and eBird | All About Birds 

Ottawa Citizens Start FLAP Bird Rescue Initiative

FLAP. Ottawa. fall colour. dead birds Michael Mesure, founder and Executive Director of the FLAP bird rescue organization, which is featured in SongbirdSOS says that many citizens of the city of Ottawa (Canada’s capital city) were shocked and troubled when a flock of approximately 30 Bohemian Waxwings collided with a glass walkway at their City Hall last year.  The sudden and public death of these beautiful birds drew a frenzy of media attention and the interest of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists Birds Committee.

One member in particular, Anouk Hoedeman, was concerned by this event and started on the search for a solution. Although it is rare for an entire flock of birds to hit as in this incident, it is altogether too common for birds to collide with building windows.   It is estimated that up to 1 billion birds die from window collisions each year in North America alone.

Most people have had an experience at home, at the cottage or even at work where they have witnessed a bird dying in this way. These experiences are upsetting and scary, often because people do not realize why birds collide with windows or what can be done to prevent it.

The sheer scope of this issue was brought to the attention of Sarah Kirkpatrick-Wahl at Nature Canada with the release of a series of scientific papers released by Environment Canada in Fall 2013 on the major human causes of bird mortality.

Anouk and Sarah’s separate searching lead them both to FLAP.  (Fatal Light Awareness Program) Over the years, FLAP Canada has received calls from the Ottawa region about birds that have been found, but Mesure knew something was different this time around.  Anouk and Sarah were put in touch and started meeting with others who were interested in finding a solution, including staff at the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre.

In SongbirdSOS, Michael Mesure states that due to a recent precedent setting court case  in Toronto, it is now illegal for buildings to knowingly attract and cause the death of birds in Ontario.    He says “We’re excited about this new wing of FLAP volunteers gathering in Ottawa so they can make a difference for local and migrating bird populations.  Ottawa is a dynamic  growing city on the banks of an important river system which is a natural migratory bird pathway.   With the increase in new building development , incidents of bird collisions have increased.   It is not surprising that environmental concerns are arising because of this too.’’

This past spring, Anouk and another volunteer, Cynthia Paquin, began daily patrols in the downtown core of the nation’s capital.  They found that the majority of collisions occurred after sunrise, with more birds hitting when it was bright and sunny. Their first season of patrols confirmed a problem with window strikes, so Anouk, Sarah, Cynthia and others began earnest efforts to establish a local FLAP program. This fall, they began building a more solid base of patrollers and drivers to help their efforts.FLAP.Ottawa volunteers

To date the Ottawa Wing of FLAP has recorded more than 300 birds representing about 60 species, including 20 warbler species and threatened species such as Wood Thrush and Canada Warbler. Species collected range from Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to a surprising Barred Owl.

Although many of the birds are found dead, Ottawa Wing volunteers are always thrilled to be able to rescue a stunned or injured bird and have managed to rescue dozens of warblers, kinglets, Brown Creepers, sparrows, woodpeckers and more. They already have a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/FLAPOttawa and on it they have been posting some successful bird rescue videos.

As word spreads about FLAP volunteer efforts in Ottawa,  more calls are coming in about injured and dead birds from office workers and homeowners. The group hopes the attention will get more people involved in this critical bird conservation initiative in Ottawa.  You can contact them at Ottawa@flap.org or 613-216-8999.  http://www.flap.org/ottawa.php

If you want to find out when the SongbirdSOS film featuring the bird rescue work of FLAP will be coming to a movie screen near you, please sign up for our newsletter.

Photos courtesy of Anouk Hoedeman

Stutchbury Tracks Tiny Songbird Migration with Geolocator

Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, Ornithologist and author (Silence of the Songbirds) was one of the first scientists to use light logger geolocators to track tiny songbirds. Watch this exclusive SongbirdSOS video of Bridget retrieving a geolocator from a Hooded Warbler for the first time.

Bridget told us how it came about…

I started tracking migratory songbirds in 2007, after discovering that light-logger geolocators had been miniaturized to only 1.5g by the British Antarctic Survey.  For the first time ever it was possible to attach this device to songbirds and, if they returned the next year, re-construct their start-to-finish migration routes and timing.  At this size it was only safe to track relatively large songbirds that weighed over 50 grams but most songbirds weigh far less than 50 grams.  As with any technology, the geolocators were soon made even smaller, allowing researchers to track smaller songbirds.

In 2010 I had the good fortune to test the smallest tags at that existed at that time (0.6g). The tags were built by James Fox from the British Antarctic Survey. I wanted to know if it was possible to track warblers, which typically weigh less than 15g.  In the spring of 2010, after receiving permission from the US Banding Lab to do a pilot study, I caught five Hooded Warblers at my long-term study site in northwestern Pennsylvania. It was with some trepidation that I gave these little birds a relatively large piece of luggage to carry for the next year. I followed them carefully over the next months to make sure they were healthy.

Bridget and Student

You could not tell that a male Hooded Warbler was carrying a geolocator unless you happened to get a really good look at his back.  They sang vigorously, chased other males, mated with their females, and all five males successfully raised a family.  That August, just before they were about to depart for their winter-time migration, I recaptured three of the males and I was pleased to notice that their weight was healthy and that they were moulting their feathers normally.

Then came the long nine month wait.  The next year two of the five males returned to re-claim their territories in May and seemed no worse for the wear.  Amazingly, Director Su Rynard  and her SongbirdSOS documentary crew was there when we captured the first warbler ever tracked with a geolocator! After analyzing the light data I discovered that this bird, 2430-41205, had flown south to the Florida panhandle, across the Gulf of Mexico, and spent the winter in central Nicaragua.  In spring, he flew up to the Yucatan peninsula, across the Gulf of Mexico and up the Mississippi River valley back to his exact same 100m x 100m territory in Pennsylvania.  Even after tracking several hundred songbirds, I still find it amazing that such a small bird can travel so far and with pinpoint accuracy.

Banded Hooded Warbler

What become of this infamous bird? Bridget’s colleague Dr. Ron Mumme from nearby Allegheny College has been studying Hooded Warblers in her backyard forest ever since. He reports that this bird survived to make a second round-trip the next year and again nested successfully, although he has not been seen since.

The second Hooded Warbler Bridget tracked also wintered in Nicaragua and has nested on the same breeding territory every year since 2010. He was at least two years old when first banded, which means he’s flown the 7000 kilometre round-trip at least four times in his lifetime for a total of 28 000 kilometres!!  He wasn’t spotted in 2014, and a new male has laid claim to his territory.

Bridget reminds us that Aristotle believed that migratory swallows buried themselves in the mud over the winter like frogs.  In many ways that seems far more likely than a little 12 gram bird flying over half-way across the globe.

Geolocators Track Songbird Migration

In only the last few years, songbird migration research has taken a huge leap forward as ornithologists and bird researchers have been able to find out more about bird migration due to light logger geolocator technology.

Research teams can now equip the songbirds with tiny computer chip backpacks that record light levels and location information every two minutes. Within the device is a real time clock reference built in for each location measurement. The researchers who have successfully retrieved the geolocator devices from returning songbirds say that when they analyse data for even a small number of birds,  it is astonishing what they find out regarding flight, speed, distance, stop over sites and wintering-ground destinations.

Geolocator in hand

The tricky part about using this miniaturized technology is that the geolocators are not capable of transmitting live data, so in order for the researcher to get the data from the bird, the songbird  has to not only has to be strong enough to  carry a computer chip backpack for 9 or 10 months, it has to return to the same spot it was tagged to be recaptured the following spring.   Because of the perilous migration journeys  most songbirds face, researchers never recover all the birds they tag.

Tagged Purple Martin

For our documentary, one of the migratory research studies we are looking at is in the Purple Martin Conservation area of Presque Isle Park on the shores of Lake Erie.  Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, ornithologist and  York University Professor, is featured in the documentary as she captures and tags Purple Martins at this site.

Another participant in the film, Dr. Martin Wikelski from the Max Plank Institute of Ornithology in Germany,  was a catalyst for a very  exciting tracking project – Movebank, which compiles the animal and bird migration geolocator records from hundreds of  scientists worldwide.

Songbirds in Decline but Conservation Works!

State of the Birds ReportThe State of the Birds report is out.  The report tries to mitigate the drastic news about further declines and more ‘red listed’ species with Conservation success stories. What does this mean for Songbirds? The news is not great, for forest songbirds, nor for neotropical migrants.

“The eastern forests indicator for 26 obligate breeding birds shows an overall drop of 32%, with a continued steady decline since 2009. Species dependent on either young forests (such as Golden-winged Warbler and Eastern Towhee) or mature deciduous forest (such as Wood Thrush and Cerulean Warbler) are showing the steepest declines. Because 84% of eastern forests are privately owned, timber companies and other forest owners can greatly benefit bird populations by maintaining large forest blocks and participating in sustainable forestry initiatives.

The western forests indicator, based on 39 obligate breeding species, has declined nearly 20% and has continued to decline since 2009. More than half of western forests are on public lands. Species dependent on oak and pinyonjuniper woodlands (such as Oak Titmouse and Pinyon Jay) are showing the steepest declines. As in the East, both early successional species (such as Rufous Hummingbird and MacGillivray’s Warbler) and mature forest species (such as Vaux’s Swift and Cassin’s Finch) are declining.”

I feel very fortunate to have encountered two of the songbirds mentioned above on the SSOS filmmaking journey. We recorded a Golden-winged Warbler in Costa Rica with Alejandra-Martinez-Salinas and a Wood Thrush in Waterloo Ontario with Lyle Friesen. On the downside, filming a Cerulean Warbler was impossible, as their numbers are way down, and the State of the Birds report, like our film SongbirdSOS, helps us understand why this is so. 

“Thirty Watch List species are Neotropical migrant songbirds that breed in North America and winter south of U.S. borders.

Neotropical migrant conservation requires international cooperation to protect habitats throughout their ranges, on the premise that conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean will ensure these birds return to the U.S. in spring. Bicknell’s Thrush, a breeding bird of Northeastern mountains, needs immediate action to stop deforestation in Hispaniola. Virginia’s Warbler and Rufous Hummingbird both breed in the West and winter in Mexican pine-oak and thorn forests.

Cerulean and Golden-winged warblers breed in eastern forests and winter in the tropics. These fast-declining species have benefitted from collaborations by scientists, agencies, and businesses that created breeding habitat on U.S.timberlands and wintering habitat in Colombian coffee-growing landscapes. Such partnerships provide a model for voluntary, international habitat conservation for other Neotropical migrants.”

 

 

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