The SongbirdSOS film crew ventured to New York City to film with Andrew Farnsworth, a Research Associate of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology during the annual 911 Memorial Tribute in Lights. While there with some volunteers from the New York City Audubon , we also found out more about the exciting and ambitious Bird Cast project, which aims to provide a window into the world of migration at a scale previously unimaginable.
Farnsworth is hopeful, as are his collaborators, this new vision of migratory behavior could ultimately be used to prevent the deaths of millions of birds. In this video clip, Farnsworth explains how cool 21st technology is changing migratory bird research.
Andrew Farnsworth grew up in the greener and quieter suburbs of the city where he now lives, watching the seasons – and weather and most importantly birds – change. Throughout his childhood Andrew says he would wonder about the calls of passing nocturnal migrants, fully aware of the identities of some species and be completely befuddled by others.
As did many students of migration, he read with great interest about the ways to grasp the otherwise unfathomable magnitudes of birds migrating under the cover of darkness, occasionally seeing glimpses of their shapes while watching the moon or by the lights of tall buildings.
When we caught up with Andrew at the 911 Tribute last year, he and members of the Audubon Society were situated on a parking garage roof in Manhattan, at the base of the lights, observing and monitoring the powerful beams for bird action. Our director Su Rynard and the SongbirdSOS crew documented the evening, filming from dusk until almost dawn.
While the powerful lights provided a spectacular opportunity to observe and film migratory birds, the dangers were also apparent. That night they had to shut the lights down several times, which allowed migratory birds that became trapped and circling in the lights, to disperse.
Andrew said the prospects for this year’s Tribute in Light were intriguing. Unlike many previous years, a frontal boundary was approaching the region and generating potential for a large flight of migrants to coincide with the memorial. Thankfully, the passage of the front did not occur until several hours after sunset, and the potentially large number of migrants getting caught in the light did not become a reality that evening.
According to Andrew, “Some birds did fly through the beams on the night of the Tribute, though mostly at high altitude and without stopping and circling. Of interest was the peak in numbers after the winds strengthened with the arriving air mass behind the front. Many seemed to hold off and made their migratory passage through the city the following night, long after the tribute lights had been extinguished.”
Andrew’s also been working on another pilot project that many who track birds will recognize as a long standing goal to create a device to record, detect, classify, and post to a website flight calls of migrating songbirds.
He is doing that in collaboration with other scientists at the Cornell Lab and he encourages volunteer citizen scientists to get involved by contributing their recordings from low-cost but effective microphones like those designed by acoustic monitoring pioneer Bill Evans.
Farnsworth continues to post weekly BirdCast forecasts for four regions of the US based on forecast weather and previous eBird data to give birders a sense of what species will be on the move and in what numbers. There are also weekly analyses for these same regions, highlights from eBird data of which what species actually occurred and what the radar looked like at a typical peak hour of nocturnal movement
The scenes in SongbirdSOS at the 911 Memorial Tribute site are quite beautiful. If you’d like to know when the film is screening near you, please join our community.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
The 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.”