Bird sightings and high tech combine to understand bird migration

Bird sightings and high tech combine to understand bird migration

  • By Lynne Sealie
  •  April 6, 2011
  •  Tags:  Australia's species Blogs & news

Scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology are working on a DataONE project to investigate the affects of climate change on bird migration in the USA. The Atlas of Living Australia is an overseas partner of DataONE.

By combining a database of bird sightings (contributed by birdwatchers) with satellite data and supercomputing, scientists can analyse bird species distribution and migration patterns. See the excellent slide presentation by Steve Kelling, Director of Information Science at Cornell’s ornithology laboratory.
“We’re trying to address a really important question with regard to climate change: How might climate change influence the migration patterns of birds?” said Bob Cook, a distinguished research scientist at ORNL involved with the effort. “The approach we’re taking here is we’re trying to bring together as much environmental data as we can to try to understand what influences the bird migration.”
Bird sightings are taken from eBird, an online database that gathers bird observations from citizen scientists. eBird, run jointly by Cornell University and the National Audubon Society, passes each observation record through a two tiered
data verification system. Last year, 22,136 bird watchers submitted 18,214, 480 observations to eBird.

Via eBird “we have really good information on the location where observations were made,” Steve Kelling, Director of Information Science at Cornell’s ornithology lab, said. “We can link those with other kinds of environmental observations, like land cover, type of climate, temperature, elevation and human demographic information.”
A NASA satellite sensor, MODIS — short for “Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer”, provides the land cover information, including vegetation density index, or “greenness” of the local area; rainfall; temperature; snow cover; as well as the start of spring greening and autumn, two important environmental cues for bird migration.
This huge amount of data can only be analysed on supercomputers, provided by TeraGrid, a National Science Foundation-administered network of supercomputers.
The investigators can pull specific data generated by NASA’s MODIS satellite sensor, link it to field observations from eBird, and conduct more complex analyses using supercomputers, such as modeling how variations in vegetation linked to climate change can affect bird migration.

Eventually, the scientists would like to develop models that can forecast how future climate shifts might affect bird populations.
“We’d like to be able to shift the greening index to occur two weeks earlier or two weeks later and see if that influences the model’s predictions of when birds will arrive at certain latitudes,” Kelling said.
Climate change could produce a mismatch between a bird species’ cue to migrate or nest and the availability of food, he noted, a phenomenon that’s been observed with some species in Europe.
Several recent reports — including two by the Interior Department and one from the National Audubon Society — have found evidence that climate change is already altering bird habitat and migration patterns in the United States. For further information, contact: Morgan McCorkle,