How birders are helping to unravel mysteries of the migrations

The new Cornell maps of bird migrations look for all the world like works of art: great swaths of color splash across digital canvasses that would be at home on the walls of a modern art museum.

This map reflects the migration travels of the Pied-billed Grebe, with the different colors showing the stops over the course of a year.

They are also the most powerful tools yet for deciphering the inner workings of the migrations each spring and fall. As if that’s not enough, the maps could hold the key to determining how birds are adapting to global warming.

“The amount of information in these maps is way beyond what any single source or even combination of sources could give you,’’ said Marshall Iliff, project leader for Cornell’s eBird program. “It’s on a scale that’s never been done before.’’

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the latest phase of its mapping project two months ago to only limited fanfare in the early going. That’s likely to change as word gets out and more animations are added beyond the first 107 species. 

What sets the new maps apart is the way they come alive with the click of a button. You suddenly see a species’ entire migration unfold, moving south over the course of the fall and then back north during the spring. The maps are fueled

Mapping the Bald Eagle: see below for an animated version.

by the tens of millions of bird lists sent in by 120,000 birders across the hemisphere. The animations are then adjusted with a stew of scientific, satellite and wildlife data to approximate and in some cases predict how the collective birds will move.

Marshall Iliff

As a result, the animations are one of the most ambitious scientific crowd-sourcing experiments underway anywhere today.  “We’re really excited about it,’’ said Iliff. “It’s definitely big data ornithology. It’s a whole new concept.’’

( Click here for an index of the 107 species in the first phase of the project. Click here to explore that data behind the maps, which can help birders find hotspots and explore raw observations about species. And click here for the introduction to the eBird maps).

In addition to the animations, maps chart the growth and decline of species, the habitat and the overall populations. This map shows the increase in the Eurasian Collared-Dove (blue) everywhere in the West except one section of the Gulf Coast.

If you spend time on the Cornell site, you’ll be struck by the beauty of these displays. That was one of the aims, since they are part of an uphill rescue campaign on behalf of birds. You quickly begin to see the strength of these visualizations to tell complex stories not possible until now.

Cornell started mapping bird data in 2002, about the time the spread of smart phones and then apps enabled people to share everything from their ratings of movies and restaurants to selfies. Contributing to a scientific endeavor is a harder sell, but in exchange for filing lists, birders get guidance on what birds are where — and that can make all the difference on a birdwatching trip. This version of what’s come to be called “citizen science” turns out to be good for everybody.

There’s just a tremendous community of people who already love watching birds for the sake of watching them,” said Miyoko Chu, senior director of communications at the Cornell Lab who added that they’ve been thrilled and thankful for the extensive response.

Here are a couple of intriguing samples of the animations posted on the eBird website – followed by a look at some cases where the eBird research is making a difference in the campaign to save endangered birds.

This animation shows the path of the Sandhill Crane, one of the birds that travels the farthest over the course of the year:

Here is the animation of the Bald Eagle, another long-distance traveler that visits almost every state at some point:

And here is the migration for the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a wisp of a bird that travels from as far north as Canada to Central America:

The eBird usage is increasing steadily, according to Cornell’s tracking page that keeps up with the numbers daily: the eBird app has been downloaded more than 432,000 times (although regular users are closer to 120,000), and people have recorded 32 million checklists of 10,400 different species of birds they’ve spotted.

The practice is spreading to other countries, which in time will enable the project to have worldwide application. (The eBird app has been translated into 40 languages so far.) The maps are also starting to be used for specific projects by government regulators handling wildlife protection.

Mapping the increases (blue) and declines (red) of the American Robin.

The animations are included in the major State of the Bird reports that go to the White House. The eBird staff is open to adding specific species to the research that state, federal or nonprofit agencies are interested in, which could help pay for additional species maps. 

The eBird project has led to some innovative solutions for protecting birds.

One of the most interesting was in California’s Central Valley a couple of years ago. The valley, among the nation’s most productive farming regions, was struggling to balance the irrigation needs of farmers against the water needs of dozens of migratory species in a time of drought.

The solution turned out to be the eBird reporting tools. Birders were organized to track migratory species along the Pacific flyway with more precision than ever before. As a result, managers with the Nature Conservancy were able to launch a new program to pay farmers to leave their fields flooded temporarily to serve specific migrations – down to the week, exact fields and amounts of water the birds needed.

Everybody responded to the crisis. Birders dramatically upped their reporting, realizing that their lists were being used directly to help protect birds. Farmers embraced the arrangement through a water auction — far less expensive than the traditional practice of buying land outright. Wildlife managers said more than 220,000 birds from 50 different species made use of the fields, visiting at rates 10 times higher than elsewhere in the region not part of the project.

The Eastern Bluebird is losing population in the center of its territory, and gaining around the edges.

The new phase of the eBird mapping is still in the early stages, since only about 1 percent of all species are currently included. But those numbers will rise steadily, Cornell says. As they do, the most important picture will begin to fill in: How are specific species reacting to the accelerating rate of global warming?

“The question is, how are birds keeping up with climate change,’’ said Iliff, who added that researchers are seeing a marked difference in species and regions – information that will help shape the response.

“Being able to summarize these metrics with scientific background is going to be one of the really exciting ways this will be used,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of potential going forward.’’

And, of course, this isn’t only about the birds and wildlife. “Birds are just a relatable character in the story of how climate change can affects all of us,” said Cornell’s Miyoko Chu.





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