Spring migration helped save our sanity; can the fall migration finish the job?

by Beverly and Anders Gyllenhaal
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Last spring, in the midst of the monotonous stay-at-home months, the spring migration not only saved the sanity of many but it helped launch a wave of new birders who discovered the wonders of the avian world just outside their windows.

As the fall migration gets started, it’s time to get back on the trails and pick up where we left off. If you are new to birding, there are some important things to know.

Juvenile Bald Eagles look nothing like the white-headed adults they will become. Photo by Anders Gyllenhaal

First off, a lot of birds will look much different than they did a few months before, making identifications tricky. That’s because some species, particularly male warblers, shed their brilliant breeding feathers, and the new ones aren’t nearly so distinct and colorful. Some guidebooks go so far as to call the fall birds drab.

To make matters more complicated, many young birds, eagles and gulls for example, are all splotchy and streaked and look nothing like their black-and-white parents.

Before you head out, it’s helpful to page through a guidebook to compare the fall and spring birds. And if you haven’t yet used the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this is the time to start. Merlin is a free bird identification wizard that combines science, data and your cell phone’s geolocation. All you have to do is answer three simple questions, and the list of possible birds pops right up on your screen. Click here for more info.

The startling page of the Merlin Bird ID app

The good news is that the fall migration offers a lot of chances to practice your identification skills. This is a slow-motion show that stretches from mid-summer through the beginning of January. If you happen to miss one group, never fear. Billions of birds from hundreds of species are close behind, with ducks and geese generally bringing up the rear. Even within the same species, a few birds can arrive early and a few will be stragglers.

The timing varies depending on where you live.

Ducks like these Blue-winged Teals move south late in the migration.

For new birders busy building a life list of sightings, knowing exactly what to see when and where can be vexing – especially in a time of social distancing. Fall is usually a great time to take birding walks led by experts from local Audubon chapters, nature centers and at fall birding festivals. (While these group outings aren’t available for Fall 2020, another option might be to hire a private guide. Google “birding tour guides” for your location of interest.)

One other helpful tool is called BirdCast, a joint project between the Colorado State University, Cornell and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, that provides real-time projections on its website and in alerts about the amount of migrating birds around the country. BirdCast even has a tool where you can search your area for real-time alerts as to how prevalent migrating birds are on any given night. Click here.

A sample of a BirdCast map, showing the highest migration action in the Upper Midwest and across the South. You can get projections for your area simply by plugging in your location.

Developed over 20 years, the concept tracks the daily flow of birds during the migrations, which is useful for protecting birds, conservation efforts and also to help birders know when the chances are best of seeing birds. Much of the migration action is aloft at night, but birdwatchers can improve their chances of spotting birds the following days on the ground.

And here’s a portion of a post we wrote last spring about the expansion of Cornell’s newest and most powerful tool for birders that will help with your fall migration planning. These are beautiful and information-rich maps and animations that track most of the North American species over each month of the year. You can find a complete list of the maps by species here on the Cornell website.

The full development of these maps are so valuable to birders that Beverly and I couldn’t agree on what’s most important here. So we thought we’d each make our case and let you come to your own conclusions.

Canada Warbler / Photo by James Hully, Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Beverly: The best way to appreciate this work is to start by looking at one of these animations. They’re beautiful, with patches of bright colors flowing back and forth across a map of the hemisphere that represent migrating birds week by week throughout the year.  I think these are the most compelling — and entertaining — of all the maps and illustrations that come under Cornell’s eBird umbrella. 

For example, here’s an animation of how the tiny Canada Warbler travels the length of the hemisphere twice a year. 

Not only can you watch the warblers’ weekly progress from far north Canada to Latin America and back, but you can use these maps to help figure out when they’re like to pass by you. And when you’re trying to find a bird you’ve never seen before, knowing exactly when the largest flocks are arriving is a huge help.

Anders: The point is that animations like the Canada Warbler, along with abundance, range and breeding maps, now exist for 610 species, which make up the bulk of the species in North America, in archives Cornell calls status and trends maps.

The lab began putting these together about two years ago as a way to convert their raw bird data into practical maps and show how birds move through the seasons of the year. The first batch of maps covered about 20 percent of the species, but the addition of the rest of the species opens all sorts of possibilities for comprehensive research and conservation approaches.

“This is a big jump in terms of the utility of the data project,’’ said Daniel Fink, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab.

Go to the end of this post for a summary of the full lineup of birding options from Cornell. 

Beverly: Any dedicated birder will be excited about the research and conservation possibilities. But the reason to put a focus on the birders in all of this is that we are helping to create the data.

Every time birders file checklists of species on their eBird app, Cornell collects the data in the first step of the process. Each checklist tells the number of birds spotted and exactly where they were.

As eBird has gained traction, the number of users has risen dramatically — with a total of 500,000 regular users to date who together have filed about 42 million checklists. That’s a lot of birds.

In the past two years alone, the number of visitors to eBird overall has nearly doubled, jumping from 2.6 million in 2017 to 5.2 million in 2019, said Ian Davies, the eBird project coordinator. About half of those visitors submit checklists of the birds they see that, once enhanced by radar and weather data, is the raw material for Cornell’s maps and animations.

“I never fail to be amazed at the collective power of people who appreciate birds,” said Davies. “None of this would be possible without people who care about birds.”

Anders: That’s a really important point, and I would guess one of the reasons contributors are increasing so much is because birders understand how our checklists serve the greater good.

Amanda Rodewald

Amanda Rodewald, director of conservation science at the lab and an ornithology professor at Cornell, said wildlife managers and bird organizations are using the data and maps to guide conservation plans — including more targeted measures than weren’t possible in the past.

One of the best examples is in California’s Central Valley, one of the nation’s agricultural centers that doubles as a flyway for birds. Biologists are working with farmers to flood their fields during a few weeks of migration to provide stopover for migrating birds. 

This has dramatically increased the birds coming through, and also enables farming on those fields for all but a few weeks of the year.

“This project gives us so much more information from which we’re able to make really good decisions about the kind of conservation actions that are needed,’’ Rodewald said.

Beverly: The great thing about using these apps for birding is that you get back as much as you’re giving. 

Every time you file a checklist, you’re building a lifetime list of every bird you’ve ever seen. Cornell stores the information online in your personal account, and you can refer back to your checklists at any time or download your own data. You can also see the checklists of other birders to figure out which species you’re most likely to see, and where, on any given day. We almost always use eBird to help us choose where to go birding — and even at what time of day. We use the companion app called Merlin Bird ID to help us immediately identify birds we don’t yet know. I still can’t believe it’s all free.

Anders: The last point to make is that this data and mapping provides the research firepower at a time when understanding the science of birds can help protect them.

Scientists once had to work from rough estimates of bird populations, and mere guesses about migration. Now they can draw on precision data on what birds are doing, how many there are and where they’re going.

In the last year alone, we’ve seen some of the most important avian research of our times, including major studies on the loss of about a third of the bird population, shifts in the timing of migration in North America and the likely impacts of climate change on birds. All told, eBird data has been used in about 300 scientific studies around the world. 

“The data allows us just an unparalleled lens into the movement, the distribution and the abundance of birds,’’ said Cornell’s Amanda Rodewald.

The Barn Swallow is one of 610 species featured in maps and animations./ Photo by Brian E. Kushner, provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell data on birds comes in several forms, all free and each with different strengths. The most useful and portable for the birder in the field is found on the eBird smartphone app, which draws from raw data and is the most up to date guidance on where birds can be found. The eBird app is also how you file checklists and keep up with your life list. The companion Merlin Bird ID smartphone app can help you identify birds you see. On the Cornell eBird website, you can find a wealth of maps and species data. For maps and species information, go to the Explore section of the website. You’ll find an introduction to the status and trends maps that are the subject of this post under the Science section of the Cornell website. With so many places you can go for data, it can be confusing to find your way. But if you learn to use all these tools, they provide excellent guidance for finding species, understanding their practices and habitat and tracking their paths through the year.

Beverly: Let’s wind things up with an animation, this one of the Barn Swallow, another long-distance migratory bird that travels from Canada to the southernmost reaches of South America. It’s fall, and all these birds are headed our way. I can’t wait to get out there and start counting!

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