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[Lisa Kopp] Hello, everyone. Welcome. We are excited to have you here today. We’ve got a really exciting hour, where we are going to be talking about BirdCast, which is one of my favorite projects at the Lab to talk about. I’m going to welcome on our panelists, so they can give a quick wave and hello before I jump into some announcements. So we have Andrew Farnsworth, Audrey Carlson, and Julia Wang. We’ll hear from them in just a minute, including a little bit about their backgrounds, but first, I want to do a few introductions.

So today’s webinar is coming to you from the Lab of Ornithology, and my name is Lisa Kopp. I’m on the Visitor Center Team at the Lab, and I’ll be moderating and facilitating today’s conversation. Like I said, the people you really want to hear from are our panelists. But I will be relaying your questions and comments along to them throughout the way. So today’s webinar is being hosted from Ithaca, New York, and I want to read a statement acknowledging the Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this area.

Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogoho:no the Cayuga Nation. The Gayogoho:no are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogoho:no dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogoho:no people, past and present, to these lands and waters.

And for those of you who aren’t familiar, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology part of Cornell University is home to a community of researchers and supporters from around the world, and we appreciate birds and biodiversity and the integral role that birds play in our ecosystems. And our mission is to advance leading edge research, education, and citizen science to help solve pressing conservation challenges, and you’ll hear some of those today. So a couple of tech notes before we get started.

We are going to have closed captioning avaiLable on Zoom, so that’s an option that you can choose on the bottom panel or on your bottom toolbar in Zoom. You can hide or show the captions if you need those. We are going to be doing– we’re going to be hearing from all three of our panelists. We’re going to start out with Audrey, who’s going to talk about the dashboard feature in BirdCast and how you can use this. Then we’re going to hear from Julia about how we can help birds right now during migration and throughout the year, and then Andrew is going to talk about what’s happening right now out there during peak migration season and some of the big picture ideas around bird cast.

And so we’re going to take questions for each of the presenters in between their presentations, and then we’ll have some time at the end to finish up with questions as well. So we’re going to use the Q&A in Zoom for your questions, and we’re just going to use the chat for any tech issue. So that’s the place if all of a sudden you can’t hear me, or something’s really choppy, or you can’t see a screen, you can put that in the chat. And we’ve got some great colleagues behind the scenes, who are helping with the chat and with the Q&A.

We are also streaming on YouTube, so hello to those of you watching on YouTube. We’re excited to have you, and you can also participate using the YouTube chat. And again, we’ve got a fantastic colleague, Sarah, behind the scenes who’s helping to relay any questions that are coming in from YouTube along to me so that you can be a part of the conversation. If you registered over Zoom, you will get an email in the next couple of days with a link to the recording of this. So I like to remind people of that at the beginning because sometimes we cover so much information in an hour that it can be really hard to feel like you’re catching all of it. So the best part about getting the recorded link is that you can pause it and go to a website or play around with something and then come back and listen or watch the rest.

So keep an eye out for that, and if you are watching on YouTube, you can always go to our Bird Academy page and check out the recording to this webinar as well as countless other webinars we’ve posted over the past couple of years. I think I’ve covered everything, so let’s get started. Thank you, again, Audrey, Julia, and Andrew for being here today. I’d love to get started by just hearing about you and your background and a little bit about what you do for the Lab, and we can go in the order that you all will be presenting. So we’ll start with Audrey, and then we’ll go to Julia, and then Andrew.

[Audrey Carlson] Hi, everyone. I’m Audrey. I work remotely from Seattle for the Lab, so I’m one of our West Coast representatives. I’ve been at the Lab about a year and a half, and I’ve worked with BirdCast as well as some other projects, mostly doing data visualization work as well as other work that we need for eBird or Merlin. My background before this is actually in journalism. I was working for quite a few years, making graphics and other kind of data interactives in that setting but decided to take a break from that and try out something that was first a hobby and has brought me a lot of joy over the past few years, which is learning more about birds, so I’m happy to be here at the Lab.

[Lisa Kopp] Wonderful. Thank you.

[Julia Wang] Hey, everyone. I’m Julia. I’m based in Austin, Texas. I also work remotely for the Lab, and I’ve been a BirdCast project leader since 2020. I work mostly on our science to action campaigns on the coordination of all of those, and my background originally was in poli sci.

[Andrew Farnsworth] Hi everyone. I’m Andrew. I’m a senior research associate at the Lab. I actually work remotely also. I’m in New York State, but I’m downstate in Manhattan in New York City. Before I did this, which I’ve been doing at the Lab now on and off for maybe 15 or 20 years now, I still studied birds. And I’ve been interested in migration for my whole life, so this is a really wonderful opportunity. I’m happy that you’re all here in the audience today. This team, part of which you’ll hear from today, is an exceptional group of people working at a really wonderful place, so we’re looking forward to telling you all about migration today and also various things we can do to help migration along and also study it and experience it, so onward. Thank you for being here.

[Lisa Kopp] Right. All right. So I think we’re going to kick things off with you, Audrey, and while you start screen sharing, I’m going to pop a link to the space within BirdCast that you’re going to be speaking about specifically.

[Audrey Carlson] All right. So I’m going to be walking through the migration dashboard just a little bit for folks who might not have visited in a while or maybe are new to it. We first launched the dashboard just about a year ago. Just about a year ago, we actually gave a talk introducing it for the first time to you all, so it’s nice to be able to revisit it. I wanted to review what products BirdCast had up until we launched the dashboard. For a while, we’ve been able to provide forecasts of migration intensity over the next few nights to give a sense of what we think might happen. That’s what these are. Some of you may recognize those. As well as a sense of what has already happened the night before throughout the night.

But both of these are on an overall fully national level and can’t really tell you what’s happening right in the moment. It’s either a look to the future or a look into the past. So one of the things that the dashboard has been able to give us is more of a view into what’s happening right now on any given night when it comes to bird migration, and we can show a lot more granular data as well as showing it on down to a county level for any county in the contiguous United States. So I just wanted to walk through it and highlight some of the things that you might be able to poke around on your own in your free time.

The URL is so this is our landing page. And from here, you can search for any state or county in the lower 48. Oops, so let’s try Texas. Texas had a huge night last night. We can already see that just based on some of the numbers at the top and this little badge here that says that it was a high night. So almost 85 million birds crossed Texas last night according to BirdCast, and we also get a snapshot here of what that looked like at the peak time of the night. So upwards of like 177 million birds were crossing Texas last night, moving in a northerly direction, which we would we’d expect for this time of year, as well as some other statistics about what was going on.

For people that care to really get into the details of it, we provide a lot of different ways of looking at what’s going on. One of those is across the night, we can see how many birds in flight there were at any given time. So starting right at sunset and all the way until sunrise the next morning, which is when we run our live data feed. We can see that there was this nice increase throughout the night of how many birds were actually in the air, and you can compare that to this gray arc down here below, which is a historic average to give you a sense of whether this is normal or out of the ordinary.

Similarly, we also give information throughout the night on what direction birds were generally flying as well as the average speed that they were flying at, and we also show what average altitude they were flying at throughout the night, again, with this gray historic average to be able to compare it to. In addition, we also wanted to give a sense for people that might want more context or just compare it to like, is this normal? Is this really special? Give a sense of how things are going throughout the whole season. So we can see that right now for April 30, which was last night, this was actually one of the largest surges of migrations in Texas for this whole season.

We started out in March with just like chugging along here, and really things started to get very active right around the end of April, which again, if you compare this to the gray curve we have here, comparing it to historic data, it’s pretty expected. But at the same time, definitely exciting. And this final curve here shows the cumulative number of birds that have crossed Texas throughout the entire season, so that’s a curve that’s going to go up over time, but we can see that right now. We’re really in that middle sweet spot and tracking pretty well with historic averages. Maybe just a little bit lower. But pretty much you can see that the historic numbers match pretty well with what we’re seeing today.

Another exciting feature of this that we’re testing out is being able to show what expected nocturnal migrants were actually seeing coming through. So because we’re using radar data to detect the number of birds that are passing through, that technology can’t actually identify any given bird and tell you what species it is, but we can give you a pretty good sense of what might be up there based on the historic records we have from eBird. So that’s people that have been submitting their own observations of what species they’re seeing at this time of year in specific places. So based on that, we can actually get a pretty good sense of what kinds of species might be flying through and representing these numbers.

As a reminder, because we’re talking about nocturnal migration, this is all happening at nighttime. We turn on the live data feed right around sunset every night for any given region. Turn it off at sunrise the next morning. So that means that if you come to this page during the day, you’re going to see the results from the previous night, but if you’re a real fanatic and you want to see what’s going on at midnight, if you come to this page, you’ll actually be getting near real time data. It comes in about every 10 to 20 minutes, so you can track what’s truly going on right above your head.

Additionally, you can go back and explore any date. We have, I think, currently the last two years of data loaded into the dashboard, so that is both for spring and fall migration. So you can explore different days. If you see a peak on a certain day and you’re curious to learn more about it– let’s say, April 27 here– you can just get into that data right from here. Additionally, we can look up, like I said, any state or county. So just to prove that point, let’s go ahead and just look up another place. And we’ll see that for here, we have completely different numbers. Different expected migrants are going to show up here, so this is really tailored to your local environment or a place that you might want to be tracking. OK. That’s a pretty brief overview. I’m sure a lot of people have maybe seen this too already, so we just wanted to give people a reminder of it, but happy to pause if there are any questions about this.

[Lisa Kopp] There are a couple of questions coming up, Audrey. One is, is this just in the US? Is there anything for Canada or Mexico?

[Audrey Carlson] Yeah, that’s a question we get a lot. This is just for the US right now, and that actually doesn’t include Alaska or Hawaii. So it’s the contiguous United States– the lower 48. We definitely get the question, especially about Canada a lot. Andrew can speak to this more, but I believe that because our data is coming from an American Institution, we’re getting it from the National Weather Service, I think there’s more complication there that would just take longer to expand this elsewhere. But Andrew, feel free to jump in if there’s more nuance to that.

[Andrew Farnsworth] No. That’s the nuance. Basically federally-funded project in the US and federally-funded institutions so publicly available data very easily. Very different from the rest of the world, where– for example, in the European Union, where there’s an enormous amount of radar information that comes in, but each country controls its own meteorological office, and there’s all sorts of geopolitics involved. So a little different in the US.

[Lisa Kopp] Right. Thank you. Audrey, there’s a question about what the difference is between the two numbers on the left and the right.

[Audrey Carlson] That’s up here at the top– the big numbers?

[Lisa Kopp] Yeah.

[Audrey Carlson] Yeah, that’s a good question as well. Yeah, there’s a bit of a nuanced difference between the two. So we can both track how many birds are in flight at any given point, so that’s actually this number here. So 400– basically 400,000 birds in flight. In theory that means if you looked up in the air, and you had night vision, and you had the power to see the entire sky across LA county, that’s how many birds you would detect. We’re highlighting here the highest number throughout the night, so that’s what we’re calling peak migration. So for this day on April 27, that was around 11:00, 10:00 PM in LA.

The bigger number over on the left is the total number of birds throughout the night that have actually made it across the entire county. So since when we’re thinking about migration, I mean, part of that is the vast distances that these birds are traveling. That’s getting at a slightly different thing, which is why that number is often going to be lower than the number of birds in flight. Because especially when you’re maybe talking about as big of a region as the State of Texas, many of the birds that are in the air might not actually make it across the entire state, so they’re not going to be included in that number.

[Lisa Kopp] OK. Thank you. Another question is, how far back is the historical data going that some of these numbers are based on?

[Audrey Carlson] Yeah. We have the data quite far back. Currently, we have two years worth in the dashboard. So I believe it goes back to– I think it’s fall 2021 right now, and I should mention that for each season– so spring, migration– we’re defining as March 1 to June 15. So we turn on the app March 1. We’re about halfway through, and then it’ll go back to sleep. In June, you can still definitely always access the historic data that we have up, and then we’ll go online again in the fall. I believe it is August. Is it August 1? And then goes through November 15.

[Lisa Kopp] OK. And there’s– I see there’s a lot of questions here about how this is all done, and Andrew’s actually going to get into that towards the end of– towards the midpoint. We wanted to start with something that you could really look at, like, totally based on where you live, and put into practical use like for tonight. And so we’re going to get to some of the bigger questions that you’ve got here in the Q&A and in the chat. Audrey, we’re getting– could you maybe highlight one more time the question between the two big numbers? We’re getting a couple more questions about confusion around that.

[Audrey Carlson] Sure. So the number on the– I’ll maybe go in reverse this time. So the number on the left, that large number, that’s the total number of birds throughout the whole night– so when we start tracking at sunset to sunrise– that have passed through the entire county. So let’s just– super basic. Let’s say they’re flying from South to North. That’s 277,000 birds that have flown from the bottom of LA County successfully all the way through the county and have passed on to whichever county is North of there.

The smaller number, this peak migration traffic number, that’s at any given moment, we can track that here in this chart actually as well. That’s the number of birds that are in the air at any given point, and this is the maximum number that we’ve been able to detect at some time during the night. So these aren’t necessarily birds that are all making it across that like that finish line. They’ve cleared LA County, and they’re their way somewhere else. It’s just the number of birds that are in the air at that time.

[Lisa Kopp] Right. Not necessarily on their way in and out of the County but are in the area.

[Audrey Carlson] In progress.

[Lisa Kopp] Got it. OK.

[Audrey Carlson] Maybe the difference, if you thought about like a footrace like a marathon, it’s the number of participants in the race, versus the number who actually successfully finished the race in a certain amount of time.

[Lisa Kopp] That’s a very on the fly metaphor. That’s great. OK. Is there anything else that you want to share specifically about the dashboard or people using it for their own uses?

[Audrey Carlson] Yeah. I think just one thing I wanted to highlight that I think Andrew will get into more, but a lot of this can just look like, wow, how do I even make sense of any of this? But that’s part of what’s so interesting about it. Is that you can see it starts to lead to a lot of questions. Like, what’s going on in LA? We’re seeing some patterns of some really big, almost regular, spikes here. And when you look at different areas, you might see a very different pattern, and that actually can really map with things we know are going on in terms of geography or weather patterns or things like that. So it’s really interesting when you start getting into the actual stories behind it, which I think Andrew’s going to touch on more later.

[Lisa Kopp] Right. Thank you. So fascinating. I don’t think that we’re done talking about the dashboard specifically, but I wanted to switch gears for just a moment and ask Julia to come on and talk about how we might be able to help some of these thousands and thousands of birds flying out for us at night.

[Julia Wang] Absolutely. Excited to do so, what with all these birds moving through the [INAUDIBLE] as we peak migration. We’re really excited to share ways that you can use our tools to combat some of the issues these birds are facing during a particularly dangerous period of their lives. Let me just pull up some slides, and we can get right into it.

All right. So we wanted to frame this in the context of birds over the last couple of decades. In this context of loss, where we’ve lost–

[Lisa Kopp] Hold on, Julia. We’re actually just seeing a gray screen right now.

[Julia Wang] Oh. OK.

[Lisa Kopp] I saw your slides for a second, but now it’s just gray.

[Julia Wang] Huh, give me one second.

[Lisa Kopp] No problem. There we go. Now, we can see them.

[Julia Wang] OK. Let me see if this works as meant here. One second. OK. Are you guys seeing them now?

[Lisa Kopp] No, we’re– oh, there we go. There we go.

[Julia Wang] OK, perfect. OK. So back to it. We wanted to present this in the context of the bird losses that we’ve suffered over the course of the last couple of decades, wherein we’ve seen about one in four birds or about 3 billion birds lost since 1970 in under the span of a single human lifetime, many of these being migratory birds. And what with BirdCast preoccupation, with forecasting when and where a lot of these migratory birds are moving, we hope that you’re able to use our tools in order to better understand and react to these birds to help protect them.

One of the major sources of mortality for these birds is collision, which is a problem anywhere there are buildings, residences, power lines, wind turbines, et cetera, especially among buildings and residences, which amount to hundreds of millions of estimated collisions in the US annually. And bird tests can help us better understand when birds are going to be passing these buildings in particular or these wind turbines in particular, so we know better where to site wind turbines, when buildings should react in a certain way to birds passing through.

And here, you can see a couple of examples of what happens when we don’t have these safeguarding conservation practices in effect. Unfortunately, light pollution is an implicating factor in collisions. As light pollution– well, let me go back a couple of steps. A lot of migratory birds, the majority of them, about 80% of North American migratory birds, migrate at night, navigating using the stars and other natural signals. And the light pollution coming from our urban centers can draw them away from their normal pathways towards these urban hazards, including building collisions, and collisions with residences, and exposures to toxins and such.

Our focus on this page is some of the major mass mortality building collisions that have happened, where light pollution has been implicated over the last couple of years. And so if you take a look on the left, you can see terribly sad example in Manhattan from 2021. This is a collision monitor out in the morning collecting hundreds and hundreds of birds. Here’s an article in the middle about a similar event in Philadelphia that killed likely upwards of a thousand in a single night as well. And to the far right, you can see something that’s a little more personal to me here in Texas– a collision that happened in 2017 at a single lit building during a migration night of poor weather, which killed nearly 400 birds in a single night.

And so here, you can see a little bit of the effect that these lights have on birds. The video that is playing to the left is actually of the 9/11 Memorial and tribute in light in York City, which shines every year on 9/11 and consists of very, very bright xenon lights. And what you’re seeing swirling in these lights is not in fact insects but rather birds trapped in these beams endlessly circling, which is very unfortunate and exhausting them, distracting them, et cetera, and generally distracting from their natural behavior.

We’ve been working with New York City Audubon and the Memorial and life for the last several years in order to monitor, film, and deal with this phenomenon. The good news is that turning off these lights very rapidly returns birds to normal behavior, and they disperse very quickly. So approximately every 20 minutes, the lights are shut off, and birds which are circling, often in the thousands if not the tens of thousands, will return to just a normal couple of hundred. And here, you can see a radar scan of that density change from 10:12 PM to 10:32 PM when lights are off versus on in Manhattan from 2015.

[Lisa Kopp] That’s incredible. Such a striking difference.

[Julia Wang] Seriously– to see from overhead like that.

[Lisa Kopp] Yeah, so quickly.

[Julia Wang] Yeah. No, for real. And here, we can also see another case study of this effect of light pollution on birds. This building is known as McCormick Center in Chicago. It’s I believe the largest convention center in the lower 48, and it’s a huge, primarily glass, building located right off of the lake, which sees a lot of migratory birds passing through. And unfortunately, it is a major bird killer with that location, with all that glass, and with a lot of light emitting from the glass. But the good news is here is that McCormick Center has been working with us and the Chicago Field Museum for a couple of decades now to better understand this light pollution mortality problem.

And so there’s a pretty extensive data set there that we’ve taken a look at. And what we’ve seen, what we know from this data set from the last 20 years, is that, first of all, the worst collisions, the greatest number of collisions often happened due to a high volume of migration, and poor weather, and the amount of light emitted from the building. And secondly, that reducing the light emitted from that building reduces the birds that die colliding with that building every night. In fact, if we reduce the building to historically low light levels, we save about an estimated about 60% of birds.

This is in contrast to when the building is totally lit, when we estimate that about– there’s an estimated 76% increase in mortalities at that building instead. So we see that increasing or decreasing the amount of light coming from buildings changes the collisions. And so given all that, we support people, buildings, cities, whoever possible following lights out guidelines, especially during migration and especially during periods of particularly high migration when birds are likely to be at risk. This is a rather extensive list of guidelines, which you can find at BirdCast on our Science-to-Action Lights Out page with a lot more information about this. But generally, we recommend that as much as possible people turn off non-essential lighting during migration from 11:00 PM to 6:00 AM, and where it’s not possible to turn things off to keep them low, long, or shielded.

[Lisa Kopp] And I just put the link to the Lights Out website in the chat so everybody can check that out and bookmark it to see all of the different things they could do at their own homes.

[Julia Wang] Thank you. So here’s an example of one of the ways that BirdCast has been working on lights out. We’ve been heavily involved in coordinating the Lights Out Texas effort, working with cities, building owners and managers, as well as the community and residences in Texas, given a conservation need of high migration volume and high light pollution in Texas. And so what you can see in this little animation is spring 2021. The Dallas Mayor issued a Lights Out proclamation in Dallas, which he’s been doing for the last couple of seasons, asking city buildings to turn off their lights during peak migration nights.

And so you have this beautiful skyline, lovely and dark for migration, to protect birds, and a smattering of articles about the rest of the effort, which has grown both across Texas and across the country leveraging BirdCast tools. And so the tool that I in particular wanted to talk to you guys about today is our migration alerts, so that we are all better able to respond to these peak nights of migration. And this is a tool that you may already be familiar with that we started vetoing in 2021. And you can find it both on our main page, as well as under Migration Tools Labeled as Migration Alerts.

This is also a tool for the lower 48, and you can enter your city or your county and figure out the predictions for that night and the next two nights for your area about what we’re expecting– if we’re expecting low migration, medium migration, or high migration for that night for your area. If it’s a night of high migration, it triggers what we call a migration alert, where we ask you to turn lights out to save migrating birds. Of course, we’d love if you turn your lights out as much as possible throughout migration, but if there are conflicting obligations and such, we prioritize these nights, and we’d love to let you know.

As of this spring, we have also provided an expanded subscribe to alerts function, which I’ll show you over here. Over on the left, you can see all of the cities that we currently allow to subscribe to alerts. These alerts, if you subscribe, will be sent to your inbox, your email inbox on the day that the alert is issued, earlier in the day, to give you a little time to react to it. The email alert looks like the one that you’ll see on the right here, which was issued a few weeks ago here in Texas or actually the 27th of April, so more recently than that just this last week.

And so to head off the question that I know is looming, why do we only offer the alerts in these cities? We’ve recently expanded our alerts from just Texas, where we were working in a number of cities on lights our efforts to a broader array of cities across the US that are concerns in terms of the interaction between migration volume and light pollution and are thus priorities for us. We’re hoping to expand this feature in the future as we are able to support it, but as of this moment, alerts are currently enabled for these cities via email. So feel free to go check it out, subscribe, and learn more on the broadcast website under Migration Tools and Science-to-Action. And with that, I’ll leave you with a little video that we’ve just put together and released this spring about light pollution and birds.



– Birds bring us joy and are vital to our planet’s ecosystems, but they are disappearing from our skies. According to a recent study, 3 billion birds– that’s one in four– have been lost during the last 50 years in the US and Canada alone. But we can help. I’m Jane Alexander, and I’m hoping that during this migration season, you will turn out lights for birds . Most migrating birds travel at night. Lights can attract and disorient birds, bringing them dangerously close to buildings and other structures.

Reflections in glass confuse birds, which causes collisions, and collision, especially with glass windows and facades, is a leading cause of bird deaths. I’m asking for your help to darken the night sky. By turning off your non-essential lights, you can help keep birds safe on their flights at night. To learn more about bird migration, visit



[Lisa Kopp] Thank you, Julia. We have some great questions here. A couple include, are there benefits to buildings turning off lights? You briefly mentioned that you’re working with building managers, but there’s quite a few questions about doesn’t it save money in electric bills to have these cities turning off their lights or these buildings reducing the number of lights that are on overnight. Is that an angle that you’re using when you’re speaking to some of these groups?

[Julia Wang] It’s definitely an angle, and we definitely think it’s a win-win for everyone– reducing that light pollution for the benefit of the birds, the insects, for people, and our ability to sleep at night, so that the dark sky at night remains dark. And so one of the things we do talk to about buildings with is certainly energy savings as well as protecting the birds and all of these things. We do– it’s a benefit, of course, to work with these major commercial buildings and with these cities, and we hope to continue to do so. But I want to emphasize here that it’s really a benefit that everyone turn off their lights during migration as much as possible, especially as the issue of light pollution is very much a cumulative sky glow issue, and so all of our lights are playing into that.

[Lisa Kopp] That makes sense. There’s also quite a few questions about different colored lights. Do yellow lights, or blue lights, or red lights offer any sort of benefits to birds, instead of the white light?

[Julia Wang] Yes. So I’m sure Andrew can speak more to this, but to my best understanding, blue and white lights are the most attracting and harmful to birds in that way. And with– so we have different wavelengths that are better for different animals, whether that be sea turtles, or birds, or insects. And with birds, we’ve tended to see better results in terms of not being attracted with longer wavelength lights, flashing lights– say red flashing lights. And of course, there’s a lot more research, I think, that can probably go into that, but the longer wavelengths are safer for birds.

[Lisa Kopp] All right. I want to make sure we have time for you to review what’s been going on this most recent migration season, Andrew, and then we’ll get to some of these other big picture questions that are lingering in the Q&A. Thank you so much, Julia. It’s so fascinating, and I hope everyone will check out the links I put in the chat because there’s so much great information that will actually answer a lot of the questions that you’ve asked about, which other locations and cities are participating, and how you might be able to help encourage participation where you live. All right, onto you, Andrew.

[Andrew Farnsworth] All right. Thank you so much. That was– it’s awesome to have Audrey and Julia talk about these two different components of what go into BirdCast. So what I’m going to talk about now is just a couple of updates that relate to the biology, and the ornithology, and what we’ve seen so far this spring, and relate it to some bigger picture patterns with weather, and maybe just talk a little bit about the spectacle and so on. So let me jump into the updates.

So in terms of– just a little background, we know that from the radar perspective in monitoring the skies above the contiguous US that we have these 143 radars that are monitoring the skies almost continuously. They’re detecting meteorology and biology up there, and in the spring and fall the biology is often dominated by birds, and we can filter out the weather. So when you see a map like this, in this case what we call the observed or live map from last night, you’re seeing that weather removed, and I’ll talk about this in a second, but let me just highlight.

It’s pretty uneven. So even a very cursory view of this map, you can see there are some places where there are these Black colors or dark very– the purples, which is either very little or no migration happening, and that’s in stark contrast to these areas where the really intense yellows and whites are, which is really high intensity migration, and that it’s not evenly distributed around the country. And so last night in particular, it was still a reasonably good night mostly with birds migrating in the Southern US with a little bit of an edge up through the Great Plains there.

But talking about a 1/3 of a billion birds aloft last night– so a pretty big number when it comes down to it. Thinking along the lines of like one bird for every human in the US moving last night. Pretty amazing. Now, related to this pattern– oh, and by the way, this is expected for this time of the year. Early May is really starting to be a time when we’re seeing the peak of birds arriving into the Southern US and the movement starting to really percolate in waves up farther to the North. So with that in mind, thinking a little bit about why do we see this really odd pattern, where some places have no migration and others have really intense migration, it’s pretty simple when it comes down to it.

The places on the map where you see the dark areas are very low intensity or no migration in the spring, last night, that’s associated with these cold air masses, where temperatures are cool. Birds usually experience headwinds. So wind’s blowing from the North as birds are trying to move generally North– that’s not really conducive to birds making much progress in terms of migration. Whereas where you see intense migration in where these red circles are– those are warmer temperatures, warm air masses, nice moist air masses– very typical of what we think of as spring and summer like in some respects.

And also with tailwinds– so winds generally blowing from the South often supporting birds movements as they head North. So that’s just kind of one way to think about, well, how do I make sense of where these movements are going to occur, or why they’ve occurred in particular locations broadly. It has to do with this weather meteorology and a larger scale– a regional or a continental scale or synoptic scale as some people will call it. So that was last night. This is a tonight forecast. That’s going– what we expect to occur.

You’ll notice a similar pattern, wherein the Great Lakes and upper Midwest and portions of the Northeastern US and also the mountainous West, we’re not expecting very much migration. But of course, in the South, in Texas, and in parts of the Southeast, again, where those warm temperatures are, and those nice tailwinds, so southerly winds, that’s where we’re expecting to see a lot of migration, and this is pretty characteristic. This is what we expect. As the season goes on, those intensity of movements, those high intensity movements, the oranges and yellows, that’ll spread farther, farther North.

But this is par for the course when we think about the beginning of May, end of April, so we’re kind of seeing what we expect, especially when it comes to the way that every once in a while in late April and early May we see these really cold air masses come across the US, and they tend to just shut down migration when that happens, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen here. So let me dig in a little bit deeper.

I know we’re running a little short on time, so I’ll try to be quick. Not one of my skills, but I’ll try. So I want to focus a little bit more on a really interesting part of the US when it comes to spring migration– the Gulf Coast. In this case, the Eastern Gulf of Mexico coast, Mississippi, Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, and something really interesting that happened a couple of days ago. So I know there was a question about where we get our data and what the raw data are all about. So that map I showed you before is really talking only about the bird component of– it’s the biology that’s dominated by birds.

If you were to look at weather data as provided by your local meteorological service or on broadcast meteorology, on television, you might see a map more like this. Even something more extreme, where the really blocky and irregular patterns characteristic of precipitation are still included in the map. We’ve obviously taken those things out. And by contrast, the very stippled uniform patterns that you see in particular over parts of Texas and in California, that’s biology. That’s birds. So in this raw version of the radar data, where we can see the meteorology and the ornithology that’s happening, I call your attention to this red circle area. And this again, was a couple of days ago on the 27th of April.

So some of you that either are in the southeastern US, maybe in Alabama or Florida, or are watching the Weather Channel regularly, you know that there were some really severe storms that passed through there, and basically, these were associated with the boundary between air masses. So some of those warm air masses, like characteristic over the Gulf of Mexico, warm, moist air– and this more Canadian air mass that’s cold, dry air. And where those collide, these incredible storms happen. Where these circles– where the circle is, that’s very intense precipitation, and it’s precipitation that’s over the Gulf of Mexico.

And some of you may know, and many of you will know after I say this, a tremendous number of the birds that migrate into the US every spring do so coming over the Gulf of Mexico. So they’re migrating over water from points farther South in northern South America, the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, and they’re entering the US from over water and arriving on the Gulf Coast. And when they encounter situations like this, it can be extremely challenging for them because they’re flying through heavy rain, often turbulence associated with thunderstorms, lightning, and winds that are incredibly changeable.

So imagine a small songbird trying to fly through the most intense thunderstorm you can think of. You don’t even want to do that in a plane, and pilots won’t usually, but birds are doing this on a regular basis. Just another perspective for those that have seen these kinds of maps– so that was a radar perspective I gave you. These are satellite imagery, and you’re seeing weather. All these whites, these clouds are shown up. That’s the water vapor that’s in the atmosphere. So this is an infrared image of where we see clouds, and where it’s white and where it’s very white, those are super high clouds associated with really strong thunderstorms.

And then a meteorologist has come in and drawn on the map where the frontal boundaries are, so where those boundaries are between air masses. And so what’s happening here is in that area where the red circle is, all those birds, those hundreds of millions of birds that are migrating across the Gulf of Mexico coming from the South, from South America, the Caribbean, and the Yucatan Peninsula are encountering this incredible storm. And when they do so, obviously, they need to find shelter or try to immediately. Over the Gulf of Mexico, not much shelter, so they tend to drop from the altitudes they’re flying, which can be even up to a few thousand feet above the water.

They tend to drop very low, and then they make a beeline toward land. And sometimes when that happens, we have these incredible scenarios, where if they’re observers on the ground, which at this point they’re often are many, many of them– for example, this one observer in Mobile County Alabama. Sometimes with these absolutely incredible spectacles, so you look for the circles are. And even if it’s blurry– let me just highlight what’s happening here. So the circle that’s up representing the number of individuals–

50,000, more than 50,000 individual birds in this observation, this eBird checklist, most of which occurred over about an hour-long period of birds that were flying over the Gulf of Mexico coming into this area of Dauphin Island in Alabama and either landing quickly and moving on or falling out there and staying there. Enormous numbers of birds, including 15,000-plus red eyed vireos. More than many of us may actually ever see in a lifetime, unless we’re lucky enough to see an event like this. Something like 6 to 7,000 rose-breasted grouse beaks. I mean, just staggering numbers of birds, and this is just one observation in this area, where a lucky and probably very tuned in observer went specifically to think, I want to try to experience one of these incredible fallout scenarios.

So this is an example of what happens when birds that are migrating over water suddenly encounter these kinds of scenarios and then come down and land and we get to see what happens as they come ashore. Now, I want to highlight there are often questions– well, what happens to these birds? In this case, something interesting happens. So again, where the circle is here, this is the area of interest. And what you’re seeing– remember those lines, the blues and red lines I was telling you about that are drawn on by meteorologists and where those are the boundaries between air masses? There’s a very clear area just to the West of this huge area of storms– these clouds I was telling you about before. There’s a clear area.

And this red line up here represents a warm front, and this clear area with still some warm moist air that has not been influenced by this Canadian air mass means that conditions are actually still pretty favorable for migration. So even though these birds have taken this tremendous hit in flying through intense rain and then come ashore in Alabama, when it comes to what happens when it gets dark and when they start migrating again, they take off en masse because conditions are still good. And one of the interesting ways– Audrey mentioned this, that we can use the dashboard– is start to think about, well, why do we see these kinds of patterns that we see in the dashboard, and how can we connect it to some kind of an activity we see on the ground here?

So again, just to reorient you back to this upper right– excuse me, upper left graphic of birds in flight and the pattern of birds in flight that happened over the course of this night on the 27th and 28th. This is for Mobile County, where this observer had this incredible observation of all these birds. And what we see is just after sunset– sunset is where this zero line is. Just after local sunset, there’s this incredible pulse of birds that comes up into the atmosphere. Those are all those birds that have just come ashore and have landed in this coastal habitat and are now emerging as they begin their migration, continuing it over the course of the night in these favorable conditions.

And you’ll also notice that this happened to be an incredible peak night for this county– the highest so far this spring. To zoom out just a tiny bit, if we look at Alabama in general, obviously, you see a little bit of a different pattern. Still an incredibly high peak night here, but obviously, when you start to integrate across the entire state and not just a county per se, you start to see a different pattern of when the largest numbers of birds are aloft. And again, the dashboard is this very granular data that allows us to look at this and think about the direction and speed that these birds are moving. Almost all of them are moving North or Northeast. They’re moving approximately an average 35– 30 to 35 miles an hour, and they’re traveling approximately 2 to 3,000 feet above the ground.

So as we start to think a little more broadly, well, all right, these birds that have left the coast line in the Florida Panhandle area and the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Mississippi, if they’re flying at this speed, and they take off at sunset, and we look at a radar image, for example, about four or five hours later, we see that big pulse, where this bright white area is about 130 or 140 miles inland, including a little bit farther of where that pulse is moving. So all those birds that have come ashore in that massive thunderstorm event that or that have survived and have landed, they’re continuing on their migration.

And to add a little bit more to the flavor and build back in what’s happening, remember when we look at the more raw data and can start to see where the weather is happening, there’s some pretty intense precipitation still that these birds will eventually encounter if they continue flying as far as they absolutely can. But in this, area where Alabama is and pretty much the whole state of Alabama into some of Tennessee, it’s much more clear sailing.

So these are the kinds of perspectives that we can glean when we understand a little bit more about weather radar, that we can look at in almost real time, and certainly just after the fact to give us a sense of what’s going to be happening in our area, or what has just happened and why. And of course, you can visit the BirdCast website and see some of these things. You can be in touch with us to ask questions about it, but I think I’ve left enough time, Lisa, for maybe a few questions or maybe a lot of questions. I don’t know. There might be a lot but happy to entertain them.

[Lisa Kopp] That was great. You answered a lot of the questions from earlier. There are a few questions that– they’re really– it’s speaking to the kind of work that you all do. One is do you guys work all night? Do you do you have a nighttime schedule, or how does it work with the data? Like, when is it sort of posted versus when is it considered live or updated?

[Andrew Farnsworth] We’re chronically sleep deprived. I’m waking up– not so much as we used to be, though, because a lot of this is now automated because we’ve– this interesting situation, where really over the last 10 years, we’ve shifted into the era of big data, where the cloud-based storage and the way Amazon, which provides these radar data for free with a partnership with NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we can create these pipelines and use machine learning, artificial intelligence, to automate the extraction of the radar data to remove the meteorology from the birds and then create a pipeline, where we can produce that. So we don’t have to stay up all night and do the interpretation.

If you rewind 20-plus years to the original version of BirdCast, it was very much staying up all night to monitor downloading over a phone line and hoping you would upload the images that they would post to the BirdCast server, and quickly typing in a forecast. None of it was automated. Now, it is a very different scenario. So sure, we can stay up all night and watch the data come in, but thankfully, we don’t actually have to be responsible for it coming in to stay up all night. We can check it the following morning or go off and do something else, as you probably got the sense from looking at this.

The radar data don’t tell us what the species are. So in order to know what the species, well, we do need to stay up all night. We can go out and listen to migration and identify flight calls– the next big breakthrough in automation, which may be next year or the year after, hopefully, we’ll be able to talk about that. But thankfully, we don’t have to stay awake all night, unless we really want to and just watch the screen change.

[Lisa Kopp] That’s great. And that’s incredible that– like a sneak peek about– because there are some questions about, how do you understand what’s actually flying over? And you mentioned that some of the likely species, information that’s shown on the dashboard that Audrey gave us a glimpse of, is coming from eBird, but it sounds like you’re working on something that would really be able to maybe pinpoint some of that based on what’s being heard at night. Yeah.

[Andrew Farnsworth] The Acoustic Monitoring Site, for those that know, birds are giving specific vocalizations when they’re migrating at night that sometimes we hear at other times of the day as well– that we can use to identify birds. And for those that don’t know, there are all sorts of different vocalizations that birds give. Singing is one type of vocalization. These special calls that they’re using at night are very, very unique, and they’re often very short. Sometimes less than 100 milliseconds. So really requiring fine tuning in terms of your skills to identify them, which is part of the reason that we’re teaching computers to do this.

In addition to the acoustic monitoring, there are rare cases– you saw the tribute in light footage that Julia showed. Maybe some of you have been on top of the Empire State Building at night or other places, even around things like car dealerships, or in Chicago where there are bright lights, or in Texas where we’re trying to get those lights diminished. Where there is light like that, you can see migration happening, and you can identify the birds that are flying overhead at night. So it can be a very useful way to try to understand what’s happening for that perspective, but by no means or we are advocating that as an approach to identifying what’s happening at night. We want to eliminate that eventuality actually and reduce the light completely because it does create serious issues.

But in cases where it does escape and is pointing up, you can actually see and identify the birds too. It’s one other way to really get a feel for the diversity of what’s happening at night. And directly, the only other really reliable way to do that– it’s also very challenging– is to watch the moon. When there’s a full moon and you can see it, put a telescope up on the full moon, and take lots of breaks. The moon is very bright through a telescope, but it will leave an imprint. I think I can still see the full moon now from some moon watching, but you can see birds flying across the moon that way and also occasionally identify them to at least, oh, that’s a green heron, or that’s some kind of heron or that’s a small passer, and a small songbird. So all of these complementary approaches are necessary to really understand migration. That’s the key point here. Is that we need lots of different pieces to understand the whole so to speak.

[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. Someone was just talking to me about how they at the Lab was saying that they used to do that– watch the moon and count birds at night, which talk about how far we’ve come, now, looking at this dashboard, and the maps that you’re showing us. There’s a lot of questions in here about climate change, and if you’re seeing– and I know, Andrew, you’ve been working on this for a long time. I’m wondering if you can speak to any trends that you’re seeing that might speak to climate change, or if you’re seeing more intense weather that’s affecting the birds and migration thanks to climate change, or if you’ve been looking into that.

[Andrew Farnsworth] That’s a really good question too. Thank you for it. So from the climate change perspective, we do see some pretty dramatic changes in migration. One of the things that is really apparent to us and we published on this a couple of years ago is the advance of peak migration– so thinking about during spring migration, there’s a wave of peak movement that really moves through the US. And as you get farther and farther North, that’s advancing earlier and earlier in the spring. So basically, birds are either trying to speed up, or having to speed up, and of course, that means that there could be these potential mismatches and when the birds arrive, where they’re trying to go relative to the resources that they’re trying to use their, insects, and the incredible bloom of insects that happens in the northern hemisphere spring.

So yes, climate change is certainly something we can see the patterns change. I do want to caution, though, that migration evolved as a result of changing climates, so it’s not a surprise that we see changes in this way– that birds are responding to that. What is surprising is the speed of those changes and in places where that creates real challenges for birds. So the speed of the change is real issue. The human-induced speed is very different from what we’ve seen over the course of their evolutionary history. And coupled with those population losses, that can create real problems.

And so too when it comes to extreme weather, yeah, we do see increasingly extreme situations, like that image that I showed you that was radar data showing that really intense storm and that storminess. That poses a real problem for birds when they’re crossing these long stretches of their journeys, where they may not be able to land. And so it’s something we’re concerned about increasingly and especially because it goes hand-in-hand with other issues that birds are having to deal with. Whether it’s cats outdoors, or habitat loss, or reflective glass and buildings related to light pollution– all of these different pieces are contributing to these challenges that birds face.

[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. There’s a lot to contend with, but I mean, I love how much practical information your team is providing people and cities. It’s really inspiring to see some big impacts like you were saying, Julia. That you’re doing the science to action piece, which is so fascinating, and it really feels empowering for people. We’re at 12:59. I can’t believe it. Someone said in the chat that we need two hours for this. I always feel that way talking about BirdCast. We’ve done quite a few of these webinars.

I always walk away so inspired and amazed by the work that you’re doing, and I know that so many of the people tuning in feel the exact same way. Thank you all for sharing what you do and for doing what you do because it really is incredible and really important work that we’re so grateful you take the time to share with us. And I’m sure that I will be coming to you and asking you to do another BirdCast webinar soon. So for those of you who didn’t get your questions asked, make sure you sign up on our website for updates on our upcoming virtual programs.

And if you are looking to rewatch this or check out any information, look in your inbox tomorrow for a link to the recording of the video, and we will also include some of the key links that we shared in the chat in that email. So thank you so much Audrey, Julia, and Andrew for taking the time to talk with us today, and thank you to the audience for all of your great questions, and your participation, and your support. Hope everybody has a great rest of your day. All right Bye.

End of transcript

Spring migration is peaking right now across much of North America, meaning each morning is a fresh chance to see new birds. On a typical night, hundreds of millions of birds will be in the air, and the BirdCast project has tools that help you know in advance when waves of birds are on their way. Join us as we sit down with the BirdCast team for a discussion about the 2023 spring migration so far.

Explore More:
  • Check out BirdCast for live bird migration maps, 3-night advance migration forecasts, local migration alerts, and more.
  • Look up your own county and state to see local details on the new Migration Dashboard.
  • Take part in Lights Out to protect migrating birds by turning outdoor lights off during high-migration nights.