BirdCast helps birders experience migration and support conservation

By Team eBird October 5, 2020

The movements of migratory birds are one of nature’s most impressive phenomena. But because these journeys largely occur under the cover of darkness, the enormous magnitude of birds migrating can be difficult to comprehend, much less experience. The BirdCast project aims to empower everyone to see nocturnal migration in a new light through access to tools to monitor, predict, and understand avian movements. eBirders can take advantage of BirdCast’s forecasting and monitoring to guide their birding, and cities can use BirdCast to plan Lights Out initiatives to prevent bird strikes, as well as contribute to efforts to understand and track migration.

BirdCast’s migration forecasting and live monitoring tools are powered by the US network of Doppler weather radars—the same radars that give you your daily weather forecast. Radars emit pulsed microwave energy into the atmosphere and capture information about anything that scatters it, including not only meteorological objects (like rain, snow, and sleet), but also biological objects like birds, insects, and bats. Our team uses algorithms to remove everything that is non-bird from the radar data and then we apply machine learning tools to predict numbers and flight directions of migrating birds. Check out our primer on using radar to study migration for more information.

Equipped with computing power and advanced radar technology, BirdCast can provide detailed data on avian activity in the atmosphere.

BirdCast is a collaboration among researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Colorado State University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, and other partners. We’ve developed three primary tools to keep an eye on migration in your area:

  • Live bird migration maps allow you to see real-time intensities of actual nocturnal bird migration throughout the night
  • Bird migration forecast maps show a 3-night set of forecasts of predicted nocturnal migration, as well as overlaid predicted precipitation
  • Local migration alerts allow you to determine whether birds are passing overhead near you tonight just by entering your city in a search bar.

The BirdCast team uses a broad array of tools to make sense of a treasure trove of information collected by radars. However,  we cannot learn everything about bird migration from radar data alone because radars cannot distinguish species or even individuals. That’s where eBirders come in! By submitting eBird checklists, birders can directly contribute to our understanding of migration, especially when unusual events occur such as tropical storms, forest fires, finch and nuthatch irruptions, and even rare birds in unexpected places.

By submitting eBird checklists you can help BirdCast better understand and predict unusual movement patterns of species like Northern Wheatear (Northern Wheatear © Evan Lipton / Macaulay Library)

But BirdCast isn’t just for birdwatchers, BirdCast also serves as the foundation for numerous important science-to-action conservation opportunities. We employ the BirdCast forecast models to predict when high intensity migration will occur in particular areas, highlighting opportunities for cities to participate in Lights Out action—turning off nonessential lighting at night during peak migration periods to help all those passing nocturnal migrants avoid collisions with buildings.

BirdCast is currently focused on a pilot program in Texas where large volumes of migratory birds and high light pollution creates a high risk of building strikes in several urban areas. With the cooperation and advocacy of local conservation organizations, part of Dallas’ skyline is going dim this Fall 2020 for the protection of migratory birds. We are also beginning to study how to apply our models for reducing dangerous and costly collisions between birds and aircraft, as well as for evaluating potential risk of disease transmission by birds as they migrate.

Whether to enhance your birding, to learn about bird migration, or to understand ways that our science can turn into action, we encourage you to explore BirdCast today!