The current network of weather surveillance radars within the United States readily detects flying birds and has proven to be a useful remote-sensing tool for ornithological study. Radar reflectivity measures serve as an index to bird density and have been used to quantitatively map landbird distributions during migratory stopover by sampling birds aloft at the onset of nocturnal migratory flights. Our objective was to further develop and validate a similar approach for mapping wintering waterfowl distributions using weather surveillance radar observations at the onset of evening flights. We evaluated data from the Sacramento, CA radar (KDAX) during winters 1998–1999 and 1999–2000. We determined an optimal sampling time by evaluating the accuracy and precision of radar observations at different times during the onset of evening flight relative to observed diurnal distributions of radio-marked birds on the ground. The mean time of evening flight initiation occurred 23 min after sunset with the strongest correlations between reflectivity and waterfowl density on the ground occurring almost immediately after flight initiation. Radar measures became more spatially homogeneous as evening flight progressed because birds dispersed from their departure locations. Radars effectively detected birds to a mean maximum range of 83 km during the first 20 min of evening flight. Using a sun elevation angle of -5° (28 min after sunset) as our optimal sampling time, we validated our approach using KDAX data and additional data from the Beale Air Force Base, CA (KBBX) radar during winter 1998–1999. Bias-adjusted radar reflectivity of waterfowl aloft was positively related to the observed diurnal density of radio-marked waterfowl locations on the ground. Thus, weather radars provide accurate measures of relative wintering waterfowl density that can be used to comprehensively map their distributions over large spatial extents.
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Mapping wintering waterfowl distributions using weather surveillance radar