Validation of NEXRAD data and models of bird migration stopover sites in the Northeast U.S.

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The national network of weather surveillance radars (NEXRAD) detects birds in flight, and has proven to be a useful remote-sensing tool for ornithological study. We used data collected during Fall 2008 to 2014 by 16 NEXRAD and four terminal Doppler weather radars (TDWR) in the northeastern U.S. to map and study the spatial distribution of landbirds shortly after they leave daytime stopover sites to embark on nocturnal migratory flights. Given observed variability in the precise timing of migratory exodus, we developed a new method to sample the onset of migration at the point of maximum rate of increase in bird densities aloft to consistently sample exodus across radars and days.

The mean linear trend in aggregate stopover densities of migrants indicated a 4% decline per year from the 2008 baseline density (29% decline over the seven years). Regionally, coastal Virginia and Maine had the steepest declines. The steepest increases in migrant densities across years occurred within the Delmarva Peninsula and in coastal Connecticut.

We used NEXRAD observations to develop models to predict potentially important stopover sites throughout USFWS Region 5. Observed NEXRAD data were positively correlated to observations from TDWR and NASA’s S-Band Dual-Polarimetric Radar (NPOL), though not strongly. Predicted densities increased with increasing hardwood cover across multiple scales and with vegetation productivity. Contrastingly, predicted densities decreased with increasing agricultural, emergent marsh and coniferous land cover, but did not change with fraction of urban cover. Stopover density increased closer to bright areas and the Atlantic coast. Moreover, interactive effects indicated that migrants were more concentrated in forested areas that were both brightly lit and near the Atlantic coast. Large areas of predicted regionally important stopover sites were located along the coastlines of Maine, Long Island Sound, New Jersey, the lower Delmarva Peninsula, within the Adirondack Mountains, Catskill Mountains, and eastern Virginia.

We also created maps of classified stopover use during bimonthly periods and at multiple-scales. Migrant densities peaked along the Adirondack Mountains early in September, and along the Atlantic coast in late September with the passage of Neotropical migrants. Stopover densities peaked in the most northern extent of Maine and New England States in late October with the departure of temperate migrants.

Ground surveys conducted at 48 forested sites within the Delmarva Peninsula and Tidewater Virginia during Fall 2013 and 2014 revealed that nocturnal migrant densities pooled across species and for 14 individual species, after accounting for temporal phenology in their passage timing, were related to factors operating at multiple scales including food resources (primarily arthropod abundance in understory) and understory shrub density at a patch scale, and latitude and proximity to the Atlantic coast at a regional scale.

We integrated field survey and radar data to estimate relative stopover duration and to identify stopover functional types among 45 sites that included data from a past study near the Gulf of Mexico. We identified four functional types spanning the gradient of short rest stops to refueling stops with variable duration of stopover in relation to food abundance. The Mid-Atlantic sites were dominated by rest stops near coastal areas and lacked quick refueling stops due to low overall food abundance. The maps and ecological understanding produced can help inform conservation planning to protect and enhance stopover sites for migratory landbirds in the future.

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title Validation of NEXRAD data and models of bird migration stopover sites in the Northeast U.S.
Year Published 2017
Language English
Contributing office(s) Patuxent Wildlife Research Center
Description viii, 112 p.
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