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Weather radars reveal where birds migrate

Published on: 12. February 2024
Author: Jørn J. Fremstad

Radars that are used to report the weather also provide valuable insight into which migratory routes birds use. For the first time this tool will be used to map bird migration in Norway.

Weather radars reveal where birds migrate
Brent goose passing a wind turbine. Photo: Oskar Bjørnstad

For many years, information on bird migration has been an unwanted biproduct for meteorologists. The Norwegian Meteorological Institute operates 12 weather radars in Norway designed to record precipitation. The radars also capture everything else moving in the air, including birds within a radius of several tens of kilometers. Now, Norwegian bird researchers will use the technology for the first time.

Can map large scale migration

– Weather radars provide continuous data on the quantity of birds in the air within a massive area and is therefore well suited to study large scale bird migration. This makes weather radars into one of the most important tools for studying bird migration, says PhD student Øyvind Nyheim at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA).

Studies from other countries shows that many birds fly higher than what we can see with the naked eye, and that around 80% of the migration takes place at night.

– Weather radars are an excellent tool for capturing this migration, Øyvind adds.

Starten på det nattlige fugletrekket fanget opp ved en værradar i Sør-Norge 18. september 2022. Illustrasjon: Øyvind Nyheim, NINA

Starten på det nattlige fugletrekket fanget opp ved en værradar i Sør-Norge 18. september 2022. Illustrasjon: Øyvind Nyheim, NINA

Migrating birds facing pressure

A lot of Norwegian birds migrate and are only here part of the year. Thus, millions of birds migrate along the Norwegian coast and out into the world to exploit seasonal fluctuations in food access. Today however, many birds are under strong and increasing pressure during their migration. This is due to many factors, among them loss of important stopover sites along the migration route, poaching, climate change and collisions with windows and wind turbines.

To find solutions to the challenges bird migrants face, researchers have used a multitude of methods. Among the most common ones are ringing, direct observations and GPS tracking, but new methods are still being developed. One of these newer methods are weather radars, which are already used for researching bird migration in the US and parts of Europe.

Finding more suitable areas for turbines

– The goal of my PhD is to use weather radars to map important migratory routes and stopover sites in Norway. We will also map when and how many birds migrate in different parts of the country. Many migratory birds die from collisions with wind turbines, and increased knowledge on birds migration routes can make it easier to place wind turbines in areas where the bird migration is less vulnerable.

– We are also planning to develop a website with visualizations of the bird migration we are seeing on the weather radars. Here, anyone will be able to enter and explore the bird migration at the different radars almost in real time, and going back several years, Øyvind continues.

His work is part of the research project Visualizing Avian migration across Norway supporting sustainable coastal and offshore wind energy development (VisAvis). The project will use data from both weather radars, specialized bird radars and bird observations from Artsdatabanken and dedicated bird observatories to map coastal and offshore migration. This will produce much needed knowledge on the migratory routes of birds important for the decision-making process around establishing wind farms.

Amazing feats of migration

  • Norway is home to the longest migrating bird in the world, the Arctic Tern. It migrates from the Arctic to Antarctica every year and can during its lifetime migrate over a distance equivalent to traveling three times back and forth to the moon.
  • Another Norwegian bird, the Bar-tailed Godwit, has the record for the longest non-stop migration. A radio-tagged individual traveled non-stop 11 000 kilometers from Alaska to New Zealand. This journey lasted nine days, and upon arrival the bird had lost almost half its body weight.
  • Birds demonstrate an amazing ability to find the way to their final destination, that continues to fascinate and confuse scientists. Birds use an internal clock telling them how far and in which direction they need to fly, but they also rely on landmarks, the stars, the sun and earth’s magnetic field.

The history of migration research

Knowledge on bird migration is relatively new. Only 200 years ago, the common explanation for why birds disappeared during winter was that they were hibernating in the same way as bears. The earliest recorded indication that birds actually migrate came in 1822.

A stork that had been impaled by a spear was observer flying around in Germany. When the bird was later shot, people noticed the spear design came from Vest-Africa. Migration research has come a long way since then, and increasingly sophisticated study methods are being developed.

Contact: Øyvind Nyheim

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Norwegian Institute for Nature Research

NINA is an independent foundation for nature research and research on the interaction between human society, natural resources and biodiversity.
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