7 June 2019

Weather Radar Is For The Birds- Really!

Posted by Dan Satterfield

It’s true, and in more ways than one!

Weather radar often sees birds, bats, and other flying objects, but the NWS in SanDiego has a more unusual find. Last Tuesday a strange echo near Barstow California appeared and forecasters asked some weather observers to check it out. They knew there was no rain or cloud around (See Albert Hammond 1973), so what could it be?





Seeing bugs on radar is one thing but birds and bats on radar are an everyday occurrence. Cornell University has been using the NOAA Doppler radar network to track bird migrations and they produce daily maps based on the data. While the NOAA WSR 88D radar network is at a wavelength designed to see objects the size of raindrops, they do a decent job of picking up larger objects. Bats are frequently seen on the weather radars in Texas for example. We also often see a lot of bird activity after strong cool fronts in the fall/winter and winds around tropical cyclones can bring bird species to an area that are rarely if ever seen.

Radars for bird tracking could actually be designed and implemented and with many species threatened by development along their migration routes, this would provide important data and allow for better bird counts during migration. The only problem, of course, is that radar installations are not cheap! A paper published earlier this year (summary here) used radars to measure the migration intensity along the Louisiana Coast and there is hope that tracking large migrating groups could alert wind energy companies to take actions that will prevent deaths from large wind farms.

I am lucky to live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, home to some of the best bird watching in the world and we often see birds on the local radars at Dover in Delaware. Interestingly, citizen science makes huge contributions to many different fields and especially meteorology, but “birders” are in a class all their own. Much of what we know about bird migrations and the health of individual species is from citizen science provided by birders. The state of the world’s birds is perhaps the most important marker of the health of our biosphere. National Geographic photographer Joel Sartorie has used his (amazing) skills to document endangered species of all kinds. I’m also glad a tool I use on a daily basis can help track the dinosaurs (really).

Remote sensing advances are changing Earth science in myriad of ways. If you are a high school student or just starting college, I highly encourage you to think about an Earth Science major in college. With our changing climate and the need to protect so many endangered species, there will be plenty of need for scientists in the fields and you will be doing vital work. I cannot think of a more rewarding career.

Note- as an amateur photographer, I know getting good bird pics is really hard but here below are a few of my shots from here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. If you have always wanted to learn more about birds, I can highly recommend the two Great Courses lectures on the subject. They are available on Great Courses Plus for a small monthly fee. (I get nothing for this recommendation, but if you’re like me and would rather be learning rather than watching a mindless sitcom, you should check them out.) 

A Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) and a Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), both at Blackwater NWR.

This is a Willet (Tringa semipalmata) at Assateague National Seashore.

Willet (Tringa semipalmata). All of these are my photos and rights are reserved but any non -profit true conservation use is fine.