A characterization of autumn nocturnal migration detected by weather surveillance radars in the northeastern USA


  • Corresponding Editor: J. T. Morisette.


Billions of birds migrate at night over North America each year. However, few studies have described the phenology of these movements, such as magnitudes, directions, and speeds, for more than one migration season and at regional scales. In this study, we characterize density, direction, and speed of nocturnally migrating birds using data from 13 weather surveillance radars in the autumns of 2010 and 2011 in the northeastern USA. After screening radar data to remove precipitation, we applied a recently developed algorithm for characterizing velocity profiles with previously developed methods to document bird migration. Many hourly radar scans contained windborne “contamination,” and these scans also exhibited generally low overall reflectivities. Hourly scans dominated by birds showed nightly and seasonal patterns that differed markedly from those of low reflectivity scans. Bird migration occurred during many nights, but a smaller number of nights with large movements of birds defined regional nocturnal migration. Densities varied by date, time, and location but peaked in the second and third deciles of night during the autumn period when the most birds were migrating. Migration track (the direction to which birds moved) shifted within nights from south-southwesterly to southwesterly during the seasonal migration peaks; this shift was not consistent with a similar shift in wind direction. Migration speeds varied within nights, although not closely with wind speed. Airspeeds increased during the night; groundspeeds were highest between the second and third deciles of night, when the greatest density of birds was migrating. Airspeeds and groundspeeds increased during the fall season, although groundspeeds fluctuated considerably with prevailing winds. Significant positive correlations characterized relationships among bird densities at southern coastal radar stations and northern inland radar stations. The quantitative descriptions of broadscale nocturnal migration patterns presented here will be essential for biological and conservation applications. These descriptions help to define migration phenology in time and space, fill knowledge gaps in avian annual cycles, and are useful for monitoring long-term population trends of migrants. Furthermore, these descriptions will aid in assessing potential risks to migrants, particularly from structures with which birds collide and artificial lighting that disorients migrants.