Weather radars reign for info on flying animals

Scientists are using weather radars, originally developed to measure rainfall, to study the flight patterns of birds, bats and insects. However, a researcher claims we should use radars to measure flying animals more often.

Rebecca Rogers, a PhD candidate from Charles Darwin University, says weather radars can provide information about the number of animals in the air, the height of their flight path, and the speed and direction of their flight. ‘We can use this information with other techniques such as GPS tracking devices and aerial survey data to paint a bigger picture about flying animals’ migration patterns and distribution patterns,’ says Ms Rogers.

Rebecca is researching how we can use these radars to study long-term changes in movement behaviours of magpie geese, a common waterbird found in northern Australia. Magpie geese are increasingly spotted in urban areas and have become a costly problem for mango farmers during harvest season.

Most of the published ecological studies using these radars occur in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern Hemisphere, however, this technology is currently under-utilized.

‘We want to focus on how we can use weather radar to better manage flying animals,’ she says. ‘Magpie geese are a good model species because we already have good survey data on where they are during certain times of the year – we can add our radar data on top of that. They also have a synchronised pattern of movement and are large bodied, which makes it quite easy to pick them up on the radar.’

The radars consistently collect data every 5 to 10 minutes and can cover a radius of up to 250 km over decades. This is an incredibly data-rich record of animals moving through the airspace. Combined with other data sources like GPS tracking and wildlife surveys it could drastically improve how flying animals are monitored in the Southern Hemisphere.

Ms Rogers says that radar data have recently become openly accessible, meaning the raw data are freely available for scientists across all disciplines, thanks to a collaboration between Monash University, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the National Computing Infrastructure. ‘We’d like to get more people talking about it because there are a lot of skills out there that people don’t realise could be invaluable in increasing the application of this technique, like programming and statistics.’

Ms Roges recently published her findings in the Journal Austral Ecology. Doi: 10.1111/aec.12823

For further information and high-quality images: Cherese Sonkkila, Scientell, 0497 799 868,