Environmental effects on flying migrants revealed by radar

22 January 2019

Becciu, Paolo; Menz, Myles; Aurbach, Annika; Cabrera-Cruz, Sergio; Wainwright, Charlotte; Scacco, Martina; Ciach, Michał; Pettersson, Lars; Maggini, Ivan; Arroyo, Gonzalo; Buler, Jeffrey; Reynolds, Don; Sapir, Nir

Migratory animals are affected by various factors during their journeys, and the study of animal movement by radars has been instrumental in revealing key influences of the environment on flying migrants. Radars enable the simultaneous tracking of many individuals of almost all sizes within the radar range during day and night, and under low visibility conditions. We review how atmospheric conditions, geographic features and human development affect the behavior of migrating insects and birds as recorded by radars. We focus on flight initiation and termination, as well as in-flight behavior that includes changes in animal flight direction, speed and altitude. Several similarities and differences in the behavioral responses of different aerial migrants include an overlooked similarity in the use of thermal updrafts by very small (e.g., aphids) and very large (e.g., vultures) migrants. We propose that many aerial migrants modulate their migratory flights in relation to the interaction between atmospheric conditions and geographic features. For example, aerial migrants that encounter crosswind during flight may terminate their flight or continue their migration and may also drift or compensate for lateral displacement depending on their position (over land, near the coast or over sea). We propose several promising directions for future research, including the development and application of algorithms for tracking insects, bats and large aggregations of animals in weather radars. Additionally, an important contribution will be the spatial expansion of aeroecological radar studies to Africa, most of Asia and South America where no such studies have been undertaken. Quantifying the role of migrants in ecosystems and specifically estimating the number of departing birds from stopover sites using low-elevation radar scans is important for quantifying migrant-habitat relationships. This information, together with estimates of population demographics and migrant abundance, can help resolve the long-term dynamics of migrant populations that face large-scale environmental changes.