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Tracking Migratory Birds in Utah

Posted on Tuesday, December 18, 2012

On the southern shore of Great Salt Lake in Utah, just after sunset in December, there is a naturally occurring event that "bursts" on the radar displays of the National Weather Service. It's a curious and non-meteorological phenomenon that's caught the attention of Augusta Williams '13 and Associate Professor of Geoscience Neil Laird.

That's why Williams and Laird traveled west this December to determine firsthand what has been registering on the monitoring systems that are designed to track precipitation. After scouring through 15 years of data, mining scholarly papers for clues, and consulting with experts, the professor and student research team believes the radar bursts to be flocks of waterfowl taking flight.

"We're speculating at this point," says Williams, a double major in biology and geosciences who has received three grants to fund the research. "We don't have the ground observations yet. That's why we're going to Utah." Williams has been awarded grants from the Rochester Academy of Science, the Environmental Research Fund at HWS, and the Kloman Fellowship Fund at HWS for proposals she submitted pertaining to the research project.

Williams first began researching the subject when she worked with Laird during the summer research program after her first year at HWS. She has returned to the project and currently is finishing the investigation in conjunction with her senior honors thesis. Williams has presented her previous results on the subject at several research conferences and plans to submit a journal manuscript before graduating in May and attending graduate school.

In Utah, Williams and Laird are conducting their field research over a four-day period in Tooele Valley and along the shoreline wetland areas of the Great Salt Lake. During the daytime hours they are making observations at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to help identify the waterfowl present in the area. In the evening, they are using binoculars, sound recording equipment, and night vision optical devices to monitor the waterfowl migrating away from the lake down the Tooele Valley. In the weeks prior to the research in Utah, they conducted a test-run at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge located north of Cayuga Lake.

Laird says the Great Salt Lake in Utah is part of the western flyway of migration where birds annually stopover during fall and winter on a long journey south from Alaska and Canada. The information gained this week in Utah will contribute to long-term studies on bird migration, he says.

In addition to observing the migratory birds, Laird and Williams will examine weather conditions and temperature profiles to help determine how weather can affect the event. They are trying to pinpoint under which conditions birds will take flight which cause the "bursts" to appear on radar. Operations at airports, specifically the Salt Lake City International Airport, could be interested in the research findings since bird-airplane collisions annually result in significant damages. In addition, the number of migrating birds changes each year and they suspect that variations in seasonal climatic patterns are related, a topic that very few have investigated.

"Augusta's research that combines biology with atmospheric sciences is unique and the topic of weather and climate effects on waterfowl migration is a relatively new area of research in biometeorology," Laird says. "Her research on this topic puts her in good company with researchers from around the world investing waterfowl migration."

Laird says Williams has a natural curiosity and interest in things that is matched with an incredible work ethic. This combination is fantastic, he says.

At HWS, Williams has worked as a teaching assistant with the Department of Geoscience. She has also served as a teaching colleague for several first-year seminars, an orientation mentor, and plays saxophone in the Colleges' Woodwind Ensemble.

Laird joined the HWS faculty in 2004. He teaches classes such as "Introduction to Meteorology," "Environmental Meteorology," "Applied Climatology," and "Global Climates," with research interests in mesoscale meteorology and regional climatology. Laird earned his B.S. from University of New York at Oswego, and a M.S. and Ph.D. from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 


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