Waterfowl on weather radar: applying ground-truth to classify and quantify bird movements

Benjamin J. O'Neal, Joshua D. Stafford, Ronald P. Larkin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Local and migratory movements aloft have important implications for the ecology and conservation of birds, but are difficult to quantify. Weather surveillance radar (WSR) offers a unique tool for observing movements of birds, but until now has been used primarily to address broad taxonomic questions. Herein, we demonstrate how natural history information and ground-truthing can be used to answer quantitative and taxon-specific questions regarding bird movements on WSR. We found that super-resolution Level II data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's mass storage system was the most effective format and source of WSR data, and that several software packages were needed for thorough analysis of WSR data. Using WSR, we identified potential movements of birds emigrating from a waterfowl stopover area in Illinois in fall (1 September-31 December) 2006 and 2007. We compared spatial and temporal patterns of these movements to the natural history of taxa occupying the source habitat and classified these radar targets as dabbling ducks (tribe Anatini). A portable X-band radar measured the cruising heights of ducks at 400-600 m. During fall 2008, we conducted ground-truthing with a thermal infrared camera to enumerate birds passing over our field site during nocturnal migration events. This estimate of bird density, paired with an associated sample of WSR echo strength, provided a mean radar cross section the same as dabbling ducks (112.5 cm 2) and supported our natural-history-based classification. Thermal infrared-estimated duck densities explained most of the variation(R 2= 0.91) in WSR echo strength across seven migration events of varying intensities, suggesting that radar cross sections of dabbling ducks and WSR reflectivity can be used to estimate duck numbers in other comparable contexts. Our results suggest that careful investigation of the spatial and temporal patterns of movements on radar, along with field-based ground-truthing, can be used to study and quantify the movements of specific bird taxa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-82
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Field Ornithology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2010


  • INHS
  • Super-resolution
  • Thermal infrared
  • Migration
  • Ground-truthing
  • Stopover
  • Weather surveillance radar
  • Dabbling ducks

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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