The Nature Conservancy Partners with NASA to Study Bird Migration Patterns on the Delmarva Peninsula

A high-tech radar designed to study precipitation patterns will help identify migrating songbird stopover hotspots.

Photo by NASA/David Wolff
Photo by NASA/David Wolff

Berlin, Md. — The Nature Conservancy and a team of researchers are partnering with NASA to use a high-tech radar designed to track precipitation patterns to also study the migration patterns of migratory songbirds that stop over on the Delmarva Peninsula.

“This is one of the most powerful and sophisticated research radars in the world,” said Chief Conservation Scientist for the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve Barry Truitt, who is coordinating the project and partnership for the Conservancy. “This partnership with NASA is an exciting opportunity to use a precipitation tool in a novel way to benefit conservation.”

NASA uses the transportable radar, known as NPOL radar (which stands for NASA Polarimetric weather radar), to study weather patterns and precipitation around the globe. The Conservancy’s Maryland chapter helped NASA locate and secure a site for the radar near Newark, Md., just outside of Berlin.

It’s a tool sensitive enough to track the size, shape, speed and direction of individual raindrops. On dry nights, when there isn’t any rain for the radar to track, NASA is sharing the radar with the Conservancy and its research partners to track migrating songbirds that are traveling to Central and South America for the winter. Truitt explained that birds in the air look, to the radar, like large drops of water. Just like with the raindrops, the radar will track their size, speed and direction.

The radar detects birds as they emerge at dusk from daytime resting and foraging sites, known as stopover sites, to embark on their nocturnal migration. The research teams’ primary goal is to analyze where the birds stop over and identify the habitat they use for refueling. A high number of migratory songbirds—such as prothonotary warblers—stop during their migration in this region, particularly on the southern Delmarva Peninsula along the Pocomoke River. Data collection began last week and last night, Aug. 20, a team of scientists from NASA, the Conservancy, the University of Delaware, Old Dominion University and the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center reviewed the radar’s first scans.

“Using this radar, we’ll be able to identify the stopover hotspots that are most important for migrating bird species, many of which are declining in numbers,” Truitt said. “This is going to allow us to prioritize The Nature Conservancy’s protection of land and best adapt our management practices to ensure the birds have the habitat and resources they need when they rest here.”

While NASA’s radar scans the skies, scientists from Old Dominion University and the University of Delaware will be busy on the ground, using more traditional methods to study the birds. They’ll identify species, and note what the birds are eating and how they’re using habitat. Jeff Buler, of the University of Delaware and one of only a handful of expert radar ornithologists in the country, and ornithologist Eric Walters of Old Dominion University will analyze the data from the radar and field surveys.

“The primary purpose of the NASA Polarimetric (NPOL) radar is to support NASA precipitation science and ground validation studies for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission,” said Walt Petersen, Ground Precipitation Measurement ground validation scientist at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “A byproduct of our science, and an efficient means of using the resource, is that we are in fact able to collaborate with The Nature Conservancy in collection of bird data because birds occur naturally in our radar data collections. We really have to do very little different in our daily operation to facilitate the collection of data that supports some of the work that the ornithologists are doing on the Delmarva Peninsula. This collaboration is making great use of NASA resources.”

This is not the first time scientists have shared radars to track birds in addition to weather. Buler and USGS wildlife biologist Deanna Dawson recently completed a study for the US Fish and Wildlife Service that used data from National Weather Service radars to map migratory bird densities at stopover sites across the northeastern United States. Their research in this project will help to validate the models that they developed in their previous research. They’ll also compare data from the National Weather Service radars with data from the NPOL radar and the field surveys to verify that the data from the radar matches what researchers see in real time.

Data from the NPOL radar and two National Weather Service radars will give researchers a picture of how migrating birds use habitat across the Delmarva Peninsula, including most of Delaware, southern Maryland and parts of southeastern Virginia. The NPOL research will continue throughout the fall migration season, ending Nov. 7, 2013.

Project funders are: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries; Virginia Department of Environmental Quality/Coastal Zone Management Program; and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Lindsay Renick Mayer
The Nature Conservancy in MD/DC and VA

The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy works to protect our lands and waters in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, from the mountains and forests to the coasts, Chesapeake Bay, and Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the region we connect people with nature. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at and