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Snow geese take to the air at Garry Point Park in Richmond, B.C., in January, 2021. Radar is used to track meteorological activity, but it can also detect other objects in the atmosphere such as birds.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Birdwatchers and biologists in Canada say a U.S. tool that uses data gleaned from weather radar technology to help understand the complicated migratory patterns of songbirds could act as a model to improve conservation efforts in this country.

Birdcast, a tool developed at Cornell University, has collected data from U.S. weather radar systems since 2000. Just as radar is used to track meteorological activity, it can also detect other objects in the atmosphere, such as birds. That information can be analyzed and used to forecast the peak times for bird migration, primarily for songbirds that migrate during the night.

Chris Fisher, a wildlife biologist who runs Calgary consulting firm Wings Environmental Solutions, said tracking migration is important for a number of reasons. Knowing what corridors birds fly through most often and when can help with conservation efforts by informing land development plans and mitigating hazards such as light pollution, which distracts and disorients birds, making them susceptible to collisions with buildings.

“The fact that now we can track these major pulses of migration through [human-made] hazards, which are significant for migratory birds, can be very helpful to mitigate the impacts that migratory birds face while they pass through potential dangerous situations in Canadian landscapes,” Mr. Fisher said.

He says that despite the absence of a wide-scale radar-tracking system like Birdwatch in Canada, there is a robust and comprehensive understanding of bird migration using birdwatchers and data collected through the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. The international project started by the Canadian government tracks birds using radio telemetry, which can detect tagged objects using radio waves. But that relies on tagging individual birds.

Roland Dechesne, a Calgary-based birdwatcher, has advocated for using weather radar for years. He started tracking birds this spring at the beginning of the peak migration period (March to mid-June) using weather radar apps that provide some data on migrations. He posted his findings to Twitter through the Calgary branch of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, hoping that publicizing them would increase interest in radar-tracking.

Mr. Dechesne said he hopes a more sophisticated system of tracking migration will be introduced in Canada.

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“My goal is at some point we can have a full conversation with Environment Canada to talk about what products we would be needing and how to leverage that to help our songbirds,” Mr. Dechesne said.

Gregory Mitchell, a biology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and a wildlife research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that the U.S. system is unable to work in Canada because of differences in radar systems and data availability.

“The difference between Canada and the U.S. really is that the U.S. made their weather radar data freely available on cloud platforms, and then some really smart people just took it and ran with it and developed all these amazing techniques for analyzing that data and visualizing that data,” he said.

He said that some radar work has been done in Canada, such as tracking birds using marine radar in the Maritimes. However, none of it has been on the same scale as in the U.S.

Prof. Mitchell is hopeful that Canada will be able to either develop their own migration forecast system or join Birdcast in the near future. He said that should be simpler now that Canada switched its radar system in 2017 to the more robust S-band radar, which is what the U.S. uses in its weather and migration tracking.

“It’s perfect timing. We have really strong collaborators in the U.S. that have developed these amazing tools to process this data that we can build upon.”

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