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Migration path annotation: cross‐continental study of migration‐flight response to environmental conditions

Mandel, James T., Bohrer, Gil, Winkler, David W., Barber, David R., Houston, C. Stuart, Bildstein, Keith L.
Ecological applications 2011 v.21 no.6 pp. 2258-2268
Cathartes aura, animals, case studies, climate, data collection, digital elevation models, environmental factors, flight, habitat conservation, habitats, hybrids, land use, migratory species, prediction, satellites, telemetry, topography, weather, North America
Understanding the movements of animals is pivotal for understanding their ecology and predicting their survival in the face of rapid global changes to climate, land use, and habitats, thus facilitating more effective habitat management. Migration by flying animals is an extreme form of movement that may be especially influenced by weather. With satellite telemetry studies, and the growing availability of information about the Earth's weather and land surface conditions, many data are collected that can advance our understanding about the mechanisms that shape migrations. We present the track annotation approach for movement data analysis using information about weather from the North American Reanalysis data set, a publicly available, regional, high‐resolution model–observation hybrid product, and about topography, from a publicly available high‐resolution digital elevation model (DEM). As a case study, we present the analysis of the response to environmental conditions in three contrasting populations of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) across North America, tracked with a three‐dimensional GPS‐based sensor. Two populations in the east and west coasts of the United States responded similarly to weather, indicating use of both slope and thermal soaring. Continental‐interior, “Plains populations,” exhibited a different migratory pattern primarily indicative of thermal soaring. These differences help us understand the constraints and behaviors of soaring migrants. The track annotation approach allowed large‐scale comparative study of movement in an important migratory species, and will enable similar studies at local to global scales.