Birds in flight. Vultures. Eagles. Osprey. Falcons. Hawks. All heading south for the winter- each identified & counted by bird watchers like Andrew Meyer at the Center for Birds of Prey/Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw.

Meyer traveled down to the Lowcountry in September to assist in monitoring migratory bird populations. Since then, he’s sat for hours a day, scanning the skies with binoculars, determining if these birds are residents, or just visiting as they travel hundreds of miles a day down to Florida, or even further down into South America. 

“There’s two aspects of it, you have to decide if they’re migrants- which is based on the direction they’re flying and how committed they are to getting where they’re going, and then identifying the species,” he says.

It’s easy on a beautiful day like this, but an additional tool he has at his disposal helps scan the skies. Radar. 

The radar at the Center for Birds of Prey/Avian Conservation Center

While it is mainly used for tracking storms, radar can pick up more than just rain. Buildings and trees can muddy the radar picture if caught within the radar beam. These non-meteorological returns, as we call them, can be biological in nature- insects, bats, and birds can appear if great enough in number! A trained eye can point them out as I did a few years back at our sister station in Maryland. 

While this is just a fun radar feature for meteorologists, researchers at the Center are actively using a smaller radar to assist in counting these migrating birds. Stephen Schabel, the Director of Education at Center of Birds of Prey, explains,

“Birds, just like rain droplets, can show up on radar and we can utilize that radar image to detect what we may not see with our naked eye or binoculars. We’re using more individual points on a radar image to help give us an idea of what part of the sky to look in. On a day like today with a big open sky- these birds can be anywhere so the radar image can help narrow down where we have to look.”

Much like our weather radar, objects in the way of the radar beam can show up as “false echos” on the radar display. Take this big stationary blob for example, that’s this tower which transmits our News 2 signal! A good rule of thumb when tracking rain or counting birds on radar is to look for what is moving and ignore what’s not! 

This work helps keep tabs on how the vulture, eagle, and seabird populations are doing, but this research is just one part of how the Center for the Birds of Prey is assisting our feathered friends. Join me next week as I tour the Center’s hospital, and give you a close up view with some of the previous residents that are now educating visitors. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson