Thumbnail image: Gary Mueller/Project FeederWatch

[CHELSEA BENSON] Hey, everyone.

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Hello, everybody.


[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Good to be here.


[CHELSEA BENSON] All right. So I’m going to do a little welcome and some announcements first. So thanks to everybody for joining us today. Welcome to today’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and happy Earth Day, everyone. We will be discussing the fundamentals of migration and providing you with the tools to use this spring to make the most out of this migration season.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a home to a community of researchers and supporters from around the world who appreciate birds and the integral roles they play in our ecosystems. And our mission is to advance leading edge research, education, and citizen science that help solve pressing conservation challenges. This work, including today’s webinar, is funded primarily by people like you who choose to become a member.

And if you enjoy today’s webinar, we hope you’ll consider becoming a Cornell Lab member too. And you can find out how by visiting So my name is Chelsea Benson. I’m on the visitors center team here at the Cornell Lab, and I’m going to be facilitating today’s conversation. And with me are our three guests from across the Cornell Lab. First, we have Jenna Curtis, who is our eBird project leader. Hey, Jenna.

[JENNA CURTIS] Hi. Thanks for having me here.

[CHELSEA BENSON] And then with us today is Drew Weber from the Merlin project coordinator.

[DREW WEBER] Hey, everyone. I’m excited to be talking about my favorite things, migration and the Merlin app.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Yes. And then our final panelist is Adriaan Dokter. He’s a research associate at the Lab, and also one of the leaders of the BirdCast team.

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Hi, everyone. Good to be here.

[CHELSEA BENSON] All right. If you can believe it, I have a few more announcements to make. So bear with me before we get into our conversation. So for our Zoom audience, many of you have already figured out how to use the various features within Zoom. Live captioning is being provided. You can select the CC button at the bottom of your screen if you want to turn the captions on or off. I’m going to ask a few questions to our panelists to get us started, but we also want to take a lot of questions from you.

So for those of you on Zoom, you can click that Q&A button and you can enter your question there. If you like someone else’s question and you’d really like to see us answer it, please click the thumbs up icon and that will bring it to the top of the list to our attention. And for some of our answers, we’re going to be verbalizing and answering them in this discussion, but for others, they’re going to get typed into that Q&A box. So look in the answered column for some of the answers to your questions today.

They also, as you’re seeing, we have a chat feature. And pretty soon, I’m going to turn off the chat so that you can only chat to the panelists. And we’re going to be using that chat for technical support, and also to share information with you. And I have quite a few colleagues today, behind the scenes, who are helping in the Q&A and the chat. So thanks to them for fielding a lot of the questions. And then we are also streaming live to Facebook, both on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the eBird Facebook pages.

If you’re watching on Facebook, you can add your questions to the comments. And just so you know, there are spam attempts. So please don’t click on any links on the Facebook pages unless they’re posted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology or eBird. OK. That was a lot. So let’s get started. Jenna, and Drew, and Adriaan, if you could each introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your background, your role at the Lab, and how your work connects to our topic today, which is migration. So Adriaan, would you start us off?

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Sure, yeah. So my name is Adriaan Dokter. I’m a research associate here at the Lab. And my specialty is migration. A lot of my work focuses on this very fascinating part of the life of birds, and that’s when they move around. So a lot of my work centers around the BirdCast project, where we can really look at birds when they’re flying in the atmosphere. And we use a lot of radars for that, so more about that later.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Very cool. Jenna, could you share a little bit with us?

[JENNA CURTIS] Hi, everyone. I’m Jenna Curtis. I’m one of the project leaders at eBird. And eBird provides a great opportunity to track bird movements at continental scales because birds and the people who love them are almost everywhere, sharing what they see in one central place. And I really love being part of a project that gives people insight into questions like, where are the swallows now? When will they be returning to my area? Or, are those geese earlier or later than I saw them last year? With eBird, we can start to help to answer those questions.

[CHELSEA BENSON] And I’m seeing a lot, in the Q&A already, people have a lot of questions that hopefully we’ll get to. All right, Drew, if you could introduce yourself and tell us a bit more about what you do at the Lab.

[DREW WEBER] Everyone, I’m Drew Weber. Yeah, I’ve been at the Lab for five years now, working on the Merlin project. I’m the coordinator, so a lot of my role focuses around adding new species to the bird packs, adding new features to Merlin, and making sure everybody knows about what’s available on Merlin. I’ve been a birder since I was pretty young, and I’ve always been fascinated about the combination of bird watching and technology. And so I’m just really excited to be here, talking about how you can combine those two things in Merlin to learn a little bit more about what’s migrating around you.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Very cool. Thank you so much. So before we get into the nitty gritty of migration and the tools that we’re going to teach you today, I want to start with some of the basics. So Jenna, could you share with us, first off, why do birds migrate, and what triggers their migration?

[JENNA CURTIS] That’s a great question because not all birds migrate. So why do the birds that migrate do that? It’s all about survival. Migration is one approach to surviving seasonal challenges. The closer to the poles you get, the harsher winters become, and it can be really hard to find food and stay warm. And some birds have adapted to survive cold winters, but others have evolved a different approach.

And so once the cold winds blow, the insects and the nectar and the plant seeds become harder to find. Those bird species travel south, where food resources are more plentiful, temperatures are more accommodating, and then when the spring arrives again at the northern latitudes, there’s this huge burst of food and resources again up there, and the migratory birds return and travel back to those areas to take advantage of that.

And as for triggers, some of the triggers of migration are changes in light and temperature. So as days grow longer and temperatures get warmer, birds can recognize that. And also food availability, and maybe some vegetation cues. The way plants are changing or growing new leaves can also help birds inform themselves when it’s time to start moving.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Great. And Adriaan, when do birds migrate?

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Yeah, every spring and fall, of course. But also, if you think about when, it’s also like– a lot of the birds actually fly at night. So almost 80% of the species here in North America and most temperate climates, they fly when it’s dark. And not even– that makes them very hard to see, of course, for us, but also, they fly so high, often, that it is very hard to actually notice migration.

So that’s, of course, not all migratory birds. There’s also a lot of birds that fly during the day, and they are maybe more familiar to a lot of people. Of course, like raptors and soaring birds that you see in these huge thermals. And these birds actually have a very different strategy. These night-flying and day-flying migrants, they use very different strategies to migrate. So a lot of the raptors, you might see them.

They use these upgoing thermals during the day, and they’re powered by the sun. And that’s a very efficient way to fly. We know, for example, the birds, these raptors, they need to do any flapping at all. They just can go from thermal to thermal, and migrate huge distances. That’s different for these night flyers. They really have to power their own flight. And it takes a huge amount of energy.

For example, I was thinking about these little hummingbirds. They’re so fascinating here in the West. I’m originally from Europe, so I’m still fascinated by those little guys. They almost double their weight before they started migrating, and then they fly in 20 hours over the Gulf of Mexico, and then basically they lose– all that two grams that they put on is gone again. So it’s really like talksport really.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Interesting that such a tiny bird can be able to migrate that far with such little like body weight, and their energy levels are also so high. They take so much energy to be able to migrate. All right. So now that we’ve kind of learned a bit about the fundamentals of migration, we’re going to turn back to Adriaan because people really want to know how to find migrating birds. Like when should they go out looking? What might be a big night? So if you could tell us more about BirdCast and how our audience can use BirdCast during this spring migration.

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Yeah. So let me quickly share my screen. And that is really one of the prime things that BirdCast tries to do is tell you, when is migration happening and where? And so we have a bunch of tools developed for that to help you with that. And so I just went here to the BirdCast site. And then if I click to the migration tools, one of the first things I do– for example, if I want to go birding in the next days, I look at the forecasts of BirdCast. So let’s click on that.

And then you see these very nice colored maps that tell us where do we think birds are going to be migrating. So these maps have been made based on very long archives that we have of radar observations in the air. So they’re based on radar data, historically. And so how I use these maps is just, I look where I am, and where are the bright colors. And that’s where we are very predictable, and where we expect a lot of migration.

So you see, also, this number here. It’s a new feature we added on this spring. And this is for tomorrow. Like 112 million birds are being predicted to be aloft. So this number tells us the peak number of birds that are flying, about three hours after sunset over the whole of the US. So that’s really a lot of birds. And you can click forward, of course, also to today’s, and you can look about three days ahead about when the migration is going to happen.

So this is very helpful to plan your birding trip and to know what’s coming towards you. Then the next thing, what I typically do in the morning, or at night, when I want to listen to, for example, migration outsides, is I go to the live migration maps. So they look very similar. But they tell you, actually, what is now, at this moment, in the air. So here, we have a map. And that is actually pretty much now.

It’s about a half hour ago. See, quarter to 12. Not much in the air. Because remember, earlier, the majority of birds migrate at night, and we’re now pretty much during the day. So there’s not much to be seen. So let me go back one night. Yesterday. Not the last night, but the night before. And then we can look what this migration looks like over a season or within a night.

So you see, on the 20th of April, there was really a lot of migration here in the west. All the green dots are the little radar stations, and the arrows tell you, then, the direction in which the birds are flying. And what I often do, also, in the morning is look in more detail where I am. So for example, say that I’m in the Florida panhandle, which is where I want to be now because that’s on the Gulf Coast and that’s where all the birds are arriving right now. And in Ithica, it’s terrible. We have snow.

Anyways, you see, if you’re in the panhandle, that bird migration is very good in the beginning of the night, but you see, you get now, around 3:00 or 4:00 AM, the birds are starting to move out of that area. So this is, for example, an example where birds, there was maybe a good migration night, but the most of the birds are flying away. And therefore, later in the night, we don’t see so much migration more.

So by looking in detail at these maps and how things change during the night, you can figure out that the birds maybe come to the ground in my area, or that they leave. And it really helps to look at these animations like this. Also, notice the little number, again, in the lower left. That tells you the number of birds that are being aloft, that are flying. So early now it is about 20 million.

And then once the sun sets, which is now, we see the number going up dramatically to about 170 million birds in this night. This is not even such a great night. I’m really looking forward to the night that we hit 500, 600, 700 million birds. That’s when we really– look out for that in the coming weeks.

[CHELSEA BENSON] You said that you expect that in a few weeks, probably?

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Yeah. So I would say, so around the 1st of May that the– so when you start moving into late April, early May, that is really when migration gets super intense. And yeah, that’s really– I’m really looking forward to that, because that’s when all the warblers come in. And yeah, it’s, for me, the most exciting period. The most exciting two weeks of the year.

[CHELSEA BENSON] I think one follow-up question before we turn to Jenna is that, we have an audience from all over the world, but our map is just on the United States right now. Could you share a little bit about why it is focused on the US?

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Yeah, there’s just maybe a more practical reason that the US has a very nice homogeneous radar network. We have the radar data coming in. And we don’t have so much radar data easily accessible, for example, yet from Canada or Mexico. It’s not that there’s no radars there. And I would really love to see BirdCast expand to cover more and more of the Western hemisphere.

And we are actively working on that as well. But it’s just, yeah, it’s just technical issues that we have to overcome. But definitely, that’s our vision for the future, to keep growing and growing that we can see birds, yeah, basically along their entire flyway, I hope.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Yeah, it’s just a matter of getting the permissions across various agencies to be able to share that data and combine those technologies.


[CHELSEA BENSON] But using that map is really powerful. So Jenna, now that we’ve learned how to find out when a big night is coming, how do you use that information to plan out your birding the next day?

[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah. That’s a great question, because when BirdCast shows lots of birds moving in an area overnight, I get so excited because that usually means there’s some new arrivals coming to my area the next morning. And so I’m just going to cover a few ways that I like to look for birds, but I want to say right now that these tools can be used anywhere, at any time of year, to help you find more birds, whether it’s migration or not. So I’m going to share my screen now.

All right. So here I am on the homepage. And I’m going to click Explore. And then I’m going to go down here to Explore Hotspots. And these are popular birding locations suggested by other eBirders. So from here, I can set the date to April, our current month, and I’ll zoom into my particular area of interest, which would be Ithaca, New York.

And so what I’m seeing here on the map are a map of birding hotspots colored by the number of species that have been reported from that location in April. The brighter the color, the more species I’m likely to see at that location based on the reports of eBirders. So it looks like after a big night of migration, I might want to head here to the lake shore to see what birds have flown in and may be hanging out in those trees at the edge of the water. It looks like Stewart Park would probably be a really good spot to go after a night of heavy migration.

So I can see some stats about the hotspot here. I’m going to click on bar charts down here. Bar charts show when and how frequently birds are reported at a location throughout the year. The bigger the bar, the more frequently a bird has been reported to Stewart Park during that week of the year. So I want to scroll down to warblers because warblers are colorful, they’re beautiful, and they’re so exciting to see when they come down– or come up for the spring. So I’ll scroll down here to the warbler section.

And it looks like, based on a bunch of the warblers that can be seen at Stewart Park, that the last week of April is when they start to show up for the spring. So they are probably going to be arriving in Stewart Park any time now if they haven’t already. But my chances of seeing warblers are going to get even better in May, so that’s something to look forward to. So if you’ve had any sort of questions in the chat so far about, will this bird stay in my area year round? Or, when can I expect the birds here to leave? Bar charts are a great way of answering this because they give you an idea of how frequently a bird occurs in your area for the whole entire year.

So you can see some birds, like Palm Warbler, are only here during a certain part of migration, and then head to a different part of the area or the country for the summer months, and then return again in the fall. Say I want to find a particular species. I also love orioles. They’re bright. They’re colorful. I got to love the colorful birds. So maybe I want– I’ve got a good chance of seeing orioles here in Stewart Park, but I want to maximize my odds and see some other places that I might see them. I’ll click the map icon here.

And now I see a map of all of the places the Baltimore Oriole has been reported in the Ithica area in April. You can also reach this by going up to the Explore bar there and clicking Species Maps. Icons with flames are hotspots. The ones without flames are just personal checklist locations. Icons in red would indicate observations that have been seen this year. The blue icons are older.

So we don’t see any red icons here on the map, which means that no Baltimore Orioles have been reported to eBird from the Ithica area yet this year, but they should be on their way. It could be any day now. Maybe when the snow melts a little bit more. As one final note, both of the tools I’ve shown here, species searches and hotspot searches, are also available on the free eBird mobile app. So if you want to take them on the go, you can do that.

[CHELSEA BENSON] And I saw in the chat real quick that somebody was like, oh, I don’t see the hotspots on my phone yet. And that might be because an update is needed. Right? These are newer features?

[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, make sure that you’re using the latest version of the eBird mobile app.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Right. Yeah, because you just pushed out a lot of really cool new features, and so it’s fun to be able to explore these, both on the website, or if you’re out birding in the moment, you can pull that up and look for the species and the hotspots and be able to go out and hopefully, either target a species or see where a lot of birds are being identified by seeing the number of species at that one hotspot. So really cool. Thanks, Jenna.

[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, exactly.

[CHELSEA BENSON] All right. So Drew, we’re going to turn to you. Because you’re out there birding, we’re seeing lots of birds, but oftentimes, maybe we only get to see these birds briefly, in glimpses, or they’re in our area for such a short period of time that we don’t always get to learn all of them as closely as we’d like to. So can you tell us how you go about identifying birds? Like what’s your method for IDing birds?

[DREW WEBER] Sure. Happy to do that. Yeah, so in my totally unbiased opinion, Merlin app does a really great job of walking me through the main steps I take to identify a bird. So looking at this photo, let’s just imagine a scenario where you’re just getting a quick glimpse at a bird, like Chelsea was saying, and you aren’t quite sure what it was. The first thing to consider is where in the world you are. There are over 10,000 species, but at any one location, a more reasonable number is 1 to 400 species.

And knowing where you are in the world helps to narrow that down. Second, check the date. We’ve been talking a lot about migration, and so we know that the list of species that you can see during spring are different than those that you would see in summer and winter. And so when you exclude the species that occurred just in other seasons, you’ve further reduced the possibilities. So really knowing the status and distribution of birds helps a lot.

And then in Merlin, the remaining questions pertain to the relative size of the bird, the main colors that you’re seeing, and finally, its behavior and general, maybe, habitat that it was in. And so these five questions are generally enough to narrow down the list of species that you should consider to a pretty small set. Let me do one more thing here.

So yeah, so once you have that list of possibilities, it’s time to dive into some more of the specifics. Sometimes the correct answer will jump out immediately, and it’ll be a super easy one once you see what the possibilities are in your area. Other times, it won’t be so clear. And so there might be– there might be several very similar species to consider. And in that case, you’ll want to dive into the additional resources that Merlin offers to find your best match. So you can listen to the songs, view a bunch of photos, read the ID text.

And I just wanted to say, another important thing to always remember is sometimes the bird does get away. Even the best birders are out there just letting birds go sometimes. You might not get a good enough glimpse, or get a identifying feature that you needed to see, and that’s totally OK. That’s normal, and part of the experience. In this case, if you’re in the Eastern US, our brilliant red bird with black wings is pretty distinctive. And so you can, in the Merlin flow, quickly get to your answer there and understand what bird you’re seeing.

[CHELSEA BENSON] So it will provide us with that list of options, and you’ll scroll through. And then once you determine that that is your bird, what happens when you actually click on that link, Drew? What information are you collecting with Merlin?

[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so the cool thing that we released about it, almost a year ago now, with Merlin is, if you click, this is my bird, you have the opportunity to save it to your life list. And so you can remember when you first saw these birds. You can start to build up the list of species that you’ve identified, and feel confident identifying. And if you are already an eBird user, you can also opt into connecting the Merlin app to eBird.

And so in that case, instead of saying, this is my bird, the button will say, report to eBird. You’ll tap on that when you identify the bird, and it will jump you right over to the eBird mobile app where you can enter your count for how many. And so Merlin gives you two different ways of adding birds to your list, so you can really start to remember what you’ve seen, where you’ve seen it, and build that list of species that you can identify.

[CHELSEA BENSON] And if someone is lucky enough to be able to take a picture of the bird and they’re still not quite sure what it is, Merlin has the ability to be able to use a photo to help ID?

[DREW WEBER] Yeah. Let me jump to that real quick. Actually, let me talk about, a little bit, other things here first, and then jump into the soundbite or Photo ID. So I just wanted to give a little overview of Merlin. So it is the Cornell Lab’s bird ID and field guide app, which has really evolved, over the past several years, into a global guide.

So you can not only download regional packs for where you live, but you can also explore the birds of India, or Australia, or New Zealand, or Cololbia. Really wherever you might be traveling, or wherever you might be living, or just whatever you’re interested in. So Merlin offers all this content in bird packs. And so these bird packs have all the photos, sounds, and ID text for that region.

And these bird packs now cover over 7,500 species of the 10,000 species in the world. So complete coverage for the Americas, Australia, Europe, and we have some coverage for packs in Africa and Asia. And they’re releasing more every month. So yeah, jumping into– wanted to talk about all the different ways you can identify stuff with Merlin.

So that first way we talked about was our ID wizard, where you’re answering five questions. The second method is our AI-powered photo recognition tool that takes any bird photo and gives you some possible identifications. So here’s a photo that I took. It’s a great photo, super clear. And I took it as an example. And I actually took it with the Swarovski dG. This is a tool that connects directly with Merlin to help you identify birds.

But I just wanted to grab a photo to use for this example. So basically, you can get a photo into Merlin any way that you want. You can take a photo of the bird directly with your phone. You can take a photo of the back of your camera, of your screen. Any way that you can get a photo of a bird, that will work for Photo ID. So you get that photo, and then you want to– you pinch to make the photo fill the whole black frame there.

And then like we talked about earlier, location and date are super important for understanding what birds occur where. And you click identify, and then Merlin will show you a list of results. And when it’s a distinctive bird like this Baltimore oriole, there’ll often be one suggestion.

But then just like the other flow that we talked about, you can say this to your life list. You can explore additional photos, listen to the sound, and read the text to really confirm that the suggestion that Photo ID gave you was a good suggestion and accurately reflects the bird that you saw. And then the last way to identify birds with Merlin is to use the Explore Birds feature. You could really think about this as the eBird powered version of a classic field guide.

And so what makes Explore Birds different? As I mentioned, it’s powered by eBird, and that allows you to get a custom list of birds for wherever you are in the world. So the weekly bar charts that span across the year are very similar to what Jenna showed you in the Explore tools in eBird. And these tell you what birds have been reported in your area. And you can see, for every week, what birds are arriving, what birds are departing, and which birds are those year-round residents?

So this really makes Merlin the perfect migration guide because you can tap on the species to get identification tips, flip through all the images to familiarize yourself with what the males and females look like if they look different, and you can also explore all the audio that is included for that species. So you can listen to their songs. You can listen to their calls. Most species have quite a repertoire of songs and calls that you can explore.

And this is great because then if you’re preparing, in the days and weeks ahead of when these birds arrive, when you’re walking through your county park or your neighborhood and you hear an Ovenbird off in the distance, you’re going to instantly know what it is, even if it’s the first time you’ve ever heard it in the wild. So that’s a summary of the main features in Merlin. I just wanted to show a couple more things here.

To expand on that Explore feature, you can really customize it in a bunch of different ways. If you tap on the Filter button in the top right, it gives you these options. So you can select any location, any time of year, that you want to explore and see the species for. And then there’s these different ways to also sort that. So what I really like to do when I’m going to a new location is sort it by the most likely. And so what you see at the top of the list is the most common species that you might be able to see in the area.

And the other thing is, you’ve been saving birds to your life list. And so you can actually use that toggle at the bottom to hide birds on your life list. And what that means is it will just show you species that you have not seen yet that are common in that area. And so you can see, these are the species that I really need to learn because I have never seen them before and I want to add them to my life list. So that’s an overview of some of the features in Merlin and how you can use them.

[CHELSEA BENSON] It’s really cool because it’s not just for beginning birders. It’s for birders of all levels to be able to get out and explore, and be able to identify those birds. And our top-voted question here is all about sound. And so people really want to know, how do you identify birds by sound? And you covered, you can go into Merlin and you can listen to the sounds and try to match them with what bird you think you saw. But are there any ways that– any other suggestions, Drew, you have for sound ID?

[DREW WEBER] Yeah. This will probably be a topic for a future webinar that will be very exciting to have. But we are, right now, working on bringing sound ID into Merlin itself. And so you have the ability to go outside, hold your phone up to a bird that’s singing, and get immediate ID suggestions for what that bird might be. And that will tie right into all the features we just talked about with Merlin, so be powered by the eBird data that shows what’s most likely.

And then there’ll be all of this additional content from the bird packs. So you’ll be able to listen to your recording that you made, compare it to some of the suggestions, and see how well it matches up. So I’m really excited. That’s on the horizon. And yeah, stay tuned for updates on that in the coming months.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Yes. We’re very excited for the release of the sound ID through Merlin. I think that is going to be pretty amazing, and we will definitely have to bring some of the Merlin team back and have a conversation about how that all works, because it’s pretty complicated. But the way that you present it, it makes it really user friendly. And I think that people really enjoy being able to identify birds by sound because that can be very tricky. I know I struggle with that.

So migration is a really dangerous time during a bird’s life. And I’d love if each of you could share how BirdCast and eBird and Merlin have real world conservation applications. So how does knowing what we know help birds? Because it’s really cool for us to know where to find birds, and what’s a big night, but what does that mean for conservation issues? And I’d love it, Adriaan, if you could share a little bit more about BirdCast and the Lights Out program.

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Yeah. I will do that. So yeah, with migratory birds, one issue that we have is that, at night, birds tend to be attracted to very bright lights. It’s maybe something we don’t fully understand why they do this, but it’s just a clear observation that there’s very likely well-lit buildings, for example. Birds get attracted to that, and they might, also, collide with these buildings.

I want to share quickly my screen again for when that happens, because I think one interesting night is actually upcoming if we go, again, to the migration forecasts. It’s, for example, here. That’s not this night, but the next night. You see this very strong migration here in Texas that we predict. But there’s also quite a bit of rain showers at the same time, and these are typically the situations where birds mainly get disoriented, and they’re in the rain, and then there’s light.

It’s buildings. They just might fly into them. So with BirdCast, that’s one of the things we try to do something about. And I think these forecasts are really central to that because it helps you to know that these migration events are coming, right? So one of the tools we have made, also, for cities is the local bird migration alerts. So you can, for example, go to my city here, Houston.

And then you get these city-specific forecasts of when the migration is going to be strong. So you see, for example, on Friday and Saturday, we really have a high number of birds being predicted to fly over these cities. And once you know that, what we try to encourage people to do is, especially on those nights, to turn out your lights, and maybe help, in that way, to prevent birds colliding with cities.

And we have, especially in Texas now, a fairly large trial project. And we’re very fortunate that a lot of mayors of several large cities like Houston have proclaimed in their city to turn out their lights and help people be aware of these risks. So I think, yeah, by really helping– the best to do, of course, we need to always turn off your lights, but that’s not always possible for a lot of large buildings.

So if they can target these nights with the strongest migration, that would help the most, of course. And that we avoid that. So yeah, that is one way in which you try to– if you know the birds are coming, you can actually do something and change your behavior. So that’s what we try to do with BirdCast.

[CHELSEA BENSON] That’s great. Thank you so much. And I think it just shows that even a small action like turning out lights can really have a big impact. There’s a lot of mortality around window collisions, especially at night. So that’s one really great way that people can protect birds, especially during that critical migration period. So Jenna, if you could jump in and share a little bit more about eBird, because I know there’s a lot of ways, but maybe our audience doesn’t in a lot of ways that eBird has different conservation applications.

[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah. So I’m going to start my screen share here. eBird data are used every day for a huge variety of conservation projects, including some really cutting edge science. And so what I’m going to show here are eBird status models. They take eBird observations and they use advanced modeling techniques and statistics to predict where and in what numbers birds will occur across the world throughout the year on their entire range. And so they allow us to get these great visualizations of migration.

This is a Wilson’s Warbler’s migration from all the way up to Alaska and northern Canada, and then back down in the winter to Mexico and Central America. And so this is all created from eBird observations submitted by folks like you. And this is what I mean when I say that eBird observations can help us visualize migration on continental scales, even global scales. I know we’ve been talking a lot about North America in this webinar, but here is a similar example, an eBird status model for a meadow pipit, which lives in Europe.

And you can still see that same thing, that in the north, the birds migrate up to Iceland and the northern parts of Europe, and then they come back down again in the fall and they winter in the Iberian Peninsula in Spain and across the Mediterranean. So your eBird observations can help to inform and predict our understanding of when birds are going to be where.

So I’ve seen some questions in the chat from folks saying, well, how can I find out what birds are doing or where they’re going when I can’t follow them on BirdCast anymore? Or, what if I don’t live in an area that’s covered by BirdCast? And while we don’t always have live migration maps for those areas, you can use the eBird status models for over 800 species, now, to get a better understanding and appreciation of the journeys of these birds on a weekly basis throughout the year.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Oh, cool. I love those migration maps. They’re just so mesmerizing to look at, and really appreciate how many people have contributed their observations to make those maps happen. How many people participate in eBird?

[JENNA CURTIS] We’re over 670,000 eBirders, at this point, who have contributed observations. And a huge thanks to everyone who does that. Every bird counts, is what we like to say. Your bird observations do make a difference for science.

[CHELSEA BENSON] That’s just a few people. No big deal. No, that’s fabulous.

[JENNA CURTIS] Oh, yeah, and these maps are available at if you click on the Science tab. I’ll also pop a link into the chat for those of you on Zoom.

[CHELSEA BENSON] That’s great. And like you said, you just expanded those so that you can see those abundance maps for birds from around the world for our audiences, not just with us here in North America. Drew, could you share a little bit about how Merlin has conservation applications?

[DREW WEBER] Yeah. The main way I like to think about Merlin playing a role in this is, it really helps users identify birds, increasing their confidence in identifying those birds and improving their skills. So as they’re entering their data right into eBird or saving it through Merlin, we have this higher confidence that the data that’s going in there is great data, and everything’s identified to the best of the user’s abilities.

So it’s all about increasing people’s skills. And this isn’t just like, learning the birds of your backyard and that sort of thing. When experts travel to different places around the world, they’re learning a lot of these birds for the first time. And so this is improving– it’s helping to improve the data wherever birders travel. That’s how I like to think of it, Merlin contributing to that.

[CHELSEA BENSON] That’s great. So speaking of real world applications, Jenna, I know that Global Big Day is just around the corner. We’ve all talked about how we can find migrating birds and how to identify them. So I’m hoping that our audience is going to be inspired to participate in Global Big Day. So could you tell us more about it, and how people can get involved?

[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah. Great question. Global Big Day is a worldwide celebration of birds. This year, it’s on May 8th, so it’s coming right up. It’s a chance for people who appreciate birds around the world to take a moment and see what we collectively, as a community, can accomplish when we all go birding on a single day. And last year, over 50,000 people submitted over 120,000 eBird checklists on Global Big Day, breaking several world records. And we’re so excited to see what records we can break this year together.

All you have to do to participate is go birding on May 8th. It could be for five minutes. It could be for the entire day. Whatever you are most comfortable with. You don’t even have to leave home. Just step outside to your porch, or look out your window for a little bit. Just set aside some time to focus on the birds. And then report the birds you find to eBird. And that’s it. It makes you part of our global birding team, and makes you a participant in Global Big Day. If you’re not sure how to get started with eBird, there’s an eBird essentials course.

It’s free. It’s self-guided. It’s online. It’ll walk you step by step through all of the Get Started tools of eBird, so it’s a great way to learn how to use the system. And I’ll just toss this out here. There are a lot of other celebrations around Global Big Day. Another Cornell Lab project, Birds of the World, it’s an incredible resource to help you learn so much more about the lives of your favorite bird species. It will be free during Global Big Day weekend, from May 6th through 9th.

We also have some information– I’m hoping all the folks who are helping behind the scenes can pop that link and coupon code into the chat now. There’s information in the comments on Facebook and Zoom about how you can get Birds of the World, another month free outside of Global Big Day weekend. So if you’re looking to learn more about birds, all of the fascinating details about their lives, Birds of the World is another great project for that.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Yeah, and we actually have a coupon code. So for all of our audience, today you can get a free month subscription to Birds of the World by using the code, migration. So if you’re watching on Facebook, that code’s going in the chat. And for our Zoom audience, I’m actually going to email everyone tomorrow with the recording of this webinar and that coupon code to Birds of the World, which is a really– I love going into Birds of the World and exploring, and learning about when I might hear my screech owls in the backyard, and in all kinds of really interesting, in-depth information.

So we’ll share that code with you if you don’t get it in the chat today, because I can see our chat is crazy. You’ll get it in the email tomorrow. So I want to switch gears, and we’re going to get to a lot of our audience questions. I can see them piling up. It’s so awesome to have such interest in this topic.

At the very top of our list is, people really want to know when you first learned to tell birds apart by their song. So do any of you have a story about how you learned to tell birdsong apart? Because some people feel overwhelmed by it. Trying to think of one.

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] I started very young, as a kid. But I didn’t really have anyone who taught me. So it is possible, but I’m just the first one to admit, it is totally overwhelming if you hear so many birds singing at the same time and to tease them apart. But maybe Drew should actually say something, because those tools, I didn’t have that as a kid.

So it’s just a slow process. And once you know one, you can isolate it, and then you can focus on the rest that you don’t know. And then gradually, over the years, you get better and better at it. But I think Drew’s tools are totally changing this, maybe.

[DREW WEBER] Yes, I have a couple anecdotal things about how I learned. It definitely took me a long time to get the songs to sink in, year from year. I’d be learning red Red-eyed Vireo and great crested flycatcher as the new bird every year when I was younger. But according to my brother, apparently I made him listen to birdsong CDs on our 45 minute rides to school in high school.

And so that seemed to play a pretty good– as a pretty good tool for me to learn the bird songs at least. It was just like repetition, repetition. The other thing that’s really helps me learn bird songs is actually seeing the birds sing. For some reason, that– for some people, that really cements in their minds the connection between the bird and the birdsong. So if you hear something that you don’t recognize, if you can track it down and watch it singing, that might really help you remember it for the next time you hear it.

[CHELSEA BENSON] That’s really helpful. My kids are young, and they are starting to learn birdsong. And it’s fun to hear them pick it up, because often they use the little tricks, like little words like “Sam Peabody” body for the sparrows. And so it’s just interesting, the different techniques that people use. What were you going to say, Jenna?

[JENNA CURTIS] Oh, just that I agree with Drew, that practice, practice, practice. And sometimes it can be helpful to keep, if you have a smartphone on you, even if you don’t have a designated app for bird ID, to just record it with the videos tool. Sometimes I’ll do that out in the field. If I just spontaneously found myself in a place that I’m hearing a bird I don’t recognize, it’s funny, I’ll just record a video of it on my phone and then share it with my friends, listen to it later, use some of the resources we’ve mentioned here to try and ID it later.

But having that recording to go back to and reference later is super helpful because I’m sure we’ve all been in a place where you try and go back to a friend and you say, I heard a bird. And it said, “peabody”, or it said, “fitz-bew” and you don’t quite know how to describe it very well, and no one can seem to give you a suggestion. So having a recording is much easier to ID from.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Let’s see. Looking at some of our questions. So as birds are migrating, people are curious about how to make their own yards more bird friendly, because oftentimes, when they come down to the ground, they’re refueling, from their long night flight, Adriaan. So do any of you have any suggestions about what we could do in our own spaces to make it friendlier for birds?

[JENNA CURTIS] My tip would be, look for native plantings and try and plant native plants in your yard. Studies have shown that birds with access to native vegetation tend to be more successful reproductively, so definitely plant native where you can.

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] And then also, I think, important, don’t be too– it’s nice to have a very clean yard, but I think birds actually like it a little messy. So maybe just leave some piles of leaves, and maybe don’t clean up so well, and those are actually these little things where the insects are going. And that’s what birds actually like. So I think a little more natural, messy yard is nice too.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Yeah, I think that–

[DREW WEBER] Those are great. Suggestions. Go ahead.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Oh, no. I was just– people often think about food, and our natural inclination might be to put out a bird feeder. And that might be good for some migrating birds like our hummingbirds, our orioles even. Cat birds will come to feeders. But a lot of our little warbler species, they won’t– sometimes they might come to suet or another type of food source, but a lot of times, like what Adriaan is suggesting and Jenna is saying, if we have native plants that are fruiting and providing insects, like they are often flitting about in those trees and shrubs, and they’re foraging. And you’ve provided a really rich habitat for them, especially if we avoid using pesticides.

And putting out water, too, I think is often something that’s overlooked. Having a little bit of– just even a saucer of water can be helpful for birds to clean their feathers, and to get a drink. And of course, keeping cats indoors, turning off our lights at night. I think there’s a lot of ways that we can think about how to make our yards safer for the birds that are passing through, and also the ones that are staying the season with us. All right. Let’s see. I’m trying to scroll through. Did anybody see any questions popping out to them?

[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of questions about this link between Merlin and eBird and whether birds they report in Merlin will go to eBird and that sort of thing. So I figured Drew and I can help to answer those questions. So if you have both Merlin and eBird installed on your mobile device, they will recognize each other and give you the option to report the birds that you find and identify with Merlin either through eBird or within Merlin. So if you choose the eBird option, when you identify a bird in Merlin, it’ll open the eBird app and let you put it on a checklist.

If you don’t have eBird installed, that’s fine. You can still save birds to your life list within the Merlin app, and keep building that. The Merlin app and the eBird app share the same account information. You can use the same account to log into both, which means that your life list is shared between the two. So if you start identifying birds in Merlin, build a life list in that, decide later on you’d like to have an eBird account, your life list is going to be right there, ready for you to keep eBirding later.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Adriaan, I don’t know if you meant– you tagged a question you’d like to answer live about migration being delayed. Did you mean to tag that, or should–?

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] I actually accidentally tagged it, but it’s a great question anyways. I’d be happy to answer it. Yeah. This reminds me that we have a bit of a poor weather lately in the south, and a lot of fronts coming by. And therefore, we saw– so in BirdCast, usually, we have already some big pushes already, have had some really big pushes in April. But so far, we haven’t had super big migration flights yet.

And that really highlights, again, this super intimate relationship between weather and birds. Birds are just super clever about using the right weather conditions, and they don’t want to spend too much energy flying. So they’re really waiting for these good tailwinds to come to the north. And if it’s rainy and not good winds, then they don’t really migrate. So that really matters. Like if the weather is a little different in a certain season, birds might be a little later than other years. So maybe that is a little bit going on this year.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Yeah, and I think that’s something– so we would see it in the forecast. And then you can also– eBird is tracking these things over years, so it’s all wrapping into one thing, right? Like at the Cornell Lab, our programs often feed into each other.

So if we might have delayed migration, is that just a one time thing? Was that whether that did that that year? Or is it something that might be changing over time? And that is how eBird and Merlin, by identifying those birds over the years, we can really learn those things. Actually, let’s see. Did anybody else have any questions that were popping out to them in the Q&A?

[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, there were a couple of questions about, how do I get started, and when do I watch birds, and how do I know when it’s migration, which are some great questions. Like when do you know when migration is happening around you? So in addition to the tools we showed like eBird Explore and the status maps to help see at what time of year birds are in your area, I also recommend just trying birding every day. You’ll really start to notice changes in the birds that are around you and around your home, and you’ll start to recognize when new things arrive that you didn’t see the day before, or there seemed to be a lot more or a lot less birds than you saw last week.

It’s by getting familiar with the birds around you and just appreciating birds every day that you can really start to learn and recognize what migration actually looks like. So I wish I had a specific example, like when you see 10% of birds change from yesterday, that’s migration. But it’s not. It’s a natural phenomena that’s just wonderful to experience in person. So that’s my best recommendation.

And as for what time, I know we say a lot of birds are migrating at night, and it can be so frustrating to think, all of those birds overhead and you can’t see them because it’s dark and they’re not making noises. But like we mentioned, a lot of heavy overhead migration at night usually brings some new birds in in the morning. So that’s probably the best time to start looking for birds is right around sunrise when the temperatures start to warm up a little bit after the night and birds get active.

[CHELSEA BENSON] And we often hear that dawn song, where they’re all coming to life in the spring. It’s so wonderful. Adriaan, I see a question for you that came from our Facebook audience. They’re talking about migration. Is it a continuous thing or are they stopping and starting? Is that something that you’re picking up on on the BirdCast? Can the radars see either continual movement, or stops and starts in migration?

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Yeah. So the radar see birds when they’re in the air, basically. So the radar cannot really look so close to the ground. But if you look right after sunset, then we can actually see, in the raw images, these birds taking off as a sort of mass. It’s quite well timed. After about half hour, hour after sunrise, then everything takes off. And we can see, also, from which habitats birds are taking off and emerging.

But you cannot really see that, maybe, in too much detail yet in the products that we have now life on BirdCast. It’s also something– we have so much our plate that we want to do. Getting more detail and seeing where birds are departing is certainly something we want to work on in the future, definitely, so that you can see that. But it’s not there yet. And and with the radars, because it’s a little– you see birds moving.

I think one of the hardest things is to see where it would be exactly come to the ground because it’s not that birds are– they gradually stop migrating over night. So if you look at the live maps, that number, you see very rapidly going up, and then slowly over the night, typically, the number of migrating birds goes down and down and down. And that’s because slowly, birds are dropping to the ground and stopping over, and then you don’t see them in the radar anymore.

But that’s one of my holy grails for research, to figure out from the radar where they’re landing. It’s really something very hard to estimate, but I think, maybe ask me again in a year or two years. Maybe we’ll make some progress there.

[CHELSEA BENSON] That’s great. So I want to end with asking you all what bird you’re looking forward to most this migration season. Jenna, do you want to start off? I know you were talking about orioles, but is there a bird that you just are really excited about this migration season?

[JENNA CURTIS] Oh, no. I always pick one and then I see another one and I’m like, I’m so excited. I know it’s such a cop out answer, but each migrant I see, the most recent migrant I spotted, is my favorite migrant.

[CHELSEA BENSON] I understand that sentiment. What about you, Adriaan, and then Drew?

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Ooh. I always have this fascination for swifts. They are sort of the Chimney Swifts for me. I mean, I live in the city, a small city, and then they come back and sing anywhere, these little cheeping notes and going over the houses, and just such a sound that reminds me of the summer and good times. So that bird. And then there’s also these fascinating behaviors, they migrate to the tropics and the Amazon where we actually don’t really know where it is.

So swifts are mysterious to me. And I think that there’s this whole thing about migration that always makes it a little mysterious. They migrate at night. You never know exactly where they’re going. And that’s the ultimate idea of freedom that the swift has, for me. Yeah, I really love those birds.


[DREW WEBER] I mostly fall in the same camp as Jenna. The last warbler I saw is always my favorite. But really what I look forward to in spring migration are raptors. I did a couple of seasons counting hawks at different spots, and for me, seeing those first big kettles of Broad-wings circling overhead, 100 of them, is always pretty compelling for me and I love seeing that.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Yeah, I remember last spring. It was the beginning of being at home all the time, and making that big shift to working at home, having my kids at home. And the one morning, I woke up. There was a warbler fall out in my backyard. I was sitting on my deck eating breakfast. And I’ve never seen so many warblers, different species, in my life. And it was the best moment. I needed it so much.

And it was just so exciting. And I actually had Merlin out, and I was scrolling through, and I’m like, OK, which one is it? Which one is it? And I also wanted to share that, for our audience, we’re going to be sharing a free download of warbler reference guides. So if you’re like me, that you sometimes really like paper versions of things, we’re going to throw that in the chat, and also in the Facebook comments. And I’ll email you the link so you can download the reference guides because it’s one of those species that there’s subtle differences and also vast differences.

So it’s fun to page through, or use Merlin like I was doing, and scrolling and hoping that I’m going to find that bird that’s right there on the tree. I want to thank you all so much for taking the time with us today. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, and I hope our audience has too. And I hope they’re excited, just about getting out this spring to do some birding, and also, hopefully to participate in Global Big Day. So thank you all.

And thanks to our audience. You all were very active in the chat and Q&A. So thank you for joining us. I encourage our audience to visit the BirdCast and eBird websites and take full advantage of what you’ve learned, and also to download the Merlin Bird ID app and the eBird apps to get the most out of your birding this spring. Today’s webinar is part of a series. We’ve been spotlighting programs and research from around the Cornell Lab, helping you learn not just about your backyard birds or birds passing through during migration, but also about issues facing birds worldwide.

And if you enjoyed today’s program, please consider becoming a member of the Cornell Lab. Everybody that’s in our audience today, I’m going to be emailing you tomorrow with a recorded version of the webinar. I will also send a lot of the resources we talked about today, including the warbler reference guide and the coupon code to Birds of the World. And if you’re watching on Facebook, our colleagues are dropping all those links into the chat. So again, thank you, all our panelists. I really appreciate your time. So thank you.

[JENNA CURTIS] Thanks, everyone. Happy birding.

[ADRIAAN DOKTER] Enjoy birding. Go out.

[CHELSEA BENSON] Yes, I know!. All right, have a great afternoon, everybody, and thanks again. Bye.


End of transcript

Each spring, billions of birds are on the move northward, making April and May among the very best months to be a birdwatcher in North America. Let’s get ready for that flood of orioles, hummingbirds, warblers, raptors, and more! Join our webinar on April 22 at noon Eastern to discover the fundamentals of spring migration. You’ll pick up tips on forecasting bird migration, locating birds near you, and identifying them using size/shape, color pattern, habitat, and behavior. Our expert panelists will share their favorite approaches to birding during the remarkable spring migration season and we’ll hear about how you can participate in Global Big Day, an annual celebration of birds near you.