September 08, 2013

Mega Bird Migration

It has been a hard time for migrating birds over the region.  

They don't like headwinds as they head south, and we have had persistent southerly (from the south) flow for weeks due to a persistent low off the coast (see image).  Hard going for the little fellows.

For over a week, the typical lower-atmospheric weather map (here shown at 850 hPa, around 5000 ft) had this configuration, with a low right off our coast, resulting in persistent southerly flow and showers.

They don't like rain, and particularly heavy showers, and I don't have to tell you about our recent thunderstorms!  I guess birds are a lot like people in that way.

But something magical for birds happened last night:   as the low moved through, the winds in the lower atmosphere turned to northerly (see image) and the skies cleared.  Optimal conditions for migration. And our bird friends were ready!

 Weather map at 850 hPa (roughly 5000 ft).  High pressure has built off the coast resulting in modest northerly flow over the western side of the Cascades.  Tail wind for birds going south.

Let me show you, using a variety of weather radars, this pulse of bird migration in action. 

The new Langley Hill coastal radar is a wonderful bird-watching tool.  When little precipitation is around, these radars are in a highly-sensitive mode that really shows the birds.  And remember, many migrating birds, particularly the smaller ones, like to fly at night when they are safer from predators.

Starting with the radar image (composite of all altitudes) at 7:49 PM Saturday night, we see a lot of ground-clutter returns (the lower radar beams hitting the surface mainly).

About an hour later (9:09 PM) and after sunset, things have really changed.  Lots of echoes and some very intense.  These are the birds.  Birds don't like to migrate offshore very far and you can see that in the echoes.

 12:22 PM the echo coverage has expanded.  Lots of birds on the move

 5:37 AM there are still some birds, but the numbers are dropping.

 And after sunrise at 6:39 AM, nearly all are gone and we are back to ground clutter
The Langley radar is a Doppler radar and it gives the velocity of the targets (in this case birds) towards or away from the radar.  Here is the Doppler image at 12:46 AM.   Green indicates approaching and red and orange going away.   Clearly the birds are heading south!

Now let me show you something interesting.   Here in Seattle we have a very special type of weather radar, called a radar-wind profiler, located at the NOAA facility at Sand Point.   Instead of sweeping horizontallly, this radar has three static beams, mostly facing upwards. This radar picks up birds as well.  Take a look at an image from this radar for the 24-h ending mid-day Sunday.  The y-axis is height in meters and time is on the x-axis (in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT, UTC), 06 is 11 PM, 12 is 5 AM, etc.).  Stronger returns are in purple, blue, and green.  The birds are obvious.  Around 03 UTC (8 PM) we we see the start of the bird echoes.  Lots of flying in the evening, which fades a bit in the middle of the night.  But you see a complete collapse after 5-6 AM as it starts getting light out.

It will be dry for the next several days, so expect to see a lot more migrating birds on the local radars.


  1. Cliff - Don't know where to ask besides here but I'm wondering if you have any insight into the pacific ocean temps and the upcoming winter? La Nina/El Nino, etc. I remember last year you had some posts around that. It would also be interesting to see this cast in relationship to the general climatic signal, both regionally and world wide. Thank you so much for your energy in presenting the weather like you do. I, for one, really appreciate the slightly more eggheaded details. BTW, when will the extra cash/computer power start making it's way into the US models?

  2. Living by Sand Point, I notice the daily patterns of the crows as they move in to the city in the morning and back to the rural areas in the evening. I also enjoy seeing the waterfowl moving through the wetlands at Magnuson Park as the seasons change.
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful visualization that lets me enjoy the birds as they make their way through the night hours across our small piece of the northwest.
    I'm consistently impressed with the added value and richness you bring to your passion for weather.
    Thank you!

  3. Michael, according to NOAA the current expectation is:

    "Synopsis: ENSO-neutral is favored through the Northern Hemisphere winter 2013-14."

  4. Cliff, just spotted this on NWS forecast:

    Clear. High of 97F. Winds less than 5 mph."

    First reaction can't be repeated in front of the children.

    Some kind of glitch in the forecast? Tuesday and Thursday are showing warm, but nothing so outlandish.

    Dying for expert analysis!

  5. dbostrom....where are you located? Perhaps this is global warming!...cliff

  6. I'm in Seattle.

    What strikes me is how Wednesday is calling for so much warmer than the day before or after. One day doth not a climate make!

    Downgraded to only 95 degrees, I see. :-)


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

More Typical Spring Temperatures Will Save Washington and California's Cherry Crop this Year

Last year was a cherry disaster for the West Coast and the key driver was the cool/wet weather late last winter and spring in California.   ...