The Nature Conservancy Partners with NASA to Study Bird Migration Patterns on the Delmarva Peninsula

August 22, 2013 under CANR News

A high-tech radar designed to study precipitation patterns will help identify migrating songbird stopover hotspots

Photo by NASA/David Wolff

Photo by NASA/David Wolff

Berlin, Md. — The Nature Conservancy and a team of researchers are partnering with NASA to use a high-tech radar designed to track precipitation patterns to also study the migration patterns of migratory songbirds that stop over on the Delmarva Peninsula.

“This is one of the most powerful and sophisticated research radars in the world,” said Chief Conservation Scientist for the Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve Barry Truitt, who is coordinating the project and partnership for the Conservancy. “This partnership with NASA is an exciting opportunity to use a precipitation tool in a novel way to benefit conservation.”

NASA uses the transportable radar, known as NPOL radar (which stands for NASA Polarimetric weather radar), to study weather patterns and precipitation around the globe. The Conservancy’s Maryland chapter helped NASA locate and secure a site for the radar near Newark, Md., just outside of Berlin.

It’s a tool sensitive enough to track the size, shape, speed and direction of individual raindrops. On dry nights, when there isn’t any rain for the radar to track, NASA is sharing the radar with the Conservancy and its research partners to track migrating songbirds that are traveling to Central and South America for the winter. Truitt explained that birds in the air look, to the radar, like large drops of water. Just like with the raindrops, the radar will track their size, speed and direction.

The radar detects birds as they emerge at dusk from daytime resting and foraging sites, known as stopover sites, to embark on their nocturnal migration. The research teams’ primary goal is to analyze where the birds stop over and identify the habitat they use for refueling. A high number of migratory songbirds—such as prothonotary warblers—stop during their migration in this region, particularly on the southern Delmarva Peninsula along the Pocomoke River. Data collection began last week and last night, Aug. 20, a team of scientists from NASA, the Conservancy, the University of Delaware, Old Dominion University and the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center reviewed the radar’s first scans.

“Using this radar, we’ll be able to identify the stopover hotspots that are most important for migrating bird species, many of which are declining in numbers,” Truitt said. “This is going to allow us to prioritize The Nature Conservancy’s protection of land and best adapt our management practices to ensure the birds have the habitat and resources they need when they rest here.”

While NASA’s radar scans the skies, scientists from Old Dominion University and the University of Delaware will be busy on the ground, using more traditional methods to study the birds. They’ll identify species, and note what the birds are eating and how they’re using habitat. Jeff Buler, of the University of Delaware and one of only a handful of expert radar ornithologists in the country, and ornithologist Eric Walters of Old Dominion University will analyze the data from the radar and field surveys.

“The primary purpose of the NASA Polarimetric (NPOL) radar is to support NASA precipitation science and ground validation studies for the Global Precipitation Measurement mission,” said Walt Petersen, Ground Precipitation Measurement ground validation scientist at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. “A byproduct of our science, and an efficient means of using the resource, is that we are in fact able to collaborate with The Nature Conservancy in collection of bird data because birds occur naturally in our radar data collections. We really have to do very little different in our daily operation to facilitate the collection of data that supports some of the work that the ornithologists are doing on the Delmarva Peninsula. This collaboration is making great use of NASA resources.”

This is not the first time scientists have shared radars to track birds in addition to weather. Buler and USGS wildlife biologist Deanna Dawson recently completed a study for the US Fish and Wildlife Service that used data from National Weather Service radars to map migratory bird densities at stopover sites across the northeastern United States. Their research in this project will help to validate the models that they developed in their previous research. They’ll also compare data from the National Weather Service radars with data from the NPOL radar and the field surveys to verify that the data from the radar matches what researchers see in real time.

Data from the NPOL radar and two National Weather Service radars will give researchers a picture of how migrating birds use habitat across the Delmarva Peninsula, including most of Delaware, southern Maryland and parts of southeastern Virginia. The NPOL research will continue throughout the fall migration season, ending Nov. 7, 2013.

Project funders are: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries; Virginia Department of Environmental Quality/Coastal Zone Management Program; and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Lindsay Renick Mayer
The Nature Conservancy in MD/DC and VA

The Nature Conservancy is the leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy works to protect our lands and waters in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, from the mountains and forests to the coasts, Chesapeake Bay, and Atlantic Ocean. Throughout the region we connect people with nature. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the web at and


3 CANR professors awarded UDRF projects

July 17, 2013 under CANR News

Jeff Buler studies ticks across newark, delawareDelaware has one of the highest incidence rates of Lyme disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The tick-borne disease can have debilitating consequences in humans, dogs, even cats.

University of Delaware scientist Jeffrey Buler aims to see the number of infections decline.

“In urban areas, humans face the greatest exposure to infected ticks along forest edges,” says Buler, who is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

With funding from the University of Delaware Research Foundation (UDRF), Buler will use radio telemetry to track bird movements in a network of 21 fragmented patches of forest in and around Newark, Del. He wants to better understand the role that birds may play in dispersing ticks in these forested areas.

UDRF, a private corporation chartered in 1955, awards seed funding on a competitive basis to researchers early in their careers at UD.

“The University of Delaware Research Foundation is tremendously valuable to our research community, particularly in these times of federal funding austerity,” says Charlie Riordan, UD vice provost for research. “These seed funds are critical for our new faculty to collect the preliminary data necessary to establish proof of concept and convince the funding agencies their ideas are worth further investment.”

A holistic approach to reduce tick-borne diseases in an urban landscape. Wildlife ecologist Jeff Buler and doctoral student Solny Adalsteinsson will study bird movements in 21 forest fragments in and around Newark, Del., to better understand how birds influence tick survival and distribution. This project will contribute to the development of an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy to manage ticks that spread Lyme disease.

Impact of land-use activities on pollinators. Deborah Delaney, assistant professor of entomology and wildlife ecology, will survey pollinator communities in northern Delaware to determine pesticide exposure levels in spring-summer 2013 and 2014 during the bloom periods for many trees and shrubs. Exposure risk will be linked with land-use activities such as agriculture, suburban lawns and gardens, roads, parking lots and other impervious surfaces.

Exploring plant immortality. Although climate-induced stress has caused plant mortalities worldwide, some plants native to the Baja desert can live over 500 years. Rodrigo Vargas Ramos, assistant professor of plant and soil science, will conduct experiments to understand the physiological mechanisms of resilience of long-lived plants in arid ecosystems, with special emphasis on carbon allocation.

Article by Tracey Bryant

Photo by Danielle Quigley

To read about the rest of the UDRF projects, check out the full article on UDaily.


Jeff Buler joins the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology faculty

December 20, 2011 under CANR News

Not many collegiate departments can boast about having a radar ornithologist among its faculty, but with the addition of Jeff Buler, the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources can now claim to have one in its ranks.

After conducting his post-doctoral work the past four years at the University of Delaware, Buler has joined the department faculty with his main area of research in what he terms “radar ornithology.”

“I use weather radar to quantify bird distributions, and to track migratory birds,” Buler said. “Only a handful of people do it, and I’m interested in mapping species distributions with radar and I’m also interested in stopover ecology of migratory birds.”

With regards to the stopover ecology of migratory birds, Buler explained that he is “interested in understanding how they select the habitats where they stop and how that impacts their behavior and the success of their migrations.” He currently has two research projects that will collectively map important stopover areas for birds during their migrations along the entire US Atlantic coast using the national network of weather radars.

Buler’s research has mostly involved the study of songbirds but he has also used radar to map wintering waterfowl distributions in California to assess their response to wetland restoration efforts of Farm Bill conservation programs.

Buler explained that radar data are archived back to the 1990s, which allows him to look at how bird distributions change over the period of time before and after areas are restored. “Waterfowl respond immediately to restoration efforts by using the new wetlands as soon as the former crop fields are flooded.”

Also part of Buler’s research is a project to monitor bird and bat flight activity at the UD wind turbine in Lewes, Del., to assess the turbine’s impact to wildlife in southern Delaware. The project was initiated last spring.

Tracking Buler’s own educational travels, one finds a migratory pattern that started in the mid-Atlantic, then headed south to the Gulf Coast before returning back north and landing at the University of Delaware.

Buler received his bachelor’s degree in biology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, his master’s degree in wildlife at Louisiana State University and his doctorate in biology at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Originally from Pennsylvania, Buler said he is pleased to be working at UD and specifically in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. “My family is originally from this area so it’s nice for me to be in this area,” said Buler.

Of the department, Buler noted, “I enjoy the department. It’s a very friendly, inviting environment and we all get along very well. So hopefully that is conducive to being a productive environment.”

Buler said his favorite part of becoming a professor has been the ability to mentor students and teach courses. “My position before was purely research so now I’ve got the opportunity to teach undergrads and grad students, and so I’m looking forward to that.” He will be teaching a landscape ecology course in the spring and a wildlife habitat management course in the fall.

Another thing that Buler is excited about is the ability to have graduate students help him conduct research.  He is currently building an “aeroecology” program here at UD for the study of flying animals in the airspace.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley


Center for Managed Ecosystems puts past urban forest research into new FRAME

June 8, 2010 under CANR News

Greg Shriver, assistant professor of wildlife ecology in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology and research scientist with the Center for Managed Ecosystems at the University of Delaware, is collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service to continue work on a project that focuses on assessing the conditions of urban forests and explores ways in which to improve those conditions.

The project is known as Forest Fragments in Managed Ecosystems, or FRAME, and it has its origins in a study titled “Wildlife Ecology and Urban Impact” conducted 45 years ago at UD by scientists in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology and the Forest Service.

The 1965 study was continued by Roland Roth, UD professor emeritus of wildlife ecology, beginning in 1972. Although Roth could not have known at the time, Shriver said that his work — conducted on the UD Farm — became the longest running study on the demographics of the wood thrush, a neotropical migratory bird.

Shriver, who subsequently picked up the mantle, called the wood thrush the “hallmark species” for this research and said FRAME builds on Roth’s earlier studies. The FRAME project was initiated as a collaborative effort between Shriver; Vincent D’Amico, a Forest Service scientist stationed at UD; Jake Bowman, associate professor of entomology and wildlife ecology; and Jeff Buler, assistant professor of entomology and wildlife ecology.

Shriver said FRAME is “a fairly large-scale forest fragmentation study aimed at assessing the condition of urban forest fragments to see if we can increase their quality.”

These forest patches dotting the developed landscape “are providing the some of the only remaining habitat for neotropical migratory birds, small mammals, and insects,” he said.

The group is currently establishing long-term plots and surveying the condition of Mid-Atlantic forest fragments.

After assessing the overall health of the forest fragments, Shriver said he and his colleagues will research ways to improve them. “The big picture is that these fragments are providing important ecosystem services — air, water, things required to make the area livable,” he said. “The goal of the FRAME project is to better understand the interactions between soil, water, plants and the animals dependent on them within urban and suburban environments.”

Shriver, who will be aided by graduate students, said the study will be multifaceted, with the first part focusing on multitrophic effects of soil acidification and biodiversity.

“There has been some concern that acidification in soils, especially here in the Northeast, could be limiting the availability of calcium-rich prey — such as snails and isopods — that birds need during the breeding season to make eggshells and feed their nestlings, because the nestlings’ growth rate is so fast and they need so much calcium,” Shriver said. “Studies have shown that if you have limited calcium availability, you have limited calcium-rich prey, which then limits the breeding density and reproductive success of some bird species.”

The FRAME study has broken the Newark area’s urban forest fragments into grids using GPS systems, starting with the original study patch from the Roth study and adding 19 other woodlots.

In each of the fragments, Shriver said he and his students plan to “estimate breeding bird territory density, nest survival, a measure of reproductive success, and species diversity. We’re also taking soil samples and then litter samples to see if we can link the soil pH to calcium-rich prey.”

Shriver explained that a low pH means that the soil has a high amount of acidification, and that “the acidification comes mostly from acid rain, which has been greatly reduced since the height of the Industrial Revolution, but the soils have likely not recovered. Once you push a soil into an acidic state, unless it has some buffering capacity, it is very hard to get it back.”

What happens with soil that has been pushed to an acidic state, he said, is a reduction in calcium-rich prey, which in turn limits food for breeding birds. The birds either have lowered reproductive success or leave that forest fragment.

The first two years of the FRAME study are dedicated to gathering the pre-data, showing the present condition of the soil. Shriver said the research team then plans to “lime the forest patches to see if we can increase their quality, which will raise the pH and release the calcium,” thereby improving biodiversity.

They plan to treat 10 sites with lime and leave another 10 sites untreated in order to compare differences in soil quality. He said he is confident that “changing the pH is going to change a lot to these forest fragments.”

The research team is partnering with the Newark Department of Parks and Recreation, New Castle County Parks, and Delaware State Parks. Shriver said that “without the cooperation and enthusiasm we’ve received from all the partners, this project would not be possible.”

Shriver received a bachelor of science degree in wildlife management from the University of Maine, a master’s degree in wildlife conservation from the University of Massachusetts and a doctorate in environmental forest biology from the State University of New York (SUNY). He joined the UD faculty in 2005.