Research Summary: High Altitude Bird Migration at Temperate Latitudes: A Synoptic Perspective on Wind Assistance


At temperate latitudes the synoptic patterns of bird migration are strongly structured by the presence of cyclones and anticyclones, both in the horizontal and altitudinal dimensions. In certain synoptic conditions, birds may efficiently cross regions with opposing surface wind by choosing a higher flight altitude with more favourable wind. We observed migratory passerines at mid-latitudes that selected high altitude wind optima on particular nights, leading to the formation of structured migration layers at varying altitude up to 3 km. Using long-term vertical profiling of bird migration by C-band Doppler radar in the Netherlands, we find that such migration layers occur nearly exclusively during spring migration in the presence of a high-pressure system. A conceptual analytic framework providing insight into the synoptic patterns of wind assistance for migrants that includes the altitudinal dimension has so far been lacking. We present a simple model for a baroclinic atmosphere that relates vertical profiles of wind assistance to the pressure and temperature patterns occurring at temperate latitudes. We show how the magnitude and direction of the large scale horizontal temperature gradient affects the relative gain in wind assistance that migrants obtain through ascending. Temperature gradients typical for northerly high-pressure systems in spring are shown to cause high altitude wind optima in the easterly sectors of anticyclones, thereby explaining the frequent observations of high altitude migration in these synoptic conditions. Given the recurring synoptic arrangements of pressure systems across temperate continents, the opportunities for exploiting high altitude wind will differ between flyways, for example between easterly and westerly oceanic coasts.


Publisher: Public Library of Science

Date Published: 3-January-2013

Author(s): Dokter A., Shamoun-Baranes J., Kemp M., Tijm S., Holleman I.


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