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Open-File Report 2010-1271

In cooperation with University of Southern Mississippi, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Sonoran Joint Venture, and Lannan Foundation

Bird Migration Patterns in the Arid Southwest—Final Report

By Janet M. Ruth, Rodney K. Felix, Jr., and Robert H. Dieh

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To ensure full life-cycle conservation, we need to understand migrant behavior en route and how migrating species use stopover and migration aerohabitats. In the Southwest, birds traverse arid and mountainous landscapes in migration. Migrants are known to use riparian stopover habitats; we know less about how migrant density varies across the Southwest seasonally and annually, and how migrants use other habitat types during migratory stopover. Furthermore, we lack information about migrant flight altitudes, speeds, and directions of travel, and how these patterns vary seasonally and annually across the Southwest.

Using weather surveillance radar data, we identified targets likely dominated by nocturnally migrating birds and determined their flight altitudes, speeds, directions over ground, and variations in abundance. Migrating or foraging bats likely are present across the region in some of these data, particularly in central Texas. We found that migrants flew at significantly lower altitudes and significantly higher speeds in spring than in fall. In all seasons migrants maintained seasonally appropriate directions of movement. We detected significant differences in vertical structure of migrant densities that varied both geographically within seasons and seasonally within sites. We also found that in fall there was a greater and more variable passage of migrants through the central part of the borderlands (New Mexico and west Texas); in spring there was some suggestion of greater and more variable passage of migrants in the eastern borderlands (central and south Texas). Such patterns are consistent with the existence of at least two migration systems through western North America and the use of different migration routes in spring and fall for at least some species.

Using radar data and satellite land cover data, we determined the habitats with which migrants are associated during migration stopover. There were significant differences in bird densities among habitat types at all sites in at least one season. Upland forest habitat in parts of Arizona and New Mexico supported high migrant densities, especially in fall. Developed habitats in areas with little upland forest habitat also supported high migrant densities. Scrub/shrub and grassland habitats supported low to intermediate migrant densities, but because these habitat types dominate the region, they may support large numbers of migratory birds. This may be especially true for species that do not use forested habitats during migration.

Target identity remains a challenge for radar-based studies. Presence of bats in the data complicates interpretation of some observations, particularly from central Texas. Based on our results it is simplistic to: (1) consider the arid west as a largely inhospitable landscape in which there are only relatively small oases of habitat that provide the resources needed by all migrants; (2) think of western riparian and upland forest habitat as supporting the majority of migrants in all cases; or (3) consider a particular habitat type unimportant migrant stopover habitat based solely on migrant densities.

First posted December 22, 2010

For additional information contact:

USGS Fort Collins Science Center
2150 Centre Ave., Bldg. C
Fort Collins, CO 80526-8118

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Suggested citation:

Ruth, J.M., Felix, R.K., Jr., and Diehl, R.H., 2010, Bird migration patterns in the arid southwest—Final report: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010–1271, 51 p.


Executive Summary



Results and Discussion


Literature Cited

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