Snow cover dynamics: an overlooked feature of winter bird occurrence and abundance

Snow cover dynamics (i.e. depth, duration and variability) are dominant drivers of ecological processes during winter. For overwintering species, changes and gradients in snow cover may impact survival and population dynamics (e.g. facilitating survival via thermal refugia or limiting survival via reduced resource acquisition). However, snow cover dynamics are rarely used in species distribution modelling, especially for over-wintering birds. Currently, we lack understanding of how snow cover gradients affect overwintering bird distributions and which functional traits drive these associations at regional and continental scales. Using observations from eBird, a global community science network, we explored the effects of snow cover dynamics on continental pat-terns of occurrence and counts for 150 bird species. We quantified the relative impor-tance, species-specific responses and trait-based relationships of bird occurrence and abundance patterns to ecologically relevant snow cover dynamics across the United States. Snow cover dynamics were important environmental predictors in species dis-tributions models, ranking within the top three predictors for most species occurrence (> 90%) and count (> 79%) patterns across the contiguous United States. Species exhibited a gradient of responses to snow cover from snow association to snow avoid-ance, yet most birds were limited by long, persistent snow seasons. Duration of winter and percent frozen ground without snow structured species distributions in the east-ern USA, whereas snow cover variability was a stronger driver in the western USA. Birds associated with long, persistent snow seasons had traits associated with greater dispersal capacity and dietary diversity, whereas birds inhabiting regions with variable snow cover were generally habitat generalists. Our results suggest that various snow cover dynamics are important ecological filters of species distributions during winter. Global climate change is rapidly degrading key characteristics of seasonal snow cover. A changing cryosphere may elicit variable distributional changes for many overwinter-ing birds, potentially accelerating range shifts and novel community assemblages.

File: Ecography-2022-Keyser-Snow-cover-dynamics-an-overlooked-yet-important-feature-of-winter-bird-occurrence-and.pdf

Semiparametric regression for spatial data via deep learning

In this work, we propose a deep learning-based method to perform semiparametric regression analysis for spatially dependent data. To be specific, we use a sparsely connected deep neural network with rectified linear unit (ReLU) activation function to estimate the unknown regression function that describes the relationship between response and covariates in the presence of spatial dependence. Under some mild conditions, the estimator is proven to be consistent, and the rate of convergence is determined by three factors: (1) the architecture of neural network class, (2) the smoothness and (intrinsic) dimension of true mean function, and (3) the magnitude of spatial dependence. Our method can handle well large data set owing to the stochastic gradient descent optimization algorithm. Simulation studies on synthetic data are conducted to assess the finite sample performance, the results of which indicate that the proposed method is capable of picking up the intricate relationship between response and covariates. Finally, a real data analysis is provided to demonstrate the validity and effectiveness of the proposed method.

File: SpatialStatistics_VR_2023.pdf

Need and vision for global medium-resolution Landsat and Sentinel-2 data products

Global changes in climate and land use are threatening natural ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem services people rely on. This is why it is necessary to track and monitor spatiotemporal change at a level of detail that can inform science, management, and policy development. The current constellation of multiple Landsat and Sentinel-2 satellites collecting imagery at predominantly ≤30-m spatial resolution affords an opportunity for the generation of global medium- resolution products every few days. Our goal is to both identify the information needs and provide direction towards the generation of a suite of global, high-level, systematically-generated, medium-resolution products designed for both management and science. Our vision builds on the success of the NASA MODIS/VIIRS product suite, while recognizing the unique strengths of medium-resolution satellite data given their higher spatial resolution and longer time series. We propose a suite of 13 essential products that enable the characterization of the current state and changes in the biosphere, cryosphere, and hydrosphere, and would fill information needs identified by the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites for the Global Climate Observing System and the Global Terrestrial Observing System, by the National Research Council of the US National Academies in the decadal survey, and by others. These products are: land cover, land cover change, burned area, forest loss, vegetation indices, phenology, dynamic habitat indices, albedo, land surface temperature, snow cover, ice extent, surface water extent, and evapotranspiration. Furthermore, we provide a list of desirable products poised for addition to the essential products (e.g., crop type, emissivity, and ice sheet velocity). Lastly, we suggest aspirational products requiring further algorithm development (e.g., forest structure and crop yield). For the identified essential products, algorithms are in place, making it feasible to begin generating products systematically. These products should be accompanied by quality and accuracy assessments undertaken following consensus protocols. Five decades after the first Landsat satellite, and two decades after the MODIS products were first produced, it is time now for readily available, standardized, and consistent high-level products built upon medium-resolution imagery, thereby fulfilling the promise and the vision that inspired the Landsat program since its inception.

File: Radeloff_RSE_2024.pdf

Pockets of persistence of agricultural land use during the socioeconomic shock of forced post-WWII displacements in the Carpathians

Socioeconomic shocks can cause regime shifts in land use, but even during shocks, and when land use change is widespread, some areas persist in their land use. The question is what makes these areas more resistant. Our research goal was to find out what explains where arable farming persisted despite a major socioeconomic shock of forced post-war displacements. Our study area were 291 villages in the Polish Carpathians where abandonment due to the forced displacement of the Ukrainian population after WWII was widespread. We compared prewar arable land with 1990 CORINE Land Cover data to quantify land-use change throughout the socialist period. We applied logistic regression with economically relevant environmental and access-related variables, and assessed the explanatory power of our models and relative importance of determinants. Forty years after forced displacements, arable farming persisted only in a small portion of what had been farmed in the 1940s (16 %), while the majority of former arable land converted to forests (54 %) or grasslands (22 %). Arable farming persisted mainly in areas with high accessibility that had oak-hornbeam forest as potential natural vegetation, on less steep slopes, and at lower elevations. Our models predicting agricultural abandonment leading to reforestation performed well (R2 = 0.57), but our model of persistent agriculture had low explanatory power (R2 = 0.26) as did models of conversion to grassland (R2 = 0.24). We therefore conclude that agricultural persistence is driven by different factors than agricultural land abandonment. In the long term, after arable farming ceases, areas can either be completely abandoned or convert to less intensive grassland use. These long-term changes have strong effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services, but are not well predicted by environmental and access-related determinants. Our findings can help to develop strategies and policies for areas affected by agricultural land abandonment caused by depopulation, and other socioeconomic shocks, and highlight the need to understand not only why arable land is abandoned, but also what determines its long-term fate.

File: Kaim_LandUsePolicy_2023.pdf

Identifying building locations in the wildland-urban interface before and after fires with convolutional neural networks

Background: Wildland–urban interface (WUI) maps identify areas with wildfire risk, but they are often outdated owing to the lack of building data. Convolutional neural networks (CNNs) can extract building locations from remote sensing data, but their accuracy in WUI areas is unknown. Additionally, CNNs are computationally intensive and technically complex, making them challenging for end-users, such as those who use or create WUI maps, to apply.

Aims: We identified buildings pre- and post-wildfire and estimated building destruction for three California wildfires: Camp, Tubbs and Woolsey.

Methods: We evaluated a CNN-based building dataset and a CNN model from a separate commercial vendor to detect buildings from high-resolution imagery. This dataset and model represent to end-users the state of the art of what is readily available for potential WUI mapping.

Key results: We found moderate accuracies for the building dataset and the CNN model and a severe underestimation of buildings and their destruction rates where trees occluded buildings. The CNN model performed best post-fire with accuracies ≥73%.

Conclusions: Existing CNNs may be used with moderate accuracy for identifying individual buildings post-fire and mapping the extent of the WUI. The implications are, however, that CNNs are too inaccurate for post-fire damage assessments or building counts in the WUI.

Using Landsat and Sentinel-2 spectral time series to detect East African small woodlots

Accurate maps of gains in tree cover are necessary to quantify carbon storage, wildlife habitat, and land use changes. Satellite-based mapping of emerging smallholder woodlots in heterogeneous landscapes of sub-Saharan Africa is challenging. Our goal was to evaluate the use of time series to detect and map small woodlots (<1 ha) in Tanzania. We distinguished woodlots from other land cover types by woodlots’ distinct multi-year spectral time series. Woodlots exhibit greening from planting to maturity followed by browning at harvest. We compared two time series approaches: 1) a linear model of Tasseled Cap Wetness (TCW) and other indices, and 2) LandTrendr temporal segmentation metrics. The approaches had equivalent woodlot detection accuracy, but LandTrendr segments had lower accuracy for characterizing woodlot age. We tested the effect of the following factors on woodlot detection and mapping accuracy: the length of the time series (2009–2019), frequency of observations (all Landsat vs. only Landsat-8), spatial resolution (30-m Landsat vs. 10-m Sentinel-2), and woodlot age and size. Woodlot mapping accuracies were higher with longer time series (54% at 3-yrs vs 77% at 7-yrs). The accuracies also improved with more observations, especially when the time series was short (3-yrs Landsat-8 only: 54% vs. all-Landsat: 64%, p-value <0.001). Sentinel-2’s higher spatial resolution minimized commission errors even for short time series. Finally, less than half of young and small (<0.4 ha) woodlots were detected, suggesting considerable omission errors in our and other woodlot maps. Our results suggest that the accurate detection of woodlots is possible by analyzing multi-year time series of Landsat and Sentinel-2 data. Given the region’s woodlot boom, accurate maps are needed to better quantify woodlots’ contribution to carbon sequestration, livelihoods enhancement, and landscape management.

File: Kimambo_ScienceRS_2023.pdf

Nationwide native forest structure maps for Argentina based on forest inventory data, SAR Sentinel-1 and vegetation metrics from Sentinel-2 imagery

Detailed maps of forest structure attributes are crucial for sustainable forest management, conservation, and forest ecosystem science at the landscape level. Mapping the structure of broad heterogeneous forests is challenging, but the integration of extensive field inventory plots with wall-to-wall metrics derived from synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and optical remote sensing offers a potential solution. Our goal was to map forest structure attributes (diameter at breast height, basal area, mean height, dominant height, wood volume and canopy cover) at 30-m resolution across the diverse 463,000 km2 of native forests of Argentina based on SAR Sentinel-1, vegetation metrics from Sentinel-2 and geographic coordinates. We modelled the forest structure attributes based on the latest national forest inventory, generated uncertainty maps, quantified the contribution of the predictors, and compared our height predictions with those from GEDI (Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation) and GFCH (Global Forest Canopy Height). We analyzed 3788 forest inventory plots (1000 m2 each) from Argentina’s Second Native Forest Inventory (2015–2020) to develop predictive random forest regression models. From Sentinel-1, we included both VV (vertical transmitted and received) and VH (vertical transmitted and horizontal received) polarizations and calculated 1st and 2nd order textures within 3 × 3 pixels to match the size of the inventory plots. For Sentinel-2, we derived EVI (enhanced vegetation index), calculated DHIs (dynamic habitat indices (annual cumulative, minimum and variation) and the EVI median, then generated 1st and 2nd order textures within 3 × 3 pixels of these variables. Our models including metrics from Sentinel-1 and 2, plus latitude and longitude predicted forest structure attributes well with root mean square errors (RMSE) ranging from 23.8% to 70.3%. Mean and dominant height models had notably good performance presenting relatively low RMSE (24.5% and 23.8%, respectively). Metrics from VH polarization and longitude were overall the most important predictors, but optimal predictors differed among the different forest structure attributes. Height predictions (r = 0.89 and 0.85) outperformed those from GEDI (r = 0.81) and the GFCH (r = 0.66), suggesting that SAR Sentinel-1, DHIs from Sentinel-2 plus geographic coordinates provide great opportunities to map multiple forest structure attributes for large areas. Based on our models, we generated spatially-explicit maps of multiple forest structure attributes as well as uncertainty maps at 30-m spatial resolution for all Argentina’s native forest areas in support of forest management and conservation planning across the country.

File: Silveira_RSE_2023.pdf

How well can deep learning models explain multiscale hierarchical habitat selection in birds?

Habitat selection is a fundamental behavior of species that shapes a wide range of ecological processes, including species distribution, abundance, nutrient transfer, and tropic dynamics. The study of habitat selection is important to understand the interaction between species and environment. But it is a multivariate and hierarchical process, in which species are distinctively affected by several factors at multiple spatial scales. Therefore, it is important to understand how species select their habitat, what are the important spatial scales, and how the habitat selection process varies for different species.

Figure 1: Conceptual hierarchy of the decision-making process of habitat use by a migratory songbird (Stanley et al 2021).
Figure 1: Conceptual hierarchy of the decision-making process of habitat use by a migratory songbird (Stanley et al 2021).

Hierarchical habitat selection in birds varies greatly by species due to their ecological niches and behaviors. For instance, the Northern Spotted Owl specializes in old-growth conifers for nesting, forages in mature forests, and prefers undisturbed landscapes for its home range. Conversely, the Kirtland’s Warbler prefers, early to mid-successional jack pine forests, growing on sandy soil for nesting, these forests provide the specific vegetation structure and insect abundance that are essential for their foraging needs. Studying habitat selection is therefore crucial for effective conservation and ecosystem management, as it provides insights into their ecological requirements and aids in preserving their populations and the overall health of ecosystems.

Figure 2: Kirtland’s Warbler (left) Spotted Owl (right)
Figure 2: Kirtland’s Warbler (left) Spotted Owl (right)

Despite notable advancements in the field, our understanding of the hierarchical aspects of habitat selection in birds remains limited. Habitat selection models typically rely on satellite data from a single sensor and scale, which limits their effectiveness in capturing spatial patterns of bird habitat.

Akash Anand is currently conducting a study aimed at modeling multiscale hierarchical habitat selection in birds and explaining the factors influencing individual species’ choices. His research investigates the crucial spatial scales for different species and identifies local environmental features that play a pivotal role in overall habitat selection decisions. To achieve this, he employs deep learning models to gain insights into the intricate interactions between species and their environments.

In conclusion, Akash’s research aims to determine the crucial spatial scales for individual species, providing valuable insights for conservationists and policymakers. Additionally, the findings will provide evidence of how the same species respond to varying environmental conditions and how their choices differ in different scenarios. This knowledge will inform more effective conservation and management strategies.

Performance of novel remotely-sensed variables in maps of bird species distributions in Argentina

Mitred Parakeet (Psittacara mitratus) eating the fruit of a Schinus sp. tree
Nothofagus forest in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.
Nothofagus forest in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

Halting biodiversity declines and promoting sustainable ecosystem usage are major conservation goals. To do so, it is necessary to understand the environmental correlates of biodiversity patterns.

Environmental variables used in biodiversity modelling come from a variety of sources and have varying levels of power to explain distributions of different species. Many environmental variables that have been used regularly for many years have shortcomings- they may not cover large areas, may not capture suitable habitat, or may not be able to capture changes in environmental conditions over time or space. Increasingly, novel remotely-sensed environmental data are being developed for modelling biodiversity patterns. Novel remotely sensed products may complement or even offer better results than environmental variables that have been used for many years.

Olah set out to identify sets of complementary variables, from among a set of standard variables and newly created variables, that can improve species distribution modelling. Olah used a combination of land cover, elevation, precipitation, and temperature variables, that are commonly used in species distribution modelling, and a set of novel-remotely sensed products to model distributions of forest affiliated bird species in Argentina.

Yungas forest in Calilegua National Park, Jujuy, Argentina
Yungas forest in Calilegua National Park, Jujuy, Argentina

The set of novel environmental variables were created by SILVIS lab postdoctoral researcher Eduarda Silveira. These products measure spatial and interannual variation in the phenology of land surface temperature and forest vegetation greenness. Olah predicted that areas with more spatial variability in phenology and thermal conditions are more likely to host more species because there are a variety of resources and thermal conditions in close proximity, allowing many species to coexist in a small area. These areas may also buffer against high year-to-year variation in conditions because organisms are more likely to have access to refugia or resources that could allow them to persist. Temporal variation in forest greenness or temperature describes how consistent conditions are between years. High variability means that phenological events are not occurring at a predictable time, while low variability means that events are occurring predictably each year.

In another new product developed by Silveira, ground forest inventory data was combined with radar-based remotely-sensed data, resulting in modelled forest structure wall-to-wall across Argentina. Silveira also developed maps of forest phenoclusters and phenocluster diversity. Phenoclusters classify different forest types in Argentina, based on vegetation phenology, land surface temperature, and precipitation. Olah thinks phenoclusters are a more ecologically relevant way to characterize habitat important to bird species than typical land cover maps. Phenoclusters capture functional rather than only compositional or structural characteristics. By comparing how well these novel remotely-sensed products and traditionally used variables perform in species distribution modelling Olah assessed their usefulness for biodiversity mapping.

Polylepis forest in an Andean Mountain valley, Jujuy, Argentina.
Polylepis forest in an Andean Mountain valley, Jujuy, Argentina.

Olah developed species distribution models for 152 forest bird species. She found that among three sets of models she constructed, those containing novel, traditional, or a mixed set of variables, performance was similar. However, models constructed from the mixed set of variables performed slightly better than models containing only one or the other set of data. The variables that were included in the greatest number of individual species’ distribution models included precipitation seasonality, precipitation of the driest quarter, as well as spatial heterogeneity in winter land surface temperature, which is a novel variable. Her results highlight how variables derived from different sources can offer complementary information for biodiversity modelling. Her models contribute to forest harvest planning in Argentina.

Arctic waterfowl migration through Eurasian steppe: how to catch short-term environmental conditions and identify key migratory habitats using satellite images

Long-distance migrations are an important part of the life cycle for most Arctic waterfowl. The birds spend several months each year between their breeding and wintering places, with most of this time staying at their stopover sites to rest and feed. Habitat quality at the stopovers determine subsequent survival during migrations and reproductive success. Two questions present themselves: where are the key waterfowl habitats along their migratory routes, and what landscape features make these places vitally important? Understanding this is crucial for bird protection and population management.

Fig. 1 Bewick’s Swan
Fig. 1 Bewick’s Swan

Satellite images are used widely for landscape research; however, their application to bird migration studies is challenging. First, environmental conditions within a large area are not the same during migration period, so there is no single time window suitable to select satellite images for the entire area. Second, favorable conditions at each stopover site are short-term, as birds spend only a few weeks at each site. The needed satellite images may be unavailable for those exact periods due to weather conditions (clouds etc.), making it difficult to obtain sufficient data for a single migratory season. Third, environmental conditions and migration time could vary by several weeks depending on weather of a given year, which, in turn, impedes combining images from different years.

Natalia studied how to use satellite images for delineating key migratory habitats using the example of spring migration of Bewick’s Swan in Eurasian steppe (fig. 1). To overcome the limitation related to satellite image availability, Natalia used snow melt as a synchronizing point. In practice, specific dates on which the swans appear at one or another area do not really matter because the birds will move farther north as soon as ice-free water and food become available there. In other words, they arrive soon after snow melt and stay a couple of weeks until more northern areas become snow-free.

Natalia used daily MODIS data to identify where snow melted each year in different parts of the swan’s migratory flyways and then filtered Landsat images using that information. This allowed her to combine Landsat images for all migration areas from different years at the same phenological phase. This approach made it possible to produce accurate and detailed landscape maps demonstrating what environmental conditions prevailed at stopovers at exactly the time when the swans were present. With these maps species distribution modeling can delineate key swan’s habitats.

Fig.2 Key habitats during summer
Fig.2 Key habitats during summer

The maps have revealed the critical landscape feature important to the birds: numerous local depressions scattered across croplands (fig. 2). In summer these appear as a part of the agricultural landscape (only the smallest, lowermost places may not be ploughed and get overgrown with wildflowers) and are hardly detectable (fig. 3, e) on satellite images. In spring, however, they accumulate melted water to become shallow temporary water bodies (fig. 3, a-c). These flooded depressions provide migratory birds with food and refuge so that the waterfowl do not need to move between roosting and feeding sites. They are also available 10-15 days before ice-out on lakes, allowing birds to migrate and potentially reach breeding grounds earlier.

Fig.3 Changes in open water in the steppe during spring. RGB: SWIR 1, NIR, Red bands. Red circle –flooded fields, yellow square -permanent lake. Bright blue color indicates snow/ice, black color indicates open water.
Fig.3 Changes in open water in the steppe during spring. RGB: SWIR 1, NIR, Red bands.
Red circle –flooded fields, yellow square -permanent lake.
Bright blue color indicates snow/ice, black color indicates open water.

More generally, Natalia’s research provides a useful approach to understanding the key short-term conditions that birds rely on during migrations. Natalia’s results have important implications for conservation efforts, such as the creation of protected areas and free hunting zones and adjusting land management in agricultural lands.