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

Posted 08/28/23

Waterfowl often use croplands as stopover sites during their migrations. Understanding how birds choose specific places in vast agricultural landscapes is important for conservation and management purposes. A combination of satellite data can reveal what makes some croplands key habitats for migratory waterfowl.

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.

Story by Rizayeva, Afag