Bird Migration Explorer Can Help Hatch Environmental Stories

November 9, 2022

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Reporter’s Toolbox: Bird Migration Explorer Can Help Hatch Environmental Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

There is a world of environmental stories that focus on birds. Now a whiz-bang data mapper can help journalists find them.

Birds can bring people joy and wonder, and they tell us an enormous amount about the world we live in — and the way we are changing it, even if the story of how humans are transforming and harming the world that birds live in is often a very unhappy one.

But on the good news side, one study found that exposure to birds and birdsong improved people’s mental health.


Among the wondrous things birds do is migrate.

Recently, a bar-tailed godwit set a new world distance

record flying a distance of 8,425.8 miles nonstop.


And of course among the wondrous things birds do, however, is migrate. Recently, for instance, a bar-tailed godwit set a new world distance record. The bird, a juvenile, flew from Alaska to the Australian state of Tasmania, a distance of 8,425.8 miles (13,560 km) nonstop. We know this because the bird was tagged and tracked by satellite.


Where the data come from

bird migration explorer map
Database map showing tracks for 9,281 individual birds from 184 species. Image: Audubon Bird Migration Explorer.

A lot of our Toolboxes are geeky; not this one. It’s built on a world of data. But it’s not so much about the data as about the birds.

The mapping tool is called the Bird Migration Explorer (which we learned about via this story from Associated Press reporter Christina Larson).

The interactive migration atlas is organized and published under the auspices of the National Audubon Society. But it’s really built on data and skills of scores of contributors — groups, scientists, funders and … birders.

The data in the Migration Explorer come from all kinds of sources (including tags and satellites). And the folks behind the Explorer have been accumulating the data (some of it, anyway) for the good part of a century.

There’s a pretty full list of participants, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which was one of the major contributors to this project.


How to use the data smartly

One good thing about the Migration Explorer is that it readily tells you — graphically — what kind of data you are dealing with, and in a way that helps you assess data quality. But the amount of data is so massive that it tends to converge, happily, on the real story.

The migration data is presented in interactive map-graphic form, and you can choose just what you see according to your interest. The Explorer is well-documented, and if you read the documentation, you can learn how to use it more skillfully.

For example, you can focus on a particular bird species of interest, let’s say the osprey. You quickly get a picture of where ospreys live and how they move (although remember that not all birds migrate).

Or, to take another example, you can focus the Explorer on a place, maybe where you live or travel. The Explorer will show you selectively the birds found in that place.

And one of the coolest features is the time dimension. You can watch, or move, a time-of-year slider that tells you how the birds are distributed at any given time of year.


Story possibilities

This data tool will illuminate even more if you use it in conjunction with other information you can readily report. That may include threats posed to the species by human action, such as land development that destroys habitat — or, in many cases, land conservation measures that preserve it.

You can use various means to find federal, state and even local wildlife refuges. They may not be called refuges, even if they are. Consider parks, forests, seashores, etc. Birds like certain environments and migrate along certain flyways (e.g., major rivers).

You can also use it at different times of year and report accordingly. If you go in hunting season, for instance, think safety.

Or find local bird-watching groups and clubs, and join them on a walk or expedition. While some birders may care only about identifying rare species, either way you can gain much insight by learning different species’ songs, life-stages and behaviors, and their migrations and the reasons for migration — whether alone, in pairs or in larger groups.

Most importantly, look at the connections between birds and their changing environments. A good reason to inquire and care is that the numbers of many bird species have been declining dramatically in recent years. And remember that when bald eagles nearly vanished it was because people used so much of the pesticide DDT — and that when they reappeared and started flourishing again, it was because of environmental regulations.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 40. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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