Airspace as habitat: methods for assessing use by animals

Principal Investigator: Jim Perry.

Co-Principal Investigator: Douglas Johnson.

Student: Kevin Heist.

Background research into various technologies for studying airspace is mostly complete. Exploration and analysis of spatially explicit eBird data as a potential indicator of wind turbine risk is underway. Scheduling of phone and in-person interviews with aeroecology experts, and associated travel is underway and ongoing. Most interviews will take place in October 2014. Kevin plans to travel to, or conduct phone interviews with, scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Boston University Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology, the National Eagle Center, the Illinois Natural History Survey, the University of West Virginia, the FORT and NOROCK USGS Science Centers, York University in Toronto, Bat Conservation International, and possibly others.

In July 2014, Kevin attended a training session in Kansas for the use of an acoustic monitoring system that uses weather balloons to elevate microphones (AAARS), hosted by the University of Tennessee.

Background and Justification: “Habitat” is a fundamental unifying concept in ecology and evolutionary biology. Scientists in these fields seek to understand how species’ survival and reproductive strategies are shaped in relationship to the habitats on which they depend. The habitat concept is also foundational to conservation and policy strategies that address human impacts on species’ survival. Currently, the role of environmental factors in shaping species’ life history strategies is viewed almost entirely in terms of terrestrial and aquatic habitat. For many of the 1000 bat, 9000 bird, and 900,000 insect species on Earth, the focus on land and water environments considers only part of the full suite of habitat requirements. Technological and methodological innovations are enabling scientists to better observe how these animals use four-dimensional airspace to perform many critical life tasks. These considerations are advancing the notion that airspace is in fact habitat and should be treated similarly to terrestrial and aquatic habitats (Diehl 2013). Concurrent is a growing urgency to understand animal use of the aerial environment as human use and development of this same airspace is rapidly increasing, especially its use for wind energy development.

The focus of this research project is on assessing the intensity of flight activity by animals using emerging technology that provides very detailed information about how animals move. Specific project objectives include:

  1. Evaluate the potential of existing and new technologies for determining the intensity of low-elevation flight of birds, bats, and other flying animals.
  2. Identify if and how currently available tools can be used, most likely in combination, to determine the intensity of flight activity by animals, and how it varies spatially and temporally.
  3. If feasible, propose new tools or extensions of existing tools to address the objective.