Wind estimation based on thermal soaring of birds

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The flight performance of birds is strongly affected by the dynamic state of the atmosphere at the birds' locations. Studies of flight and its impact on the movement ecology of birds must consider the wind to help us understand aerodynamics and bird flight strategies. Here, we introduce a systematic approach to evaluate wind speed and direction from the high-frequency GPS recordings from bird-borne tags during thermalling flight. Our method assumes that a fixed horizontal mean wind speed during a short (18 seconds, 19 GPS fixes) flight segment with a constant turn angle along a closed loop, characteristic of thermalling flight, will generate a fixed drift for each consequent location. We use a maximum-likelihood approach to estimate that drift and to determine the wind and airspeeds at the birds' flight locations. We also provide error estimates for these GPS-derived wind speed estimates. We validate our approach by comparing its wind estimates with the mid-resolution weather reanalysis data from ECMWF, and by examining independent wind estimates from pairs of birds in a large dataset of GPS-tagged migrating storks that were flying in close proximity. Our approach provides accurate and unbiased observations of wind speed and additional detailed information on vertical winds and uplift structure. These precise measurements are otherwise rare and hard to obtain and will broaden our understanding of atmospheric conditions, flight aerodynamics, and bird flight strategies. With an increasing number of GPS-tracked animals, we may soon be able to use birds to inform us about the atmosphere they are flying through and thus improve future ecological and environmental studies.

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570 Biowissenschaften, Biologie
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ISO 690WEINZIERL, Rolf, Gil BOHRER, Bart KRANSTAUBER, Wolfgang FIEDLER, Martin WIKELSKI, Andrea FLACK, 2016. Wind estimation based on thermal soaring of birds. In: Ecology and Evolution. 2016, 6(24), pp. 8706-8718. eISSN 2045-7758. Available under: doi: 10.1002/ece3.2585
BibTex
@article{Weinzierl2016estim-37659,
  year={2016},
  doi={10.1002/ece3.2585},
  title={Wind estimation based on thermal soaring of birds},
  number={24},
  volume={6},
  journal={Ecology and Evolution},
  pages={8706--8718},
  author={Weinzierl, Rolf and Bohrer, Gil and Kranstauber, Bart and Fiedler, Wolfgang and Wikelski, Martin and Flack, Andrea}
}
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