Supercomputer time will help ornithologists make ecological sense of millions of records of bird sightings.
by Emma Marris
Midway through a birding expedition last May off the Louisiana coast, Donna Dittmann lost her footing and broke her leg. Unaware of this, she kept the weight off her swollen ankle while surveying birds the next day at an unnamed islet that was packed with nesting pelicans, egrets and terns. After she returned home, a visit to the emergency room revealed the extent of her injury. Her husband, Steven Cardiff, who, like Dittman, is a collections manager at the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science in Baton Rouge, dubbed the islet 'Fractured Fibula Island' in her honour. He then he went online and added the species they had seen there to 'eBird'.
A database that records the vast numbers of sightings routinely made by dedicated birders around the globe, eBird has been growing steadily since it's launch in 2002. More than 48 million observations have been entered so far — 10 million of them in 2010 alone. The data represent millions of hours of eye-straining — and sometimes leg-breaking — observations.
According to Steve Kelling, director of information science at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in New York, who runs the project together with the New York-based National Audubon Society, "the challenge now is to try to do something meaningful with all these data".
Fortunately, eBird has just been given some powerful help. Last week Kelling learned that the project has been awarded 100,000 hours on the US National Science Foundation's TeraGrid supercomputer. By performing intensive data analysis using the supercomputer, Kelling and his colleagues hope to turn the scattered observations of each bird species into a global view of its movements.
The eBird team will start by combining the bird sightings with remote sensing information from sources such as the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometers (MODIS) on board NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. Among the data that can be gleaned from MODIS is precisely when different places on Earth are 'greening up' in the spring — a seasonal phenomenon that can be strongly correlated with bird movement.