What is the OU Aeroecology Initiative?
There is so much happening in our world that some of it goes over our heads--literally. Aeroecology is the study of the life in the air above us.
In 2017, the University of Oklahoma designated Applied Aeroecology as a University Strategic Organization. This means that OU views aeroecology work as an essential research mission and is committed to making this fledgling field as successful as possible. Our goal is to make Oklahoma the premier location for studying aeroecological phenomena. We have lots of exciting projects in progress. For this Thousand Strong campaign, we would like to share with you one of our most exciting projects: lunar bird tracking.
Why lunar bird tracking?
Many species of birds migrate exclusively at night, stopping during the day to forage and regain their energy. They likely do this to minimize risk from predators, as the cover of darkness makes it harder to see them. Ornithologists (bird-nerds) have a hard time seeing them at night, too. Originally, the only way to get a count of the migrants was to stay up all night and count the birds crossing in front of the only available backlighting for high-flying birds--the moon.
By careful observation, you can tell the altitude of the birds by the size of their silhouette against the lunar backdrop. With a little fancy mathematics to account for factors like the curvature of the earth, these moon transit counts produce surprisingly accurate counts of total migration.
There are modern techniques to get this information which require fewer all-nighters, such as radar. However, these advancements do not mean moon watching is without merit. Observational data is needed to verify what is seen by the radar. Additionally, not everyone is fortunate enough to have a world-class Advanced Radar Research Department like Norman, OK. For folks without access to raw radar data, LunAero provides the ability to pursue this ecological information. Despite the ubiquity of radar, it does not have adequate coverage across the globe. A spotting scope is relatively easy to pack into some of these remote locations.
There is a way to get that useful lunar bird count without sleepless nights. LunAero is a project which combines Internet of Things hardware, computer vision, and robotics with biology. All a scientist needs to do is mount a spotting scope (something most serious birders will already own) into the cradle of LunAero, attach LunAero's camera to the eyepiece, and point it toward the moon. The Raspberry Pi computer handles the rest. While the camera records, the computer checks to see that the moon is in frame and adjusts the position of the scope accordingly. This means that LunAero can track the moon all night as it moves across the sky. The advanced computer vision capabilities of the programming mean that the program will 'remember' where the moon is, even if a cloud temporarily obscures the view.
Once morning comes, LunAero will analyze the video it captured the night before. The smart computer vision algorithm will count the birds that crossed in front of the moon that night. It will save frames of the crossing birds for the user to see later. With the count complete, and information recorded from each of the birds including relative silhouette size, velocity, and orientation, the computer will produce a report of the night's migration.
Free and Open-Source commitment
Our goal is to ease the pain of long nights for our fellow bird-nerds and produce exciting new datasets for ecological scientists to use. Thus, we will be releasing the hardware designs and software under an open-source license. While this is unremarkable for most academic pursuits, it is notable for citizen-scientists and the public at-large. LunAero is designed to be so easy to use, anyone can do it. Materials and design considerations were carefully selected with the do-it-yourself/citizen-scientist crowd in mind. There are thousands of birders, schools, and hobbyists around the world who could have easy access to this advanced tool and contribute data, together.
Where the Money Goes
Building a single instrument for use around Norman is trivial. As you can see in the pictures, we already have the prototype. But bird migration takes place over a far greater range than a single scope can handle. Our goal is to mail LunAero kits to collaborators all across North America in time for the fall bird migration. With instruments working in concert, we can obtain much more extensive data and have a greater chance to produce meaningful results than from a single observer.
The OU Biology department is a vanguard of aeroecology research. It is our goal, and the strategic mission of the office of the Vice President of Research at OU, to ensure that OU continues to lead the way with novel research innovations. Outreach to other departments and researchers will increase awareness of this emerging field of study and allow us to maintain collaborative academic partnerships.
Your support deserves our thanks
Even a small donation can help us make this technology available to other researchers. We encourage you to share our campaign with your friends, family, and colleagues on social media. LunAero needs your generosity to fly!