Bird Migration the Focus of Faculty-Student Research Project - Hobart and William Smith Colleges
The HWS Update
Geoscience Prof. Laird and student Augusta Williams ’13 are studying how bird migration patterns affect what appears on weather radar systems. They’ll be heading to Utah on Dec. 15 to begin an on-site study.

Bird Migration the Focus of Faculty-Student Research Project

The migration patterns of eared grebes, a type of waterfowl, are the focus of an article co-written by Professor of Geoscience Neil Laird and Augusta Williams ’13, published in the International Journal of Biometeorology. Williams, who double-majored in Geoscience and Biology at HWS, is currently a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health after having completed a Master of Public Health and Environmental Health Sciences degree at Columbia University.

The article, “Weather and Eared Grebe Winter Migration Near the Great Salt Lake, Utah,” relied on weather data and National Weather Service radar measurements in the vicinity of the Great Salt Lake in Utah to provide valuable information on the migration of eared grebes. The Great Salt Lake area is a stopover for the grebes during their seasonal southward migration to northern Mexico and southern California. The beginnings of this project started somewhat by accident while investigating another project.

“While working on a study examining lake effect snow events, Professor Laird had found radar signatures that he thought were not meteorological,” Williams says. “Given their unique timing, regularity, and movement, it was clear that the cause of the radar returns was something biological. Professor Laird offered me a summer internship after my first year at HWS to investigate these curious radar signatures further. The summer research went well and we suspected that the migration of large waterfowl was being regularly observed by the weather radar, but we weren’t sure which bird was responsible.”

Several years later Williams came back to advance the research for her senior Honors thesis which involved more exploration and analysis of weather data along with a trip to the Great Salt Lake to collect her own measurements. After discussion with Professor Laird and collaboration with Professor of Biology Mark Deutschlander and other ornithological researchers, it was determined that the birds in question were eared grebes. During her Honors research, Williams communicated with the leading expert on eared grebes, Dr. Joseph Jehl of the Smithsonian Institution. Upon reading her completed Honors thesis, Jehl encouraged Williams and Laird to publish the research because of its unique contribution to understanding the influences of weather on eared grebe migration.

For Williams, who is now studying environmental public health, her early involvement with the project helped guide her choice of studies at HWS and later in graduate school.

“This experience solidified my interest in wanting to study how weather and climate influence biological systems and organisms,” she says. “It was a great opportunity to follow a research project from such early stages over the course of several years to my senior Honors project, and now a few years later to have it published for the greater scientific community.”

While they may not seem related, Williams says that environmental public health is an interdisciplinary field that draws from studies in biological systems, ecology and other fields. “My background in atmospheric sciences has helped me understand the environmental, meteorological and climatological aspects that influence human health,” she says.

Laird and Williams agree that working on projects like the eared grebe study can be an important part of the student academic experience. “Opportunities for undergraduate students to experience the process of conducting research and communicating their work is invaluable,” says Laird. “In atmospheric science, it is very rare that undergraduate students are a lead- or co-author on a scientific journal publication. Therefore, this accomplishment holds great regard and shines a spotlight on these students, emphasizing their great potential to become leading scientists in their discipline.”

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.