A new way to study nocturnal migration

Every night during autumn and spring , millions of birds set out on their time-honoured migration journey to safer grounds. Yet, despite the massive scale of the operation and the advanced technology we have access to, for most birdwatchers and researchers alike nocturnal bird migration remains elusive.

lunaves is about exploring technologies and techniques to help involve a larger number of birdwatchers and researchers in nocturnal migration studies. In the same way that passionate birdwatchers and citizen scientists have helped shape our understanding of birds today, our mission is to make the studying of nocturnal bird migration more accessible to whoever has the matter at heart.   Keep in touch on facebook.

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Getting two birds with one stone….

It is always interesting to come across other moon-observation initiatives – this one, led by Jose Madiedo from the Universidad de Huelva is surprisingly similar to what we have been trying to do with the lunaves setup.

The MIDAS (Moon Impacts Detection and Analysis System) project deploys two moon tracking telescopes that track the moon and monitor blasts of meteoroids hitting  the lunar surface. A separate post-processing software unit processes the captured video to detect the meteoroid collisions.

The researchers have published a description of a recent event (http://mnras.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2014/02/19/mnras.stu083) and placed video of it on YouTube: 

Perhaps Huelva is a bit too far off the Strait of Gibraltar flyway (even though it would be interesting to study spring migration in strong Westerlies as it is relatively close to Tarifa where we have our unit set up) but I am sure that over the past few years they must have come across quite a bit of nocturnal migration sightings.

If they are recording at a minimum of 30 frames per second it will interesting to post-process all of their footage through the Lunaves scanner.

If anyone has got any direct contact do let us know.

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Tarifa’s moon tonight…


Tonight’s moon….directly from Tarifa!

We have great hopes for the Tarifa station. During past sessions where birdwatchers had done moonwatching, they had peaks of up to one sighting….per second! Compare that with the peak readings of one sighting per minute that we got from Hamrun last September (https://lunaves.org/2013/11/13/window-of-opportunity/)

We should not be expecting that type of migration in February (not to mention that there is quite some cloud cover tonight, so results processing will not be too smooth, https://lunaves.org/2013/11/26/head-in-the-clouds/) but it is good to know that all is geared up for March and April.

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Malta, Gibraltar and now Tarifa!

With Gibraltar on the lunaves map (or nearly – we are still looking for a suitable location where the setup is to be placed) it was time to move on, this time to Tarifa, in Spain.

Tarifa is strategically placed to get most of the migration flowing through the Strait of Gibraltar.  A few years back, the local government set up Migres an organisation specialising in the research of bird migration through the Strait of Gibraltar. It is a tier-one organisation when it comes to ornithological research and is responsible for various publications every year. Over the past few months we had been in touch with Alejandro Onrubia, Program Coordinator of the Migres Program.

Migres had already run an extensive moonwatching exercise throughout 2009 and 2010 involving over 120 volunteers from all over Spain. This time round, they were interested in getting a better understanding of how the Migrometer could be of any use.  So there we went to set another unit – the fourth lunaves unit!


The border customs between Gibraltar and Spain. Quite a bit of a queue if one is crossing by car because of the recent tensions between the two countries.


One of two stork flocks seen flying over Tarifa. During the second sighting there was a gale wind and heavy rains – obviously not enough to deter a stork from crossing over from Morocco it seems.


Migres’ current offices….but not for too long!


….and the soon-to-be new Migres offices. An impressive initiative to develop a new state-of-the-art research centre specialising in ornithological research


With Alejandro Onrubia and Beatriz Martin (Scientific coordinator), after braving the storms at Tarifa


Hey, I thought finding birds in a telescope was easy…but I still can’t find the moon! ‘Calibration’ training at one of the test sites.


Testing out the waterproofing under heavy rain….if it survives this it will survive until next September for sure!


Barely any visibility in the mountains around Tarifa

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lunaves at Gibraltar

Although we had great results with the trials in Malta, it was always  clear that we had to deploy the setup on a major migratory route to see if it cut the mustard.  Throughout the past few months we had been in correspondence with Dr Keith Bensusan and Mr Charles Perez from GONHS (www.gonhs.org). Luckily for us both Keith and Charles were extremely supportive and cooperative and so here we are in Gibraltar setting up the first unit!


Great support from Dr Keith Bensusan (left) and Mr Charles Perez (right) of GONHS.


The lighthouse at Punta Europa, with a barely visible day moon in the top left corner


Unpacking all the equipment to set it up at the Botanical Gardens

Over the past two days we have surveyed various possible sites where to put the setup. Interestingly enough there are three challenges that are very unique to this place: 

1. The Rock – most of Gibraltar lies in the shadow of the massive limestone promotary on its side (the famous Pillar of Hercules). Direct sunlight does not hit the lower plane before 11.00am, which at night means that the moon will not show up before half of the night is over. One solution for this is to find a spot that lies at the Southern  or Northernmost  part of Gibraltar, thus avoiding the shadow

The southern end of the rock

The southern end of the rock

2. The Cloud – when the wind is blowing from the East, a localized weather system forms such that there is a cloud that forms on the Western part of the promontary, this obscuring the visibility of the sky and hence the moon.

2. The Gulls  – there is a huge colony of gulls across the ridge of the rock and they fly around day and night.  That means that any data that we collect will get skewed with gull sightings unless we find a way around this. Again, the most obvious solution is to find a spot that lies away from the rock where the gulls tend to hang out.


Gulls, gulls everywhere, day and night.

Last night we set a unit out at the Botanical Gardens and finished calibration and training – Charles seems to have got the hang of it very quickly so all is looking very promising.  Over the next few weeks it is likely that we will move the unit to a terrace in a private apartment closer to the airport – it lies outside of the shadow of the rock and further away from the gulls. From a security perspective it will also be quite safe.

Today the weather was not very collaborative and hence any attempts of moonwatching would have been futile – this is the view across Gibraltar Bay of the before the impending storm (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26095937).


Cargo ship in Gibraltar Bay weathering the storm

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Today I dismantled one of the webcams that had been damaged through a burnout. Nothing like moon being super bright – it happens when the scope accidentally points towards the sun during the day while waiting for the moon to come up. Not a pretty sight at all but considering the amount of heat it must have been exposed to, it did quite well. It could have burst into flames and do further damage. Despite the melt down the CCD still had some life in it!  

IMG_8093[1] IMG_8094[1] IMG_8099[1]

I am still keeping my fingers crossed that the Zurrieq station webcam can be recovered – will know more after visiting this coming Thursday.

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lunaves going international

We are starting the 2014 with a bang –  we are adding two new units to the lunaves network along a major bird migratory route in Europe!

Double the units…double the nocturnal migration observations, we hope!


The first kit starting arriving today – there are more than thirty components for each unit and that means lots of orders and deliveries. Laptops and motors are still on their way but we hope to have everything in hand by this weekend. It is going to be a busy couple of weeks while we complete assembly. Although the setups will, more or less, be the same as the ones we already have, we shall be doing some minor upgrades and improvements based on the issues encountered so far.  Good weather proofing will be high on the list.

If everything proceeds as planned, by the end of February we will have a total of four units – two units monitoring migration across the Mediterrenean flyway (in Malta) and another two keeping an eye on migration at the selected location. More on this next week as we finalise plans…


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First moon for 2014….

We have had our fair share of rough weather since the start of the new year.  There have been days when there was barely the time for the sky to clear up before another storm would set in.


The two setups fared pretty well in the foul weather.  Unfortunately the Zurrieq setup has had yet another melt-down of the lens (sun shined through telescope during the day this causing the lens to heat up – we still have to implement a fix of the software to avoid this from happening yet another time).  There does not seem to have been permanent damage on the webcam even though the scope lens has melted.  So, if we are lucky, it might live to see another day….or night.

All seems to be calm  tonight – Hamrun station engaged without too many issues, the sky is clear and there is no wind.

The only concern seems to be the that the size of the recorded files is smaller than usual.  Typically in half an hour at 1080p resolution we get a file of about 1.3GB – the ones being recorded tonight are only half as that. There are many reasons why this could be happening, but it is likely to be down to a  loss of signal somewhere between the webcam and the processing unit The Hamrun unit is stored inside in a room below the roof where the scope is placed.  It could be that there is somethingwrong with the  5 metres USB extension that connects the two. For now I have changed the resolution to 720p (less resolution but better magnification) and we will analyse the files later.

Not sure if any migrants will be making their way southwards tonight, especially with such a mild winter.  But if they are…we are keeping an eye open.

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Santa clears the skies….

All we ever asked for are clear skies – and it seems Santa heard our wishes. We have had fairly good weather over the past three days – just when we hit full moon with both units in rude health.

Perhaps it is the expectation that December is not really the season for migrants – or the Xmas procrastination kicking in a bit earlier. But we will process the captured videos over the next week in one batch as soon as the moon has subsided. Not expecting a lot, but any signs of migration will be a good sign.

The readings as of last night at Hamrun :

  • 475 minutes of recording
  • 84 minutes obscured    – moon completely invisible
  • 65 minutes searching  – moon partially visible, but not sufficiently good enough to record

This is the view from the wide-angle camera as of this morning from the Zurrieq station. The solar water heater?  It is an excellent alignment target to figure out whether the unit is pointing in the right direction when all you see is a dark sky.    It does not interfer at all with the recordings as the moon rises.


At the moment it not really looking good with all those high clouds…but perhaps Santa will be back tonight….

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Ho! Ho! Ho!


It has been a memorable year at lunaves!

Sometimes it feels as if we have been working on this for ages –  there is so much time spent coding and debugging infront of an editor instead of doing any real birdwatching.  But just twelve months ago (Christmas day to be more precise!)  we were still trying to get a very rudimentary version of the tracker to align on the moon. And here we are a year later – tracker and scanner software working pretty well (ahem….apart from tonight), some blog entries on the internet,  two active stations….. and most importantly very encouraging comments, feedback and support from all of you.

Next year is shaping up to to be even more exciting.  Details still need to be finalised but if all goes well we should be starting observations from one of the mega migratory routes  in Europe –  more on this as we confirm dates and locations.

So once more many thanks for all your support and do keep in touch! We’d love to hear from you !

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Running one one engine….

Full moon. Clear skies. No wind. And both units recording…. pure bliss!

Well that was until a few minutes ago.  The Zurrieq unit went into a spin (this is a known issue  unfortunately – perhaps with some more free time over Christmas we will find the time to get down to sort it out the bug in the software) and we had to switch it off so that it can be put back in position tomorrow morning.

It does not happen very often and its a pity it had to happen on a full mooon.  Hopefully  we will get some good readings from the Hamrun unit.


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