PhD Studentship: Monitoring the World's Most Threatened Bird Migration

University of Exeter - Biosciences Department

The Universities of Exeter and Queensland are seeking exceptional students to join a world-leading, cross-continental research team tackling major challenges facing the world’s population in global sustainability and wellbeing as part of the recently launched QUEX Institute.

The student will have the chance to study in the UK and Australia, and will graduate with a double degree from both Universities.

Find out more about this PhD via

Academic Supervisors

Dr Jason Chapman (Exeter)
Dr Richard Fuller (Queensland)

Project description

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway (EAAF) extends from Siberia, via East Asia, to Australasia. More than 50 million migratory waterbirds use the route annually to migrate between high-latitude breeding grounds in the North-East and wintering grounds in South-East Asia and Australasia. Fifty waterbird species using this flyway are considered at risk of global extinction by the IUCN (e.g. Siberian Crane, Spoon-billed Sandpiper and Chinese Crested Tern are all Critically Endangered), making it the most threatened flyway in the world. These species face multiple threats, but perhaps the greatest is loss of crucial stopover sites along the migratory route, particularly around the Yellow Sea. In addition to the threatened waterbirds, many migratory landbirds which move through this area are also experiencing rapid population crashes; e.g. Yellow-breasted Buntings have declined by 90% since 1980.

To plan effective conservation actions for migratory species, monitoring their population dynamics, characterising migratory routes and identifying key stopovers are essential steps. Continental-scale networks of weather radars provide unique opportunities for monitoring and quantifying the movements of migratory birds over very large scales, and they have been used to great effect in Europe and North America for this purpose. Migrating birds produce characteristic radar signals which can be separated from signals produced by weather, and radar ornithologists have developed methods for classifying and analysing signals produced by birds. In Europe and North America, systems have been put in place to routinely separate and archive these signals, so that migration biologists can use them to study bird migration patterns over very large scales (100s of km) and across multiple seasons and years. Similar networks of weather radars are found throughout China and Australia. 

These weather radars (which use very similar technology to the European and North American radars) also record huge numbers of migratory birds, but as yet these data represent untapped resources which are filtered by radar meteorologists and discarded. During this PhD study, you will assess the capability of Chinese and Australian weather radars to provide the data required for long-term monitoring and quantification of waterbird migration along the EAAF. Specifically, the studentship will tackle the following objectives:

  1. Use raw weather radar data from a radar stations along the East China coast and from the north coast of Australia, to separate and classify the echoes produced by flocks of migrating birds and produce estimates of waterbird migration traffic rates, flight heights, speeds and directions.
  2. Validate the bird migration products from the weather radar using field observations at key sites in China and Australia.
  3. Compare continental-scale bird migration patterns along the EAAF with those in Europe and North America.
  4. Establish a new bird migratory monitoring system along the EAAF.

Full tuition fees, stipend of £15,000 p.a, travel funds of up to £15,000, and RTSG of £3,000 are available over the 3 year programme

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South West England