What is Moonwatching?

Since the 1960’s researchers have used moonwatching to quantify night time migration of small birds. The idea is simple: point a telescope at the moon and note the number of birds that fly across it. Seems crazy right? But it works. Here’s a video showing four migrating birds going left to right across the moon. A few seconds later a single bird goes by (The video plays at half of normal speed).

Carrying out a bout of moonwatching is pretty simple, but you have to forego sleep and pay very close attention to a magnified moon image for hours at a time. We thought that there must be an easier way. Hence we set out to develop LunAero, an automated moonwatching platform that tracks the moon and records migrating birds as they pass in front of the moon.

So we built the prototype show above….And it works!! This design is built from cheap gear motors and a Raspberry Pi computer and camera.¬†This spring we have collected dozens of hours of footage from a few different locations and captured hundreds of migrating birds. With this footage we will carryout the next major step in developing this system: developing the software to automatically extract migration data from the video.

Our long term goal is to make a moonwatching kit that can be coupled with any telescope or spotting scope. We hope to recruit a few volunteers to test the system in the fall and then make the kit widely available to citizen scientists willing to deploy the devices and submit their migration data.

This is a work in progress, so stay tuned for more information and details on how you can participate in a broader effort.