Fall's Journey South Update: September 4, 1998
Today's Report Includes:
The Night Flight
At night when we're asleep, millions of birds travel through the night sky.
They've been doing this every autumn for tens of thousands of years, but
people didn't realize they were migrating until the last few centuries.
Some of the smartest people to ever live, like Aristotle, once believed
that birds flew to the moon for the winter, or buried themselves deep in
mud, or transformed themselves into different species. We think its funny
that people didn't understand migration long ago, but we still have a lot
to learn today. Science is a slow process, and the more we learn about anything,
the more we realize there is yet to discover.
the 5 oil platforms where scientists are based in Gulf of Mexico.
Photo © Dave Patton
Striking It Rich on the Oil Rigs!
One of the most exciting migration research projects of 1998--already
making important new discoveries--is taking place on oil platforms in
the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers from Louisiana State University's Museum
of Natural Science are studying birds that fly over and around the platforms
or land on them.
Songbirds resting on oil platforms during their long migration. Spring,
Photos © Dave Patton
Birds have been flying over the Gulf for thousands of years, and landing
on oil rigs since the rigs were first constructed, but none of the people
working there had the time or expertise to collect data about them. Radar
data prove that many birds migrate over the Gulf, but can't show which
species go that way rather than over a land route. When some scientists
realized that oil platforms would be perfect for gathering the data they
needed, they worked with oil companies to figure out a way that they could
cooperatively use the platforms for oil drilling and ornithology both.
The Flight Leader
Dr. Bob Russell is one of the scientists leading the oil platform research
project. The platform he works on is called South Pelto 10 it's an oil
and gas production facility owned and operated by Mobil Oil Company.
A (Stormy?) Flight of His Own
All the researchers get to and from their platforms by helicopter. Bob
called Journey North on August 31 from the oil platform to tell us how
the season has been going so far. A hurricane was brewing and he
was getting ready to be evacuated if the storm came too close. On Tuesday,
newly named "Hurricane Earl" forced scientists to leave for
When it's not stormy, scientists on the platforms have a lot to do. During
their work hours, they spend part of the time walking around the platform
on a specific route, searching for any birds that might have landed. Part
of the time they watch for birds flying past. And they also must take time
to record and compile their data. Bob puts it online for us and other scientists
to learn what's happening out there.
Photo © Dave Patton
Holy Mackerel! New Discoveries Already This Fall
They just started collecting fall data on August 15--and Bob already had
lots of exciting news to report.
- Check out the numbers
for the first week
The data tell us a lot more than just numbers. Yellow Warblers were always
considered to be land migrants, but as the third most common bird seen
from the platforms, they must actually be regular migrants over the Gulf
which scientists didn't know about. Belted Kingfishers are another bird
no one suspected would migrate so far from land until they were found
on and near the platforms. We asked Bob if there were a lot of fish near
the surface for them to catch and he said there were plenty. He added
that near the platforms there are often huge schools of Spanish mackerel.
When they feed, they churn up the water so it looks like its boiling.
That attracts Black Terns, which must be feeding on something the mackerels
are leaving behind.
In another discovery, on August 23, researchers on the platform found an
adult female Prothonotary Warbler feeding a begging immature cowbird on
the Ewing Bank 826A platform. This baby cowbird and warbler had apparently
migrated together! Scientists have long believed that cowbirds leave their
foster parents before migration, so this was an important discovery.
Ready for Spring, 1999
Dr. Russell's team
will share observations with your class through Journey North next
spring, as we track the songbirds back to the U.S. and Canada.
Bob will be back to make new discoveries about migration over the Gulf all
season, and he'll send us plenty of updates. In the meantime, see if you
can answer this Challenge Question:
Challenge Question # 1:
"Songbirds are migrating everywhere right now--and the parade began
in mid-August. Most of us think it's still summer in August. Why do
you think the fall migration of the birds now crossing the Gulf of Mexico
began so early?"
How to Respond to Today's Challenge Question # 1:
1. Address an e-mail message to: email@example.com
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question # 1
3. In the body of the message, answer the Challenge Question.
The Next Journey South Update Will Be Posted on September 11, 1998
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