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.

Location of the 5 oil platforms where scientists are based in Gulf of Mexico.

South Pelto Oil Platform
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, 1998
Photos © Dave Patton


Blackpoll Warbler


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 safety.

What do you suppose happens when birds encounter these storms?

Courtesy of The Weather Channel

Bob Russell bording his helicopter.
Photo © Dave Patton

Dave Patton
Photo © Dave Patton

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.

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.

Get 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.

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.

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: jn-challenge-fall@learner.org

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