call ornithologist Dr. Robb Diehl a "birdwatcher" would
be a monumental understatement.
millions of American hobbyists satisfied with spotting the occasional
cardinal or blue jay in their backyard, Diehl focuses on a much
broader landscape - the continental Unites States.
from weather radar, Diehl is one of only a few scientists studying
the migratory patterns of birds on a national scale. His work, which
involves equal parts biology and computer science, could bolster
efforts in environmental and flight safety.
(radar) technology gives us an actual window into animal behavior
aloft in the atmosphere," said Diehl, a National Science Foundation
Postdoctoral Fellow at The University of Southern Mississippi.
the British for military use during World War II, radar is used
today in a variety of ways. While weather-tracking is one of the
most common uses, radar equipment is so sensitive - scanning the
horizon at distances greater than 150 miles -- that it can also
be used to pick up bird, bat and insect movement.
color radar images detailing bird migration across the Midwest,
Diehl shared his research Thursday with the Pine Woods Audubon Society
at the Hattiesburg Zoo. There, he explained to the crowd of bird
enthusiasts that since radar is always scanning the horizons, both
night and day, it's the perfect "field agent."
migrate at night, so we need a nonvisual method to study their movement.
Radar is always working, so anything going up is going to be seen,"
are drawn from data that is part of an enormous archive of information
- about one million gigabytes. One gigabyte, a unit of computer
storage space, is approximately equal to one billion bytes.
information is essentially a collection of periodic "snapshots"
taken from NEXRAD's system of 140 radars around the country. With
the radar data, Diehl said scientists could map out where birds
are resting and refueling during the day. "This tells us which
habitats are important for birds during migration."
can then be used to direct preservation efforts to habitats that
favor migrating birds.
Part of the
challenge for both Diehl and meteorologists when studying these
images is interpreting the differences between rain clouds and flocks
of birds. Since birds travel at night, however, sudden "explosions"
on the radar at dusk are usually interpreted correctly as animal
movement. Sometimes, however, these formations can confuse weather
forecasters, leading to less-than-accurate interpretations.
received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, said he came
to Southern Miss to work with internationally renowned bird migration
expert Dr. Frank Moore, chair of the biology department.
is, in my opinion, the world's leading expert on stopover biology,"
Diehl's study is important because it can answer some essential
questions about migratory birds and their conservation.
can tell us where birds are, how many there are, and under which
conditions they take off," Moore said.
In turn, this
information is extremely valuable not only in academic circles,
but in military and commercial ones as well. Diehl said aircraft
collisions with birds can cost the military in lost lives and lost
property. "Military aircraft generally fly at a much lower
altitude than commercial airlines, so the danger posed by birds
is much greater there," he said.
There are other
important uses for the radar imagery, Diehl explained. After the
space shuttle Columbia tragedy, NASA used the same radar system
to track the debris from the doomed mission.
and fallout from the World Trade Center tragedy also was seen on
these same radars," Diehl said, illustrating the usefulness
of radar imagery in environmental safety issues.
member Chuck Gramling said after Diehl's presentation that he viewed
radar as another valuable tool in the "birdwatcher's belt."
been aware of some of this type of research that Dr. Moore and his
colleagues have been working on over at Southern Miss," Gramling
birdwatchers, it would be nice if we could see when they take off
from South America, and then we could know when to head down to
the Gulf of Mexico to see them crossing the gulf on their way back