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Released Februrary 11, 2004

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG -- To call ornithologist Dr. Robb Diehl a "birdwatcher" would be a monumental understatement.

Unlike the 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.

Using images 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.

"This (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.

Created by 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.

Armed with 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."

"Birds 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," Diehl said.

Diehl's conclusions 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.

The visual 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."

This information 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.

Diehl, who 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.

"Dr. Moore is, in my opinion, the world's leading expert on stopover biology," Diehl said.

Moore said Diehl's study is important because it can answer some essential questions about migratory birds and their conservation.

"Radar 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.

"Smoke 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.

Audubon Society member Chuck Gramling said after Diehl's presentation that he viewed radar as another valuable tool in the "birdwatcher's belt."

"I've been aware of some of this type of research that Dr. Moore and his colleagues have been working on over at Southern Miss," Gramling said.

"For us 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 home."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM