No. 78 BATON ROUGE, LA15 July 1977

Birding on an Oil Production Platform

by Brent Ortego

From 4 October to 30 December 1976, I spent seven weeks on an oil production platform 190 km S, 25° W of Cameron, La. (28°15', 94° 03'). Birds were observed daily, and observations were made of any usage of man-made structures (platform, service boats, barges).

The platform was typical of most large platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. A metal structure of three main levels: the first level being made up of a network of walkways four meters above sea level, the second a continuous 30 by 50 meter metal floor 20 meters above sea level, and the last level 10 meters above the second with three packages comprising a drilling rig on top of it. The packages varied in height from 15-25 meters. A 45 meter derrick was mounted on top of one of the packages.

During daylight, all birds observed (100 species of 2000+ individuals) rarely flew over 20 meters above the water. All passerines and Mourning Doves observed flew directly to the production platform or supply boats; individuals either passed by for a close look, stopped for a brief rest, or stopped for one or more days in which time was spent feeding and resting. Most birds observed on the platform were on the first and second level, and on top of the packages. Other birds had a variety of reactions to the man-made structures.

An albatross (species) was observed on 15 December flying 100 meters from the lee side of the oil platform during a light rain. It hovered in the area for a few minutes before departing. A total of eight Blue-faced Boobies were observed on 14 November. When feeding, they restricted their hunting efforts to the vicinity of the platform. Of the dives observed, 95% were within 20 meters of the platform and only two dives were further than 50 meters.

A Canada Goose was observed circling the platform on 31 October. When three Blue-faced Boobies saw the goose, they followed it closely as they have frequently done with other boobies. The Canada Goose became nervous and descended rapidly to the surface. When the goose landed, the boobies returned to their feeding activities. The goose remained for 30 minutes and departed.

During October and November two American Kestrels were frequently observed for several hours each day perched on antennaes. They frequently chased (with as least one capture) small passerines that flew near their perch. At other times, these kestrels dep~~ted in directions of other platforms nearby (48 km) and would return after a couple of days.

From 4-5 October, a Sora was observed on a supply barge. It stayed underneath a loose pile of old wire rope, and was only located by an intensive search.

Numerous Herring, Ring-billed and Laughing Gulls, and occasional Black-legged Kittiwakes occurred in the vicinity of the platform during November and December. They normally congregated in small flocks and searched for food throughout the area. Whenever garbage was dumped from platforms, ships and boats, they congregated to feed on the refuse. During periods of strong winds, large flocks were formed when they rested on the lee side of platforms and anchored boats. Herring Gulls occasionally landed on these structures.

During November and December, Jaegers rested on the lee side of the platform near large flocks of Laughing Gulls during periods of strong winds. They fed on garbage thrown overboard and stole food from the Laughing Gulls whenever the opportunity presented itself.

A Burrowing Owl was observed perched on a supply boat arriving at the platform on 6 October. It flew to the platform at night ard remained for 10 days on the first level. In that time it was observed to eat at least three passerines. Even though it had been obtaining food, it was in a weakened state, and was caught and examined three times by curious oilfield hands. Finally, during strong gusty winds, it was blown off the platform into the water and drowned.

On 3 November a Flammulated Owl was observed perched on an I beam of the third level. This rare owl was unconcerned about the activities going on near it, and workers frequently passed within five meters without disturbing it. It departed after dark.

Most wrens and warblers frequented stacks of equipment on the platform and service vessels, and were often observed chasing moths and picking up dead insects on the decks.

Northern Mockingbirds (three) and Brown Thrashers (four) were present on a supply barge and the platform during this study. They were different than most species, in that only one individual, a Northern Mockingbird, was known to arrive at and depart the platform. The others (which were present when I arrived at this location) survived from one week to two months on the barge and platform. They were observed to feed on transient and transported insects. They seemed content to live among stacks of supplies and machinery. Two Brown Thrashers died within one week of natural causes and the remaining birds were eventually killed by "fun loving" oilfield hands.

Most fringillids (Lark Bunting, Clay-colored Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, etc.) were observed on open decks of service boats and the first level of the platform. They did not frequent areas where stacks of equipment were placed.

Many birders dream of taking long pelagic trips in search of rare birds, but few consider visiting the many oil platforms located off the Louisiana and Texas coasts. From the limited observations I have made, these far offshore platforms act as magnets to many common and rare Gulf transients during daylight. They also serve to concentrate the food source for several species of pelagic sea birds.

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King Rail neck feather (L'Hoste/1998) design
posted 19February1999