Saturday, September 30, 2006

Pileated thoughts

Paying particular attention to the Pileateds around here recently, especially birds seen in flight under less-than ideal conditions. Some quick notes:

When seen flying in latteral view, the black trailing edge behind the white underwing is quite evident, even in brief views (< 1 sec) at considerable distances (several hundred meters through optics, well over 50 meters with the naked eye), and in poor light (overcast, pre-dawn, forest, rain, fog, etc.). The white markings on the face are also very prominent and hard to miss; indeed the impression of the head is more red-and-white than red-and-black.

The flight of a PIWO is in no way, even remotely, even vaguely, even momentarily, reminiscent of a loon or duck.

(I'll be out today; any comments will be reviewed later)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Underground Railroad

The van pulls up stealthily in the pre-dawn darkness. Light rain falls on the isolated rural homestead. Two figures emerge from the van. Faint whimperings come from its dark interior. A person steps out the front door of the old farmhouse.

"They're here," he calls back inside. He is joined by another shadowy shape. Quickly, they set about their business. "Let's get the momma first." Momma rushes through the gate at the side of the house, then balks at the door of the van. So many others in there already, all scared and disoriented. "Come on, it'll be fine," they reassure her. "This is the way to your new life."

While momma settles uncertainly inside the van, the two people from the house slip quickly to the stash where the young ones are waiting. Each emerges with two of their charges -- vulnerable, big-eyed, excited and frightened at the same time. They are each ushered swiftly into the van. Two more dashes to the hideout, and all ten of the young ones are on board. Goodbyes are said, doors are closed, and the van disappears off into the night, to make another pre-dawn rendevous, to take them all to freedom and a better life.

Momma dog and all ten puppies left at 4:00 this morning. The local Humane Society picked them up and took them to Linden, where they caught the "Rescue Waggin'." They're off to Milwaukee, where the much-better-funded Wisconsin Humane Society will take care of them and place them in good homes.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Something Fishy in Minnesota

Last night, I submitted the following comment to Tom Nelson's blog, in reference to Amy Lester:

I'm just waiting for Lester's head to explode. She is the very definition of "conniption."

This comment was apparently rejected and did not appear on his comment page. However, just a few minutes later, the following comment did appear on the same thread (replying to a comment from someone else):

amy lester said...
"Actually, they didn't see any Blue Jays in the study areas, but they did see Ivory-billeds, so Ivory-billeds being the source of the sounds are more likely. Duh."

Oh yeah, I forgot.

(head explodes)

8:42 PM, September 26, 2006

Whoa there? It appears "Amy Lester" saw my unpublished comment, and "she" replied to it. Who is "Amy Lester?" Does she really exist? She had a presence online before appearing on Tom Nelson's blog, but this incident strongly suggests an extremely intimate connection between her and Nelson. She does not seems to be the independent voice she pretends to be. "Attack Dog" or "Hatchet Woman" seems closer to the truth.

This also begs the question of who ALL of these anonymous and pseudonymous regulars on his blog are. Few if any of them appear to be birders or ornithologists. Nelson is a birder it seems, although his non-IBWO online birding presence is generously described as "skimpy." But the large majority of his anonymous "posse" give little evidence of birding-ness; indeed they seem to look down with disdain and scorn on the fools who actually go in the field with boots and binoculars rather than simply reasoning out the obvious true facts in a nice climate-controlled office. There have been several loud rants about how actual knowledge of birds is totally irrelevent, nay, even a hindrance, to good critical analysis of bird reports.

If one looks at the anonymous comments, it is clear from the writing style and content that he majority of these come from only a very few sources. Everyone who knows the history of this sordid tale knows that one of these is Tom's brother. Another may well be Tom himself. One begins to wonder how many of these voices are really independent from Tom in any meaningful sense of the word. Then we have a couple of pseudonymous regulars. Again, little indication that most of these people actually have much real general knowledge of birds. Several appear to be disgruntled agency types who are pissed off that Cornell stole their thunder and their budget. Several claim a need for anonymity to protect their (highly placed, vitally important) jobs. Yeah sure. Questioning a bird sighting gets you fired from a government wildlife job. I bet.

Overall, I don't get the impression that Tom's anonymous "CLO-sux-big-green-weenies" lynch mob is either drawn from or representative of the community of birders and ornthologists at large. Indeed, they are rather more a gang of "one-thingers" with little if any connection to the larger bird community. They seem actually like an effort to prop up a false image of respectability by swamping the comments with syncophantic drivel. The swarms of "Tom, you da MAN!" postings are supposed to give the impression that Nelson has a large and diverse following. One might wonder... does this constitute fraud?

Oh, and by the way, no anonymous comments to this posting will be allowed.

*********EDIT********** 9/27/06

Tom (in his own comment section) said:

The "head exploding" thing is a complete coincidence as far as I know, unless "Bill" and "Amy" have an "intimate connection".

Oh my god.. the blackouts.. the lost weekends... the strange clothes in the closet... it's true...


Monday, September 25, 2006

First impressions...

..of the Florida Ivorybill reports that leaked this morning and have been officially released already here:

Y'all are tripping if you think those are ordinary sounds made by common swamp denizens, especially considering that they got a rap or a kent about every 30-40 hours on average. You can spend a HELL of a lot longer than 40 hours in the company of all the ordinary critters (and tree squeeks, etc.) of the swamps and never hear anything like that. I've spent thousands of hours in their good company and never heard those kenty noises.

Y'all are tripping if you think Tyler Hicks' sighting is just a Pileated and a lot of wishful thinking. Upperwing and underwing patterns, black crest, dorsal stripes...

Someone needs to get a freekin' photo so we can be done with this and move on with the real work.

Those double knocks are slower than I would have expected.

The pitch of those kents is all up and down the scale, more so than the Tanner and Arkansas recordings.

You heard it here first! (Sort of..)

Well, it's not-quite-official, but a major leak today has all but blown the lid off any pretense of secrecy: Ivory-billed Woodpecker reports from the Chocktawhatchie [Choctawhatchee] River in NW Florida include extensive sound recordings, and what may be the best sight record since the 1940's from a real, bone fide birder. Everyone has been saying "Chockta-where?" and going on about how Tanner missed it, none of the "lists" anticipated it, etc. etc.

Well nyah nyah nyah I say to all y'all!

Remember my little survey of potential IBWO habitat from this spring? Check out my list for Florida. And what do you see as #4 on my west-to-east list? Hmmm?

Friday, September 22, 2006

List of Lists

Though I've always kept detailed bird notes, and I've periodically tallied up various lists, I've not really been a heavy duty "lister." The only bird list I've ever really worked at building up is my Georgia list. Since moving away from there in 1992, I've mostly indulged my more innate tendency to be a "locality birder.'' Fundamentally, I like birds in context, not purely as tickies. My biggest interest is experiencing the birds of an area as a part of the natural environment. I get a much bigger thrill finding a localized nester on its breeding grounds (say, Elfin Woods Warbler in the cloud forests of Puerto Rico) than spotting something that is 5000 miles from where it belongs (say, Common Skylark in a cow pasture at Point Reyes. I much preferred the ones I saw 20 years later in flight diplay over Stonehenge). Don't misunderstand, I do chase rarities some. But most of my trips are multipurpose integrated things, of which birds are one element.

One of the interesting side effects of having put my lifetime of field notes into eBird is that I am now presented with a vast array of automatically generated list totals -- every major region, every Country, State, and County I have ever birded in in the Americas. Being who I am, I actually find the County and State totals more interesting than the Big Numbers. Although, that ABA area total does make me feel like turning into a lister for just 10 more species to hit the last Century mark I am likely to ever pass. I'm not the sort who will ever get ABA 700.

Here's a sampling, including all the County lists that are over 100 species. As you can see, outside of Georgia I've pretty much been a homebody. The counties with asterisks are the ones I have lived in.

AOU: 647
ABA: 590 ("Total Ticks": 4071)

California: 325
      Monterey: 209*
      San Mateo: 182
      Santa Clara: 179*
      Alameda: 125
      San Benito: 118
      Santa Cruz: 105
      Lassen: 104
      Siskiyou: 103

Georgia: 313
      Glynn: 204
      Clarke: 171*
      DeKalb: 162*
      Camden: 157
      Cobb: 155
      Liberty: 148
      McIntosh: 143
      Greene: 141
      Quitman: 125
      Chatham: 124
      Rabun: 122
      Effingham: 122
      Baker: 119
      Fulton: 118
      Walker: 115
      Jackson: 110

Colorado: 263
      Larimer: 249*

South Carolina: 251
      Georgetown: 223*
      Charleston: 161
      Jasper: 141

Florida: 189
      Wakulla: 149

Tennessee: 172
      Lewis: 154*

Wyoming: 160
      Park: 124*

Puerto Rico: 78

Monday, September 18, 2006

Luneau on hold

My Luneau video analysis is on hold pending the rumored upcoming revelations from Florida. These could have an effect on my conclusions, especially if they actually do include some bona fide Ivorybill comparison images and/or video.

Mystery Bumps, part 2

Here's my hypothesis about the origin of the Mystery Bumps: Lightning strike.

Some of the reasons I suspect this:

1. The rocks and gravel are reddened on their surfaces, and some look recently fractured.

2. There's nothing at all about them that looks like they were dug or burrowed; they appear to have risen up from below. I can see how this could happen with a lightning strike on wet ground that is comprised of porous carbonate gravel, vaporizing water and puffing up the soil like popcorn.

3. I haven't come up with any other good hypothesis.

I'd love to hear from anyone who might know more about this. The only things I have found online about related phenomena discuss the fulgurites formed by lightning strikes sand. This is not sand, these carbonate rocks don't melt when heated, they crumble. So I wouldn't expect to find fulgurites here.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Healthy Skepticism

Many of the people in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker discussions have indeed been pursuing healthy, honest skepticism, such as is integral to any scientific endeavor. However, the comments to this posting on Tom Nelson's blog do not. They mostly comprise presumptions, insults, smears, preemptive dismissals, accusations of fraud, and the like; all this before anything has even been actually announced or presented. They exemplify one of many highly disruptive trends that have undermined this whole matter, and turned it into a political campaign instead of a scientific investigation. Blog what you like, but if this is the way you want to play the game, don't claim to be practicing straightforward, proper scientific skepticism.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Mystery bumps

A cluster of three small red mounds has appeared on our chert pit. I couldn't say for sure that they are brand new, but I am pretty sure they are newer than this most recent Spring. I have a hypothesis as to what they might be, but I want to hear other opinions before I say what my guess is.

They're around 30-50 cm in diameter. They are definitely raised, and appear ringed by small rocks as though they erupted up from below. They are much too coarse and gravelly to be ant mounds. There is no mole or gopher activity around. I suspect geological, hydrological, or meteorological origin, not biological. I am pretty sure they are too recent to be a result of frost heaving.

They are formed in soft gravelly chert, which is rich in carbonates, iron and small fossils.

Any identification, positive or speculative?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

An Exploration of Memory

The process of reviewing my lifetime of field notes, one bird at a time, has been a great revelation on the phenomenon of memory. Many of these birds I have vivid recollections of, which are called up when I see their names in my notes. The memories replay in my mind, and then I read the details in my notes... and with surprising frequency discover than my vivid, detailed recollection is fundamentally wrong in major ways!

I remember my first Marbled Murrelets; the only ones I ever counted in California. There were two of them, in basic plumage, bobbing in the waves along a rocky section of the San Mateo County coast, on one of my early excursions there with David Houle, back when he was introducing me to the California avifauna. I can see it as clearly as if it were yesterday. Except...

It seems these birds were actually in Pacific Grove, not along the San Mateo coast. And the steep rocky cliff I have been picturing them in front, well... it was not behind them. There's no cliff like that in Pacific Grove. And now all the rest comes in to question, too: Were there really two of them? Were they really in basic plumage? Were they actually bobbing in the waves near shore? This is a particular issue because as it turns out, those months were covered by the only field notebook that I have lost (lost years ago, no hope of recovery). My records from that time are reconstructed from much skimpier data: dates on year lists, marginal scribbles in my copy of Arnold Small's The Birds of California, that sort of thing. In this case, since it was a lifer, I do have a secondary set of details that confirm location, number, and the bobbing-on-the-waves thing, but not specific field marks. And I also have my trust in my former self, bolstered by the observation that my surviving notes from my California years are very clean: there are no clunkers in there, everything is in order, documented, and seems to have been carefully identified. So did we see the diagnostic white scapulars? Well, we must have. But I can't prove it.

Well OK, that was over 26 years ago. My more recent memories must be more reliable, certainly. But just today, I came upon my records of the only migrant Alder Flycatcher I have ever identified, a bird in Fort Collins in June, 1995. Ah, what a spring that was. For weeks on end cold, wet weather settled in, and it was snowing to our north, west, and east. The migrants piled up along the Front Range. I tallied 95 Yellow Warblers in just one morning. Through May the trees were hung with Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks like Yule ornaments. And the Empidonaces were everywhere. A wonderful opportunity to learn their voices and tiny, subtle distinguishing characteristics. On the morning of June 4th I studied a "Traill's" type flycatcher carefully, noting that it was saying "pip" not the usual Willow's "t-wit." As I examined it while it moved about in a big pile of brush alongside the bike path, it let out one single "fee-BEEoo!" to announce it's identity. Again, as clear as if it were yesterday. Except...

According to the notes I wrote down about 30 seconds after the actual event, it wasn't in that brushpile where my mind always pictures it. It was across the river from me. I wasn't watching it from the bike trail, I was watching it from the observation pier out in the river. It's a narrow river (in Tennessee it would be a "creek") and it was still plenty close enough to see and hear well, but still... Once again the mini-movie in my head proves to be heavily fictionalized.

When I think of these vivid memories of past days, I do almost feel like if I could just think about it long enough, or maybe if I meditated or even were hypnotized, I really could replay the whole scene with every detail filled in, recover every tweet, every leaf, every puff of wind. Or, perhaps, in reality... I would fabricate a detailed fantasy, filling in every tidbit of an imagined day so fully that I'd not be able to tell it from the real thing if I didn't have the notes for comparison.

It's fascinating, and sobering.

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