Thursday, January 26, 2006

Wayback Machine

Finally tried the internet wayback machine, and I was able to relocate all the old files I thought were gone for good when I ditched the academic world and left Colo. State in 1999. It includes a lot of bird stuff that I should find a new place to host. Among this is my detailed winter bird atlas of Larimer County, Colorado I did in 1997-1998 here (kind of a wierd interface).

Time warp

I drove Mom down to Atlanta Tuesday-Wednesday so she could see one of her grandaughters' high school basketball games. Her dad/my brother has been trying to get her to come down all season, but she's not up for the drive herself. Atlanta... one of my less favorite environments to be immersed in. People and traffic and noise EVERYWHERE; my brain wanted to find a quiet place to escape. Driving driving driving. And lousy food that everyone else raves about. Ordered the CRAYfish salad (where do they call them thangs CRAYfish anyway except in zoology laboratories?), and the friggin' things arrived BREADED and FRIED! It could have been anything inside those lumps of fried bread. When did we start throwing breaded and fried food pieces in salads? Silly me, I should have asked, I just assumed they'd be steamed or broiled or sauteed and have flavor and texture, the way we used to cook 'em in South Carolina and the way they were cooking 'em in Louisiana right up until last August 29th. I'd never seen a chicken-fried CRAYfish... oy. This is an innovaton we can well do without.

I have had very little contact with the Old School since graduating 27 years ago. It was odd, to say the least, to find that so many of the main characters are still right there where I left them. Just a lot grayer. Getting together with my old math teacher for the first time in forever was really nice. He's a bigfoot of a fellow - 6'7", 'bout 300 pounds, long beard, broken teeth from street hockey, and recognized as an exceptional math teacher at a national level. Where else could I have gotten differential equations and linear algebra as a high school sophomore? He used to spend his summers in the Yukon; lately with some health issues he spends them in the US rockies. He gave me "some old bird books" that he had inherited from an Uncle: the three volume set of "Birds of Massachussetts and Other New England States" by Edward Howe Furbish, color plates of illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes and Allan Brooks, published 1925-1929. It's one of those wonderful old State bird tomes, with pages of information about each species instead of just a short paragraph, and full naturalistic watercolor portraits of the birds in habitat by the most prominent bird artist of his generation.

As for the basketball... well the girls had an off night.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Soggy again

Finally I think we can call the drought broken. Another 3.5" of rain yesterday and last night, and for the first time since April the creeks are flowing and the pond is filling back up. With the intermittent stream in front of the house flowing again, we're now a peninsula with water in front and behind.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Woodpecker math

Let's put this to rest, and I'll go off the woodpecker theme here for a while. An Ivory-billed woodpecker need not be especially wary, nor in an extremely remote habitat, to avoid detection for many years. It just has to be RARE.

The density of Pileated Woodpeckers in the area where the Ivorybills were sighted in Arkansas has been reported as 40/mi2. And the total area of the Big Woods is called 250 mi2 in a frequently bandied number. So lets be generous and give the Big Woods 5 Ivorybills, or one per 50mi2. And let's assume that is it as conspicuous as the Pileated. Given this, you would expect to detect one Ivorybill for every 2000 Pileateds.

But wait, that is just a detection. As we all know, we do "80% of our birding by ear." And is a heard-only Ivorybill good enough? Of course not. Is a quick glimpse of a big woodpecker with a general impression of how much white it has enough? It's enough to count a Pileated, but not for an Ivorybill. No, we need a good look. So again being a bit generous let's say 10% of these "detections" would be good enough for you to even consider making a public announcement that "Oh my god I am pretty sure I just saw an Ivorybill!" Now we are at one Ivorybill per 20,000 Pileateds.

To put this in context: that is a Pileated a day for over 50 years. It is nearly 40 times the number of Pileateds EVER recorded on the White River NWR Christmas Bird Count in the 35 years it has been conducted. In the Big Woods, I detected about 2 pileateds per hour (mostly by voice). Laura Erickson has been reporting about 1-2 per hour on her trip too it seems. So that is one glimpse of an Ivorybill per 10,000-20,000 observer hours. 10,000 observer hours is 10 hours a day, every day, for three years. Even someone who lives and works at the refuge, with all his or her other duties, would probably not chalk up 20,000 Pileateds in a decade even if they were a birder and trying to pay attention. I know here at home I detect about one pileated per 1-2 hours when I am birding, only about one a day (or less) when I am going about my regular farm chores.

But even after all that, all we have is a sight record. Quite probably a brief one that would still leave much detail to be desired. Events of the last year prove you need a photo or video, and indeed a good photo or video. Laura hasn't gotten even one decent Pileated photo per day on her trip. So, realistically, we might need to add another order of magnitude here and say one acceptably photographed and unequivocally documented Ivorybill per 200,000 Pileateds, or 100,000 observer hours, and only if that observer is carrying a camera.

A hundred thousand observer hours. Ten hours a day, every day, for 30 years. Ten hours a weekend for 200 years. About a full years' worth of christmas counts.. and I mean all the christmas counts, every single party hour on every christmas count conducted anywhere in the continent, all transplanted to the Big Woods. And everyone carrying a camera. Or more realistically, 10 camera-equipped parties spending 10 hours a day in the field every day... for three years.

So the "skeptics" can already start rejoicing. Odds are, even if there are five Ivorybills in the Big Woods, and even if they are no more wary than Pileateds, there will not be an unequivocal photograph taken this year. Or next. There will be some sightings, a few of them probably even pretty good ones. There will likely be a fair number of maybe's, might-have-been's, and sure-sounded-like-one's -- all of which would be enough to count a common bird on a CBC but not enough to document an Ivorybill.

The bird does not have to be extinct, or especially wary, or living only at the ends of the earth, to have avoided having its portrait snapped for all these years. It just has to have had a very low population density.

Beginnings of the porch painting

The beginnings of the paint job. It's hard to photograph well because there's scaffolding in front of it

Thursday, January 19, 2006

My take on the Luneau video

Jackson's critical article is out now and it does not contain any detailed analysis of the Luneau video, just an opinion. So I looked at the video again... since no rigorous analysis seems forthcoming. Several things I noted this time:

Very important: The apparent black edges around the white on the wings (leading and trailing edge, and wingtip) are identical in width and intensity to the black halo artifacts around the oar and hand in the forground. Thus it would seem that nothing can be inferred about the color of the trailing wing edge or wing tips. The only definite black is the body of the bird; any real black that may surround the white on the wings cannot be resolved from the halo artifacts.

Now, looking at how the white comes and goes on the wingbeats. The bird appears from behind the tree early in a downstroke. Only the right wing is fully visible. Abundant white is clearly visible throughout this stroke. The bird is dropping relative to the background. All of this white could easily be on the underwing. The second downstroke shows the same pattern, this time more clearly.

Beginning on the third downstroke, the bird is no longer dropping relative to the background. On this stroke, there is a point in mid-downstroke where the visible white diminishes. It then increases again at the bottom of the downstroke. This same pattern repeats more prominently on the forth downstroke: Abundant white initially, then a fading of the white in mid-stroke, then a reappearance of white. The same is seen on the fifth, sixth, and seventh downstrokes.

By the eighth downstroke, the bird is clearly rising relative to the background. Beginning at this stroke, the white no longer fades in mid stroke. Rather, it is evident to a similar amount throughout the stroke. This continues with subsequent wingbeats, as the bird gets more distant and disappears intermittently behind trees.

Ok now that damned interpretation thing...

What seems rather clear to me is that for the first two downstrokes, we are seeing entirely (at least on the clearly visible right wing) underwing. Then, on strokes 3-7 (especially clear on 4-6), we see initially underwing, then a fairly edge-on view of the wing, then upperwing. Finally, on strokes 8-10, the bird is traveling away and upwards, and we see upperwing the whole stroke. This is a bird with extensive white on both the underwing and the upperwing. It is not a normal pileated woodpecker.

But we really need an expert in image analysis to examine this video and account for every feature of every frame.

More stuff Tom Nelson won't post

The latest rebuttal comment of mine that he declined to post, in its entirety. It was in response to his latest blurb about expectation-influenced perception. Similar comments have been dumped by him before. This seems to be a point he really does not want to allow anyone to make. Hardly see how there is anything abusive, inappropriate, or (his favorite expression) ad hominem in this:

"The USFWS recovery team is in the process of planning searches elsewhere.

"Mammalogists don't see bigfoot. Astronomers don't see UFOs. Yet, birders and ornithologists have seen Ivorybills, including recently in Arkansas. You can conclude that experienced bird people are especially sloppy in their observational skills, or you can conclude that there is something more to the Ivorybill reports than just wishful thinking and subjective seeing.

"Birders pioneered field ID of living animals in the wild without collecting them. I don't think it is the former."

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Midwinter birds

Two hours around our little 40 acres (no mule) this morning. Main number is the total seen without double counting, number in parenthesis is the average number found in 3 minute BBS style point counts (double counting of individuals at two different points allowed).

Clear, 0.5 inch melting snow, light wind, 32-44 deg F. Quiet time of year, just 28 species...

Canada Goose 9 (0.8)
Turkey Vulture 2 (0.2)
Red-shouldered Hawk 2 (0.2)
Red-bellied Woodpecker 3 (0.2)
Hairy Woodpecker 1 (0.05)
Northern Flicker 1 (0.05)
Pileated Woodpecker 1 (0.1)
Blue Jay 8 (0.9)
American Crow 8 (1.1)
Carolina Chickadee 9 (0.6)
White-breasted Nuthatch 1 (0.0)
Carolina Wren 4 (0.2)
Winter Wren 1 (0.0)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1 (0.0)
Eastern Bluebird 4 (0.3)
Hermit Thrush 6 (0.3)
American Robin 1 (0.05)
Northern Mockingbird 1 (0.1)
Eastern Towhee 5 (0.4)
Field Sparrow 6 (0.1)
Fox Sparrow 2 (0.1)
Song Sparrow 18 (1.1)
Swamp Sparrow 24 (1.3)
White-throated Sparrow 12 (0.8)
Northern Cardinal 6 (0.3)
Purple Finch 4 (0.2)
American Goldfinch 3 (0.1)

Summary of the Arkansas Ivorybill debate points

Trying to consider the major points that have been brought up concerning the credibility and strength of the Big Woods Ivorybill evidence, and if they can be resolved without additional evidence.

1. Arguments about the possibility or impossibility of the species having survived 60 years without physical evidence or unequivocal photographs. These amount to differing opinions about the probability of a single event. They will not lead to any definite conclusion about whether this event, however likely or unlikely, actually occured.

2. Arguments about the suitability or unsuitability of the Big Woods habitat. These are somewhat speculative and hypothetical, given the relatively small number of life history studies that were conducted before the species' disappearing act. Extrapolation from then until now is interesting, but not definitive, and again will not lead to any definite determination about whether any Ivorybills are in fact utilizing the habitat in question.

3. Alternate interpretations of the Luneau video. To me, this would seem to be the one place were a rigorous analysis could actually make a determination between the alternatives. There are two widely proposed hypotheses: (a) The images are of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and (b) The images are of a Pileated Woodpecker. For now I will set aside the abberant Pileated alternative. It seems to me that it should be straightforward to determine unequivocally which of these hypotheses matches the images. It should be possible to analyse the flight of the bird using digital 3D models based on documented flight of at least the Pileated, and determine the actual pose of the bird relative to the camera frame-by-frame. We should not have to argue about whether the upperwing or underwing is visible in each frame, this should be able to be determined without subjective guessing. It should then be possible to photograph models of each species placed in these positions, using the exact same video equipment, under lighting conditions that simulate those of the original video. From this it should be simple to determine if the apparent white on the upperwing (suggesting Ivorybill), and the apparent black trailing edge (suggesting Pileated) could both be generated by either species. It should also establish definitively whether or not underwing white could appear so brilliant in an image collected by that camera under those conditions. There will be complications with motion effects, but these should also be subject to quantification and analysis. This analysis should conclude that the images could have been made by one species and not the other. Or, they might conclude that neither is a match, in which case we arrive at the abberant pileated hypothesis as the probable best explanation. I know some simulation with models was done. But was it done as throughly as I just described? If so, why are we still arguing this point? If not, why hasn't it been done?

4. Reliability of sight records. There seems to be no progress to be made on this point.

5. Audio data. There is probably little additional analysis to be done here.

6. The abberant pileated hypothesis. Though often cited, there seem to be very little actual data that have been made available for evaluation of this. The references to the existence of these birds have been in passing, and none of the supposed photographs have been produced. This is a place where more data is sorely needed. There are fewer publicly known reports of sightings purported to be abberant Pileateds than those purported to be Ivorybills. It does seem that a clear statement and release of data on this issue would go a long way towards resolving it.

So in summary, the one piece of evidence that might be subject to further rigorous analysis is the Luneau video. If no more evidence is obtained in this current search season, this is probably the one place that it will be possible to determine if there actually was one Ivorybill there last year and it vanished, or if indeed there never was one at all.

Comments welcome; however, unsigned anonymous comments will be deleted. Thank you.

Monday, January 16, 2006

A comment about the ivorybill "controversy"

UPDATE: Tom is again approving my comments for his blog. Indeed, he seems to have given me automatic approval. This is appreciated.

UPDATE AGAIN: That was short-lived. Mr. Nelson is back to picking and chosing which dissenting views he will allow. Like the one that follows.

General policy: I dislike unsigned anonymous comments. I will not delete the ones already posted, but I will begin deleting new ones. You need not sign an actual legal name, but sign something so I can keep straight which comments are from different people. Thank you.

Original posting...

I am a birder. I am not an ornithologist. I have been a birder since I was 12 years old, for the last 32 years. We birders, we do what we do with our eyes and our ears. We birders, we have spent a lifetime training our eyes and ears to detect what is actually there, not what we wish to be there. Oh how much I would have strained to hear an Ivorybill "kent" in my teenage years, how hard I would have tried to make that sound emerge from the infinite variety of sounds in the natural world. Oh, how I would have tried to add white to every pileated I saw if I could do it, to make it into an Ivorybill. I have spent most of my life in Pileated country. That is a yard bird for me now, something I see and hear everyday while going about my business. My ears and eyes have been filled with the sounds and sights of the southern forests for decades on end.

But, in all this time, I have never heard a "kent" call. No sound uttered by the countless blue jays, nuthatches, geese, frogs, and all the other creatures has ever set off this alarm. My eager brain has never been able to morph any collection of sound waves into a match for this voice, the voice I imprinted in my head as an adolescent, programmed in by listening to the Singer tract recordings over and over. And indeed, only one other birder I have personally known has ever heard a "kent." His is listed as one of the possibly credible reports by Jackson. All the other hundreds of us I have known seem to have never heard this sound either. Until last summer, that is. Then, I heard it again. Coming out of my radio. On an NPR story on the White River ARU results. Never before had I heard that voice but on the old recordings. Never. No nuthatch, no blue jay had ever produced it for my ears. But there it was.

In all that time, I have never seen a big black and white woodpecker that flew like a loon or a duck. I have never seen a big black woodpecker with white trailing edges. Whatever that bird is flying off that tree in the Luneau video, I have never seen it before. No matter how hard I wanted to, I have never seen any of those things. In most of a lifetime around pileateds, I have never seen these things.

In just a couple of years, other people, who I have no reason to think are any less astute and experienced tham I am, have seen and heard all these things. We train ourselves not to hear and see things that are not there; we train ourselves rigorously in this. And yet, they heard and saw these things.

We are not casual observers. We are birders, we have dedicated much of our lives to seeing the reality of the natural world in front of us, to supressing wishful thinking and analyzing our own senses critically. I have never seen or heard these things, inspite of a million opportunities to imagine that I had. They did, those fortunate few in Arkansas. Not just one of them, several of them. And at least two electronic recording devices did as well. This is not faith or wishful thinking or groupthink. This is observation; careful, skilled obervation.

That is what we birders do. It is what we stake everything on. It strains credulity to claim that all of our tribe who heard and saw these things in Arkansas were mistaken.


Splitting my blogging now between here and my other site, since my more homespun and natural history related posts seem to be of limited interest to the folks over there. I'll be backfilling posts from there for a bit, hence the magical appearance of two years worth of content

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