Tuesday, January 23, 2007


I hereby proclaim Second Life to be evil.

I'll extend this same characterization to all of the other drivers of the increasing virtualization of experience. The problems of the real world continue to grow broader and deeper, and people need to be paying more attention to the kaleidescope of interactions between themselves and the "meat world," not less. So what are the masses in the greatest resource-hogging society on earth doing? Escaping into a digital fantasy land where they create electronic paradises with a little bit of scripting language. Hey, folks, aren't we as a society already frighteningly far removed from awareness of the actual world in which we live, both natural and socioeconomic-political? The last thing we need now is more tools to increase this schism.

But there is another side to this too. The real world is real. It is not something we create from ground zero, it is not something we control. Its purpose is not to entertain us. It is beyond us, bigger than us, at times downright oblivious to us. "Life" in a virtual world of synthetic experiences taylored purely around our own particular fantasies is not in fact any sort of life at all, second or otherwise. It's just a glorified video game.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Much of the most recent vortex of Ivory-biled Woodpecker action has gathered around Tyler Hicks, the source of what appear to be the "best" Ivorybill sightings in many decades. He has been the focus of near deification in some circles; he has also been on the receiving end of a rather large heap of patronizing condescension from many directions, much of it concerning his age, presuming him to be a conclusion-jumping hothead. The seeming inevitable black-white polarization that engulfs All Things Ivorybill has swallowed him up with pervasive "he's either lying or he is seeing Ivorybills" declarations. We are also treated to the equally inevitable declarations of "He's a total bogus hoaxer because we know the bird doesn't exist therefore anyone who says he has seen it is a LIAR!" from the usual directions: a classic, unfiltered, and undisguized example of "If the data do not fit my conclusion then they must be discarded."

Step away from the shouting for a moment, and permit me to ponder for a bit without exclamation marks, boldface, or italics. Many chins are indeed being scratched about the Hicks Conundrum: He and he alone is the sole provider of the "best" sightings; he has thus far not been successful in capturing a photograph. What does this mean? The mind is torn between scenarios...

Does it mean that he is particularly energetic and capable at bird finding? This is most definitely a possibility. We all know that the ability to find and see birds is a complex skill that combines many individual bits. These abilities also improve with experience. One learns over time to "see" better; to pick out field marks faster and more accurately. And by this I mean real field marks, not imagined ones. Anyone who has been out with groups of birders has noticed that some people just snap to the birds faster, are better at tracking them down in difficult situations, and can pick out distinguishing marks more quickly and reliably than others. We call these people "better birders." This is strongly correlated with, but not entirely synonymous with, "experienced birders." By most accounts, Hicks is both a "good" birder and an "experienced" birder; likely the top in both categories for that team. Quite possibly this, combined with a little luck (both good and bad), is all that is necessary to explain the Conundrum.

On the other hand... maybe Hicks really is too quick to call, and sees things through his eyes that are placed there by his overeager mind rather than by physical reality. This is a hefty accusation to hurl at an experienced birder, however. We work our whole careers to battle against this exact thing, to find and see what is there and only what is there. Mistakes are never impossible, but it seems many people are very, very quick to simply brush his sightings off as "well, he must have just thought he saw those things because he wanted to." That smacks of the easy way out.

But the thing is, we just don't and can't know at this point. Time will clarify. Personally, I think the cascade of compounding errors and delusions necessary to explain away all that has happened in the last three years is more unlikely that the actual survival of a miniscule relict population of this bird in vast expanses of a vastly underbirded environment. However... until someone turns up that photo, or something equally concrete, there will always remain the unshakable doubt that maybe all these sightings really are just wishful thinking and willful delusions, that bird in the video really is a Pileated with a freakishly narrow black trailing edge flying in a way that no other pileated has yet been documented to do, and everything else is just a case of mistaken interpretations of various assorted unrelated phenomena. My money is not on that, but that doubt will continue its soft gnawing until...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Seen on the road...

A bumper sticker:

"It is better to have loved and lost than to live with a psycho the rest of your life"

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Has anyone else searched on VIREO for our favorite avian swamp phantom recently?

Monday, January 08, 2007

Forget the grad students, hire some professional photographers!

I'm reminded of the joke where you take a man and present him with someone he intensely desires, and tell him that every hour he will be able to traverse half of the remaining distance to the object of his desire. If he is a mathematician he will become terribly frustrated, knowing he will never actually reach his goal. If he is an engineer he will be very excited, knowing that he will eventually get close enough for practical purposes.

As most of my regular readers (all three of you) probably already know, a new update from the Choctawhatchee Ivorybill team has been posted.

It includes another sighting by Tyler Hicks, this time of a perched female 40 feet away. Yet, still, no photo because of problems with the autofocus. Depending on what sort of person you are, you might find this sighting either very exciting or terribly frustrating. Once again: Half the distance to the goal line, but no slam dunk (wow, can I mix my metaphors, or what?).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ticky, ticky, ticky

My ABA reportable list totals for the current listing year:

Life lists --
ABA area: 590
USA: 589
Lower 48: 584
California: 325
Colorado: 263
Georgia: 313
South Carolina: 251
Tennessee: 207
ABA Total Ticks: 4202

Annual list --
Tennessee: 204

Finishing the holiday season...

...with the Savannah (TN) Christmas Bird Count last Tuesday. It's another small count participant-wise; they're all the same in terms of square mileage. Five parties spread from north of Savannah to Pickwick Dam, I was solo in a large area of the Savannah Bottoms and adjacent uplands. The Bottoms are extensive row crop fields on the non-inundated parts of the Tennessee River floodplain, broken by cypress sloughs, brush piles, thickets, and marshy areas. I'm told the extent and location of fallow fields varies considerably from year-to-year; this year the fields had almost all been planted from edge to edge thanks to the dry spring and summer. There was only one significant fallow area in my territory, but that was enough to yield two LeConte's Sparrows. My best bird was a lingering Common Yellowthroat in a small marsh that also harbored a Marsh Wren: the first Yellowthroat ever recorded on the count. Perhaps my favorite sight of the day, though, was 29 Sandhill Cranes winging majestically down river against a brilliant sunset sky as the day drew to a close. Other happy sights and sounds included two Woodcock calling to each other in deep dusk with the almost full moon rising, and eight Pine Warbers coming in to my screech owl imitation all at once in an isolated pine stand far out in the bottoms well away from their usual upland ridge habitat. My total for the day was 65 species, only two of which were unique to my territory (the yellowthroat plus, surprisingly, my four Winter Wrens); that total was held down by the near complete absence of waterfowl in my area. For the count as a whole the tally was a very impressive 111 species, an all-time record even more notable for the lack of any major rarities. CBC success is really about beating the bushes and finding all the uncommon-but-not-entirely-unexpected birds, not so much stumbling across the occasional extraordinary rarity.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Can't sit still quietly for this one...

Comments on this post on Tom Nelson's blog, which intend to summarize the reasons why the Luneau bird has been conclusively demonstrated to be a Pileated, in fact sumarize why these reasonings are all fundamentally flawed:

Arkansas duck hunters still skeptical

Some key claims (and their refutations) include:

1. The Luneau bird unequivocally displays a black trailing edge to the underwing; its seeming narrowness is a result of white bleed.

The Luneau images show black on the leading edge of the bird's underwing as often as they show it on the trailing edge. Neither IBWO nor PIWO should show a black leading edge to the underwing. The "black trailing edge" is never more than one pixel wide, and is inconsistent. Ergo, the Luneau video does NOT clearly show a black trailing edge to the underwing. It is perfectly consistent with an underwing that has white at the leading and trailing edges. Artifactual black edges to bright areas are abundant in the video frames. On the second point, white bleed is not occuring prominently in the video. This is shown clearly by looking at the outlines of tree trunks where they pass in front of bright and dark areas in the background. Where they pass in front of white, they generally do NOT show white bleeding (which would indent their apparent edges); instead, they often show spurious black edges at the light-dark interface. Blurring of the underwing is a result of motion blur, not white bleed.

2. If frame 33 and 50 show an extended wing, the bird is a PIWO.

I agree that frame 33 and 50 probably show the hind portions of the underside of an extended wing. But this hind portion appear to be predominantly or exclusively white, even in frame 50 as it is eclipsed behind the tree trunk. Sibley's drawing that tries to make this a black-edged pileated wing shows an absurdly and unrealistically narrow black edge. And, even if you are going to blame this narrowness on white bleed, you won't get white bleed from the part of the wing that is behind the tree trunk and not visible!!! In frame 50 only a narrow fringe of the trailing part of the underwing is visible, yet the dominant color in this narrow fringe is still WHITE. So even this interpretation of these frames does NOT indisputably support a PIWO ID; indeed it seems to lean towards an IBWO ID.

3. Sibley, Kaufmann, and Bevier all have concluded the bird is indisputably a PIWO, and who are we to question them?

Sibley: His analysis of the video, as I mentioned above, shows a ridiculously narrow black trailing edge on the bird's underwing. White bleed may be invoked as a justification for this, except that white bleed is not much in evidence elsewhere in the video. Motion blur affects black and white equally. He also embraces the intermittent, teeny, and narrow black trailing edge, while dismissing the similar black leading edge as an artifact. And, he stops his sketches at the point where it starts to get difficult, where the bird begins to level and then rise relative to the line of sight, and the hypothesis that all the white is on the ventral wing surface becomes much harder to support. Most glaringly, he completely ignores the blatant fact that the wing postures he draws (with which I have no argument, my own sketches show similar postures) are entirely unlike the wing motions show in PIWO comparison videos. The PIWO videos I have seen show a quite consistent (flat!) wing geometry during the downstroke; the Luneau bird shows something very different.

Kaufmann: So far as I know, he has never given his reasons for stating the Luneau bird is a PIWO. An opinion not backed up with reasons is not something that needs be discussed in a scientific debate.

Bevier: He rules out IBWO based on what he sees as a PIWO-shaped black wingtip on the underwing. This is an interesting case, where the Luneau video is first described as very poor and showing no detail, then it is claimed that it shows a detail that rules out IBWO. The shape of the black area on the distal end of the rapidly moving underwing cannot be determined with any detail, given the motion blur and abundant spurious black edge artifacts. It can only be determined that some black area of about one pixel in extent occurs there. This is true for bith PIWO and IBWO. Bevier's smoking gun in fact is shooting blanks.

Who are we to question these authorities? Interesting statement from people who claim that mutiple ornithologists at Cornell and Auburn, the Arkansas bird records committee, and Science Magazine have all committed astounding errors. These gentlemen (S, K, and B) may be experts at bird ID, but are they experts at forensic analysis of crappy video? Experts are mistaken all the time, experts are just as much subject to group mentality, axe grinding, reputation salvaging (Sibley and Kaufmann published the first two "comprehensive" North American bird guides that left out the IBWO; they were among the few American bird experts who stepped forward and prominently declared the IBWO extinct, not just possibly or probably extinct), emotional responses (Sibley describes weeping with feelings of betrayal on first seeing the Luneau video and how crappy it was), etc.

Enough for now. Before you start telling me what an idiot I am, please be familiar with the full exposition of my own Luneau interptetations:

Luneau postings index

And since apparently some of the people who read my blog are not good with details, I'll make this as obvious as I can:


The Luneau bird may not be indisputably an Ivorybill, but neither is it indisputably a Pileated. In fact, it shows several characters that are notably inconsistent with a PIWO ID. This is my conclusion. Yours may differ. Neither of us is infallible or omniscient.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The last bird of 2006

Many people note the first bird they see or hear every calendar year. I thought it might be interesting to pay attention to the final bird of the year. By this I mean the last individual bird, not the last "new bird."

For me, for 2006, it was an American Woodcock in display flight over our house in the evening twilight.

Oh, and the first bird of 2007 was a Carolina Wren heard as I finally awakened on the floor of the back room of a friend's house after sleeping off a very late New Year's Eve.

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