Thursday, May 31, 2007

Peak birding

Another Peak Oil blog:

Clusterf**k Nation

Note that the actual site (and the URL for the site) are spelled out in full without any asterisks; if this might constitute a problem for you, you have been warned.

So what does all this have to do with birding? Well, first, this isn't and never has been exclusively a birding blog. But second, and more importantly, it has EVERYTHING to do with birding, birds, and whether either of them will continue to exist in future centuries.

Cyberthrush posted his very pessimistic outlook for the prospects of our avifauna heading into these coming centuries. Like many, his view of the long future is based on extrapolating the last century or two of exponential growth and mass extinction; if you do that, you do indeed tend to lose hope for anything. But the thing is, this can't happen. Whether the oil peak comes in 2007 or 2057, it will come. Whatever replacement energy sources are worked out, they will be more expensive -- ultimately much more expensive. The prices we see today for such things as biofuels, PV, wind, nuclear, etc. are all subsidized by the cheap oil that still fuels the manufacuring of their components and the building and maintenance of their infrastructure. And even with this subsidy, they are already more expensive than the fossil carbon sources. So when cheap oil goes away, alternative energy will become prohibitively expensive for many (most?) of the things we use fossil fuel for today. Economic growth will cease and then reverse, population won't just stabilize, it will contract. If you don't buy the economic arguments, try the biological one: We are at our core still biological entities with biological needs and vulnerabilities, even if we are surrounded by technology (a coccoon of our own making with petroleum as its first ingredient). Biological systems presented with a cheap, abundant resource boom -- and then they bust. Whether you believe the transformation will happen via utopian social reforms in an age of enlightenment, or by plague, famine, and war in an age of collapse doesn't matter; the end result is the same. Fewer people, less economic activity.

So what does this mean for the rest of Life? Well, the vast majority of extinctions that have happened since the loss of the early holocene megafauna have happened in the last two centuries: i.e. during the boom. The sprawl of humanity across greater and greater acreages has accelerated this pace. It seems to follow, regardless of the utopian or apocalyptic nature of the post-boom world, that when the boom ends, the mass extinction event will end, too. The era of monoculture and suburb will be over; any anthropogenic climate changes will at least stabilize even if they will take a few millenia to actually reverse. The upshot is this: I believe that if we can get a species through the next 100 years or so, the tide will have turned and there's a decent shot that it will be able to continue from then on until it evolves into something else. The resources for conservation will be evaporating; but so will the resources for destruction, as well as the fundamental motivating force behind the destruction.

As for birding, forget the Big Day and the chase; it'll be back to the days of paying intimate attention to the ever-changing avifauna of the place you live. Expeditions to far away places to see new and exotic birds will become the experience of a lifetime, not something you do on a whim with your income tax refund. I don't really see that this is a bad thing, on balance.

Well this explains a lot...

Benford's Law:

Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Opening weekend of the BBS

While those of you in more northerly latitudes are still admiring your late spring migrants, down here May 27th marks the opening of the officially-sanctioned Breeding Bird Survey season. I've got three routes now, one of which is entirely new to me, one that I have only run as the data recorder before, and one I picked up and ran last year for the first time. The first of these was run last year on May 28th, so for consistency I put it first on my schedule for this year, too. The previous observer, who ran it for 20 years, did me the great favor of scouting it with me last week and showing me where all the stops shoud be made. That was a huge help this morning. You don't have a whole lot of time between stops to dick around with maps, directions, and getting lost on the day; you really need to just boogie on down the road from one stop to the next bam-bam-bam to get done before the birds all quiet down for their late morning siesta.

The good news is that in spite of the harsh weather of the Spring (extreme killing freeze in April, severe drought conditions ever since), the nesting bird populations seem largely unharmed. Though this is my first time on this route, the previous observer and I seem to be pretty evenly matched. My numbers were quite similar to what he reported in recent years. The woodland passerines are all present, on territory, and singing away as though nothing happened. It's too early to tell much about nesting success yet, but a least conditions were not bad enough that the birds just abandoned these areas in search of greener pastures. I found a total of 76 species, including 15 species of wood warblers. It's a nice route, that winds from the top of the Highland Rim in eastern Hickman County through the hills and hollers and under the Natchez Trace Parkway to the knobs and valleys of the outer parts of the Nashville Basin in Maury and Williamson counties.

Species totals like that (e.g. 15 species of nesting warblers found in one morning within a fairly small area) are actually one of the reasons we singled out this area for our relocation. This is a belt of markedly enhanced biodiversity, in the plants and the animals. Influences from the midwest, Appalachia, and the deep south all combine here and blend in interesting contrasts (sourwoods and bald cypress growing within sight of each other, for example). We figured, if it supports high natural biodiversity, the environment ought to also be favorable to a wide range of human-tweeked biodiversity, too.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Henslow's Sparrows down on The Farm

I went way over to the other side of the county (like, 15 miles or so...) this morning to The Farm to help out with some bird surveys. While there, we checked out the colony of Henslow's Sparrows that I discovered last year in their big unmowed hayfield. In spite of freezes and droughts, it looks like a banner year for the little green-headed critters. We found 13 singing males, plus a full-size juvenile, two fledgelings, and 3 others that got away before we could tell what age they were. I'm guessing those last three were juvies and/or adult females, since the males were all very conspicuously perched and singing in the sunlight. This is about double the size of the colony last year. Let's hear a "tsi-lick" from the congregation!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Of toots and squeeks and cycle brakes, of baby fawns and kents

These two light-hearted posts by Martin Collinson point up the whole problem with this Ivorybill Audio fun. As I mentioned 200 years ago in a long-lost birdforum post, there is very little distinctive spectrographically about the known Ivorybill sounds. They are just a "toot." That ladder-shaped harmonic strucure is one of the simplest in existence, and is created by a gazillion things. All these subtle differences of squeekier, more nasal, more bell-like, more resonant, clarinet versus bicycle horn are very hard or impossible to see in a sonogram; even more so on sounds recorded in the wild, not a sound studio. These are all matters that have to be left to the judgement of human ears and human brains.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The end of the world

Continuing the thread of the End of The World as We Know it (and don't we feel fine?)... I posted this (to great yawns) three years ago in another venue to a different audience. It'll likely fare about the same here, but what the hell...

EDIT: If seriously interested, check a summary of the far more rigorous analysis of this Doomsday Argument with more defensible assumptions and more up-to-date population estimates. I present my simplistic one below mostly just for fun and to show how this sort of anthropic logic goes. You might find that if you read through and understand my simple version, then the more complex analyses with better numbers will be easier to understand.

EDIT #2: The more I think about the conclusions of the Doomsday Argument as presented in the above link, the more I get in a strange philosophical head space. I guess it is a variant of the time-travel paradox. The numbers drop out that if we try to maintain a global population of 10 billion, we only get a few more millenia before doomsday (at best). But if we drop population to a much lower level and try to sustain it there, we can get 100's of millenia before doomsday. And if we maintain a population that declines slowly and exponentially, we might have forever until doomsday. Now, this is just a probability analysis, it's not an ethical lesson or the word of god. But it still rings in the head as though it is a voice from beyond (or the future) telling us what we should do. But it isn't... it's just population stats, probability, and some interesting anthropic assumptions...

Think I'll just go weed the garden.

The end is coming, and I can prove it.

Using a little thing called the anthropic principle.

First we start with what is known: that our species' population is increasing rapidly and has been for many generations. Furthermore, our population doubling time is less than the average lifespan of an individual. This second point leads to the interesting fact that most of the people who have ever lived in the entire existence of our species so far are alive today. Think about that... most of the people who have ever lived are still alive right now. Puts a damper on a lot of past-life theologies, doesn't it? Not enough souls of the departed to go around for all of us to have had even ONE past life, much less dozens...

Let's assume six scenarios for the future of human population:

1. Population growth continues indefinitely.

2. Present rapid growth eventually levels off leading to a large long-term stable population.

3. Present rapid growth reaches a peak, then population declines reaching a smaller long-term stable population.

4. Present rapid growth reaches a peak, then declines to gradual extinction of our species.

5. Present rapid growth ends in a sudden catastrophe and our species goes abruptly extinct.

6. Present rapid growth is a phase in a long term boom and bust process, with peaks and valleys of irregular size and spacing.

These pretty well cover the scenarios for the course of the population of our species, or any other.

Scenario 1 can actually be ruled out as essentially impossible. Population growth that continues forever would result in infinite population. So, there must be some eventual stabilization or crash, even if it is billions of years in the future. Which is really the same as the other scenarios, but with a much longer time frame. So that leaves us with five futures to consider.

OK, now here comes the anthropic principle. This principle, which comes from Cosmology, holds that certain aspects of the observable universe are constrained by the requirement that we must be able to exist in order to observe them. For instance, an "observable" universe (such as our own) must be capable of supporting life and intelligent beings, or there would be no Cosmologists to "observe" and ponder it. Additionally, in its more controversial "strong" form, the anthropic principle holds that some features of the universe can actually be inferred and predicted from our presence. I am using this second form here. So now we will infer something about the likelyhood of each of these future scenarios from the simple fact that we are here now and observing the world as we see it today. No geopolitical or religious or other theories need be involved, except for this:

Let us assume that you are a single random sample of all the people who have ever lived, and who ever will live. Thus, the world that you see is probably (statistically speaking) a world that a single random lifetime is likely to see. This even works if there is in fact reincarnation, because this one lifetime you are experiencing right now is still likely to be a statistically ordinary one. And what do you see in this random lifetime?

You see a world where human population is growing rapidly, and most of the people who have ever lived are alive today with you.

OK, now, what would a random lifetime most likely experience in each of those possible scenarios?

Scenario 2: Growth leading to large stable long-term population. In this case, the vast majority of possible lifetimes fall in the period of long-term large stable population. Not at all what your single random sample actually found. Hence: VERY UNLIKELY

Scenario 3: Growth peaking, then declining to smaller long-term stable population. In this case, most of the people who ever live will live after the boom, again in a period of long-term stable population. Once again, not at all what your sample reveals. VERY UNLIKELY

Scenario 4: Boom and bust, population peaking and then fading out gradually, with eventual extinction. In this case, most of the possible lifetimes should occur around the time of the peak, and your random lifetime is most likely to fall either during the rapid growth just before the peak, the rapid decline after the peak, or (most likely) straddling the peak. This is consistent with what your sample actually observes. QUITE POSSIBLE, and the peak population is probably not very far in the future.

Scenario 5: Boom and catastrophic extinction. Here, the large majority of possible lifetimes occur in the final few generations before the catastrophe; indeed, the majority of all possible lifetimes will in fact extend right up to the catastrophe and be terminated by it. And all possible lifetimes would occur during a time of population growth. This is 100% consistent with the our one sample observation. QUITE POSSIBLE, and the catastrophe is likely to be in the relatively near future (just a few generations at most, more likely sooner than that).

Scenario 6: Cycles of booms and busts continuing for a very long time. In this case, the majority of possible lifetimes would occur around the times of peak population, either during the late boom or the early bust, much like scenario 4. However, here there are many booms, and it is less likely that the single random lifetime would be experiencing the very FIRST of these booms. So we might decide this one is POSSIBLE, BUT LESS LIKELY.

So... it seems that our future is most likely headed to bust, either with a bang or with a whimper. And the end of the boom is likely to happen relatively soon, within just a few generations, probably sooner. The actual extinction date may be far in the future, but only if in the meantime human population drops to levels orders of magnitude below present levels, and never rebounds. There have been much more rigorous and quantitative analyses of this issue published in the academic journals, which have reached the same conclusion: The future prospects of humanity are most likely extinction, and it is not possible to rule out extremely short times between now and the extinction date. Again, this is not based in ANY way on environmental or political or military or technological or theological concerns. Just the philosophical and statistical assumptions layed out here.

One obvious objection always comes up now: Using this logic, wouldn't everyone who has ever lived so far come to this same conclusion? Yes, they would have. And most of them are still alive now. So even though all those medieval doomsayers were wrong, there are FAR more of us around at this very moment who would be right if the world in fact ended tomorrow. So this objection is really irrelevent, in that strange way that Strong Anthopic principle arguments always go.

The second objection is more substantial. We have not just been anthropic, we have been anthropocentric. We have assumed that the random self-aware rational intelligent lifetime that our observer (that's you) experienced HAD to be experienced by a human being. We have neglected the possibility that there are other rational intelligent self-aware beings in the cosmos, past or future. It is possible that our random observer could have also wound up being some other kind of being in some other planet, even in some other galaxy. And this is a faulty presumption. In spite of its name, the anthropic principle assumes the existence of a conscious intelligent observer; it does not demand that that observer be a member of our species (anthropoi)or on this planet. SO... we now need to reanalyze all this using not the population of of Homo sapiens but instead the population of all intelligent life forms in the entire universe. Well, we have no idea about that population. It may be just us, it may be vastly larger than just us. It may be going up, or down, or stable; we have no idea. So... we're stuck, aren't we?

Well, no. If you scratch your head long enough about this you will come to realize that we are not actually off the hook. The logic still applies to the bleak conclusions about the future of this single intelligent species (us), but it does not imply the extinction of intelligent life in general in the universe. A scenario that is very consistent with our observation is that the universe is populated with the recurrent boom and bust model (scenario 6), but that each boom and bust is a different species in a different place. So there is always intelligent life out there. The individual types of beings come and go, but the existence of intelligence continues. There might even be other future intelligent species here on our home planet after we ourselves are gone. This is not a scenario that can be rigorously defended by the statistics, but it is consistent with the overall pattern of evolution and extinction of all kinds of species, intelligent or not, that we do see on our one little planet.

Now, before you jump to the Star Trek model of all these intelligent forms that come and go over evolutionary history banding together in a great space-travelling civilization... there's another really solid anthropic-principle-based "we ARE alone" argument that there is in fact NOT a space-traveling expanding intelligent interstellar civilization in our galaxy. But that is for another time.

Now that I think about it, there is a seventh possible scenario: We achieve immortality and stop reproducing. Sure, baby, Sure. I'll bank on that one, uh huh.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Digital Video Cameras... a tool for documenting rare birds: Dump 'em in the swamp.

That is my conclusion after dealing with the Luneau video for the last two years, plus other circumstances where a video is the photographic evidence available. Consumer-model digital video cameras, even "good" ones, are the WRONG TOOL for documenting a rare bird record.

Some people think that a video is the best evidence, as it provides hundreds of images and shows behaviors, rather than just a few still shots. But in fact, experience is showing that a video tends to provide hundreds of lousy images that are difficult to interpret. There are two main reasons for this: Resolution and artifacts. Consumer-level digital video cameras have lower image resolution than consumer-level digital still image cameras. They typically also have more limited options for the optics needed to photograph distant birds. After these lower-resolution images are collected, they are then compressed using more "lossy" algorithms (typically MPEG) than what is used for still images. This compression step is the fatal blow. Not only does it further reduce resolution, it introduces artifacts. These artifacts especially affect edges, which wreaks havoc on interpretation of shape and field marks. Even if you are looking at a moderately good video shot, the MPEG compression is likely to mess up such things as eye color, details of bill and facial coloration, patterns of streaking/barring/scaling, etc. etc. When you are dealing with particularly bad video, the artifacts can prevent you from being able to determine the presence or absence of features that have dimensions measured in inches, not just millimeters. As an example, in the case of the Luneau video, if instead of 100 video stills, we had a handful of rapid fire frames shot with a good digital SLR at the same distance and magnification, I expect there would be no doubt or argument about the identity of the bird.

The digital video camera sounded like a good idea at the time, but experience is proving otherwise. Save it for your home movies, and instead start practicing with your still-image digital camera so you can snag useful, identifiable images of rare birds before they disappear into the woods or the sunset.

Monday, May 21, 2007

On the topic of Peak Oil...

Gasoline prices here are now just shy of the all time high-water mark set two years ago during the post-Katrina shortage. But that time it was only a passing crisis, with actual shortages and empty pumps, and prices that fell again in only a matter of days. Now it's just another ordinary price hike.

What we need to really get movement on the energy issues, though, is gas at $10/gallon. Best thing that could happen to us in the long-term, regardless of the short-term pain.

That would be the end of the era of ABA area life lists over 800 species, though.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

What He Said

A most interesting essay by John Michael Greer about strategies for life on the down side of King Hubbert's Blip.

Among other things, he nails exactly why we moved to rural hillbilly Tennessee.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Recommended Reading

The journal of Piney Flatwoods Girl, from down there in one of those places that'll make any ol' swamp rat get all wistful. Lotsa pictures, so slow to load on dialup... but worth the wait.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

There's no other explanation.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker situation has reached inexplicability. We have no photographs and no additional video, but the sightings won't stop. And what about all those damn noises? We have no explanation for the "kent-like" sounds that are still being picked up by ARUs and human observers on a regular basis. No one has come up with an identity for the source of these sounds. I'm even told stories off-the-record of people standing around the tree from which the calls are emanating, still without being able to find the source! Of those who've heard them, herpetologists are sure they're not an amphibian, mammalogists are sure they're not something with fur, birders are unconvinced that they are anything with feathers that is not an Ivory-bill, weather and context pretty conclusively demonstrate that they are not mechanical. And knowledgeable birders with solid reputations continue seeing things they are sure are Ivorybills, but are still unable to replicate the sightings or document them photographically. There is no explanation for this totality of phenomena that does not require majorly serious ad-hoc and post-hoc handwaving and bumping against the bounds of plausibility, regardless of whether your conclusion is that the birds do exist or do not exist. Are we birders really so phenomenally incompetent that we are unable to either see Ivorybills that are there, or avoid seeing Ivorybills that are not there? I keep reminding myself of my own estimations that if the birds are extremely rare (like one or two in each State) and fairly mobile, this situation is exactly what might be expected. But it remains cold comfort.

In this context, I am pleased to announce that I have deduced the only possible explanation for all of the above. Obviously, the creatures we call Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are merely the protrusion into our dimension of a race of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings. The business with the raps and kenting is just a front. They have been performing intricate and subtle psychological experiments on us all this time.

Benjy Pecker and Frankie Pecker, I think it's about time you called us all to dinner and explained yourselves...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Northern Rough-winged Martins?

Some of our local Rough-winged Swallows seem to think they are in England, where the small, brown members of their family may also be granted the title of "martin." At least, they have felt free to move into the new martin house I built and installed this spring. As no Purple Martins have decided to start using the house yet, the Rough-wings are welcome to it. They swoop and dive around the orchard most charmingly themselves, even if their voices are not quite so other-worldly and musical as their big cousins. Maybe they will even attract the attention of some of the intended occupants.

I built the house with those new-fangled crescent-shaped, floor-level "Starling-resistant Entrance Holes." And I have been very impressed. I have several times watched Starlings attempt without success to enter the house. Just as satisfying, the House Sparrows have gone in to the apartments, investigated, and then left without making use of them. Perhaps the floor-level entrance does not work with their style of nest building?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Strange vulture occurence

Saturday afternoon a very odd thing happened here. I stepped out on the back porch, and noticed a few Turkey Vultures circling high. As I stood there the flock grew to a kettle of about two dozen birds, and they began circling lower and lower. Within a few minutes they were at and below treetop level, taking swoops barely above head height around the house, yard, and pond, passing very close to us at times. A few began alighting in some of the trees in the yard. They never seemed to find any food item, and a search didn't show any evidence of a fish kill in the pond. After about 15 or 20 minutes of this, they all began heading off to the north. Two of them flew off up the road in front of the house, making a beeline right up the center of the road not more than 5 feet off the ground. Most of the vultures remained airborne through all this.

I can't recall anything like this before. They were evidently not coming in for an evening roost, nor were they feeding. There were no Black Vultures in the mix. One off-the-wall thought occurred to me... Peggy had a crock pot outside on the back porch with her vegetable soup cooking, one of the major ingredients of which is cabbage. The soup is banished to the back porch because I object to the "aroma" of boiling cabbage in the house. Maybe the vultures mistook the smell of a pot of simmering cabbage for the smell of a rotting carcass?

I doubt she'll be happy if I refer to her recipe henceforth as "Vulture Soup."

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Vireos of brotherly love...

Two Philadelphia Vireos turned up in the yard this morning, a regular May visitor here. One of the two was singing; in spite of what some field guides say this species does sing during spring migration. I've tried for many years to nail down one single characteristic that will separate Philadelphia and Red-eyed Vireos by song. I haven't isolated anything that is black/white; I'd be thrilled to hear if anyone else has. The standard field guide description as "higher, thinner, slower" is unreliable: On a sonogram the pitch of the two species is actually just about the same; the difference in quality ("thinner") is very subtle and hard to judge, and the pacing of both species varies enough that the amount of overlap is huge. The best tag I have found is that a Philadelphia is more likely to begin a phrase with two quick high pitched notes before the short warble: "tsetse-widdlewaddle" where the Red-eyed would usually just say "widdlewaddle." It's not a hard and fast thing however, as I've also heard Red-eyeds sing a "tsetse" intro sometimes, and the Philadelphia generally only uses it on some phrases, not all (or even most). Still, repeatedly hearing the "tsetse" is my flag to pay closer attention and try to see the bird, often yielding a Philadelphia in the end.

Any thoughts?

Friday, May 04, 2007


The Novice asks the Master, "Master, what is fate?"

The Master replies, "It is that which gives a beast of burden its reason for existence. It is that which men of past eras had to bear upon their backs. It is that which has caused Nations to build byways from City to City upon which carts and coaches pass, and alongside which inns have come to be built to stave off Hunger, Thirst and Weariness. It is what drives Civilization ever onward in its quest."

The Novice responds, "And that is fate?"

Puzzled, the Master answers "Fate? Oh, I'm sorry. I thought you said Freight."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Making it simple

OK let me violate my own principles here and "cherry pick" four frames of the Luneau video to make a point loud and clear. I highly recommend you also look at my longer analysis of many more frames in context, including all the favorite frames of the "It's a Pileated, stupid" school of thought.

Here are frames 33 and 483. To accept the analysis of Sibley, Collinson, Nelson, et al we have to believe that the dark fringe on the left edge of the white blob in the first image is real but the dark fringe on the right edge of the white blob in the second image is imaginary. Actually, to me the "imaginary" dark edge looks darker and clearer than the "real" one...

(Frames 350 and 467) Similarly, we have to believe that the black smudge to the left of the white in the first image represents a black trailing edge to the white underwing, but the black blob on the right in the second image represents nothing at all.

As no explanation is given why, in both cases, the first smudge is real while the second smudge is imaginary, we must accept these things as matters of faith, I suppose. Has anyone seen my golden plates and magic spectacles lately?

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