Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The soul of the Earth

The morning is crisp, clear, without wind, and resonant with sound. From every direction the drums and songs and calls, croaks and knocks and clucks of incipient spring ring through the forest. The oxbow lakes are glassy calm, lightly peppered with ducks and grebes. The silence is magnificently loud.

A sound like a herald announcing the arrival of a thunderbird splits the air: two resounding, sonorous blows, so close together that they are almost one, the second less than the first but still commanding. Astoundingly, the swamp does not even pause for a moment to acknowledge this imperial performance, as the chorus of a thousand lesser voices continues unswayed. This is nothing out of the ordinary to their ears.

A few moments later the atmosphere is cleaved again, precisely the same as before. The grand tattoo calls out from high in the canopy, amidst the filtered sunlight penetrating the still-leafless woods. The great bird is perched there, on a snag it has carefully chosen for its exceptional resonance. It surveys the audio landscape around it, listening with with the totality of its purpose in life for a reply -- any reply. Once again it delivers the paired blows with all the force it can muster, sending the message out across the landscape:

Hello? Is there anybody out there?

Once, this sound would have rung out throughout the swamplands. Not everywhere, not even the same places each year, but from snags and treetops across the land these blows would have been heard time and time again. And once, they would have been answered. In those days, they would have been perhaps the loudest sound to be heard in the forest other than the thunder itself, possibly second only to the drums of the native people. These fortissimo double blows were perhaps the defining sound of this place, the very voice of the land. And, in those days, the forests would have extended for mile after mile. Not unbroken, but still vast, varied, and ever-changing through the years of life, death, storm, flood, and fire.

But that was many generations ago, and this one bird has never known that world. Woodpeckers lack oral storytelling traditions. The world he lives in is the only one that has ever existed in his mind. He has never been a creature of vast virgin bottomlands. His world has always been made of fragments and patches and corridors. His life is the search for food wherever he finds it, same as all other winged beasts. His landscape has always been filled with countless other loud bangs, cracks, thumps, rumbles, and blasts, some of which dwarf even his best efforts. And his life has also always been one of solitude. Every spring he finds the great sounding trees, and fractures the morning with his primeval proclamation of "I am here!" And he listens, and listens, and listens, for the response. The rowdy silence engulfs him. No answer. One more time.


Is there anybody out there?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Some old news

On the woodpecker front, cleaning up something from last year I missed...

In all the fun of 2007, I somehow managed not to catch that Mike Collins had posted a video he took in Florida early in that year. I quit checking his site quite a while ago after he made a habit of launching into surreal explosive diatribes against anyone who disagreed with any aspect of his reports (a list which rapidly came to include virtually everyone but himself). Anyway, Mike says this video shows one of the two birds he saw and identified as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Unfortunately, this video shows a Pileated Woodpecker. He sees a white underwing with suggestions of a dark stripe up the middle of the underwing. I see blur caused by motion, focus, and pixilation, which inevitably will make an elongated object against a bright background appear light around its perimeter and dark on a stripe up the middle. I base my ID of the bird on its flight. The bird shows full upward extension of the wing at the beginning of the downstroke, which is maintained all the way through to the bottom of the stroke. This is typical flight for a Pileated Woodpecker, and is unlike the flight of the bird in the Luneau video which never extended its wings fully upward or laterally in any of the visible wingbeats.

ADDENDUM: Mike dismisses my Ivorybill writings as "uninformed opinions from the sidelines." Funny, he used to actively seek out my "uninformed opinions" and even quote them in support of his own views, until the first time I disagreed with him on anything. He doesn't yet grasp that it is this behavior, more than anything else, that has completely undermined his credibility with most people involved in this discussion. But back to the evidence. Love it or hate it, the Luneau video is the only video or movie footage that substantial numbers of birders and ornithologists think might even possibly show an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight with any minimal clarity at all. It is also the only video of a North American large woodpecker that actually shows a flight style that is not obviously the same as typical Pileated flight. Mike's Pearl videos don't hardly resolve anything but vague flapping. The Choc videos don't clearly resolve flight style either, and aren't in fact undeniably even of woodpeckers. Hence, Luneau is the only empirical comparison material available. Mike's theoretical calculations about what flight styles should be, along with Louis Bevier's theoretical calculation about what wingbeat rates should be, are not real comparison standards. In Mike's Florida video, the flight style is clearly resolved. It matches actual Pileated videos closely; it does not match Luneau. Mike mentions wingbeat rate again, also. The significance of wingbeat rate per se in the first few flaps after takeoff has been show to be nil.

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