Wednesday, April 16, 2008

With much trepidation...

...I hitch up my boots and wade into the subject of Mike Collin's latest video (scroll down to the bottom of his Winter '08 field journal). I'm not sure why I do this...

First, the ability of us outside reviewers to interpret this video is severely hampered by the fact that we haven't seen the whole thing. I have found the individual frames and one brief sequence very confusing, removed from their context as they are. Viewing angles and geometries, when we are seeing bird and when we are seeing reflection of bird, this is all quite difficult to sort out without seeing the entire sequence intact. It also makes it hard to judge whether the single frames show typical, recurring features or are single-frame aberrations. Plus some of the stills have been "enhanced," which may or may not show real information captured in the originals, and may or may not introduce additional artifacts that can mislead. Bicubic interpolation, used on the latest sequence, adds no new information at all, but gives a false impression of higher resolution by smoothing out the pixel edges. This is akin to doubling your sample size in a statistical survey by just mathematically making up new data that matches the pattern demonstrated by the original data set. These are the same issues that have plagued interpretation of the Luneau video. So, until the whole, unprocessed sequence is posted it's hard to be very definite here. I should mention as an aside that de-interlacing is not an enhancement of the sort that fabricates new information (if it is done properly). It in fact is the opposite: it undoes a processing "enhancement" and separates data out to a form closer to the original raw captures.


Mike has just added stills and a video clip of a second bird, which appears in the stills at least rather clearly to be a duck. In the blurry video it looks quite a lot like his "Third Ivorybill Video" bird. Which leads me full circle back to concluding that both birds are, in fact, ducks. It occurs to me that in the "Ivorybill" video, what appear to be wings tucked tightly against the bird during the upstroke might really be wings rendered nearly invisible by motion blur and NOT in fact tucked tightly against the body but about half extended in typical duck fashion.


Okay, to the video:

The flight indeed does not look correct for a duck. The principal issue here is, as Mike pointed out, that on the upstroke the wings are folded tight in to the body. Scanning through stills and videos of ducks of many species in flight, you do not see this taking place. It is typical of the flight of woodpeckers, both definite Pileateds and whatever the Luneau bird is. But the question is, what other birds also show this type of flight? Parrots, doves, and pigeons do. Not saying this video shows any of those, just listing the three I know of off the top of my head. How many others? I don't know. I couldn't even guarantee you that no ducks do that, either. This survey of flight styles of large North American birds would take a long time, but would otherwise not be difficult in the Internet era. The size, rapid wingbeat, and high ground speed (35 m.p.h. is actually quite fast for powered bird flight, isn't it?) would help limit the search significantly.

The three frames presented that Mike believes show white traling edges to the wings are troubling. First, given the issues I mentioned at the start, I'm still not entirely clear on the viewing geometry here. I guess we are looking down on the topside of the bird, not at its reflection? Regardless, my first thought is, "Sheesh, here we go again..." Mike believes these images, especially the middle one, show a white trailing edge and a black leading edge. ONCE AGAIN, we're dealing with artifacts here. Look at the bright branch to the left of the bird. Notice its prominent "black leading edge." Notice how much it resembles the "black leading edge" on the left wing of the bird in the middle image. Look at the smaller bright branch to the right of the bird, and notice its "black leading edge" also. Additionally, notice that the "black leading edge" on the left wing gets especially prominent in the middle image, when that wing is passing in front of a darker area in the background. It's Luneau all over again. These are EDGE ARTIFACTS of the sort always created by jpeg (and jpeg-like) IMAGE COMPRESSION. Whether or not there is a real black leading edge there cannot be resolved through the artifacts.

Beyond the artifacts, I note that the bird's back does not appear especially dark. There's no clear break between the two white wing areas, just a fuzzy sort of darker area. This indicates that either the bird's back is not dark or the resolution of the video is too poor to tell. Either way, we're left considering all birds that have a lot of white in their wings (just about anywhere in their wings) and a back that might range from medium gray to black to boldly patterned, or just about anything else. Many ducks fit that description, which makes the issues of flight style all the more critical. So do grebes, Anhingas, quite a few shorebirds, and probably others that don't immediately come to mind. Could any of these match the flight style? Couldn't say, personally. But at this point making the jump from Wood Duck to Ivorybill seems extreme.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hillary, it's time to go.

Senator Clinton:

It's time for you to bow out. The only way you will capture the Democratic nomination is via overt machinations that will leave the Democratic base deeply fractured and alienated. This will guarantee a Republican win in November and indefinite continuation of our disastrous, immoral, and illegal foreign policies. So concede now, graciously, and throw your full and unconditional support behind Obama -- a man with whom you in fact have only minor disagreements on most issues.

And besides, do we really want the names of our last six presidential winners to read "Bush, Clinton, Clinton, Bush, Bush, Clinton?" This is much too close to the sort of hereditary rule that we fought a revolution to eliminate.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Hey Louis

So you're angry that your impeccable, flawlessly-reasoned, eloquently-presented arguments are not met with universal agreement. Join the club; everyone involved in this discussion feels exactly the same way (about their own impeccable, flawlessly-reasoned, eloquently-presented arguments, that is; not yours). You're at wits end that significant decisions are still being made that are in complete disagreement with your own expert judgments. Join the club; everyone involved feels that way. Of course you believe that your own conclusions are unassailable. Everyone believes that about their own conclusions. So how about ditching the insulting language like "egotistical," "charlatans," and "shenanigans?" In case you hadn't noticed, many of those involved here (at least of the more prominent voices) have toned down their rhetoric in the last year or so, if indeed they ever did employ such language. And there's a good reason for that; it's called humility.

The great mass of people observing this discussion have read the various impeccable, flawlessly-reasoned, eloquently-presented arguments, and noted that many of them reach conclusions in absolute 100% opposition to each other. We may all each be certain that our own analyses and sketches and comparisons lead to the inevitable true conclusion, but the reviewers (i.e. the birding, ornithological, and and conservation communities as a whole) have reached a different conclusion. They have decided that most of our arguments (probably all of them) must in fact contain gaping logical holes, and they consider the matter to be FAR from settled. You (along with most of the other central figures) probably believe that this is because they have not actually researched enough, delved into the truth of the evidence far enough, and if they were to do so they would come to see the situation the same way you do. Or perhaps they are just basing their conclusions on pure irrational hope and wishful thinking. Either possibility insults their intelligence and integrity. They have in fact read too much, seen the utter irreconcilability of the various analyses, and decided to just let it continue to play out for a while longer. If it burns your backside to see your own results (which you are certain represent the real kernel of truth underneath all the slop) not getting the recognition and widespread acceptance you are certain they deserve, get in line. If you think that conservation priorities in the U.S. are marching to Hell in a Handbasket with poor decisions about this species at the forefront of the parade, there's a very long list of people who feel just the same as you. You can stand right next to Mr. Collins.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Birding tattoos?

Last month, I was out in the field with a group of enthusiastic and skilled birders who were much younger than I am (early-mid 20s; I'm 46). At one point the conversation turned to ABA life list totals. I mentioned that I had recently tallied mine up for the first time in years, and found that I was just a few species short 600. Their comment was something along the lines of "Dude! You need to get those birds so you can get your tattoo!"

I realize I've spent very little time with young hardcore birders of the Body-Mod Generation. So tell me, is this a new tradition I've missed out on, getting tattoos to commemorate birding milestones?

I gotta say, I have thought about getting a bird tattoo if I ever manage by some miracle to accomplish one particular birding feat (I even have a design in mind); but ABA #600 isn't exactly the occasion I was thinking of.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Ivory-billed Woodpecker funding: Reality check

A great deal of gnashing of teeth has been heard from many directions about the gross waste of money being poured into ill-conceived Ivory-billed Woodpecker "search and recovery" efforts. Louis Bevier's recent Birdforum posting is only the latest in a long line from people including Dave Sibley, Jerry Jackson, and countless others. Okay, let's look at this. The 2006-2007 accomplishments report lists a total of just over $1M for that fiscal year. How does that fit in to the general pattern of expenditures for all endangered bird species (98 of them)? Well, it's about 1% of the annual total, which runs in the ballpark of $100M in recent years. The big-name species with large-scale recovery plans, like California Condor and Whooping Crane, have annual expenditures in the range of $5M-$13M, roughly. So Ivorybill expenditures are very much in the middle of the pack. Strike it from the list, redistribute the money to the other 97 species, and it won't make a damn bit of difference for them. Sure, someone will go out there and look up the detailed numbers for the latest fiscal year and pick at the details, someone else will pull out much larger proposed numbers from various plans (I'm looking at actual expenditures, not future proposals), but it won't change the big picture that if you totally eliminate all Ivorybill funding it will not even provide a noticeable bump for the rest of our endangered bird species.

Anyone who has ever put together funding proposals (which includes nearly all the loudest critics of the Ivorybill funding) knows that $1M is not an exorbitant expense. Once you start tallying up personnel, equipment, travel, and overhead for even a fairly small project, you get way up in the high 6-figures very fast. In fact, given the large geographic scope and thinly-spread nature of the Ivorybill activities, $1M/year sounds more like a shoestring than a gravy train.

P.S. I realize the pie is not actually sliced this way, but I find these sorts of comparisons useful for keeping perspective: The $1.1M spent last year on Ivorybill activities would fund the Iraq war for about 4 minutes. Exxon-Mobil makes that much profit in about 15 minutes. And it is roughly equal to the amount of consumer "wealth" that evaporates into thin air during the foreclosure of one single McMansion.

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