Thursday, September 17, 2009

Potato Planting Plans

Getting carts, horses, and woodpeckers correctly aligned.

So two farmers are talking out in front of the co-op. The one farmer says, "Well, I didn't make out too good on the potatoes last year." The other one replies, "Is that so?" "Yep," the first continues, "I planted 5000 pounds, and I only harvested 2000 pounds." The second farmer says "No, I guess that's not so good. What are ya gonna do this year?" The first farmer answers, "Guess I need to plant more potatoes."

As we prepared for the 2009 "search season," I was determined to not just keep planting more potatoes. A couple of e-mails summarize my lobbying efforts towards this end, as well as my feelings about what our 2008 findings meant:

Subject: Re: IBWO and the like
Date: September 11, 2008
To: Scott Somershoe
Cc: Melinda Welton, "Jacob"

Howdy all,

Just some of my thoughts; sorry for the late reply, I was visiting a friend in San Diego and finally ticking off California Gnatcatcher and Black-vented Shearwater. No luck with LeConte's Thrasher, though, and never made it to the Salton Sea for Yellow-legged Gull.

As y'all have all heard me say before, I'm personally not all that thrilled with some of the search techniques that have been widely used in past years. Reconyx and ARU seem to me to be a waste of money and time; lots of effort with almost nothing to show for it. Not a single Reconyx shot of an Ivorybill anywhere ever in millions and millions of images. Likewise, critics have made it clear that devoid of context (like distance, direction, conditions, etc.) ARU is not capable of providing conclusive evidence of anything. I also think large-scale cavity surveys are a waste of time, tying up field crew person hours again without yet in all these years leading to any Ivorybill evidence at all. TARGETED cavity searches in a smaller area where roosting is suspected would be another matter. Mega searches with large volunteer crews have also not ever yielded anything, not even high-quality visual encounters.

I think (just my opinion) that job #1 is determining the overall pattern of activity, if any, this year. To my mind the best returns on detections per person-hour have been double knocks heard by observers either sitting or moving slowly, not engaged in any other activity (like cavity transects, servicing ARUs, collecting occupancy model data, etc.). Double knocks have a great detection distance (>>200m) and are detectable within a 360 degree range through forest cover. Initially, I think deploying potentially mobile observers both in areas of 2008 activity and other areas of interest on a regular basis would be the best starting point. These observers should be able to move immediately towards any even remotely possible DK they think they might have heard, and of course be equipped to document an encounter. If we can cover the area well earlier in the season, then we might just see a pattern of activity that would then narrow down the cavity search range dramatically and greatly increase the odds of a visual encounter.

Seasonality... overall, woodpecker activity in the upper Mississippi Alluvial Valley peaks January-March, then falls off dramatically; this pattern holds across species based on e-bird data and my own personal observations. There is a secondary peak happening right now, September-October. November-December is a lull. April-August is flat dead. I'd say this is our best guideline, and the DK pattern in 2008 was consistent with it. I'd think right after the winter holidays would be the time to gear up for the full 2009 effort.

As for anything short of The Photo being useless... not really. For one thing, if we can't see the bird we can't photograph it. A good sighting by a good observer would be extremely valuable. It would add a definitiveness to our goal; in-house it would allow us to recruit a lot more person-power, and let us know at least one spot where the bird definitely was (again, in an in-house context) rather than a spot where it just might possibly have been. So let's not fetishize The Photo to the exclusion of all other things. Seriously, tell me, if Scott got an unquestionable look at a perched bird, no doubt about it, but for some reason didn't manage to photograph it, wouldn't that still energize and motivate the troops nationwide? And get more resources redeployed to the area?

Just my thoughts,



Subject: Carts, horses, woodpeckers...
Date: September 23, 2008
To: "Jacob", Scott Somershoe, Bob Ford, Melinda Welton

Howdy all,

Some more continuing thoughts about priorities for the coming season at Moss Island...

When it comes down to the nitty gritty, what we have for sure there are double knocks. There are reports from the locals, glimpses from Scott and the other TWRA folks, but the only thing we have repeatedly, definitely, from experienced bird people, is double knocks. We've all been going on the working assumption that these DKs are from a big woodpecker, hence the efforts in cavity searches, cams on foraging sign, etc. BUT, and I believe this is a big but... I think we have jumped too far ahead. Since the only thing we have for sure is the DKs, it seems to me our primo number one job is actually seeing WHATEVER IT IS that is making these noises, rather than assuming we know what is making them and proceeding on that assumption. Because... what if we're wrong? What if it's not an IBWO making them? In that case, we could spend the rest of our lives enumerating cavities, putting cams on foraging sign, etc. and never find anything. So I think that before we invest a whole lot more resources in anything else, we HAVE to get a visual on the source of the DKs. Anything else is putting the cart before the horse.

And what if we find out that it's not an IBWO? Well, we'll be extremely disappointed. But we'll also have made a hugely important discovery.

I should add, it doesn't have to be *we* who get the visual on the double knocker. If anyone anywhere gets a visual that confirms or refutes that these sounds are coming from IBWOs then the effect is the same. But UNTIL that happens at Moss Island, the Congaree, or out back behind Joe Bob's fish camp in East Jesus Mississippi, then I think that should remain our top priority. Which again means people sitting quietly or moving slowly, equipped to pursue and hopefully document, not distracted by other duties, and no noisy survey crews stomping transects. In spite of our personal beliefs, the strong similarities to tropical Campephilus DKs, the spatial and temporal patterns that indicate a mobile, biological source, etc... We don't really KNOW to a scientific certainty that what we have been hearing is even from a bird, much less a large woodpecker.


To my surprise, the overall gist of these suggestions was accepted readily with little resistance for the 2009 Tennessee work (what happened elsewhere I really don't know). I can flatter myself by imagining that this was because of the amazingly persuasive power of my arguments; but more likely it was because the severe limits on available personnel and time didn't permit anything more ambitious that this.

And now it was just a matter of waiting for the season to begin.

Other posts in this series:


At 7:20 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Would the use of DNA evidence from suspected IBWP cavities work as method of indirect detection? Surely, DNA from skins in collections could be amplified by PCR and specific fragments used to compare with DNA recovered from/around suspected cavities and foraging excavations. Just a thought.

At 8:06 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

I think that would just be another low-yield, high time- and labor-demanding activity that would keep field crews occupied with other tasks and distracted from actually making field observations. Any reasonable sized patch of woods will yield hundreds of "potential" cavities by the usual criteria; time and resources to investigate each one would be huge and the odds of a payoff would be very small.

It doesn't take advanced technology to find a bird. All it takes is good people, working with patience, concentration, and focus. And if you have few enough birds spread over a large enough area it also takes lots and lots of time.

At 11:26 AM, Blogger cyberthrush said...

There have been a few such DNA analyses done, but no 'hits.'I believe Cornell is always at the ready to analyze material that someone can produce with GOOD backup evidence that it came from an IBWO (they saw the bird leave the hole or drop a feather, etc.), but there isn't time/money to run on every interesting-looking cavity or foraging site that people find.


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