Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Mystery Remains

And the answer is...?

As of today (October 29, 2009), there have been no more encounters with the MIMDKWFTII. I've only made a few visits since June, and am probably done for 2009 as there's no money and not much free time in the near future. We made no real progress on the overall goal: Determine WTF the MIMDK is.

I do come away from the 2009 season, however, firmly convinced that the Mystery Double Knocker is a real and coherent phenomenon, not just an agglomeration of assorted misinterpreted and misconstrued unrelated ordinary occurences. Out of the whole 20 months I have been involved in this project, one or two minutes on one day haunt me the most. It was that afternoon of February 24, 2009, as the rain was ending and the grizzled squirrel hunter across the lake shot his supper. The string of double knocks that followed were utterly clear, perfect, and undeniable. Unlike my first encounter, I knew exactly what I was listening for, and what I was hearing. I was all alone, the rest of the crew having bailed because of the weather, sitting there by myself in the drizzly late afternoon gray. If my first encounter in 2008 was the Black Swan flying across the sun, this one was the Black Swan sitting on the hood of my truck. No denying its existence, no hope of talking myself out of this one. And, I knew the damn thing was just gonna fly off and disappear again.

As a loose end from my last post, some might wonder why I spent all this time analyzing my 3/18/09 recording when I expressed such strong objections to robobirders in an earlier post. Thing is, a real "meat birder" holding a video camera is not a robobirder. All that additional information that is lacking in robodata is present in the birder-videocam combo: context, apparent distance and direction, subjective impressions of quality, loudness, etc. The digital data and the analog experience are able to complement each other, without either making the other obsolete. But in reality, I think at this point in the Tennessee project the desire for "objective" documentation has as much to do with peer pressure than anything else. We have no doubt amongst ourselves about the reality and validity of the double knock phenomenon at Moss Island.

But what about all the alternative explanations for the double knocks? As far as the misinterpretation of ordinary sounds (e.g. gunshots, boat clunks, off-site mechanical sounds), in spite of how we sometimes seem to be viewed by northeasterners and west coast types, we are actually a pretty skilled, experienced, and discriminating crew. We take great care to rule these things out, and have clearly noted these double knocks as being something consistent and unusual. The various non-biological explanations also don't work with the spatial, seasonal, and diurnal pattern we have seen. Weather, construction, etc. aren't most active in the first three hours and last two hours of the day, they don't ramp up in late February and quiet down again around the end of March, and they don't cluster within the woods in the Rhodes-Hushpuckett Lakes corridor. No, the only thing that fits this is a biological source; specifically a mobile diurnal one. In other words, a bird.

What about duck wingtip collisions? Sorry, those may be able to confuse a robobirder, but they don't cut it as an explanation for the live sounds. They are an especially poor match for the double knocks that occur in series, repeatedly from the exact same direction; nor do they account for the freakishly intense loudness of the double knocks when heard from distances of about 200m or less. Really, there's only one option. It has to be a woodpecker -- a big one. Nothing else is properly equipped.

Here we come to the only alternative explanation that makes the cut: Could the Mystery Double Knocker be nothing more than a Pileated Woodpecker? Pileateds are certainly capable of making loud noises with their peckers; indeed they seem quite fond of this sort of thing, especially in late winter and early spring. They are also extremely common at Moss Island and in most other coastal plain bottomland forests in the southeastern U.S. However, no one has ever documented a Pileated making these dead-ringer-for-Campehilus double knocks; no one has actually documented a Pileated making any double knocks that are not embedded within an abundance of normal Pileated sounds. But, no one has yet specifically documented ANYTHING north of Mexico making these dead-ringer-for-Campephilus double knocks in about 70 years. Large woodpeckers have been glimpsed fleeing the scene of the (double knock) crime, but have not been seen well enough to definitely identify as Pileated or not-Pileated. It's not just the Moss Island Mystery Double Knocker, it's the North American Mystery Double Knocker.

But why not just claim Occam's Razor and call it a Pileated? Well, until someone actually sees something else making the sound, it can't be entirely ruled out. However, a lot of things don't fit. First, Pileateds are common and widespread in much of North America, not just the coastal plain bottomlands. Yet the phenomenally loud double knock has never been identified or described as part of their repertoire anywhere, by anyone. Perhaps it is an unusual display, used only rarely, and therefore only likely to be heard where they are especially abundant. Or, perhaps it is only a small percentage of individuals that engage in this display, which might also explain the spatial clustering in “hot zones.” Several things argue against these ideas. First, Pileateds are more common in bottomland hardwoods than in other forest habitats, but only by a factor of like 3-5, not by orders of magnitude. I live surrounded by hill-n-holler upland hardwood forests in middle Tennessee, where I see and hear Pileateds many times every day. Many other experienced birders live in similar proximity to the species. I've yet to hear any of these double knocks at home, where I spend far more time than I do at Moss Island. Even with all the publicity and skepticism surrounding double knocks in recent years, no one has turned up data showing any of these tens of thousands of backyard Pileateds making this sound. Believe me, if one of these things went off in your backyard, you WOULD notice! As for the “hot zones” being caused by individual aberrant Pileateds, they actually tend to be bigger than the typical home range of a Pileated in these densely-packed habitats, so you'd need multiple neighboring birds that posessed this aberrant behavior to explain the phenomenon this way. Anyway, woodpecker drums are pretty hard-wired, fixed, inborn display patterns. They're not subject to learning and they hardly vary between individuals or circumstances. It seems very unlikely there would be a distinctive, conspicuous, yet undescribed Pileated display still lurking out in the woods.

If I were in a court of law right now I'd probably be raked over the coals at this point for having produced nothing but circumstantial evidence. It's true, that's all I got, ain't nuthin' else. Until someone SEES the f'ing thing we will not really know. It's all Just So Stories in the meantime. I'm not going to commit the sin I have chastized others for and say “I don't know what it is, but I know it isn't a Pileated.” I don't think it is a Pileated, but I really just plain don't know what it is.

There only seem to be two options, however.

In the rest of my "wrap up" posts I'll talk about some of the larger implications of all this, speculate wildly about woodpeckers, and give opinions about what we should do from here onward.

Other posts in this series:


At 6:25 AM, Blogger fangsheath said...

Actually, Casey Taylor heard multiple putative DK’s over a half-hour period, followed by observation of an ivory-bill through binoculars. I would hardly call it a glimpse, she observed the bird for several seconds (3-4 seconds through binoculars), and reported the long bill, long neck, and white wing trailing edge. But even if she were 100% certain of what she saw, where does it leave us? If 50 experienced birders have similar experiences, where does it leave us?
A well-known American ornithologist has privately stated that if he saw an ivory-bill HE WOULD TELL NO ONE. He doesn’t want to deal with the “hassle.” This is how bad the situation has gotten. Is this supposed to be furthering science or conservation? I ask only rhetorically, because I know there is nothing to be done but get those images. When they come, I fear that powerful voices will yet again cry foul, citing the sophisticated methods of fakery at our disposal nowadays. After all, we have clear enough images of sasquatch and skunk ape.
At some point we have to trust each other’s methods and observations. It is unlikely in the extreme that we will get clear images of the birds from every part of their current range. And we will have to accept proxies for direct observation, such as DK’s, kent calls, possibly foraging sign and/or cavity evidence. But then, who is “we”? That’s the real problem. You said that “we” will not “know” until “someone” sees the mystery double-knocker. Who is this “we” that will “know”?
In my opinion, an obsession with personal certainty is a serious impediment to research and conservation efforts, not just concerning this bird, but all rare species that are difficult to observe and document, and it is obvious that people fear for their reputations. It is not healthy. Birders are accustomed to being able to see birds, even very rare ones. I understand that. But we are getting dangerously close to unfalsifiability here.

At 7:05 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

By "seeing the double knocker" I mean actually laying eyes on the beast in the act or within seconds of hearing the sound in the exact location from which it appeared to originate. In the case of the Taylor sighting there was a significant time lapse between the last double knock and the sighting of the bird in flight, as I recall. And, for reasons that have never been clear to me, that sighting seems to get little recognition or acknowledgment in spite of a clear view of the underwing pattern. Scott's first encounter at Moss Island when he saw an unidentified large woodpeckerish thing fly from the direction of the close-range double knock within seconds of hearing the sound, is as close as anyone seems to have come yet to catching the critter in the act.

As for veracity... We need to distinguish between the bozo skeptics who are just out there to debunk anything that comes along antd don't really care about actual knowledge, and he much more reasonable and numerous mainstream community who can indeed be pursuaded by evidence. I think if a photo comes along from someone like a State Ornithologist, FWS biologist, or other person who has a professional, not just personal reputation at stake it will be accepted after reasonable examination for signs of fakery. And a video remains very hard (I suspect impossible) for an amateur to fake in ways that would not be easily detected. Hell, megabucks digital movie companies still can't make fully realistic fake animals even with $10,000,000s at their disposal. That is leagues beyond photoshopping in difficulty.

"We" is the birding and ornithological community as a whole. As long as there are large numbers of reasonable people in this community without malice or conflicts of interest who remain uncertain, then the question is not settled. I personally have no doubt about the identity of the bird in the Luneau video, for instance, but many disinterested, knowledgeable, and experienced people want better evidence before they are convinced. That's the way scientific consensus is achieved -- slowly, tediously, incrementally. In the meantime strong differences of opinion remain and those who are of varying opinions proceed variously in accord with their own judgement. Stronger evidence at one area will also of course lower the evidence bar in other places; an indisputable video from South Carolina will make double knocks in Florida easier for more people to take seriously, for example.

We all have different criteria for how well he have to see the Black Swan before we accept that the prevailing view of reality has been overturned.

The FWS considers the Ivorybill extant and will continue treating it as such, and they are the most important agency when it comes to policy.

At 7:37 AM, Blogger fangsheath said...

Forgive me, Bill, but decisions of great import regarding efforts seem to have come down to a few key people, not a consensus of any community. John Fitzpatrick took a very courageous decision to commit his institution based on a personal evaluation of his friend’s competence and honesty. And the USFWS has a published position on the Luneau video that is certainly not based on any poll taken of the birding or ornithological communities. It is not difficult to imagine that the substitution of a few key people in both cases would have produced a vastly different recent history. And it is not often appreciated that the USFWS has invoked the ESA for the ivory-bill ONLY IN ARKANSAS. This is directly related to their position on the Luneau video.
In my home state of Louisiana, which arguably has more potential ivory-bill habitat than any state except Florida, what official efforts have occurred? Mostly helicopter surveys, demonstrated to be ineffective in Arkansas, cursory examinations by Cornell’s Mobile Search Team, and one 8-month project at one site. For that matter, what effort has been expended in Florida outside the Choctawhatchee? I submit that these patterns are a direct result of attitudes of key people in the respective state agencies. These two states may well house most of the ivory-bills in existence.
I agree with you that the USFWS as an agency is reasonable and will not raise the bar out of sight. But it now appears highly likely that imagery will not come from official searches. And it is very possible that the first clear images will come from a remote camera, not a camcorder.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

It's interesting to me different people's perceptions of the level of animosity etc. in the general world about this. You and cyberthrush seem to experience massive resistance among the rank and file as well as the agencies and institutions. I've generally experienced fair levels of cooperation and only reasonable-doubt type of skepticism, once I get away from the keyboard and computer screen. TWRA and many local FWS people are quite positively disposed towards our efforts within budget constraints; we get far more backlash from Cornell than from the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Scott has been able to round up some of the most prominent and respected birders in the state for assistance at Moss Island. They may have their doubts, but their minds remain open and they are rooting for our success. Maybe Tennesseeans are just friendlier than average... we are the Volunteer State.

As I've said before and will go into more in future posts, I have little faith in robobirders as being able to turn up much. Cameras are less labor intensive than ARUs, but still their track record is pretty abysmal so far. In my opinion (more later) the density of birds is so low, and the mobility of birds is so high, that the odds of catching one within the few square meters of forest effectively monitored by a remote camera are miniscule. Put a person there in a camp chair with a camera for 1/10 of the time and I'd bet you have 10 times the odds of getting something.

But there are many different opinions on these things, and we all invest and deploy our paultry resources based on our own opinions, hunches, and guesses.

At 10:30 AM, Blogger fangsheath said...

I used to believe that a practiced photographer with a quick draw would have a good chance of getting decent video, but recent history and my own attempts to document birds in flyby situations have made me pessimistic. It just doesn't work the way people imagine, in my experience. The vast majority of recent ivory-bill sightings involve flybys, and in only a tiny fraction were any images captured at all. It really requires an almost herculean effort I think, a kind of trigger-happiness (as well as considerable skill) sustained for longer than people can readily tolerate.

I invite anyone to experiment for themselves. When in the field, trying imaging every pileated in a flyby with your camcorder. Or, for a better ivory-bill flight analog, do wood ducks. Review the results and determine if you can really exclude other species in the video. Try about 20 of these and see what percentage of flybys (including of course the ones in which you got nothing at all but clearly ID'ed the bird visually) that resulted in actual ID's on video. In any case you will have to be obsessively trigger-happy for the months or years it takes before you see your first ivory-bill.

A bird landing, of course, is another story. But then landings will often occur at cavity or feeding trees, where remote cameras are often targeted. Here the remote camera has a powerful advantage over the human. It can monitor the tree every single day, indefinitely. The problem is that camera technology is far less sophisticated than most people realize. The Reconyx monochrome cameras that Cornell used have a pixel resolution comparable to a mid-1990's digital camera, and their infrared sensitivity distorts plumage patterns. This situation will of course improve over time.

At 12:12 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...


Attaching a naked-eye sight along the top of your camera (I use a little coffee-stirrer type of straw) aimed to properly show where the cam is pointed when fully zoomed. It is almost impossible to aim through a zoomed-in viewfinder at a moving target; a preview screen is even worse

Figure out how to override auto shutdown so the cam is always ready on 1/2 sec notice or less. Especially good to figure out how to keep the cam on standby without killing the battery.

Always keep the cam on manual focus, set for as far as you can see in your given circumstances

Set the shutter speed manually to the fastest that light conditions will allow.

Make sure whatever image stabilization you have (optical, digital, etc.) is turned on

Keep the cam zoomed out, when you see a bird in flight start recording, aim with the naked-eye sight, zoom in while keeping the cam pointed, never even look at the preview screen or viewfinder.

I've been trying this lately, and it gives identifiable still frames most of the time, even on wood ducks. A hell of a lot clearer than most reconyx shots.

The problem with the reconyx etc.cams is that you have to point them at the right tree. Unless you have narrowed down your search zone to a very small area, there are an enormous number of potential targets. If you don't both guess the one correct tree out of 1000s AND pick the week the bird happens to be in the area, you get nothing.

At 4:36 AM, Blogger fangsheath said...

Fabricated sights work fine, especially with some practice. I find that setting the zoom at 10x will usually produce good results. The problem is the extreme rarity of an ivory-bill sighting and the unlikelihood of getting anything useful unless you can sustain an obsessive trigger-happiness for the hundreds or thousands of hours it will likely take before you see your first one.

In my opinion there has been too much switching of camera traps from tree to tree and not enough sustained monitoring of good candidates. As is often the case, I think this is a reflection of unwarranted assumptions about ivory-bill behavior, again reflecting reads (or mis-reads) of Tanner. And in my opinion success in this regard is entirely dependent on cavity inventories. I really feel that your "hot zone" is in need of one, if only to provide a clearer focus for future stakeouts. I hope your group is able to do more out there.

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Ross E. said...

Now some may say I am full of it or not experienced enough,etc. to be believed or relied upon. But if you will read my notes about my first encounter ( you can find them in one of the summary reports from Cornell. ) You will see that I watched this bird for several minutes while it was foraging around on a tree and DK'ing from 30-35 yards away.


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