Forward into the past

I got an email the other day from my good friends at the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center alerting me to a new data recovery effort called North American Bird Phenology Program. I spent the weekend transcribing scanned copies of hand-written phenology data cards into the online database. I don’t know how many cards I transcribed. It’s kind of addictive, like computer solitaire. I’d tell myself it was time to stop, but kept on doing “just one more”.

The card collection program began in the early 1880’s by Wells W. Cooke who developed an interest in the timing of migration (phenology) while teaching on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. The program first focused on the Mississippi flyway and eventually, through the auspices of C. Hart Merriam of the American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU), was expanded to include the entire United States, Canada and a portion of the West Indies. By the time the program was discontinued in the 1970’s, there were some 6-million data cards, all housed in a card-file in a corner of the USGS offices in Patuxent with no practical way to access them.

The main problem is that they are all hand-written and in formats that changed over the years. They defy a clean scanning solution. So the folks at USGS are photo-scanning each card and asking volunteers on the internet to transcribe the data on the cards into an online data-form.



Many of the cards have only the AOU number and a line of dates. Some are on official cards for the program and some are field reports copied out of field notebooks. Some of the names I recognize, like Finley, Bailey, and Taverner, but most are local volunteers who dutifully collected data and sent it in.

This was an amazing early effort in Citizen Science that, as is true of so many data collection efforts, never went beyond the collection phase. As you can well imagine, 6-million data cards is quite unwieldy for any data processor and most of these cards were collected before electronic data storage was even invented. So, now it will take a team of volunteer Citizen Scientists to act as data transcribers to rescue the data collected by their forbearers and get it into some sort of usable form.

Imagine the potential power 120 years of migration data could have in analyzing trends over time: population change trends, climate change trends, landscape change trends. This is a veritable gold mine of information, once mislaid and now re-discovered.

And it makes one wonder how many other data-piles are languishing away in dusty archives around the country.

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This weekend’s photo safari

My goal this weekend was to get photos of House Sparrow and Purple Finch for a project I’m doing. In the process, I got a couple other shots that aren’t too embarrassing…

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Variations on a theme

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Oh no! not another post about gulls!  It must be mid-winter…

I spent yesterday morning meditating on what it means to be an Olympic Gull.  Those of you who spend any time with Pacific Northwest gulls know that we live in the center of a hybrid swarm between Western Gulls and Glaucous-winged Gulls up here on the Columbia River Estuary and the complex is referred to in the literature a “Olympic” Gull.  This is a fairly well studied hybrid swarm as it turns out with data going back to at least 1978 (Hoffman, Wiens and Scott, Auk 95:441-458) and more recently from Douglas Bell (1996 Condor 98:527-546 and 1997 Condor 99:585-594) mapping out the extent of the zone of sympatry.


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With gulls, the simplistic version of Mendelian genetics we all learned in High School does not do the complexities of a hybrid swarm justice. For one thing, gull hybrids are fertile and under some circumstances may even be more viable than “pure” Westerns or Glaucous-wings.. This means that hybrid individuals can mate with “pure” individuals and with other hybrids. The result of all this inter-breeding is a mish-mash of phenotypes grading from apparently pure Western Gulls through all sorts of intermediates to apparently pure Glaucous-winged Gulls.

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I’ll let those who are interested reading about the details of why a more or less stable zone of hybridization even exists sort through the relevant source material at SORA and stick to my original train of thought: How can a natural population of organisms be so ubiquitous and still be dismissed as valueless because it’s not a real species?

You see, we birders are not allowed to count intergrades on our official species lists. If one travels far enough to the north or south, the number of intermediates drops to a point where any discussion of purity almost disappears. But here in the thick of the intergrade murk we have to think about what we’re seeing and more importantly, we have to think about what we’re going to tell the folks from out of town who’ve come to add Western Gulls and Glaucous-winged gulls to their species lists. After all, 60 to 80 percent of the gulls we’re looking at exist in an uncountable limbo. When we do give them a really good look, it’s in an effort to turn them into a Herring Gull or a Thayer’s Gull and when the “truth” is revealed it’s “oh, just another hybrid.”

The really serious gull folks have a vocabulary of terms that describe shape and size and posture and angle to sort through gulls and it’s very useful, if one wants to travel the globe building up a gull list. But the kind of devotion necessary to be a true gull master requires way more time and energy than most of us are willing to give. And if the only goal for internalizing all this arcanery is to be able to say “it’s just another hybrid”… well that strikes me as sort of snobby.

There is simpler path.

Rather than fixating on the name of each and every gull, which in the midst of our hybrid swarm, may not even be possible, focus on understanding the variability within the swarm. Biology, after all, is more than the naming of parts. Gull taxonomy is in a state of flux, both biologically and academically speaking. Sometimes there’s more to be gained by watching the dynamics of a population than making sure each individual within it has been tagged correctly. There’s value in spending the day looking for relevance among the uncountable…

Update: Wayne Hoffman, who co-authored the 1978 study of “Olympic” Gulls sent the following comment: “Study of “Olympic Gull” hybrids actually goes back to Dawson’s Birds of Washington, in 1909.”

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The last sunny day…

If the weather forecast is to be trusted, the sunny and unseasonably warm weather is about to end. I went out today and took advantage of the light to get a few pictures…

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A trip to Marshland

tudu20090115sm34.JPGDonald Coggswell reported TUFTED DUCK yesterday on the Columbia River at Marshland and today, I went out to see if I could relocate it. Sure enough there it was with GREATER SCAUP in the river along River Front Rd about 1.25 miles east of the of the junction with Midland Dist. Rd.

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Other interesting stuff included a single TRUMPETER SWAN

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And a puzzling Aechmophorus which should generate a bit of discussion…

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Studies in ambiguity

For your perusal, two quiz birds. The first a regularly occurring winter visitor barely identifiable in this photo and therefore perhaps too hard for the some. It was taken today, the only shot I was able to get off, at a feeder near a wetland along DeLaura Beach Rd.

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The birds in the second photo are easily identifiable, but which variety variety are they? Why are only males seen at this location and should I count then on my life list?

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In a perfect world, every photograph would be in perfect focus and show all field marks perfectly. And in a perfect world every species would be cleanly separable from every other species and of impeccable provenance. Reality bites.

In the real world, boundaries are often as fuzzy as that first, out of focus photo in this essay.

Sometimes the ambiguity is in the number of details we are able to collect in the process of observation. We can’t be sure what we’ve seen because we don’t have enough information. Other times the ambiguity is in the very definition of the beast we’re observing. Is it a “real” species? Is it a hybrid, tainted with the genes of some second species? Does it hail from a viable wild population? or does it owe its presence to human intercession?

In the world of what counts and what doesn’t count these kinds of ambiguities can be frustrating. More than one possible answer to a question invariably leads to more than one opinion about which possibility is correct. Then the shouting starts.

Of course, we have rules that are supposed to help clarify the boundaries and give them some kind of definition, but they almost never satisfy everyone. Not too long ago, I posted this photo.

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It’s a pale WINTER WREN. Some people thought it was a Rock Wren. Some people thought it was a House Wren. Some people correctly called it a Winter Wren. Of course, one of the points of a good quiz bird is to show a bird in a funny posture, or out of context or something else that might make people guess wrong. The deeper point is that this happens all the time in the field. We take ambiguous information and try to make it concrete. It is human nature to want to create certainty. But sometimes we guess wrong.

I have always maintained that I learn more from being wrong than from being right. That doesn’t make being wrong any easier, or being right any less satisfying. Recognizing uncertainty, ambiguity, the possibility of being wrong does temper my investment in an opinion, however, and that helps soften the fall on those occasions when I should eventually find myself overwhelmed by the facts.

The two photos in this quiz each hold their own special kinds of ambiguity. I know what’s in the first photo, because I have more information than you all, but I do believe that there are two good field marks visible in the photo to get to a proper ID. The second photo carries with it a deeper ambiguity which goes to the difference between can and should. Yes, there are probably self-sustaining wild birds somewhere in Oregon which I can count, but should I count every bird I see? or are some of these guys just extra fancy, free-range chickens?

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