Friday 31 July 2009

Giving Google Earth a good Kick

All good things come to an end or "funny is over" as the Germans would say.

For the first time since I started the (not-so-) new (-anymore) job about a year ago, I was given a particularly boring project that requires me to spend copious amounts (aka all) of my work time in front of a computer - a hellish thing for any biologist in summer.
This won't really change until the first week of September. If it hadn't been for this last-minute emergency project moving up the priority list to positions 1, 2, 3 and 4, I would have had business trips to e.g. Romania and the north-west of Germany.

And that really sucks.

Now, don't tell me you'd have guessed that I was really bored and stuck at the computer, judging by the enormous amount of comments I left on your and others' blogs. Be nice instead and have pity on me.

Anyway, as I am often bored and as there are just so-and-so-many comments you can leave on other blogs before you'll be flagged as an Internet nuisance, I started this little game with Google Earth: virtual travelling. This is how it works:

1. Open Google Earth (obviously) and zoom in to a height of around 15 km (or roughly 10 miles). Then, give the globe a good kick [hold mouseclick, drag, release] so it starts to rotate and then "minimize" the program (so it isn't visible on your screen anymore but a mere icon at the bottom of your screen - geez, sometimes it is hard to blog in English when your computer is set to German).

2. Work on for a long time, leave comments on blogs, go to the staff canteen, look out of the window, scratch your head, pick your nose, ... all those things people do at work but don't look at Google Earth for, you know, like,... half an hour or so.

3. When you think the right time has come, click on the icon again so the map appears on your screen and if it is not blue (which means you're somewhere over open ocean) instantly click on the map to stop the globe from rotating.

4. zoom in and out to see where you have landed and rejoice.

5. if you are really bored and no-one is watching, search for birding travel reports from that area, look it up at Wikipedia and generally just pretend you'd be - virtually - travelling through the land you've accidentally hit. This however will take a lot of time and your employer won't like that. The Google kicking however is something that will entertain you without really requiring a significant amount of time, so it really is quick and easy entertainment.

I've had two really neat results so far:

I once landed precisely on a small atoll of the Maldives.
The second incident was remarkable: I started out in Newfoundland and gave the globe a kick. When I looked some time later, the screen was blue (ocean) so I minimized it again, waited, looked again: blue. Minimized again, looked again: blue, etc etc etc. for a long, long time until I finally made landfall. I had travelled from Newfoundland all the way down the Atlantic and halfway around Antarctica to the south coast of Australia in a straight line. As far as I can tell, this is - incidentally - the longest straight line you can draw through the ocean without touching land. It was more than 20,000 kilometres or roughly 13,000 miles.

The things you do...
But I shan't despair, birds will come my way - and the blog's way as well, I promise.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Beyond the Notebook

A notebook (non-digital, and my apologies to potential google searchers gone astray) surely must be the pride of a birder.
I always kept one and I would use it to chronicle my days out and the birds seen, to make sketches and descriptions of my rarities that I was to report to regional or national records committees and also to casually show it to fellow birders e.g. to have them check out one of my field sketches that just so happened to be on the page right next to a super rarity I knew this birder had never seen in his life.

I don't keep one anymore.


Because I once lost it. Here's the story:

When I had returned from Namibia back in the late 1990ies and a friend asked me to come birding with him, I didn't find my German bird notebook as it was still somewhere in the cardboard boxes amongst my other stuff I had stored away while being out of the country for 6 months. Of course I did not dare leaving the house without a notebook, and so I took the African Thesis Data notebook along.

Then - after viewing a beautiful Red-breasted Goose at the coast - it started to rain and I got nervous as I hadn't copied my thesis data yet to ... well .. anywhere and I feared I might lose all my data by getting my notebook wet. So I stuffed it under my belt and kept it dry under the rain coat as we slowly walked back to the car.

We got into my friend's car and drove home where I noticed something was different, something was missing: there was nothing pressing against my belly anymore.

I had lost my notebook somewhere.

First, I searched the car.
It wasn't there.
However, the rain still was there, harder than before.
Then my friend drove back to the coastal marsh with me - in the rain - and we began to search the path we had taken before back to the car - while it kept on raining.

Finally there was my notebook.
It was on the road out in the open, but it was not in the rain.
How can that be?

Well, it was completely submerged in a huge puddle of rainwater!

The shock.
The horror.
The hours and hours spent with a pair of tweezers, soft paper tissue and a hair-dryer.

In the end, I saved most of my data and reckon I might have lost 5 % of it, so I was lucky.
But I also was a wiser man.

From that day onwards I did not keep a notebook anymore but decided to shift to a device that would still allow me to record my observations and chronicle everything but that was less vulnerable.
It is thus with great pride and pleasure that I present the safety-device for recording your field observations right where you make them: out in the field, with no risk of destroying a wealth of data when things go awry by losing your entire notebook.

This is it, the ultimate replacement of the notebook:

A sheet of paper, sized A4 or something comparable, squared in a 5 mm grid (or alternatively a 3467/7836 Inch grit - yes, I do believe that this is silly and the metric system is superior, how come you ask?).

Notice wrinkles around the eye of a young man who hasn't slept in 19 months, Corey and Patrick - this look is where you're headed, enjoy the ride!

An important feature - aside from the paper being squared - is that it is hole-punched.

To prepare our field note device, we'll first have to place it flat on a table and then fold it ...

... once ...

... twice ...

... three times.

Yes, it does look awkward but folding a sheet of paper three times is much easier with both hands when not simultaneously holding a DSLR in one hand.

This is how your field note device should look like when you're done, fitting nicely and comfortably into your hand.

Now all we have to do is attach a ball pen and we're ready to go get some birds - and write them down. Thanks for asking but my ring finger is perfectly normal, this is just a very strange perspective along its central axis.

As our field note device was folded three times, it is rather thick and stable (like writing on a pad 8 sheets thick) and easily allows us to write clearly while holding it in our palm. Notice that at first we record the date and weather (and also notice that I made it all up as can be seen by the unrealistic description of the weather, but the species recorded are a realistic estimate of an average day around the Great Lakes - and even though I write left-handed, it also works the other way around which I think proves how neat the concept is)

When the first "page" is full, we simply turn the field note device around and continue. Now, isn't that sweet?

Because the grid is so small and our "page" not much bigger either, it enables or rather ... well ... forces us to write real small and thus space efficient, which is good especially in productive birding areas where we can expect to see lots. Again, notice the nice assemblage of species to be expected around the Great Lakes.

Now comes the ingenuity of the device: when both "pages" are full, we don't need a new field notes device - no, all we have to do is fold it the other way and we have two brand new "pages" for even more field notes. Honestly, birding doesn't get much better than this!

Of course our field note device will experience some heavy duty in good birding terrain, being constantly written upon with greasy, sweaty fingers and stuffed in and out of a tight pocket, so our notes are at a constant risk of being abraded and destroyed- you'd think.

This is indeed not the case! By folding it the other way around as we have done in the previous step, the notes we have taken thus far will be protected "inside" our field notes device in perfect security and sheltered from the rough tides that characterize an average birding day.

So the day wears on and the birds get better and our notes get longer and suddenly even those new two blank pages aren't blank anymore but full, as can be seen above. What then?

All we have to do is fold it open twice, turn it around and re-fold it the other way ...

... once ...

... twice, and we're back to square 1, with four empty and blank "pages" for even more field notes and all our notes taken so far sheltered and concealed inside.

Being stable and handy, the field notes device also allows us to occasionally sketch birds we've seen but cannot identify out in the field, e.g. this strange warbler I ran into on one of my rambles through the Arb.

When counting incredibly large numbers of birds, I have found it quite practical to write the species down at the far left edge of the field note device and then note the number of birds in each group I encounter or - with birds that mostly occur as singles or in very small groups stretched out over a prolongued observation time - mark them with ... geez, how do you call that in English ... "bars" I add up in blocks of 5. Well, you'll know what I mean by looking at my example, in this case the Golden Eagle.

Eventually and on a good day out, even those new "pages" will be full and our sheet of paper, when unfolded, will look like this (notice that in this staged example, I eventually got a bit lazy in the upper left corner). What's next? Yepp, you guessed it, all we have to do is ...

... turn it around and fold it ...

... once (notice yet again the ingenuity of protecting your data inside) ...

... twice ...

... three times ...

And don't forget the ball pen!

This concept - in my humble and not quite un-biased opinion - surely deserves two thumbs up, but this is where I had clearly reached my limit without a tripod for my camera and one thumb up will have to do in this post. Feel free to admire.

And before I forget: of course you can also archive all your field notes devices conveniently by filing them away in a stable folder. This is why they have to be hole-punched.

All things considered.

This was post number 200 on Bell Tower Birding. Considering that I have been around since November 2006, I wouldn't really call it a milestone. Maybe a yard- or inchstone of some sort or maybe even something I should have shut my mouth about in shame but you know: it is what it is and it is number 200, so there you go.

Happy birding trails.
On quiet nights, I can hear the rustling of wings from the far North. Fall migration is coming!

Friday 24 July 2009

Good Golly!

This article is not only amazing in itself but - if correct - would also explain one of the more bizzare of the birds' migration routes from India across the open ocean to Africa.

Sorry, Monarchs, it seems your reign is over - bring on the dragonflies then.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Worried out of my Wits

In addition to being tired for 19 months in a row now (future fathers beware) a recent incident has got me worried. Yes indeed, my current times are tough and as shared problems are problems halved (as the saying goes in German), I decided to do some blogging about it.

The Kakapo (and you sensed this would be about the Kakapo, right?) is not only one of the truly magical and most special bird species to grace our planet, it has had its ups and downs in a remarkable way as well.
Its biggest up-phase was surely in the days of old when there was no-one inhabiting New Zealand but the birds, and the Kakapos in their millions busily trotted the forest floor in search of fruit amongst the burrows of assorted seabirds, minding their own business and worrying about nothing really but how to make more Kakapos than there currently were.
It soon got a bit tricky though when the later-to-be-called Maori arrived 700 years ago and brought in a few mammalian predators, but the Kakapos still managed to stay on top of things and remain common throughout the islands' forests that were lovely, dark and deep.
Bad luck started to hit the birds in earnest with the large-scale arrival of the European traders and whalers around 1790 (now, here's a big surprise). It got particularly nasty when those Europeans eventually noticed that the land was nice and the Maori no real match to their rifles (although they sure gave them some hell occasionally) and thus decided to settle there in large numbers, bringing in more variety and viciousness to the already established yet alien mammalian fauna.
This was clearly too much even for a timid creature like the Kakapo and they rightfully felt offended in such a way that their numbers declined sharply. It is as yet and unresolved matter if the Kakapos were driven out of their natural range by encroaching humans and the terrible smell of English afternoon tea or by rats, cats and other hairy threats (well, maybe the matter was resolved recently). Possibly it was a combination of both and whatever it was, the Kakapos were so not amused that they got scarce enough to be feared extinct by 1970.

Being feared an extinct species was clearly the dramatic low as far as we can tell, although each surviving member of the Kakapo kind surely was barely aware of it, still busily trotting the forest floor in search of fruit amongst the vacated burrows of extinct seabird populations, minding their own business and worrying about nothing really but how to make more Kakapos than there currently were.

Luckily however, as a result of a human change of heart (or was it the discovery of humans that they had a heart after all?), the species was searched for, rediscovered and effectively protected and has since started a slow yet rather steady climb to recovery, numbering 125 birds in 2009.

This figure is far from the millions that once were, but better than the zero that once was feared.
If current trends continue, we can safely assume that a world population of 1,000 birds will be reached in roughly 200 to 300 years. In geological terms this is very soon, in biological terms... ah well, I've always liked the geological time scale in certain contexts.

Now however, the species' future is in dire jeopardy again through circumstances as yet beyond the powers of manipulation by human kind:

Have you read the news that New Zealand moved 30 cm (!) closer to Australia due to a single earthquake off its coast?

Australia, as you may know, is full of big furry and hungry predators and if this rate of approach continues, New Zealand's predator-free Kakapo Islands will be within leaping range of Dingos and Devils within a mere 7,500 earthquakes.

And you know what the problem is? Clearly this: who can tell at what maximum rate those earthquakes can occur? Once every thousand years or a thousand each year?

No-one can tell, that's who.

Surely some scientists might argue that probabilities for such an earthquake to occur repeatedly within a biological time scale are low, yet with a bird as special as the Kakapo, probabilities are just not enough to rely upon.
So, as I have shown by clear reasoning, the recovery of the Kakapo is merely a small breath of hope into the storm that is looming doom (gosh, how much I had hoped to write a similar text about loons, entitled "doom looms over loons", but I couldn't find anything on flightless, nocturnal loons in New Zealand and all that rhymes with parrot is carrot).

And that has me worried.

I really think DOC should lift the ban on visiting Kakapo islands so that at least the bird will be on everyone's life list before it ceases to exist in a mere 7,500 earthquakes' time.

Go for it, DOC - just go. As long as I am allowed in first.

Friday 3 July 2009


165 years ago, on July 3rd 1844, humanity had one of its crappier moments.