Thursday, December 8, 2011

Audubon Society Spends Christmas with the Birds

Photo: Jerry Acton, courtesy
National Audobon Society
December is here again.   Shopping malls are filled with people, houses are decorated in lights, and egg nog re-appears on the shelves.  It's also time for the 112th Annual Christmas Bird Count.  Yes, 112.  This  is the longest-running Citizen Science project and arguably one of the most successful.

The project began in 1900 when Frank Chapman, a prominent member of the Audubon Society, wanted to change a common after Christmas tradition of hunting birds in a "Side Hunt".  He proposed a much more humane hunt to just count and identify birds.  But not only did he create a new tradition, he helped introduce concepts of both "crowd sourcing" and citizen science long before anyone else.

The Christmas Bird Count is also one of the most scientifically successful citizen science projects out there.  With 111 years worth of ornithological data (much of it global) we can identify trends in bird populations over both short and long periods of time.    So we can identify shifts in the types of birds living in an area, see the effects of local development projects on individual habitats, and even observe the potential impacts of global warming and other large-scale phenomena.

The scientific rigor in how the count is performed (through established counting circles and oversight by trained experts) also makes the data highly reliable.   This has been confirmed through independent, peer-reviewed studies and allows the data to be used for many different purposes.  Take these examples provided by the Audubon Society:

In the 1980's CBC data documented the decline of wintering populations of the American Black Duck, after which conservation measures were put into effect to reduce hunting pressure on this species. More recently, in 2009, the data were instrumental in Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change analysis, which documented range shifts of bird species over time. Also in 2009 CBC data were instrumental in the collaborative report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - State of the Birds 2009
 Getting Started is Easy:
  • Visit the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count web site to learn more about the project and it's impressive history.
  • Go to the Get Involved and Registration pages to find and join a counting circle near your area.  The cost is only $5 and you will be put in a team of both experienced and less-experienced birders.  So your skill level doesn't matter...the Count Compiler in your area will help in areas you aren't familiar with.
  • Once you receive an assigned date and time for the count (in or around Christmas time, between December 14 - January 5) mark it on your calendar and get your equipment ready.  Cameras and binoculars are strongly encouraged, but so are warm clothes for a cool winter's day.
  • If you are really new to birding, visit the Cornell Ornithological Lab's Birds of North America Online, check out mobile tools such as eBird or Project NOAH, or contact a local Audubon Society chapter.
  • That's all there is to it!

Hopefully you'll find this one-day project as fun as the 60,000+ others expected to partake each year.   If you enjoy the experience consider joining the many other citizen science birdwatching projects available.  I've described a number of big ones in this Birdwatching blog post,  or you can check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for their listing of available projects (both national and local).  And make sure to let us know about it in the comments below...we'd love to hear about your experience.

So let's get to it...I count 23 birds in the 12 Days of Christmas (seven swans-a-swimming, six geese-a-laying, 4 colly/calling birds, three french hens, and two turtle doves).  Plus one for the partridge.  Now how many birds are in your Christmas counting circle?  Sign up with a volunteer coordinator and find out.

Photo: Deborah Phillips, courtesy National Audubon Society

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tuning into the Sea with WhaleFM

They say if you put a shell next to your ear you can hear waves crashing on the beach.  Now we get the next step...put your ear next to your computer and hear the sounds of whales cruising through the seas.

WhaleFM is the latest offering in the Zooniverse line of Citizen Science projects.  Like all the others it relies on the ability of human senses to identify patterns quicker and precisely than a computer.  In other projects it is visual pattern recognition.  For WhaleFM, the project utilizes the human ability to distinguish sounds and differentiate various recorded whale songs.

To date relatively little is known about the sounds made by whales, including the Orca (Killer Whale) and Pilot Whale species being examined.  These animals can communicate in their own language but we are still searching for clues to their meaning.  In this project, researchers want to establish the basic types and numbers of calls used by these animals, figure out how similar the calls are between individual whales, and understand how whale sounds are influenced by SONAR and other man made noise pollution.  So they've tracked a number of whales and followed their behaviors while recording sounds from tiny, harmless transmitters suction-cupped to their skin.  Now we just need to analyze those sounds.

Getting Started is Easy:
  1. Visit the WhaleFM web site and learn more about the project, it's scientific background, and the individual whales being studied.
  2. Log in to your Zooniverse account or create a new one from the Register screen.
  3. Return to the WhaleFM site and read the short lesson on identifying whale sounds and using the interface (just like the example shown below).  You can also follow the short tutorial that walks you through the first call you study.
  4. For each call, click on the center graph to hear the recording and see a pictograph of the sound. 
  5. Below you will then see nine different possible families of calls it might on each to hear what each sounds like.  You will also see three more similar calls in that "family" of sounds.  Listen to each and click on the check mark if you think there is a match.
  6. At top the two calls will line up next to each other.  Look and listen once again to confirm your choice, and click "Match".  Your choice will be recorded and the system will move on to the next call.  If you don't find a match just skip over to the next one. 
Photo Courtesy: WhaleFM

That's all there is to it!  So what are you waiting for?  Turn up those speakers, start listening, and have fun.