March 13, 2007

C.U. Scientists Aim to Spot Rare Woodpecker

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When looking for a needle in a 550,000 acre haystack, otherwise known as the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, it takes a collaborative effort from top ornithologists and engineers. This is especially true when the needle is the ivory-billed woodpecker, one of the world’s rarest and most elusive birds. The last uncontested sighting of the bird was in 1944.

Cornell ornithologists have teamed up with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Texas A&M University to develop high-resolution robotic cameras for scanning the skies in the hopes of snagging definitive video evidence of the bird’s existence.

“This is a really charismatic bird,” said Ron Rohrbaugh, project director of the ivory-billed woodpecker Search Team at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. “Anyone who’s ever opened a bird guide book will recognize it.”

The bird’s population once spanned the bottomland hardwood forests of the southeastern United States. Following the Civil War, the logging industry ravaged the South, marking the beginning of the end of the Ivory-bill’s habitat. This continued until the 1940s when lumber companies exhausted the once plentiful timber supply.

Ultimately, researchers hope to create an interactive community between field biologists and the general public by developing networked cameras that will allow the public to sight the bird.

“We’re trying to engage what’s known as ‘citizen science,’ and the Cornell Lab is very big on that idea,” said Prof. Ken Goldberg, industrial engineering, operations research, electrical engineering and computer sciences, the University of California at Berkeley. “There’s so much at stake and so much potential. Even if we don’t find the ivory-bill, what this is really about is a new way of doing science and being more open to the public.”

Also known as the ‘Lord God bird’ or the ‘Holy Grail of birdwatching,’ the ivory-bill has jet-black plumage with a white stripe on both sides of its neck. Its eyes are a brilliant yellow and males have a bright red patch of color on the back of their crests. With a height of 18 to 20 inches, it is the third largest woodpecker in the world.

In 2004, four seconds of video were captured of an ivory-bill launching from a tree. Initially, many believed the blurry bird captured on tape was actually a Pileated woodpecker, which has markings similar to the ivory-bill. Careful analysis by Cornell ornithologists revealed the bird was in fact an ivory-bill. In order to prove this finding without a doubt, however, high-resolution video footage showing the details of the bird must be captured.

Developed by Berkeley and Texas researchers in collaboration with Cornell ornithologists, the high-resolution robotic camera is a part of the Collaborative Observatories for Natural Environments Project. An autonomous version of the CONE project, known as ACONE, was developed to scan for ivory-bills across a 50 foot wide clearing in the Bayou DeView area of the wildlife preserve. Made possible by grants from the National Science Foundation, the system is designed to capture wildlife footage without constant human involvement.

There are many benefits to using the robotic system in the field.
“Cameras don’t become complacent,” said Rohrbaugh. “They won’t nod off after lunch as a birdwatcher might. Also, the birds become habituated to it pretty quickly and then just go about their daily business.”

The camera functions automatically through the use of algorithms which help filter out the amount of data needed to be analyzed by humans.

According to Dezhen Song associate professor of computer science at Texas A&M, “The first thing the algorithm does is a kind of motion-detection. But you have to account for all kinds of motion, not just bird motion. You have blowing wind that causes falling leaves, you have moving clouds — you have to filter out those kinds of noise factors based on the characteristics you know about the birds.”

The team will be going back at the end of the month to repair and update the ACONE system. “We want to see how the cameras are holding up in terms of physical wear and tear. The other thing we want to do is install some new software,” said Goldberg.

The software update includes refining current algorithms, as well as installing a long-range wireless device enabling remote adjustments to be made to the system. “I’m not very optimistic at this moment because there are so many unknowns associated with long range wireless,” said Song. “Different terrain, different forests — the distance of wireless range will be affected by this.”

The collaboration has been a positive experience for all those involved with the project. “It’s really been a pleasure and an honor to work with the Cornell team on this. They are first rate researchers and we’ve learned a huge amount from them and how this kind of research gets done,” said Goldberg. “They have an encyclopedic knowledge of birds that is amazing.”

The long-term goal of the CONE project is to enable researchers to upload data from field cameras via the internet from the comfort of their laboratories. Ultimately, the system will be open to the public for observation.

“Even elementary school kids [would be able to] log into the camera and look around,” said Goldberg. “Who knows? Maybe they would get lucky and spot some rare bird.”

In order to make this goal a reality, continued support for the project is necessary. “We are not a commercial company,” said Song. “We don’t have the energy to convert it to a product, but that’s something we’d definitely like to do if we can find a good partner.”

Correction appended: “C.U. Scientists Aim to Spot Rare Woodpecker” states that Dezhen Song is an associate professor at Texas A&M. He is actually an assistant professor. The Sun regrets this error.