Monday, February 19, 2007

ENV: Ivory-bill Robots

Robot hunts ‘the Elvis of extinct birds’
Mark Henderson, Science Editor, TimesOnline

The world’s first robotic twitcher has been deployed to one of America’s most inhospitable swamps to join the search for the holy grail of birdwatching: an iconic woodpecker so rare that it was thought to be extinct for more than half a century.

The ivory-billed woodpecker, sometimes known as the Lord God bird because of its spectacular plumage, had last been spotted in 1944 before a possible sighting of a bird with its markings was reported in the Cache River national wildlife reserve, in Arkansas, in February 2004.

A fleeting image of the bird was then captured on video, and ornithologists recorded its characteristic drumming sounds, prompting Frank Gill, of the Audubon Society, the leading American bird conservation group, to declare its rediscovery to be “kind of like finding Elvis.”

However, the ivory bill’s survival has been disputed by sceptics, who argue that the bird in the video could be another bird, the pileated woodpecker.

The continuing controversy has prompted scientists to turn to new robotic technology in an effort to capture evidence: a high-resolution film of the Lord God bird in full flight.

“The problem with field biology is that it is very inefficient,” said Ken Goldberg, of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the team that designed the robot birdwatcher. “You have to go somewhere remote, sit for long periods in the cold, it is lonely, costly, and it can be downright dangerous. The presence of a researcher can also affect the presence of the species you are trying to help.

“Robots can help by watching right through the mosquito season and the snake season, if they can be made smart enough to make decisions and process data in real time.”

His colleague, Dezhen Song, of Texas A&M University, said: “Usually people do this type of bird watching in the winter because there are fewer leaves, making it easier to spot the woodpecker. Also, in the summer, the temperature is hot, it’s swampy, and there are mosquitoes and snakes to deal with. Our [robotic] system can run the whole year, and it is not bothered by mosquitoes.”

The robot is a sophisticated pair of smart video cameras, which point skyward, east and west, in the Big Woods region of Arkansas where it is hoped that the ivory bill survives. The cameras have software that activates only when the view overhead changes in a way that might be consistent with a bird in flight.

The system is designed to filter out false positives from clouds, water reflections and falling leaves. “The program knows, for example, that the ivory-billed woodpecker flies 20 to 40 miles per hour, so anything outside that range is deleted,” Dr Song said.

Each camera records eleven frames per second, each with a resolution of two megapixels, so any image should be sharp enough to allow scientists to make a conclusive identification should an ivory bill fly overhead. While the elusive woodpecker has yet to be seen, the cameras have already picked up several good images of other birds — a redtailed hawk, a flock of Canada geese, and a blue heron — which were shown yesterday for the first time at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Francisco.

Ron Rohrbaugh, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a member of the scientific team searching for the woodpecker, said that the robot was a valuable asset. “There are other ways of searching for the ivory-billed woodpecker, but those ways usually involve a human positioned in the forest for a very long time,” he said.

“Remote systems that can serve as our eyes and ears are a big advantage.”

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