[va-richmond-general] Ivory-bill tracking goes automated

  • From: IE Ries <feathermom_chirpling@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: va-bird@xxxxxxxxxxxxx, va-richmond-general@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 18 Feb 2007 07:19:59 -0800 (PST)

          Last Updated: Sunday, 18 February 2007, 08:56 GMT    
            Robot watches out for rare bird 

                By Jonathan Fildes 
Science and technology reporter, BBC News, San Francisco 

               The robot has so far snapped plenty of geese but no woodpeckers 

  Robot ornithologists have joined the search for a rare species of bird. 
  The automated birdwatcher stands in a US wildlife reserve in Arkansas, 
scanning the skies for a glimpse of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.   The 
bird was once thought to be extinct, but potential sightings in the area in 
2004 renewed the search.      The system uses two video cameras to capture 
continuous images of the sky that are scrutinised for evidence of bird life by 
sophisticated software.   Any shot that it does not believe contains a bird is 
discarded.   "It's been running for three months continuously now and it only 
keeps one image in every 10,000 it collects," said Dr Ken Goldberg of the 
University of California, Berkeley, who developed the system.   "We have caught 
some very exciting images of birds."   No pictures of the charismatic red, 
white and black ivory-billed woodpecker have yet turned up.     Unconfirmed 
sighting   The bird used to be found across the south-eastern US and Cuba but 
logging and forest clearance squeezed it out of its environment.  
                The presence of a human observer can affect the behaviour of 
the animals ... robots can help 

    Dr Ken Goldberg
University of California, Berkeley

The last confirmed sighting of a lonely unpaired female was in 1944.      Since 
then, decades of searches yielded nothing and any hope of finding the bird 
diminished.   But a possible sighting in Arkansas in 2004 reinvigorated 
ornithologists, with researchers from Cornell leading systematic searches of 
the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas each year.      But the 
wetland and forest region of the lower Mississippi river valley is 62,000 acres 
(250 sq km) and human searches can be tricky.   "The problem with field biology 
is that it is very difficult," said Dr Goldberg.      "You have to go out to 
somewhere remote, it's lonely, it's cold, it can be downright dangerous; and 
the presence of a human observer can affect the behaviour of the animals you 
are trying to study.      "So our idea is that robots can help."      
Everything but the bird   The device, installed in the refuge, consists of two 
high-resolution video cameras connected to a hard disk, all
 installed in a weatherproof case.   A deliberately conspicuous "radiation 
hazard" warning sticker is displayed on the outside, "to prevent hunters using 
it as target practice".      The digital cameras point towards the sky, 
continuously capturing two-megapixel images.                   The last 
confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker was in 1944

Advanced algorithms analyse each frame, discarding the images it believes does 
not contain an image of a bird and saving those that it thinks does.      "We 
build a statistical model of the sky and look for outliers - pixels that 
suddenly look very different," said Dr Goldberg.      "Then we look for groups 
of outliers of a certain size and then we look for things moving at a certain 
velocity."      The saved images are stored on hard disks that are routinely 
removed by a local birdwatcher who, along with other volunteers, scrutinise 
each frame.      At the moment falling leaves or other flying objects like 
helicopters can confuse the system.      But it has captured shots of geese, 
hawks and a heron, proving that when, and if, the time comes, it is capable of 
capturing a shot of an ivory-billed woodpecker.      Future views   However, it 
does have some limitations, such as only being able to survey one particular 
site.      The system can also only scan the sky because the
 algorithms used in the analysis can not cope with staring deep into the forest 
and trying to pick out moving birds from the gently swaying branches of trees.  
              Geese... but no woodpecker, yet

Dr Goldberg believes that this will be possible eventually; along with other 
more advanced analysis.   "The next level is to determine what is a woodpecker 
versus an average bird, but that's still a long way off," he said.      In 
time, he believes it could be used to search for other types of elusive 
wildlife such as bears and gorillas or in security applications, for example 
monitoring airports for suspicious packages.   The research was presented at 
the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting 
in San Francisco, US. 

"Hope is the thing with feathers                                                
              That perches in the soulAnd sings the tune without the words      
    And never stops at all." --Emily 
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