HawkArtScience: Hawksaloft.com blog

(Archive: Seinfeld Science +)

19 November 2009, Thursday
Seinfeld Science: The Opposite

This is the first in a series of science lessons I have either learned or had reinforced by watching Seinfeld. For those who do not know, Seinfeld was a TV show that ran for nine seasons (1989-1998; 180 episodes) and thought by many to be the greatest sitcom of all time, eclipsing I Love Lucy, in the modern era (it's like Willie Mays vs. Babe Ruth, maybe you can't compare eras).

In this first installment of "Seinfeld Science," I shall summarize — conventional wisdom be damned... whatever you are told you should do, do the opposite. For George, his trail of new success leads from getting the girl, to telling off George Steinbrenner (who apparently owns a baseball franchise in the New York City area), thus getting his dream job with that team for doing the opposite of what most would and have done in his situation. Everything just goes his way. Now I had already done this opposite thing, thus when I saw the show... ah, I thought, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David and me, think alike... I might have said or thought that, but that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

So as does the clip above, this science episode begins at the beach: Cape Cod and the Islands of Massachusetts. I was looking for a hawkwatching study to pursue and decided on that area of MA... it's a dirty job but someone had to do it. I sought out the eastern MA hawkwatching authorities and a series of unsuccessful outings followed. They had well over a dozen sites listed for watching, but were actually reporting from one while focusing on the nearer area known as the Upper Cape... set up observation points every mile along the Cape Cod Canal, because the Outer (Lower) Cape, beyond the elbow was certainly beyond where any self-respecting hawk would go. Thinking like a hawk, were they, the birds would figure it was a dead end and turn back long before the tip. The official site was Fort Hill, an awful spot to count from, I thought, thinking I could recognize a decent hawkwatch when I saw one.

The early advice was wrong, wrong, and so wrong that I decided in a fit of frustration to step up my efforts to gather more "insight," but then formulate what the opposite of those ideas would be: start looking way out the Cape, knowing that these were primarily juveniles making their one and only extended journey North via the scenic route... non-breeders, but survivors. Keep the water on the right wing, keep moving, I imaged their mantra... this meant, in my soon-to-be proven theory, they would in fact cover just about every coastal mile of the entirety of Cape Cod, out and back! Instead of a wide Cape, I wanted as narrow a spot as I could find without compromising visibility. And, no, Sharpies and Broadwings don't get to P'town, look over at Boston and head out over the ocean. My first report from the unlisted Outer Cape site when similar coverage was on at Fort Hill, was double the mid-Cape numbers, consistently so thereafter.

Today, over twenty years later, one hawkwatch at Pilgrim Heights within sight of the sandy tip of the Cape has daily Spring coverage, and it's popular too. On Martha's Vineyard, the best Fall spot is literally at the opposite end of the Island from the suggestion — Gay Head, instead of Chappy. For Nantucket, well, nobody had a clue, but Smith Pt. makes a fine island off-ramp.

That's the short story. The long version, involves discovering the best weather (opposite of Spring winds inland), confirming the return flight overland routes with actual scientific study (6th Law of Birding in play here), watching falcons go out to sea from the Islands (but return with prey, as opposed to continuing to the Carolinas); later, adjusting weather predictors and extending the season for unprecedented southern Bald Eagle and Mississippi Kite flights, and more.

I presented this at the 1988 HMANA Conference in Cape May NJ. Curiously, Pilgrim Heights, the star of our show, is listed in the State of North America's Birds of Prey, as being founded a couple of years before I arrived in MA?!


20 November 2009, Friday
Woolly Bear Science: The Broadwing-blue sky

First, I like the Woolly Bear, but the pseudo-science associated with the little bugger is just nutty and not science at all: they are not predictors of the Winter to come. Folklore used to be the least of our worries, but a hatred of science appears to be on the rise, especially in the US. Back to folklore though, and the idea that this stuff is in the same ballpark as the scientific method for this installment —

This just in, hawks are difficult to see against an all-blue sky. The Hawkwatching-hobbyist blog, has had a couple of references to this, including,

A number of factors that I have not addressed affect the visibility of hawks. Several books and articles published in the '80s addressed the issue to an extent, but I’ve not seen much done “recently.” Is anyone aware of “visibility studies” done at a hawk watch near them?

Test09: image 1 0f 4 thumb"Blue Sky Syndrome: Why we can't see as many raptors in a a cloudless sky" occupied a page in the March 2007 Hawk Migration Studies newsletter. BTW, the blog and newsletter are within the same organization. The "Blue Sky Syndrome" puts forward information that is just not true in several ways that science, in fact, has answered repeatedly. It just isn't possible to remediate it all here, so much nonsense, no little time and space... and I'm just not that motivated. If you can find it, read it, and then toss it all aside.

I'd like to delve into the major factor here: distance visual acuity. In general, some are endowed with that capability to pick out the birds at great distances, the rest of us fall a bit short of that. While you can learn to scan and work on your hawk-finding skill set, it is your genetics that is the determiner. Interestingly, our distance visual acuity peaks at about nine years of age... ask world-renowned hawkwatcher Frank Nicoletti about his first run-in with a pack of fourth graders when he was an over the hill 19, at his first professional hawkwatching gig!

Before Tang and the hydrogen bomb, the government studied how best to plan bombing runs and how to cloak aircraft on their approach to the target. For their own pilots, men chosen for their superior – 99th percentile – distance visual acuity, what were the pitfalls for spotting other enemy planes in order to prepare for impending engagement? What were the problems? A question on the minds of hawkwatchers too. Answer: blue skies.

Test09: image 1 0f 4 thumbFirst, that Broadwing-blue sky presents nothing for the human eye to focus out to, as it is a natural void. The best young eyes we have to offer — pilots and professional birders — will focus at seventy feet, presented with nothing to focus on... the blue void. After a time, objects that we might have been able to see are now too far away from our close-focusing gaze. Using bins and scopes only adds a bit more to your range, but the blue voids it out and you see zip, zero, nada. This is not my opinion, this is result of scientific investigation. Period.

Give me something to focus on, the brain/eye says... any cloud will do, until then, say the eyes, I'll just focus in close to home. Okay, let's add just one. With a cloud latched onto first, anything passing in front, or even near by, even something tiny, will also be in focus. (Add your optics anytime now.) You have a new lease on light and you should scan slowly but surely away from that focal point and see what would not be evident without the cloud. This new purchase of sharp will fade over the next minute as your eyes relax back in toward their starting point, farther and farther from the cloud... back to 70 feet, more or less. You can do some math to add on magnifications, but the optics don't really help much.

In lieu of a big fat juicy cloud in the sky, jets, lingering contrails, geese, Turkey Vultures and even the horizon can be employed to extend the focal point and then see the previous too small to see objects. Of course, everyone loves a high milky sky. If your feet like the surety of granite, that sort of sky is traction for the eyes.

That there is a big difference between a hawk in front of a cloud and just out in the blue is a function of the above science, but I personally wait for a bird to leave the cloud to see the most detail. While a bird initially pops against the bright cloud, that's the end of the data stream because the beast is black, or nearly so. As soon as a hawk leaves the bright-white, that's when I focus in to see the details, the patterns and colors. When I read, I don't hold the book up to the light, do you?


4 December 2009, Friday
Seinfeld Science: "I stop short"


Jerry Stiller's Frank Costanza character is a man with a move. If you are under fifty years old, you might need some background: the front seat of the majority of cars used to be a couch (no bucket seats, as they were know in the day), seat belts weren't installed in most cars until the early '70s (not required to be worn until later), therefore movement was unrestricted in the automobile of Mr. Costanza's day (safe and sex were in another context back then). It was a common practice for men to protect both women and children from lurching forward as the driver stopped abruptly, by the extension of the right arm. But it was also a move on date night.

The Seinfeld Science theme, is clearly aimed at poking fun at worthy causes. I hadn't thought much about one silly idea in hawk migration studies until it lurched back onto the highway in a recent HMANA blog entry:

Is this due to there being fewer redtails, or as in the case of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, are more Red-tailed Hawks migrating shorter distances, wintering farther north, or even wintering on their breeding grounds now than in the past?

Short stopping entered the raptor lexicon as Hawk Mt.'s "move" when Cape May declared Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers were in "free-fall" according to the largest dataset of Sharpie numbers in the known universe.

After being, shall we say, rear-ended at the 1988 HMANA Conference at Cape May by Paul Kerlinger's presentation centered on a very simple, but striking, line graph showing the decade plus descent of Sharp-shinned Hawk numbers at Cape May Point, I remember the question (to which he already knew the answer) ... was Hawk Mt. seeing this at their station? Among us hawk folks at the time, this was high drama as the answer came slowly from the back of the room that they were not detecting a decline, but it might be the nature of the age classes — immature birds at the coast and adults on the ridges — causing a lag, and they would have to look into it. Kerlinger was well-known for poking those around him with the sharp stick of his intellect, and at this point, he was thoroughly enjoying his home field advantage.

The eventual Hawk Mt. article had enough hedges in it to be a movie location for a Jane Austen adaptation, and every single hawk counter, bander, and ornithologist, that I asked about it (granted, a sample of thinking biologists) gave the idea of short stopping its due, not for science, but for grand slicitude... it was a clever retort to say the problem was solved, by not actually being a problem, you see, there's no real decline going on.

The real stink eye though was cast their way for using Christmas Bird Count data to make the case. But also: add some small numbers to some even smaller numbers, regress the bejezus out of that mean, sell it with a set of steak knives, and it's still don't make your case. What, steak knives without a case... no sale.

The problem with using CBC data for Sharpies, in addition to the very small numbers compared to the loss of birds at Cape May, is the question of identification. If there is a sample group of birders less able to tell Sharpies from Cooper's Hawks than hawkwatchers, it would be Christmas counters, especially feeder watchers! I guess I have a problem with using CBC data for anything (for which you don't already have an answer through other means), but a hawk count conducted over a three-week period by observers looking out their kitchen windows, while others work out the ID of perched birds flushed around a corner, well, is just asking for it.

HMANA's Hawk Migration Studies published a very readable and straight to the point piece by Nick Bolgiano in 2005. Nick examined a hypothesis that had been in the wind for a couple of years. As many daily hawkwatch counts began on the downside of the 1970s spruce budworm infestation, it took some time for the events to also drag down the populations of the "budworm warblers" (Tennessee, Cape May, Bay-breasted), and with them the budworm warbler raptor — the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Nick guides us along the hawkwatch site numbers (mentioning that two graphs are used because of the 3x scale difference needed to accommodate the Cape May numbers). The CBC data is looked at, but the warbler numbers are graphed using Breeding Bird Survey data from eastern Quebec! Everything just overlays and synchs up, as he unfolds this story. Nick has provided this paper in a PDF for the first time, and you can read it here or save a copy for later.

While the spruce budworm hypothesis has been duly noted in all the Hawk Mt. work on the status of the Sharpie, including the venerable BNA species account, there's still this on their website today... haven't found those hedge clippers yet:

Sharp-shinned Hawk populations may have declined in eastern North America over the last 20-30 years, as suggested by declines in migration counts in the northeast and near the Gulf of Mexico (particularly the Florida Keys). Evidence from CBCs, however, suggests that the declining migration counts may be due, at least partially, to migratory short-stopping.


14 December 2009, Monday
Seinfeld Science: The English Penguin


Like Elaine Benes, in this Seinfeld episode, entitled "The English Patient" (1997), I hated the film of the same name, The English Patient (1996). Yes the Oscar-winner of the year. Funny thing, amongst a select section of movie-goers, Elaine and I were not alone, that's what this Seinfeld plays off of.

Elaine loses a boyfriend while discussing the movie, doesn't get a piece of pie because she hates the movie and says so, lies about not having seen the film already (in order to not have to tell her boss she didn't like it, a lot), but instead he drags her to see it again, now, she just cracks, and gets fired from the J.Peterman Company because of her theatrical outburst. Emotions run high on and off the screen.

I also hate-hate-hated March of the Penguins (2005), yet another Academy Award winning film, a family film, on and off the screen. I was reminded of this over the weekend as the IonTV network (eye on TV, get it) was running the thing, over and over. Once was long enough. At only an hour and twenty-six minutes in the theater, I had several film friends, non-birders, tell me it seemed about twenty minutes too long to them. On the other hand, some two hour movies play just right, or feel shorter (by comparison).

I'm one who doesn't watch Nature on television as a rule, when I do, I usually have the sound off (same rule with nationally-televised Red Sox games). I can see for myself, thank you very much. It must be said and said clearly, the footage of the Emperor Penguin, especially underwater, is spectacular and worthy of a major studio deal... sound off, music is nice... just no voiceover. But visually: kudos for March of the Penguins.

The film's premiere was 2005, so the filming and scripting would be a couple of years earlier, around the time of the family vs. village values dust up between Senators Rick Santorum (R-PA) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY). He's a family-values guy and she wrote about how "it takes a village" to raise a child. And believe it or not, this is what we get in this penguin movie! Narration talking traditional family — father, mother, child, while the footage shows us a community, organized. There's a hint of the science vs. non-scientific borderline in the opening credits where the script is described as "based upon a story by Luc Jacquet." A story.

"This is a story about love," tones narrator Morgan Freeman right at the outset. While no one knows less about penguins than I do, one picture is worth a thousand words, even if the words are being spoken by Morgan Freeman! Referring to parent and chick, he actually says, "Mother and child." So, while I have no knowledge of penguins, I was surprised to quickly recognize the behaviors on the screen from my own work on Little Galloo Island, Lake Ontario.

In the early 70s I banded Ring-billed Gulls... a lot of gulls... 600/day, with my team of 4-5 banders, only nestlings as I timed the visit to coincide with the maximum number of birds still on the nest, but developed enough to hold a band; plus others — free-ranging, but flightless. The colony on this island, as I watched the movie, worked in many ways, just like the penguins. The gulls... early on, the chicks — more than one, of course, with the gulls — stayed close and were tended to by the parents. But as the nestlings became more mobile they too, like the penguins, moved into "daycare groups" looked after by non-breeding birds, as well as parents. The parent-adults came and went feeding the youngsters, finding their own by scent and call along the life-history line. But all the young got feed by all kinds of their species. In the film, footage of two adults with one chick, in cut into the rearing sequence, likely out of chronology, to maintain the family unit narration.

Like with all colonial nesting species, the seeming concentration of dead young is striking to the first-time visitor. The noise and everything else about life is just dense and all around you. As in colonies of other species too, the birds just are not all father-mother pairings. There are plenty of non-breeders, failed young breeders, and younger after hatch year birds in the colony... and going out to sea to feed and coming back to the colony to tend and even feed the young of the year. Every body pitches in.

In the theater when I saw this, the narration accompanying the exodus to the sea of the fledged young says 'they will not see their parents for four years.' A boy sitting several rows in front of me, literally called out loud, "Why?!" It's a combo of the family-themed message and guess what, he was right to see no sense in it, as the many adult-looking penguins in the colony are these birds. And like we know from studying other species, there is likely an affinity to those birds helping out at the nest of a penguin that they are related to. Ah, Darwin.

Does a film like this do more harm than good? Well, depends on your orientation — box office or science? On the other hand/wing, we did get Happy Feet (2006)... about as factual (unpublished).

4 February 2010, Thursday
Dead Parrot Science


On the surface, this classic Monty Python skit from 1969 is about a man trying to return a parrot to a pet shop. His interaction with the man behind the counter slowly but surely escalates from a mere description of the situation and a request for a refund to a universal scene we've all been involved in at this scale or another (or maybe wished we had been).

Was the parrot dead or was it alive when it left the shop and does that shift the sands?

The thing works so well because of the shifting arguments and logic employed, or unemployed. It is apparently easy for a clerk (or ____________) to ignore the facts in favor of what best suites them: their personal, intellectual, organizational, governmental, or corporate agenda (in that exact hierarchical order... of who runs the world).

That any one person can change the world is certainly true, but the ease of this act, for any individual, is very great. When this story of our own power comes to us at various stages of our lives, it comes with the proviso that if you're right in your quest, then change should come with some ease. Of course that's not true.

I lined up way too many excerpts from email exchanges and discussions in the field that I've had in the past and even this week to illustrate this back and forth toward change, through seems like a process I call Dead Parrot Science, but I think Michael Palin and John Cleese have it covered.

Sometimes you have to rewind and replay this skit of yours a few times... okay, over and over and over to make any headway, but what else have you got going on?

17 February 2010, Wednesday
Road House Science

In Roddy Herrington's 1989 modern western, Road House, there's a reoccurring joke about the hero of his tale — the best bouncer in the club business, bar none... that he seems kind of small for his line of work. The late great Patrick Swayze stars in a film full of characters from the Wild West, we've got: Dalton, Red, Doc, Wade Garrett, Cody, Emmett, and Brad Wesley.

This preconception about Dalton proves fatal to the bad guys. In observational science, a misconception about a species occurrence, in a place where it ain't, causes more sightings and can become ingrained in the culture or tribe. The solution is not just to correct an ID, but to explain why this is a myth in the locale, state, region, season.

With hawkwatching, top-down feedback (and corrections) are not part of the culture. In fact it is actively discouraged, except for those who pass on the myths.

Recently two separate Broadwing reports were online from the Maritimes. Now in the past, there have been juvenile BWs lingering up there... more so than other locations along that parallel: the geography for this makes sense. It's a catch for birds that have dispersed earlier, late Summer into Fall. To paraphrase another and better-known Swayze move, "Nobody puts Broadwing in a corner,' might actually be true in the Maritimes. But not for long, as these birds either move on or die. We don't know if they make it through to the Christmas Bird Count period or are other species incorrectly thought to be some BW lingering? Current events: images of the bird in Nova Scotia were not of a Broadwing, and, the discussions that followed were not just about buteo ID.

There was a cancer cluster of dark Broadwings in New England, until the source moved away; Goshawks were regularly reported in Spring on the outer Cape, until some feedback in terms of numbers from surrounding coastal sites were offered; Golden Eagles (adults!) were an annual September migrant at a New Hampshire hawkwatch until an onsite (respectful) discussion occurred. Legends, ghosts and myths crop up in an area and boy can they linger and be practiced as Road House Science.

We're initially (of course) working in some Laws of Birding to make the first, or second wrong ID. But after that it is word of mouth that perpetuates and ingrains this stuff — setting in place the preconception. Think of it like an unwritten protocol, the opposite of Discount Hawkwatching (see Redtails R Us archive, 5 January '10).

There's a longer Road House clip online expanding the scene above to include another famous quote, "Pain don't hurt." We also find out that Dalton has a degree in philosophy from NYU... just a great, bad time at the movies.

1 March 2010, Monday
OJ Simpson Science

"If the winter glove won’t fit, you must acquit."

Bill McKibben —recently mentioned here as the editor-compiler of American Earth (16 Feb & new book club archive)— coined this phrase and made this parallel between the trial of the (second-half of the) century and climate change denial recently. The headline is mine, but the idea for this kind of science perversion is all McKibben.

In addition to his funny, if it weren't about our ongoing devastation, OJ take, he has some finer points for this science and politics discussion:

Why data isn’t enough

I work at Middlebury College, a topflight liberal arts school, so I’m surrounded by people who argue constantly. It’s fun. One of the better skeptical takes on global warming that I know about is a weekly radio broadcast on our campus radio station run by a pair of undergraduates. They’re skeptics, but not cynics. Anyone who works seriously on the science soon realizes that we know more than enough to start taking action, but less than we someday will. There will always be controversy over exactly what we can now say with any certainty. That’s life on the cutting edge. I certainly don’t turn my back on the research—we’ve spent the last two years at 350.org building what Foreign Policy called “the largest ever coordinated global rally” around a previously obscure data point, the amount of atmospheric carbon that scientists say is safe, measured in parts per million.

But it’s a mistake to concentrate solely on the science for another reason. Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about the world. And feelings count at least as much as knowledge. Especially when those feelings are valid. People are getting ripped off. They are powerless against large forces that are, at the moment, beyond their control. Anger is justified.

On the other hand, is the glove with one finger raised, always: US Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). If you have a Moron of the Month Club subscription then you know this guy. His one-man "It's a Hoax Tour" landed with a splat in Copenhagen. Inhofe explains it all to Grist.org and it wouldn't Inhofe Information, if it didn't contain a couple of outright factual errors.

For the last word, we heard Sunday in the NYTimes from Al Gore. His lengthy op-ed covers the snow-gate issue and much more. As usual, his is a fairly calm and reasoned voice in the political wilderness. This excerpt is right near the beginning — he's just getting warmed up (pun intended).

The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.

Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate: man-made global-warming pollution traps heat from the sun and increases atmospheric temperatures. These pollutants — especially carbon dioxide — have been increasing rapidly with the growth in the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and forests, and temperatures have increased over the same period. Almost all of the ice-covered regions of the Earth are melting — and seas are rising. Hurricanes are predicted to grow stronger and more destructive, though their number is expected to decrease. Droughts are getting longer and deeper in many mid-continent regions, even as the severity of flooding increases. The seasonal predictability of rainfall and temperatures is being disrupted, posing serious threats to agriculture. The rate of species extinction is accelerating to dangerous levels.

Though there have been impressive efforts by many business leaders, hundreds of millions of individuals and families throughout the world and many national, regional and local governments, our civilization is still failing miserably to slow the rate at which these emissions are increasing — much less reduce them.

And in spite of President Obama’s efforts at the Copenhagen climate summit meeting in December, global leaders failed to muster anything more than a decision to “take note” of an intention to act.

16 March 2010, Tuesday
Bart Simpson, Hummingbird behaviorist

While it's just too early for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds to be returning, on Sunday our eastern hummingbird species got some primetime facetime.
[Note: Double-click on the image above to play this QuickTime clip.]

Bart Simpson once wrote, actually more than once:
A burp in a jar is not a science project
A burp in a jar is not a science project
A burp in a jar is not a science project
A burp in a jar is not a science project
A burp in a jar is not a science project
[Opening chalkboard scene originally broadcast 18 November 2001]

For those keeping score, this may or may not be the first installment of Simpson Science. The show has used pretty good science on many occasions over its twenty seasons on the air. So instead of using it to mock something, it might pop up again when it works.... now, go ahead, play the clip again. You know you want to.

They've got the urge for going, and
they've got the wings so they can go.

— Joni Mitchell

Hawk•art•science blog
Truth and beauty. Art and science. Entries here will be on that flightline, although I will stray from the hawk-part on occasion, or will I? I aiming this beast at hawkheads and/or the young seasonal revolutionary biologists. It's for the flexible and young-at-heart too.
Comments, questions, excited utterances, and/or exasperated afterthoughts from you, dear reader, are welcome and will receive a reply. — Tom Carrolan
(Image above: "Recent self-portrait No.3, 2009")

Original recipe Hawksaloft.com
The Hawksaloft.com website was launched in 1997, following three years of printed handbills, plus numerous emails, all voicing my alt.hawkwatching ideas in New England. If you've been here before, the original site is archived in all its old-timey graphic glory. To navigate the old way, just click on Psychedelia the Hawk Owl and be transported back in time... trippy. Any bookmarks or links found anywhere online still work.

Not everything that counts can be counted and
not everything that can be counted counts.

— Albert Einstein