Sunday, September 02, 2007

Eskimo Curlew?


Update: More Eskimo Curlew links are here and here.


Anonymous said...

really great article, thanks for linking it Tom ... in so many ways this is a nice piece to reflect on the woodpecker story.

First, it underscores the importance of the claims of objective evidence in the Ivory Billed story. We have people who swear up and down that they saw an ivory bill - although no where near as clearly or well as this author claims to have seen a curlew - but the claimants also want us to "accept" that they have "peer reviewed" evidence.

Second it underscores the problem of supposing that you are peerless - the team of Fitz et al. - were the only ones who had the balls - which is another way of saying that their peers were eunochs, and capable only of adding scientific "spice" ... at best.

No wonder Don Kennedy has decided to deal Fitz a career killing blow by sicing Eric Stockstead on him ... at best Kenndy was duped into giving a cover story in Science to a tale that merits only an inside "what if" in a regional birding hobby magazine ...

Perhaps, Tom, though you are light on editorial voice on this blog, you might actually ENDORSE the way the Eskimo Curlew sighting has been handled.

Afterall the Woodpecker story is really about extra ordinary claims being made exepmt from extra ordinary evidence, by extra ordinary people.

Long live the Eskimo Curlew!!

(note, is anyone worried about birders, ruining the survival of this bird by stampeding the plains of Peggy's Cove? Didn't think so.

Invisible Bird said...

I did not come to the conclusion lightly. I relied on 35 years' experience as an active amateur and professional birder to document the bird without a photograph or specimen. I recorded the weather and light conditions. I recognized the singularity of the bird immediately and quickly jotted down field notes. I also systematically studied the bird from head to toe, capturing the marks as I saw them. I conferred with a field guide within minutes of the observation. Before making my final assessment on the bird's identification, I consulted multiple references to eliminate species that could be misidentified as an Eskimo Curlew. The bird could realistically be confused with only a young Whimbrel or a Little Curlew. My field notations and recollection of details repeatedly eliminated the other two species, yet I have no conclusive proof. I have no corroborative sightings, pictures, call recordings, feathers, or droppings. All I have is a careful, lengthy observation by me as an experienced birder.

I saw one too, under the same conditions.

That makes two sightings.

Add 'em up, friends. Add 'em up.

IBWO Atheist said...

"we leave to the records committees"

Just be sure it doesn't include Arkansans.

"the tundra-like world of the coastal headlands.

The scenery was unforgettable. Granite boulders and rocky patches of wind-polished bedrock mixed with strange elfin plants..."

Don't documented rarities tend to show up at nasty sewage plants?

"reminded me of a Gyrfalcon pursing a grouse"

A rather small shorebird reminiscent of our largest falcon in hunting mode?!

"the Little Curlew's bill was smaller and far less decurved."

Is the difference in curvature really that obvious?

"its neck was even more extended, somewhat like an ibis."

an ibis-like bird resembling a hunting Gyrfalcon and not at all cartoonish:

=Eskimo Curlew

"to document the bird without a photograph or specimen"

This used to be more acceptable, prior to "rediscovery" of a certain woodpecker

"Scientists consider sightings of extremely rare species to be only hypotheses that require rigorous examination"

Those are old-fashioned evidence-based scientists. Maybe you still fund those in Canada, but in the USA we prefer a faith-based approach.

"when combined with a long list of other reports (see list of sightings, below), it forms a hypothesis that the species is not extinct"

or a hypothesis that every generation has its stringers

"Only true scientific endeavor..."

or a glance at an average photo taken with an amateur point-and-shoot camera

"...can reject or accept the hypothesis"

Martinus Scriblerus said...

Note, is anyone worried about birders, ruining the survival of this bird by stampeding the plains of Peggy's Cove? Didn't think so.

No, but I am worried that any surviving Eskimo Curlew may suffer the fate of the last definite one -- being shot at one of Barbados' infamous shorebird shooting swamps (1963).

Anonymous said...

So the notes were written after consulting 14 books with Numenius illustrations?

On the list of sightings, I believe the New Jersey one from 1992 (if submitted) was voted down by the state records committee. I recall reading about the 2002 Massachusetts sighting, which was by an expert or experienced birder. He was so experienced that the world at large found out about a week or so later after his story appeared in a local newspaper. (He did not apparently call anyone or post it to the Mass. birding listserv).

Anonymous said...

Me again ... I see that the 2002 Massachusetts record was voted down.

"Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), #02-17, September 5, 2002, Edgartown (Dukes). As one Committee member put it, “Eskimo Curlew has been presumed extinct by many ornithologists for decades, probably correctly so. The rarer the bird, the higher the evidence bar that must be hurdled. ‘Presumed extinct’ is pretty rare.” Other members commented that Little Curlew (N. minutus) could not be eliminated."

Invisible Bird said...

No, but I am worried that any surviving Eskimo Curlew may suffer the fate of the last definite one

Somewhere in the deep woods of Oregon, the High Priest in a mysterious cult may be frying up the last baby Sasquatch for breakfast, even as we speak.

This is a critical moment.

Patrick Coin said...

I found the comments here claiming that the 1962 Eskimo Curlew photos (originals here) were of a stuffed specimen to be non-credible. To me, the photos look quite realistic, and are very consistent with live birds:
-The body of the birds looks full and alive in all photos--stuffed specimens always look rather, well, stuffed.
-The photos show a detail of posture not usually executed in taxidermy, but often present in life--the folded "elbow" of the wings is tucked under the chest feathers. Living birds do this all the time, but I've not seen a mounted specimen where this was done--usually wings are outside the feathers covering the chest.
-Likewise, the folding of the wings against the tail is tight and life-like, not typical of taxidermy, where the wings are usually spread to show them. Living shorebirds fold those wings tightly against the tail until they are ready to fly, or the wings are raised in display.
-Posture of the bird does vary significantly between photos, including angle of neck and small details such as the tarsi of the raised foot folded in one and more spread in another--that would be hard to do on a taxonomic specimen, where the legs would be dried and stiff.
-Likewise, the angle of the legs varies quite a bit, and the angle of the leg planted is hard to reconcile with it being used as a prop for a stuffed specimen--it is too far from vertical
-Clearly one leg is raised in photos because the bird is walking through fairly high grass. There is a photo of a Little Curlew in similar habitat, with a similar postures here, specifically this one--note the tarsi are folded on the raised foot, exactly as in one of the 1962 photos of the Eskimo Curlew.
-Both left and right foot are raised in the various photos, though the prints could have been flipped during enlargement.
-The photos are clearly of two different birds--in the three profile shots, the beak of one (here) is thicker and more curved. This is consistent with the reports at the time of two birds. There is too much consistency for fraud.
-The color photo is obviously a composite of a color photo of the background and a colorized version of the black-and-white photo. You can even see jagged edges where a razor blade was used to cut out along the body of the bird. No doubt this was done for aesthetic reasons. (Color film was expensive and slow back then. I did some bird photography just a few years later, in 1971, and my favorite film was fast, contrasty, grainy, ISO 400 Tri-X pan. It was great for stopping action. The 1962 photos look like they were taken with Tri-X to me.)

I had only seen the one, rather cheesy, colorized photo previously. To me, seeing multiple scans of the original photos is totally convincing of the existence of the Eskimo Curlew in 1962. (Remember there was also a specimen from Barbados at that time, though I don't know the details.) I don't know about the 2006 report from Canada, but the written description was much better than that for any recent IBWO report I've seen. I'm skeptical, but much more hopeful than for the IBWO. Perhaps some more searches for the curlew should be made in Canada--use some of the $27 million not spent on recovery of the non-existent IBWO!

The comparison of the 1962 Eskimo Curlew photos with the recent claimed video evidence for IBWO is totally damning, I think, of the IBWO claims. Look at the excellent, sharp photos taken of a wary shorebird (actually, two of them) with 1960's technology. Contrast the smudges of the Luneau video and the Choc videos where a bird is hardly visible.

Patrick Coin said...

Correcting myself a little bit--doing a Google image search, I found a couple of photos of taxidermic mounts of stuffed Eskimo Curlews:
-First one (here, and other places)--the wings are mounted sort of folded back against the tail, but look at the clumsiness of it, and look at the puffed-out neck and chest--characteristic of taxidermy and very unlike the 1962 Texas photos
-Another photo of a mounted specimen--looks nothing like the slim, obviously living birds of the 1962 Texas photos

So I would say it is very difficult to substitute a taxonomic mount for a living bird and get a realistic photo if the bird at all fills the frame.

Invisible Bird said...

I don't know about the 2006 report from Canada, but the written description was much better than that for any recent IBWO report I've seen.

What possible difference could the detail in the description make? Anyone can fabricate a
"sighiting description" if they have access to the proper materials.

This is why a "reported sighting" of a second curlew in the wake of this sighting should be treated 100 times more skeptically than the first (which is, itself, worth less than the paper it was written on).

There is this culture of "birding" which entails, in part, collecting and dissemination of "reports" by "experienced" folks. At some point -- and it's not clear when but the eskimo curlew is plainly past it -- reports are worthless and only objective indisputable documentation will do. This gentlemen's efforts are, quite simply, beside the point unless the point is simply to puff oneself up.

Anonymous said...

well I disagree, that the report of the curlew is "besides the point" - rather they are exactly the "point" of what birding is - it is what it is - a testimony that someone said they "saw" the bird.

Jack Hitt explored this aspect of bird watching with his nyt piece, 13 Ways of Looking at an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker:

Soon after the original declaration of the discovery was made last April, controversy broke out, and it quickly got nasty. The ugliness derives from something deep in the heart of birding. Most people think of birding as either a science worthy of a word like "ornithology" or a harmless hobby pursued by rubber-faced old men in porkpie hats. But the act of birding, ultimately, is an act of storytelling. For instance, if someone said to you, "I saw this cardinal fly out of nowhere with yellow tips on its wings and land on the side of a tree," even the least experienced amateur would counter that cardinals don't have yellow wingtips and don't cling to trees but rather perch on branches. Each bird is a tiny protagonist in a tale of natural history, the story of a niche told in a vivid language of color, wing shape, body design, habitat, bill size, movement, flying style and perching habits. The more you know about each individual bird, the better you are at telling this tale.

Claiming to have seen rare birds requires a more delicate form of storytelling and implies a connoisseur's depth of knowledge. Saying "I saw an ivory-bill's long black neck and white trailing feathers" requires roughly the same panache as tasting an ancient Bordeaux and discoursing on its notes of nougat and hints of barnyard hay.

If you don't pull it off, then people presume that you are lying or stupid. And this is where birding gets personal. Telling a rare-bird-sighting story is to ask people to honor your ability as a birder — to trust you, to believe you.

So lets be clear, this report from Peggy's Cove, is an example of the highest form of "connoisseur's depth of knowledge" - and it is wonderfully presented and totally appropriate - it is birding at its best.

Long Live the Eskimo Curlew

IBWO Atheist said...

"the "point" of what birding is"

should be the enjoyment of making verified or at least verifiable sightings of birds for which supporting scientific documentation is available or at least soon forthcoming.

"But the act of birding, ultimately, is an act of storytelling"

Not as practised by serious birders such as Don Roberson who photograph their birds and post the images online with rigorous supporting details.

"this report from Peggy's Cove, is an example of the highest form of "connoisseur's depth of knowledge""

To me it is better as storytelling than as rigorous documention of Eskimo Curlew eliminating Little Curlew. I'm certain that a true shorebird connoisseur such as Lars Jonsson or anyone with a decent scope/camera setup would do a far better job of documenting a rare curlew if they saw one.

"it is wonderfully presented"

as storytelling, if you like such things, not as a serious bird report.

"and totally appropriate - it is birding at its best."

Isn't it more appropriate to do everything possible to facilitate repeated sightings and then to report full details without irrelevant anecdotes to a credible bird records committee (not Arkansas')

"Long Live the Eskimo Curlew"

Only if it really still exists. Otherwise RIP Eskimo Curlew.