Tag Archives: ornithology

American Avocets feeding and vocalizing among Mangroves at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Cruickshanks played a key role in the establishment of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Tracing the Transformation of Bird Watching to a Mainstream Pastime

Allan Cruickshank was a renowned National Audubon Society lecturer, photographer and author who co-published several books and field guides with his wife, Helen. Along with his cohorts–most notably bird guide author and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson—he transformed bird and nature watching from a fringe interest to a popular, easy accessible, mainstream pastime.

American Avocets feeding and vocalizing among Mangroves at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Cruickshanks played a key role in the establishment of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

American Avocets feeding and vocalizing among Mangroves at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The Cruickshanks played a key role in the establishment of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Cruickshank moved to Florida in 1952 and led the Cocoa, Florida, Christmas bird count for over two decades. This annual citizen science survey provides valuable information on local bird populations.

Sports Illustrated printed several articles on Cruickshank’s bird watching prowess, including documenting his success as the leader of the Cocoa initiative. The count areas included what is now part of the Kennedy Space Center, and the resulting positive publicity influenced NASA to preserve much of the space center property as a refuge, which eventually became the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2011 I started a research project to celebrate the semicentennial of Merritt Island. Bolstered by a grant from American Public University System (APUS), I posited that the creation of the refuge was the result of the work of many but was significantly influenced by the Kennedy administration’s culture of conservation and the championing of Cruickshank.

In 2015, I furthered the research project by focusing on Cruickshank. APUS provided another grant allowing me to visit the Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI) in Jamestown, N.Y. and the archives of the University of Florida Natural History Museum. At the RTPI, there were several correspondences between the Cruikshanks and Peterson, including an invitation to join the 1955 Cocoa project. The number of birds recorded at that time was the highest in the nation and the first of 11 straight years that Cocoa retained this title.

Perhaps the most intriguing discovery was the separate diaries Allan and Helen maintained during their first trip to Florida in 1937 for their honeymoon. The diaries reveal a hard- working, intense expedition focused on birds and flora.

This would be one of many trips the couple would take to record the wild world. They would later make several trips to Florida, one of the outcomes of which was the 1948 book, Flight into Sunshine, Bird Experiences in Florida, written by Helen and accompanied by Allan’s photos. Eventually, they made Florida their permanent home.

The diaries reveal a couple that would tolerate hardship to see and photograph nature. Stories of waiting for hours in a blind to capture the perfect shot or collecting and transporting road kill to attract vultures illustrate their willingness to get it right. The stories from these parallel logs will be compiled into a monograph and offered to Florida-based nature organizations for publication.

Another find at the University of Florida was a 35mm film, “The first X-mas bird count at the Merritt Island Sanctuary.” This 1963 vintage film is undergoing transfer to a digital format. What it reveals remains to be seen, but the film canister notes, “Stars Allan Cruickshank.” The film will be shown to some local nature-based organizations and, hopefully, will be featured statewide.

This research unearthed materials that apparently have not been seen for many years. Assessing this information and bringing it forward to a wider audience should help to further the legacy of the Cruikshanks.

About the Author
Charles Venuto is the Director of Environmental, Health & Safety for Delaware North Parks & Resorts at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and an adjunct professor of Environmental Science at American Public University (APU). He has assembled a monograph on the history of the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge that surrounds the Kennedy Space Center. His research began toward the end of his 30 year career as the Environmental Manager for the contractor responsible for operating the Space Shuttle. His research revealed facts and information that posits the important roles the Kennedy Administration played in the modern environmental movement. He received funding from APU to further his research at the National Achieves, the University of Florida Natural History Museum, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute and the John F. Kennedy Library. He received an Ed.S. in Science Education from Florida Institute of Technology, a M.S. in Environmental Policy and Management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a M.S. in Environmental Science from Florida Institute of Technology.

Merlin birdwatch

Your smartphone could be a digital ornithologist: software recognizes birds from photos

Merlin birdwatch

How the Merlin Bird Photo ID looks like. Image: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

A group at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology developed a sophisticated facial recognition software specially designed to identify birds for photos. Called the Merlin Bird Photo ID, the software works its magic by employing a combination of image recognition algorithms, deep learning techniques (so it learns from its mistakes and gets better in time) and human collaborators who upload photos and help the software by first identifying the key features that makes a species distinct. The team is now working at turning the software into an app, so that anyone with a smartphone can take photos of a lingering avian wonder then instantly come to know which species it is.

So far, Merlin can successfully identify up to 400 bird species, all native to North America.

“Asking computers to identify bird species is a challenge not only because some species look so alike, but also because their shape varies from moment to moment. On top of that, photographs of birds often include complex backgrounds, and the birds may be far away or blurry,” explains the Cornell Lab.

First, a user uploads a photo of the bird, when and where the photo was taken so the software can filter out species that shouldn’t belong in that place or during that season. The user then has to draw a box around the bird itself to distinguish it from its surrounding, and select the bill, eye, and tail – the most prominent features that professional birdwatchers first look at to recognize a species. Shifting through millions of data points and scouring each pixel – all within seconds – the software retrieves the correct species 90% of the time.

“Computers can process images much more efficiently than humans – they can organize, index, and match vast constellations of visual information such as the colors of the feathers and shapes of the bill,” said Serge Belongie, a professor of Computer Science at Cornell Tech. “The state-of-the-art in computer vision is rapidly approaching that of human perception, and with a little help from the user, we can close the remaining gap and deliver a surprisingly accurate solution.”


Birdwatching using binoculars might be a lot funner, but using a phone might be a lot easier for newbies. Image: Flickr

To compare records, Merlin uses a massive database of 70 million bird photos uploaded by bird enthusiasts on eBird.org, but also thousands of images supplied by other keen birdwatchers. As more and more data is fed into Merlin, it should not only be able to identify birds more accurately, but also more of them. There are more than 10,000 species of birds in the world, and biologists regularly discover new species. The ultimate goal is to have this turned into an app for your smartphone. It would not only be entertaining, but also educational, maybe prompting awareness (one in eight birds are threatened by pesticides and climate change) and inspiring a new generation of biologists and ornithologists. For plants, image recognition works a lot easier given there are some 21 apps which can be downloaded to identify plants based on pics taken with your phone.