Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Brown Out and Day Jobs

Upfront let me apologize if you experienced a brown out today. I was sucking up most of the electricity in the northeast U.S. this afternoon. If I affected whatever you happened to be doing, I'm sorry.

Maybe this is an appropriate time to explain what I do when I'm clocked in at work. As stated in "About Me" over there in the side bar, I'm an ornithologist, meaning I'm paid to study birds. I do realize how absolutely, phenomenally lucky I am to have a job that greatly overlaps with my hobbies and my passions. I also realize how exceedingly fortunate I am to work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (aka, "the Lab"; aka, "CLO"), an institution with not only a rich history, but staffs the most creative, intelligent, curious, and passionate people I've ever met, people who merely want to learn and to understand.

Without getting too deep into it for the moment, my role is in the Conservation Science department where I'm a "Research Biologist." At least that's what I've designated myself because my official title, sanctioned by Cornell University, is something unintelligible outside of the Human Resources office. Currently I work in the general field of acoustic monitoring -- not part of a governmental wire-tapping program, though I suppose I'm now qualified to do that. Instead we listen in on natural places to monitor target species.

So, how did I wind up using almost everyone else's share of electricity today? Well, over the last three years we've been placing microphones in various spots in the northeastern U.S. down to the mid-Atlantic states to record migrating birds. Many species are nocturnal migrants, and many of the birds passing overhead in darkness can be identified by a species-specific flight-call. Our goal is to record whatever passes by in the night, then scour the recording with software that detects flight-calls, allowing us to discover which species are migrating past these locations, when they migrate, under what weather conditions, and a host of other questions.

Today I had four computers running the detection software, which isn't uncommon. What was different was the number of detections the program was logging and how that affected the computer's performance. The program was flagging over a million hits per three week period (they're not all flight-calls), causing the program to crawl along towards the end. You could practically hear gears groaning inside the computer towers. You could feel the little hamster's thighs burning to keep the wheel spinning, you could see sparks and smell the smoke drifting out of the back, and you could watch the progress bar inch slower, and slower, and slower.

But they kept going, much like John Henry and his hammer, finishing and slumping against the wall, panting and sweating. At which point I archived the results, set up the next detection run, and they started all over again. And again, and again . . . we have a lot of recordings to analyze. Maybe the computers are more like Sisyphus than John Henry.

More on these exploits later, I'm off the clock now so I'm hoping to make it home and have a walk before it rains.



slybird said...

So that's what you do... work those hamsters!

noflickster said...

Actually, what I mostly do is shave yaks. If that makes no sense, check the definition, then read a delightful example that hits a bit too close to home.

The Zen Birdfeeder said...

Sounds interesting - keep us posted what was going on!!

noflickster said...

Hi zen birdfeeder - From earlier sound recordings I know strong wind affects the recording. With our current microphone set up the effects of wind shows up on the spectrogram as short (millisecond-long) punctuations of dead space. Occasionally we find hundreds or more of these "drop outs" which, unfortunately for us, fool our detectors.

Similarly, other ambient noise gets picked up - insects chirping, mechanical noise (if a plane flies over, for example) - and also triggers the detector.

One thing I do know: not all of the millions of detections are birds!!

I'll be writing more about this cutting edge technology that promises to help us learn about migration, and of course the conservation implications of knowing where birds are and when they're there.

Thanks for dropping by!

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