Archive for category Ornithology

App Review: Condor Country

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When I first saw the advertisement announcing the upcoming release of Condor Country – a game packaged as an app for public consumption about wildlife conservation – I was understandably hooked. As a wildlife biologist by day, why wouldn’t I want to play a game featuring myself struggling to help the infamous California condor recover from extinction? Yes, please, take my money.

But there was no need – the app was a free download – so download it I did and rolled up my sleeves in preparation for the hard work ahead saving the world. Secretly, as I waited for the game to launch, I hoped against all hopes that it wouldn’t be *too* much like real life. I mean, who wants to play a game where you sit behind a desk and file paperwork and write reports as penance for those few exceptional field days (and some more mediocre ones) each year; let’s be honest, not every day in the life of a wildlife biologist is Planet Earth-worthy. (That doesn’t keep us from dreaming, though.) Little did I know…

As the game kicked off, I found myself with four condors that had reached adulthood and were ready to be released. The walk-thru fasttracked you through tagging ($200) and releasing each bird into the wilds of the Grand Canyon. But four birds do not a healthy population make. So my next stop was the captive flight pen, where I paired and mated ($200+) two captive adults in the hopes of an egg to hatch out. Like any captive breeding program, these things cost money. Radar units, captive pens, incubators, food, and – if there’s any money left – wages for the poor biologists doing all that dirty work (that, let’s be honest, would doubtless be donating their time anyway if the funding didn’t come through). Never fear, the public loves a spectacle – I could fundraise by turning on my radar unit to track the whereabouts of each tagged bird I had just released. For every bird I clicked on during the 15 seconds my radar unit worked (a little too close to home?), I raised $200 from eager funders. And I would need that cash since, by the end of the walk-thru, I was as good as broke.

It was at this point, too, that the game devolved from a learning tool carefully packaged as a game into a marathon of suffering through in-app ads to reset the 15-minute recharge on the radar unit, which is the ATM machine that greases the palms of this entire game. The more birds there were to track, the more money I could earn. But to raise more birds, I’d need to keep those incubators purring. And there’s a cost behind every egg I incubate ($200+) and tag ($200). And so to earn that cash, I’d have to keep tracking birds. See the vicious cycle? Knowing that the fate of a species rests in my capable hands meant I’d be watching plenty of ads to keep the radar unit’s batteries charged.

Extinction?!? Not on my watch, I reasoned as I settled in to watch an ad or too. But I soon realized that the only thing shorter than my patience during the 15 minutes it took to recharge the radar unit was the 15 seconds of radar run-time the “telemetry mini-game” allowed me to clumsily drag-scroll through the wilderness looking for – and then clicking on – constantly moving birds. Keeping the radar churning 24-7 to activate the 15-second mini-game and keep the funds rolling in meant binge-watching ads like back-to-back episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Except one of those experiences is fun.

In too many unfortunate ways, the game mechanics are not unlike real life – beggering yourself to keep your study going and keep enough public interest that the checks roll in. Except my guess is that the original intent of the game was to highlight the titillating conservation aspect of wildlife biology (“Track a bird!” “Hatch a baby condor!”), not the drudgery of fundraising and administrative work that goes on behind the scenes.

Although the press release offers that “Players are also able to earn special golden feathers to speed up game play by opting to learn more about condor conservation,” the only way I could find to earn such golden feathers was to watch more commercials about diabetes or online casino sims (“Few Feathers” [=10] per ad watched) or to purchase these gilded quills in the game’s “shop” at standard in-app purchase prices (=highway robbery). Granted, the press release also assures that proceeds from the optional in-game purchases will be used to support the Santa Barbara Zoo’s ongoing conservation and education programs, but I’d rather support the zoo by paying for the app outright than getting nickel-and-dimed on gold coins or, as the case may be, horse feathers.

Unfortunately, my suffering didn’t end there. It was only a matter of time before my funding had run dry and I couldn’t respawn an ad to recharge the radar if my life (or a condor’s) depended on it – a connection error or something, the not-so-helpful biologist explained. Now I had to sit out the 15 minute clock until my radar unit recharged. Without something better to do, I admit it was only a matter of seconds before I quit out of the game to try a new app I had also just downloaded that allowed me to trade in my biologist’s boots to become instead Ookujira, a sperm whale-like cetacean spy-hopping from rooftop-to-rooftop crushing alien ships on a “giant whale rampage” and having decidedly more fun while my batteries recharged.

In time, the connection error righted itself and the alien attack had been thwarted, so I left the radioactive waters of Ookujira-ravished Japan to rush through another bender of ads about Fantasy Football, credit scores, more Las Vegas slots, and Vaseline. As the funds rolled in once again, I nursed my captive breeding program along, fledging chicks one ad binge-fest at a time. But another glitch soon arose. For whatever reason, I had one hatchling that I couldn’t fledge no matter where I tapped plus two eggs in my incubator ready to hatch, but – according to the prompt that popped up every time I clicked on the well-done eggs – there were no open nest boxes (I had to unlock one or wait until one was finished) even though my captive pen – the one I had just expanded at the cost of several thousand ad-earned dollars (or golden feathers – by this point, who was keeping track – I had whored myself to earn either one) – appeared to have two move-in ready nest boxes, one apiece. 

I had just been flock-blocked.

And just like that, I had the scary realization how fragile such recovery programs really are and how precarious the plight of the California condor might be if the funding ever dried up, and not just in the game I was playing. Except I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the sobering message the designers had hoped to instill when they sat down at the drawing board.

Looking back now over what I’ve just panned penned, I can hear my mother reminding me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Well, if that was the case, no one would bother writing reviews. But there are good things about Condor Country that give me hope. True, the coding may still be buggy (the text in the “Learn More About Condors” section is a jumbled mess, and the swipe controls are all janky between the captive flight pen [swipe right, move right] and outdoors [swipe right, move left]), but the graphics and soundtrack are top-notch. The game’s blend of realism and cartoony art make the gameplay easy on the eyes and appealing to children and adults, and the condors themselves are animated with enough life-like gestures to make them pop off the screen as they flap, preen, and primp.

Is there a way around the down time and in-app purchases? I certainly think so. Imagine that instead of watching advertisements, players could take an active role in driving home the conservation theme by patrolling the landscape as a ranger (while the various timers counted down in the background) in search of outdoor recreationists. If, say, a hunter appeared in the woods, by clicking on them the player would initiate one of several canned-but-not-too-preachy dialogue boxes where the ranger educated the hunter about the secondary consequences lead bullets have on wildlife (lead poisoning). For every ten hunters you talk to, one of them becomes a benefactor and donates $1,000 to the cause. Likewise, if you encountered a camper or backcountry hiker tossing trash on the ground, clicking on the garbage and then on the litterbug would prompt the the warden to talk to them about keeping our open spaces clean. For every five recreationalists you talk to, one of them donates $300 to the cause. It’s not sexy, but nor are ads about diabetes.

From what I’ve read, I would eventually have unlocked other mini games if only I had stuck it out, like being able to collect microtrash to keep the preserve clean. But I didn’t. I quit, extinction be damned. I had reached my ad tolerance threshold. After being violated by Madison Avenue one too many times,  I had a sudden need for some Vaseline – and, once again, Japan needed saving. 

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Game Review: Birds of a Feather

 

birds_boxBirds of a Feather, by Teale Fristoe, Nothing Sacred Games (http://nothingsacredgames.com), 2015 [ages 9+, 15-minute play time, 1-7 players] $20.00

If you are looking for the perfect gift for the birder in your life, know this: holding this game in the hand is worth two in the bush. Birds of a Feather, Teale Fristoe’s latest game (a Kickstarter campaign success story) under the Oakland, California-based independent game studio label Nothing Sacred Games, is sure to drive birders to consider counting cards this Christmas instead of birds.

The premise is simple: you and your fellow birders are out to bag your big year, collecting as many unique bird observations as you can. The ‘birds’ in this case are 60 illustrated playing cards, each depicting any one of 35 different bird species across a range of habitats (desert, ocean, wetlands, forest, mountains). The birds vary from the scarcer ‘aces’ (spotted owl), raptors (prairie falcon), and rarities (varied thrush, rhinoceros auklet) to the more common (Brandt’s cormorant, spotted towhee).

To play, each player selects a card from their hand and places it face down in front of them. Then each player reveals their card simultaneously, divulging the place they chose to visit and what they saw there. The game play and scoring revolve around the various habitats and their associated birds. If you want to park your dusty VW Microbus camper in the desert to bird for the day, you can do so by playing a cactus wren. If anyone else played a desert bird that first round, you can also record their desert species on your score card (but mind that they in turn can record your wren). During the next round, the cards from the previous round stay in play. So if another player (say, one who played an ocean species the last time) wants to bogart your wren, they can play a desert card of their own during the next round to nab it and any other desert species left on the table. But remember, you only get one second chance – birds don’t stay put for ever. Once a card has been in play two rounds, that bird species (and your chances of life-listing it) vanish like an ivory-billed woodpecker.

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The scarcity of a species determines its point value, and while there may be three chances to see a common black-throated sparrow, there’s only one northern goshawk to witness in the woods. So arises this game’s subtle strategy: achieving a balance between the quantity and quality of birds seen in each habitat, knowing when to follow the crowd and when to strike out into a new habitat, and succumbing to temptation when a rare bird makes an appearance. With each of these too-true subtleties, Fristoe magically captures the rapture of birding and big years in a simple deck of cards, no small feat in itself. But his true ace in the hole are the illustrations – the entire deck painted by Fristoe’s brother Trevor, with each bird portrayed playfully and artfully in spectacular renderings that bring the birds and the game to life.

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If you are itching to DIY, you can also download the game and print your own cards for a nominal fee ($5.00), which is great if you are impatient to play but sidesteps the overall presentation and quality of the finished game. As a bonus, Fristoe has also made the score card available as an app (Android, iOS, and web) or a printable .pdf, doing away with the frustration sure to arise when you complete your last paper score card.

It’s true – no game can truly capture the experience of being outdoors. But if you’ve hung up your binoculars for the night because the birds aren’t the only thing Old Man Winter has put to bed, consider reaching instead for Birds of a Feather.

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Elkhorn Slough: 2015 Burrowing Owl Workshop

BUOW WorkshopThe Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program is once again sponsoring the Burrowing Owl Workshop 2015 for the second year running with presenter Dr. Lynne Trulio (Department Chair, Environmental Studies, San Jose State). The workshop, slated for Friday, August 14, 2015 at Michaels At Shoreline (the Shoreline Golf Links clubhouse) in Mountain View, CA, will provide a comprehensive review of the species’ biology and conservation efforts with both classroom lecture and field training. Among the topics covered in the classroom are natural history, species identification, distribution/movement, habitat requirements, threats, survey methods, methods for assessing potential project impacts and approaches for avoidance and minimization, and management and regulatory requirements. In the field, participants will learn to survey for active burrowing owl burrows; identify and distinguish burrowing owl burrows; identify and sex adults; identify and age chicks; determine appropriate human disturbance buffer distances; and view examples of burrowing owl nesting and foraging habitat enhancement measures. Space is limited, so act now! This year’s registration deadline is July 21st. One of the pluses the Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program provides is free online access to workshop materials and related peer-reviewed papers. Make sure to check it out here!

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Cornell’s All About Birds Lab: Merlin

Since 2012, when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology first reported the development of Merlin™, an online bird identification tool, Cornell’s All About Birds Labs has been hard at work adding bells and whistles to Merlin’s know-how. Through collaboration with Visipedia, this summer The Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the debut of their new computer vision technology app, Merlin Bird Photo ID. And wouldn’t you know it, the app does exactly what its name suggests – identifies birds in photographs.

Using the online Merlin Bird Photo ID tool is simple. Just drag and drop an image of any one of 400 North American bird species, identify when and where the photo was taken, drag a box identifying the bird from any background noise, and then click on the bill tip, eye, and tail tip to give Merlin a hint.

Digging through some crummy bird photos I have taken over the years, I decided to put Merlin (and my photography) to the test to see how well it performed.

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Photo #1
Location: Concord, CA
Date: 7, March, 2015

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Discussion: Having seen these fellows in my yard all spring, I knew beforehand that this neighborhood regular was a western bluebird (Sialia mexicana), but because I maxed out the zoom feature on my old cell phone, the photo was left with a watercolor-esque dappling that I thought might confuse the computer vision algorithm’s at work here.

I was right.

Merlin’s best matches led with a male hooded merganser (breeding male) and an adult American robin. Hopefully, anyone with any sense would know enough to dismiss those outright and click through to “More Results.” Still, even after fiddling with the settings several times (knowing that the first time I attempted to identify this bird a week ago, I remember western bluebird falling within the first ten suggestions, this time around western bluebird was Merlin’se 23rd choice.

Clearly, the caveat that “high quality images of birds in typical poses work best” holds true here.

Photo #2
Location: Bakersfield, CA
Date: 4 November, 2011

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Discussion: When I first caught a glimpse of this bird in flight at a distance in the Wind Wolves Preserve north of the Grapevine, for a moment I thought I might have seen something a little more exotic like a prairie or peregrine falcon; but deep down, I’ve always known this was an American kestrel (Falco sparverius). Merlin confirms it.

Buzzkill.

Photo #3
Location: Clearlake, CA
Date: 20 June, 2010

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Discussion: If you look closely, you’ll see this photo isn’t exactly fair – there aren’t one, but two birds awkwardly posed against the tree in this pine-oak woodland. When I first saw this pair of woodpeckers, what was most remarkable about them – second only to the outlandish ruckus they and their fledglings were raising at the time – was their remarkable size. Seeing as how pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) are the largest woodpecker in the United States (second only to the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker), their size is one of the primary traits that makes them so easy to identify in the field.

But, Merlin doesn’t know how big the bird in my photo was. Nevertheless, pileated woodpecker is Merlin’s first and only suggestion.

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So despite my clumsy attempts at wildlife photography, Merlin Bird Photo ID pulls through in a pinch, even if it needs hand-holding when tricky photographs are at issue. In truth, that’s no different than catching a fleeting glimpse of a hooded sparrow and trying to narrow down your choices between a dark-eyed junco and a spotted towhee. Whether you are flipping between bird IDs suggested by Merlin or flipping between pages in your field guide, in the end it comes down to the birder to make the final call.

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Burrowing Owl Surveys at Warm Springs

52This April, the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) is looking for volunteers to assist with western burrowing owl breeding surveys at the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge in south Fremont. The surveys will take place on the Warm Springs Unit of the refuge, a 700-acre vernal pool grassland home to special-status species like burrowing owls as well as California tiger salamanders, vernal pool tadpole shrimp, and Contra Costa goldfields.

The SFBBO, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is looking for 60 volunteers over three survey sessions (with priority given to current SFBBO members):

  • Session 1: Wednesday, April 15th – 5:00 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.
  • Session 1: Thursday, April 16th – 5:00 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.
  • Session 1: Wednesday, April 18 – 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Training will be provided on site beforehand to familiarize volunteers with survey techniques. Volunteers are cautioned to wear layered clothing; sturdy shoes/boots; and plenty of water.

To volunteer, send an email to SFBBO Habitats Ecologist Aidona Kakouros at akakouros@sfbbo.org with the subject line “BUOW surveys in Warm Springs”.

The application deadline is Friday, April 10.

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