Thursday, October 13, 2011

Learning Bird Flight Through .GIFs

I saw lots of Wilson's Storm-petrels before I ever saw a Leach's. In the Gulf of Maine, though, a Leach's was always a possibility. In those summers a couple years ago I would ride a $45 Odyssey Whale Watch out of Portland about once every two weeks, always keeping a close eye on storm-petrels. After taking many trips without seeing a Leach's, that fear began to haunt me: were they out there and I was just missing them?

"They fly like nighthawks," people said. "They bound. You can't miss them." Can't miss them? I knew their wings are longer, but would it be obvious? I understood that they flew differently, but would I be ready to see that when presented with it?

The trouble with identifying birds by their flight pattern is that it's difficult to study ahead of time. You can say the words or put a dotted line behind a drawing in a field guide, but you need to see the flight to understand.

GIFs, those ubiquitous, ridiculous tools of meme culture, may help. GIFs (Graphics Interchange Format) aren't movies, really, but electronic flipbooks: a bunch of images in a row that make an animation while taking up much less file space than movie files. Many of them loop, creating an endless repetition that might just be really handy for studying.

Below are some storm-petrel GIFs that I created using videos from YouTube. Wilson's, Leach's and Band-rumped are represented, each showing (to the limited extent that I could - and I'll talk about that in a minute) each species flight characteristics.

A quick disclaimer: I am still a GIF newbie. They tend to play much more quickly than they should, and I don't know what to do about it. Yet.

Wilson's Storm-petrel. This bird is picking along the surface of the water, as WISP often do. This image is helpful in showing the relationship of the wing size to the rest of the bird.

Leach's Storm-petrel. The wings are clearly longer, and the bird is flying steadily, if erratically, above the water, unlike the Wilson's.

Band-rumped Storm-petrel. This image shows the Leach's-sized wings, but the more casual, shearwater-like flap-and-glide.

Many identification issues could be helped by GIFs, from sparrows to finches to woodpeckers to raptors.

The difficulty is getting the videos to make GIFs from. YouTube really lacks for good quality bird videos, especially birds in flight. Once those videos can be obtained, then making GIFs and sharing them among novice birders is a snap.

By the way, I finally saw my first Leach's Storm-petrel on a pelagic out of Bar Harbor, Maine, in August of 2010. It was pretty obvious once I saw it...


Gunnar Engblom said...

Thanks for this. It is very useful. I have never seen Band-rumped and Leach's in Peru... With these gifs I feel more confident I should be able to ID one.



Rick Wright said...

Yes, indeed, this is the way that identification resources are headed. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

May I suggest uploading your videos to youtube and apply the stabilize feature. Download the new stable video and then proceed to make your .gif

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