Editor's Notes
Visionaries: An eye toward the future

New version of ESIP monitoring map available

Gulf Voices
A day on Great Bay: In search of the osprey

Science Insights
Dam removal

Profile: Dale Joachim of MIT’s Project Owl

Visionaries: Protecting the future of the Gulf of Maine

Book Review
Soaring with Fidel

Inside the Gulf of Maine Closure Area

Shipping lanes shifted to protect whales

Visionaries in the Gulf of Maine

Ocean Tracking Network to shed light on undersea life

Ambassador for his species: If a whale could speak

On the trail of invasive species

In the News
- Outside the Gulf
- Sappi Paper to remove dam on Presumpscot River
- MIT builds robotic fin for submersible vehicles
- New Brunswick to restore Petitcodiac River
- New Brunswick, Nova Scotia to jointly study Fundy tides

Profile of Dale Joachim, MIT Media Lab
Nothing to hoot at: Owls may sense changes in the environment

By Lori Valigra
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Dale Joachim became intrigued when he heard that some birds left New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005. Were the birds able to sense the impending storm?

“The vocal behavior of birds may provide information about abrupt changes in the environment, as can a flock of birds moving,” said Joachim, a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. Joachim is cooperating with Maine Audubon and others to study bird vocalizations as part of the Media Lab’s Owl Project.

He could have used such a warning system himself. The former assistant professor of computer architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans was on a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico before Katrina hit New Orleans. He got home just in time to evacuate his family.

Now at the Media Lab, Joachim has developed an experimental electronic sensing device that can broadcast and record owl vocalizations through cell phone networks. One goal is to help count the number of owls, a task traditionally done by humans. That’s a tough job in the vast wooded expanses in Connecticut and Maine, where his studies are focused. The device also can monitor climate, and may eventually answer questions about the hearing range of owls and their responses to weather or the presence of humans. The device and cell phone networks could be used for other species of animals as well.

As a child, Joachim had traveled the world with his teacher parents. At one time he lived in Africa, where he felt a strong bond to nature and animals. But years working at universities and in industry as an engineer severed his link to animals.

“After Katrina, I wanted to focus on something that contributes to a larger picture,” he said. “As humans, we’re losing track of our connections with nature.”

Joachim’s approach is to use technology to augment human activity. The owls he’s tracking, the Barred owl and the Eastern Screech owl, live along rural roads. The cell phones are mounted onto tripods set amidst the trees. Some cell phones have loudspeakers attached to them, while others have his triangular electronic device about the size of a human hand with four microphones.

The cell phones play pre-recorded owl calls through the loudspeakers in an effort to elicit responses from real owls. The responses from real owls are picked up by the microphones on the electronic device. Joachim uses multiple cell phones to get a sense of the direction from which the owl sounds are coming. The directional information also can separate different owl sounds. In the future, sophisticated electronic signal processing technology may make it possible to isolate a particular owl’s call.

Augmenting humans
Traditionally, volunteers and scientists go into the woods at night and play pre-recorded owl sounds on a CD or tape recorder. Joachim’s cell phone device can automate that process, thus augmenting human owl-monitoring activities. In the spring of 2007, volunteers in Maine Audubon’s Maine Owl Monitoring Program field tested the cell phone devices along established survey routes for their owl census. The aim was to get insight into some long-standing questions about owl survey methodology.

According to Maine Audubon, owl detections are much higher when a playback call is used as opposed to simply having a volunteer sit passively and listen for owl calls. However, scientists are concerned that when playbacks are used at one survey point, they may impact owls further down the survey route, which usually is a rural road. The new cell phone network technology allows for simultaneous recordings to be played at multiple points along the road. That could shed some light on how owls in one area may react to sounds in other areas. Joachim can control the recording and broadcasting events via the Web using voice-over-Internet Protocol (voice-over-IP) technology.

The Maine study was more extensive than the pilot census of Connecticut’s owl population conducted in the summer of 2006. That earlier study showed that the audio quality of cell phones is sufficient for the discovery and interaction with owls. The phones, which are small and portable, could potentially replace the high-quality audio survey broadcasting and recording equipment currently used.

“This is a way to reconnect nature and people,” said Joachim. “There is a potential for education and dissemination.”

For more information visit: The Owl Project and Maine Audubon.

Lori Valigra is editor of the Gulf of Maine Times.

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