Ivorybills, 26 months later
As anyone who has been following this story already knows, the 2006-2007 multi-fronted Ivory-billed Woodpecker "search season" has turned up nothing more than did the 2005-2006 season, and less than the initial 2004-2005 Arkansas search. Before I go into pondering about what it all means, allow me a digression. I have never understood why everyone seems to think that there is a restricted "search season" for a non-migratory bird in a climate that is almost subtropical. We resident southern birders have no trouble finding woodland birds by the bucketful (metaphorically speaking) during our steamy summers in our fully foliated forests. As for our impenetrable snake-infested bug-ridden swamplands: codswallop. Last week we took my herpophilic California-based nephew out in the swamps of the Hatchie River to look for Cottonmouths. We took an off-trail hike for a couple of kilometers through habitat very similar to the Big Woods, in the heat of a sultry June afternoon, and emerged from it with no more damage than a few chiggers and a little poison ivy (and a really good look at a beautifully-patterned Cottonmouth in a cypress slough). I've worked in these environments extensively year round, and my wife has worked in swamps far more challenging than these. They have no "field season." Biota are active and detectable and field work is perfectly practical 12 months of the year. Snakes are no more a hazard than in most other North American wildlands; which is to say hardly any hazard at all to someone who has any sense. The drive there is the most dangerous part of the trip.
Back to the main topic: So now, a bit more than two years since the big announcement that stopped us all in our tracks, where do we stand? We've gone from the excitement of a video that definitively shows an Ivorybill flashing its white back, to the equal but opposite excitement of a video that unquestionably shows a pileated and its distinctive underwing pattern, to a most unsatisfying video that shows a difficult-to-interpret blurry winged thing amidst a stew of imaging and compression artifacts. The National Geographic cover and Imax documentary have never materialized. The nestling poking its white bill out of the big round cavity in a giant Nuttall Oak has not been spotted. There are several widely-promoted ways to look at all this:
First, you can conclude that it was all a big mistake, no one has in fact seen, heard, videoed, or recorded an Ivorybill since long before 2004. Though widely popular amongst people who feel that they are taking the conservative approach, to me this conclusion requires as big a leap of faith as any other. Skip the video, which I've talked about ad nauseum elsewhere in this bog. First and foremost, you have to discredit and fully disregard several sightings from experienced birders who have good track records and have given you no a priori reason to believe them to be unreliable. This is not a conservative stance; indeed it is a tad on the radical side. In spite of widely repeated folklore, some of these individual sightings do include multiple field marks, and every standard "IBWO field mark" appears somewhere in at least one of the descriptions. Sure, anyone can conceivably make any mistake, but a blanket dismissal of a whole suite of observations as "wrong" on this basis is "faith-based birding" as much as anything else.
In the other direction, you can conclude that Ivorybills are out there but are just freakishly elusive. This idea is also popular, but it is both unsupportable and unnecessary. While the old accounts vary in how they describe the behavior of the bird, they all agree that it was not invisible. If it could be shot then, it can be photographed now. This is not a Black Rail. At worst, it might be a Swainson's Warbler. But really, if you think about your experiences with common birds of the wooded swamp, those descriptions of 19th century Ivorybill detectability could apply just fine to 21st century Pileateds or Wood Ducks. I hear them more often than I see them. Sometimes they are noisy, sometimes they are quiet. When I do see them, they are in flight much more often than they are perched. But, I also have managed to snap acceptable, identifiable photos of them with inferior equipment without massive difficulty. Not on every encounter, certanly; not even on most encounters. But it's perfectly possible, so long as they are actually present, even when there are leaves on the trees. And it is worth noting that Wood Ducks have been subjected to heavy hunting pressure, yet they're still just birds when it comes to wariness. The hyperwariness idea I believe is primarily a crutch being clung to by people who don't want to let go of the idea that there are still significant numbers of these birds lurking at dozens of sites across the South, but we just can't see them.
Related to the hyperwariness hypothesis is the hiding-in-the-vast-expanses belief. This is the idea that there could still be significant numbers of Ivorybills lurking in places where we have not yet looked. I will grant that there could be (hopefully are) some of these birds in unexplored areas. But I suggest that there is no mother load population hiding out anywhere in a unsurveyed swamp. There's a simple reason for this. If you accept that an Ivorybill or two has actually been seen in recent years, but has been devilishly difficult to relocate, the simplest explanation for this is that the birds have large home ranges and/or nomadic tendencies. This is consistent with the little that is known of their life history; indeed, it is probably the only way they could have survived through the habitat fragmentation bottleneck of the 20th Century. Given this, there's not going to be any secret population lurking in some unexplored swamp: the unexplored swamps just aren't big enough to fully contain such a population. If there was a substantial population in the Atchafalaya, they'd be seen flying across I-10 far more often than once in all of recorded history. Same for the other hypothesized secret refugia.
Let's ponder all these reports a bit more. Mostly, we have individual birds. The clearest views by the most experienced birders have all been single birds. There have been some reports of pairs, some indications of multiple birds heard, but primarily we have had solos. So far as I am aware, no one in Arkansas has reported clearly seeing a black crest, and no one in the Choc has reported clearly seeing a red crest, have they? There have been no active nest cavities, no family groups, no social interaction directly observed. Sounds to me rather like isolated birds. And since there is no room out there for a mother-load nesting population for these birds to be stragglers from, isolated nomadic birds seems to be all there is. And very, very, very few of them. Barely enough to breed every now and then to stave off extinction by a hair's breadth. That is the most optimistic spin I can realistically see for all this. They're not hyperelusive and being overlooked. There's no secret undiscovered source population in the far reaches of the Okefenokee or the Atchafalaya or the Altamaha or the Santee (none of these places are as remote as some fancy them to be). They are not being seen because they are just not there. Nearly everywhere, nearly all the time, even in the "best" habitat, they aren't there. Even if we have a handful of real sightings and a real video, there is only the teensiest number of these birds still flying out there creating these exceedingly few encounters.
Ah but what about all the secret evidence? All the unknown unknowns? I've seen a sampling here and there of the "secret evidence." Some of it is marvelously ambiguous, hauntingly intriguing. I've seen a reconyx image that I'd love to forward on to Julie Z. to use as the inspiration for another of her beautifully evocative paintings. But I haven't seen a picture of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in this evidence. I've seen blurs and backlit shapes that inspire the imagination. But no ivory-colored bills, no medial bars, no white secondaries, no yellow eyes; indeed in most cases not even definitely a woodpecker. The "secret evidence" is not going to change the picture here.
So, what the hell can we do for a species that we can't even find? What we already have been doing: preserve habitat, create corridors to interconnect fragments. This has been an ongoing goal for decades; it will need to continue indefinitely. We can't do single-species management for a species that we can't even tell you where it is. It's just a matter of going ahead with multi-species ecosystem conservation, preservation, and management.