Monday, June 25, 2007

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.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Nature in Shades of Blue and Yellow

My nephew who was visiting the last week (he of the snakes) is red-green colorblind, as we say colloquially. I've not been out in the field with someone with this particular quirk of vision to such an extent before, and it was very interesting. It also pointed out how inadequate most published field guides are for people with this color vision deficiency, a situation that about 10% of males are in. We flipped through a bird guide, and some interesting observations included these:

A male Scarlet Tanager is a drab, dull, dark bird. In contrast, a female is a brilliant, brightly-colored creature. Similarly, a male Painted Bunting is a mostly drab bird with a bright blue head, while the female is much more conspicuous. The male Indgo Bunting is a brilliant blue bird (we saw some of them in person). Goldfinches jump right out with their bright colors, but male Cardinals are about as obvious as dead twigs. Yellow appears to be his "red," meaning the color that is most bold and attention grabbing. But adding a little red to a shade makes it seem dark and dull to him, much like adding black does to me. Orange colors are dull, looking much like olive green and brown. In general, he is more strongy clued in to pattern than color, in comparison to most people with ordinary three-color vision.

I suggested to him he could make a killing by launching a series of field guides for the red-green colorblind.

No bounds

Over at the Ivory-bill Skeptic, a commenter stated that I no longer allow comments on my blog. I submitted a comment correcting this straightforward error in fact, stating simply that I only disallow unsigned anonymous comments. I pointed out that anyone can comment here so long as they sign a name, and that unlike some other blogs I reject very few signed comments regardless of their content. And, of course...

Nelson rejected my comment.

The hypocrisy and deceitfullness of this man who postures himself as a defender of truth, open discussion, and the scientific way is utterly astounding. Why does the community still grant him any status, credibility, or respect? He jumped the track of honest discussion many months ago in favor of talk-radio style propagandizing and carefully calculated misstatements and disinformation.

P.S. Not surprisingly, the only Nelson backers who have commented on this post have done so... anonymously. And for historical interest, this is the reason I'm no longer allowed to comment over there. This is also the post whose comment section got me threatened with legal action by the now-deceased Noel Wamer, a.k.a. "Olivacea," for something that I myself didn't even write. Ah, the good old days...

Californians and/or Herp fanciers: advice?

My 16-year-old nephew is becomming an avid amateur herpetologist (a.k.a. snake freak). That's his hand holding the Nerodia in the previous post. He lives in northern California (SF Bay area). Anyone know any contacts for clubs, societies, etc. in that area that have things like field trips and what not?

Monday, June 18, 2007

This is not a Cottonmouth

This is our extremely common and widespread non-venemous Northern Watersnake, Nerodia sipedon. I am positive that this critter is responsible for about 100% (possibly more) of the many, many unconfirmed reports of Cottonmouths here in Lewis County. There are no confirmed records for Cottonmouths for the county. Big thick brown snake by the water, whitish mouth when you piss it off and it strikes at you, you'll never convince a local boy this isn't a Cottonmouth, unfortunately.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Ways and means

There are ways to do.

There are ways to not do.

There are ways not to do.

There are ways not to not do.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Bring 'em on!

The hurricanes, that is. Yeah, I know, the coastal residents are screaming "No, no!" But folks, hurricanes have been a part of your world down there forever. Deal with 'em. Just like the rest of us deal with floods, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, blizzards, volcanoes, etc. I went through Hugo first hand in 1989 on the upper South Carolina coast. My wife's workplace was washed away, we had a tree through our roof, neighboring towns were submerged to the rafters, forests were flattened for mile upon mile. Seen it. Don't try to tell me that I don't know what the big storms can do. In spite of many claims otherwise, there was nothing unprecedented about Katrina except the precise location of landfall. Storms of that intensity are not only precedented, they are expected. Yes it's sad that so much 18th and 19th Century architecture was destroyed (built before there was full appreciation for the potential magnitude of the most severe storms), and the flooding of New Orleans was a criminal collapse of infrastructure, planning, organization, and execution. But the hurricanes are, always have been, and always will be. Adapt. And if your failures to adapt result in massive destruction and loss of life, it is very unfortunate. But it isn't a natural disaster, an "act of god" (which god would that be, exactly?), or a "tragedy." It is a largely preventable loss, just like getting T-boned at an intersection if you run the red light.

OK enough of that ranting, and on to this ranting: Give us hurricanes! We need 'em. Actually, wimpy little tropical storms would do fine, too. Even just some good wet tropical depressions getting entrained in an approaching cold front. Because our temperate zone synoptic weather systems have failed us again. Three consecutive years of spring and summer drought with abso-freekin-lutely no change in sight. Trees that just barely finished regrowing their leaves after being defoliated by the April freeze are already showing signs of drought-induced early senescence. Our drought index climbs from severe to extreme, with pockets of "exceptional drought conditions" threatening to grow. In 2005 the only thing that spared us was the tropical weather. If it weren't for Arlene, Dennis, Katrina, and Rita we'd be even worse off now, with "permanent" springs and streams possibly even running dry. All told they gave us over a foot of rain, which is probably 15-20% of our total rainfall for the last 24 months, and over half of our growing season moisture from 2005 to the present. There's been essentially no groundwater recharge since then. The tropics failed to deliver us any moisture at all in the 2006 season. As it now stands, we'll probably need something like 10" of rain before we see recharge get going again. Sure, a series of stalled-out fronts could take care of this, but they've let us down nearly every time since 2004. Three or four nice wet tropical systems constitute our best hope.

And down on the coast: get up, get back, tie down. Like they've been telling you to do for, oh, say, about 50 years.


In the future, I will not allow unsigned anonymous comments on any postings. This isn't because of the contents of recent anonymous postings, but just because I find it annoying and frustrating to not be able to keep track of who is saying what, and which comments are from the same person. You can still use a screen name rather than your real name, but please be consistent. And as before, on serious and highly controversial woodpecker posts (if anything new ever happens in that arena...), I'll only allow comments signed with a real name or from one of a very few widely-recognized pseudonyms.

Thanks for reading and contributing!

Site Meter