Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ivorybills and Other Phantoms: A Call to Action

Those who are absolutely convinced that the odds of Ivorybill persistence in the 21st Century are zero or less, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is an utter fool whose sightings of every bird anywhere should all be expunged from every database they might have slipped into, should kindly stop reading now. I'm not addressing this to you. I am writing to the other 90%+ of competent, experienced birders out there who, no matter how dubious they might be, still maintain credence in at least a small sliver of possibility.

This will be my final posting on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker barring any new discoveries. There is little (nothing) to be said that has not already been said, repeatedly, in every available venue. I am not going to review the evidence, or the discussions of the evidence. Nor am I going to repeat all the arguments about why the extinction of this species has not been demonstrated to anything even remotely resembling a statistical certainty; it's been covered in my earlier posts and in other fora. Here in my last post I'm going to talk about the future.

The noble Campephilus principalis is one of three phantom bird species in North America (north of Mexico), those whose continued existence has not been proven yet cannot be disproved either. There are other phantoms around the world. Of our three here (the other two of course being Eskimo Curlew and Bachman's Warbler) only the Ivorybill has generated a stir in the last few years, so that is the one I am directly addressing. The situation is not dissimilar for the others, however. It is abundantly clear that focused searches by teams of dedicated individuals (even large-ish teams) are simply not capable of generating enough field hours over enough terrain to either nail these suckers down or nail the lids on their coffins in any reasonable time frame or budget. There is likely only one way to accomplish this. I hereby challenge my fellow birders with the following Call to Action:

Put these phantoms back on your birding radar.

That's it. Simple enough. Quit thinking of these creatures as ghosts or yetis, and think of them as what they really are: regular old birds that are exceedingly rare if they do exist. Throw away the baggage, mythology, and psychology and just treat them like birds.

So, what does this mean, really? It means familiarizing yourself with their habits, habitats, identification, vocalizations, behavior, etc,; all the things that we stuff in our heads about many other potential rarities. Come on, you've done this for Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, you can do it for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. It also means putting in at least some mental and logistic energy in to finding these species.

Let me spell out some specifics here in the Ivorybill case, starting with a little personal experience. Like many southern birders of my generation, I had that Singer Tract sound recording burned into my brain at an impressionable age. Whenever I have been anywhere near a swamp, I have had a little "kent" detector running in the background. But, for all those decades (as far back as the early 1970s when the odds for the species' continued existence were less miniscule than they are now), I was not the slightest bit tuned in for double knocks. Didn't know much about them, didn't think about them, didn't listen for them. And, of course, ample evidence suggests that what I was NOT listening for was probably the most likely thing I might have heard. So, I'd charge all competent birders who live in the southeast to ask themselves these questions:

-- What does a Campephilus double knock sound like? What are its distinctive characteristics (quality, pattern, timing, intensity)? What other sounds might it be confused with?

-- What about the "kent" call? Same questions.

-- If a bird that you thought might be an Ivorybill flew past you at high speed, in the few seconds you have what should you look for other than the white secondaries (which would probably have been the first thing that caught your eye)? You have a precious instant to look for a few other key marks that would help confirm or correct the ID; where do your eyes need to go? [FYI the answer here is "the head!" We have SOO many sightings of headless "Ivorybills" in flight!]

There's more to this, though, than just brushing up on these points. There's also the question of effort. There are thousands and thousands of birders roving around the southeastern U.S. If every one of them would dedicate just a few hours each year to spending time in potential Ivorybill habitat that would quickly dwarf the total effort of the official Cornell search summed over all its field seasons. Fact is, birders do occasionally stumble across the totally unsuspected, but far, far more often we find what we expect, where we expect it, and when we are looking for it. So, once a year, in late winter or early spring, go spend some time in a swamp with not an expectation but maybe with a silly hope that you might hear a double knock. What have you got to lose? As I have noted elsewhere, birders have a strong tendency to avoid closed-canopy bottomland hardwood forests. Birders have been driving by the entrance to Moss Island for year after year on their way somewhere else, almost never bothering to stop in. There are thousands of Moss Islands out there. Pay some of them a visit. And don't just all trek to the Congaree, Choctawhatchie, and Big Woods. Don't everybody keep looking in the same few places over and over. If these birds still exist, it's pretty obvious that we don't know where they are!

And if you do stumble across something that turns your head inside out and your heart upside down, take some deep breaths and remember: It's not a ghost, it's not bigfoot, it's not a space alien. It's a bird. A really really really rare bird, but still it's a bird. Treat it as such.

Given the magnitude of the task, we birders are our only hope. No one else will ever muster the skills and person-power to sort this out.

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