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.


At 4:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How gloomy, Bill!
Well, if they're just about staving off extinction, at least there are a few there. And isn't the habitat improving, and corridors ARE being created?
Are you still getting occasional reports from hunters?
Maybe there's a little hope yet.


At 6:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually Bill there have been two good sightings by a hunter named Ross Evert (TRE329) in the Wattensaw in Dec and March. The first was a sighting for several minutes taht involved a second bird with a all black head/crest flying in at the end before they both flew off, and the second was of a lone female where he noted the black crest and the upper and underwing patterns. He has a blog that he set up about his search, these sightings turned a non birder into a birder!!!


At 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also Bill there have been much more than several credible sightings. And if you want to look at the field notes/ sketches by the hunter in Arkansas go to intothefirebirding.blogspot and scroll to the bottom of the page.

At 8:36 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Hi Peter -

There have always been lots of reports from hunters; in fact sometimes it has seemed to me that every single hunter or fisherman in the South will eventually tell you about the Ivorybills he has seen. Nothing personal about Russ, but what has made the last couple of years different has been the reports from long-time, established, reliable, active-in-the-community birders, of which there have been several but not a whole lot. About crest color: on a bona-fide male ivorybill in flight, the crest is folded back and the red is largely covered by the black crown. This leaves only a rather narrow crescent of red on the back of the head, just above the nape. It would be very easy to miss this and think on a quick view that you had seen a solid black crest.

You can call me a birder snob, but bird ID in the field under real conditions is tough and tricky. This is why I singled out the few sightings from people who have extensive experience at the ID of birds of all sorts, not just people like duck hunters who specialize in only a subset of birds. Knowing how to tell a Hoodie and a Woodie apart on the wing at 300m range in 0.1 second does not necessarily transfer directly to telling two woodpeckers apart.

Having said all that, I am hopeful (though I'd not go so far as to say "optimistic") that some big news will come out of Wattensaw in the near future. But it hasn't happened yet, and there have been quite a few people looking.

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"First, you can conclude that it was all a big mistake..."

The only reasonable conclusion.

"Though widely popular amongst people who feel that they are taking the conservative approach"

It's the CLO who took the conservative approach by holding a press conference with Gale Norton.

"you have to discredit and fully disregard several sightings from experienced birders"

They're all stringers. Mystery solved. It's that simple. Nothing conservative or radical about it.

It seems you really are a TB, Billcrow, but you are correct that the idea of a field season for resident IBWOs was absurd.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Lotta really deep thinking there, Athiest. Though I did chuckle at the Norton comment. The best part of this whole thing may have been watching her trying to act happy at that press conference.

So as best as I can tell, your logic is "All people who report seeing Ivorybills are stringers because anyone who reports seeing an Ivorybill is a stringer." What happened to you? You used to be able to string thoughts together into a logical argument, and didn't seem to need to use schoolyard name-calling.

Given that there have evidently been at least two different people posting on other blogs using this same pseudonym, and the nick does not link to any blog, profile, or other way to track who is who (and assuming your legal name is not Irwin Bodicea Woodward Oscar Athiest, Jr.), I'm gonna have to invoke my comment rules now. Just make a blogger profile and claim the nick as your own, then post logged in from that profile, and there won't be a problem anymore here or elsewhere.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Mark VanderVen said...


I enjoyed reading your post, and largely concur with your comments.

I am also rather doubtful that there is a hidden trove of IBWOs lingering in some remote unbirded cypress swamp. I have, however, been told that much of the Big Cypress area in Florida is extremely difficult to penetrate, had an IBWO population long ago, and still may contain suitable, substantial habitat for a hypothetical IBWO population. Do you know how much of the Big Cypress area truly is under-explored? Have there been thorough searches conducted in Big Cypress since the '40s? Is the habitat really that good? I ask from ignorance, and not out of any belief that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers dwell in Big Cypress today.

I also don't buy the ultra-wary excuse. I do think the "I’ve seen extant Campephilus woodpeckers that weren’t wary, ergo hypothetical extant Ivory-billeds ought not be either" argument is a crock. But I still believe that either photo documentation or, more probably, a series of lengthy looks by multiple observers in a relatively short period of time would have occured by now in Arkansas or Florida if a population indeed existed.

My hope is that anybody reporting an IBWO in the future will endeavor to tell the world why they think they've seen the bird, instead of offering why it couldn't have been anything else. In other words, I'd like to hear four or more diagnostic characteristics described, i.e. “Bird landed 25 meters away; showed conspicuous white shield & dorsal stripes; when it lifted head pale bill & black crest became apparent; after scaling bark for fifteen seconds it took flight, revealing white trailing edge from underneath as it flew directly over the treetops” instead of "Saw silhouetted large woodpecker flying with stiff wingbeats; as I caught a fleeting glimpse of it in good light I saw white trailing edges. Have seen hundreds of Pileateds, so what else could it be?" I tell my students when identifying birds to tell me why it is what they say it is instead of telling me why it isn't what they say it's not," and it would sure be nice if that was how IBWO searchers reported. Hell, it would be nice if that was how all birders birded!

Finally, I believe that instead of using the extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker as an excuse to destroy forest, we need to use the extinction as an excuse to save it! I think I speak for most ex-searchers, carpetbaggers and southerners alike when I say that these forests are still precious treasures, Ivory-billed or no, and that the disappearance of a keystone species only illustrates the need to save what's left of them. Though it's sad to lose birds like the Ivory-billed, especially when you comprehend the bigger picture causes, its equally sad that we rely on these poster children or sex symbol species as one of just very few means to justify saving the ecosystems in which they dwell(ed).


At 7:15 PM, Blogger cyberthrush said...

first, people need to be cautioned against becoming pessimistic based simply on any failures from the Big Woods and Choctawh. There are way too many other areas needing further study to draw conclusions so soon.

As far as the Big Cypress goes, Tanner thought it to be an extremely significant area, but in yrs. since, it has been highly encroached upon and widely explored, such that many don't rate it high for overall potential; although sheer size and possibly even proximity to Cuba, do make it of interest. Jackson has long thought the nearby Fakahatchee area might be a decent prospect for IBWOs, but others think it too small or otherwise inadequate. The exact habitat needs of the 1930s/40s IBWOs is hard enough to know, let alone what any remnant group left today may require, so there will continue to be much room to debate where best to search.

At 11:39 PM, Blogger Mark VanderVen said...

Thanks for the info on Big Cypress. I reckon, then, that there aren't large swaths of difficult-to-penetrate, under-explored areas left there?

I'm not certain I get the Cuba connection. The near-consensus these days seems to be that the Cuban and southeastern US birds are/were distinct species. Even if not, the distance between the Oriente Province and Big Cypress may be greater than you realize!

At 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Mark Vanderven
Interesting, and readable comments, Mark.
However, do I take it that you have little belief in the sightings of Brian Rolek, Tyler Hicks and Geoff Hill himself?


At 11:42 AM, Blogger Mark VanderVen said...


Geoff and Brian are class acts who are beyond reproach from me. And I say this as someone who no longer works with/for either of them, and is back home 3000 miles away. I admire the enormous sacrifices both have made in trying to document an extant IBWO. Neither armchair believers nor critics can even begin to conceive of how much work those two (along with Rusty Ligon and all of the techs and volunteers), put into the search. If anyone finds it I hope that they are the ones. (I've nothing to say on Hicks.)

But I'd been interested in the status of the IBWO for nearly 35 years before I worked in the Choctawhatchee this winter. Though others may choose to interpret the evidence differently, from my own perspective it'll take much more than what's been offered by CLO, Auburn, Mike Collins et al to resurrect an extinct bird.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger salar53 said...

I'm glad that you state that Geoff Hill and Brian Rolek are class acts who are beyond reproach from you.
Your statement lies at the very heart of the matter, and contains a great paradox.
For both Geoff and Brian have claimed to have seen the IBWO. Geoff, the leader after all, has given his blessing to Tyler Hicks' excellent sightings.
How then, if these men are beyond reproach, can you claim that that the IBWO is probably extinct?
This episode in the saga baffles me again.

At 9:44 PM, Blogger Bill Pulliam said...

Mark can speak for himself in on the specifics, but in general it's just an aspect of human nature that two people who are both impeccably logical, respectable, and ethical can look at the exact same information, both understand it fully, and still reach different conclusions about it.

At 12:22 AM, Blogger Mark VanderVen said...


You might note that I wrote that they are beyond reproach *from me*. Friendship means something to me, perhaps even more than scientific justice, though I have to admit my tongue is pretty raw now from having had to bite it so often.

You'll have to do a little bit of reading between the lines here to understand what, admittedly, *is* a paradox.

Geoff, btb, seemed to understands his critics' concerns, and never appeared to begrudge them for their arguments.

Bill - "Respectful.... logical....ethical...." If I ever need a character witness, I'll know who to call!


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