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IVORY-BILLS  LiVE???!  ...

=> THE blog devoted to news and commentary on the most iconic bird in American ornithology, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO)... and... sometimes other schtuff.
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"....The truth is out there."

-- Dr. Jerome Jackson, 2002 (... & Agent Fox Mulder)

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

-- Hamlet

"All truth passes through 3 stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."

-- Arthur Schopenhauer






Thursday, January 27, 2011

 

-- Scott Crocker Interview --

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Time for another IBL interview, this time with producer/director of the independent film "Ghost Bird," Scott Crocker. Most readers here are by now probably familiar with this award-winning documentary, even if you haven't had a chance to see it yet. I actually emailed Scott these questions some months back, but probably wouldn't change them much if I were doing the interview anew today. His answers are both interesting and sometimes provocative. Enjoy....

1. CT: Although your film, "Ghost Bird," shows both sides of the IBWO story, I think it leaves the impression that you lean toward the belief that the original claims were mistaken/overblown, and the Ivory-bill is most likely now extinct. Is that a fair summary of your current viewpoint?

SC: I originally set out to make a film that explored both sides of the debate more fully and left the viewer to wrestle with the uncertainty of the Ivory-bill's continued existence. The further I got into the project however, this intention changed to reflect a more skeptical point of view. The main reason for this was the uncooperativeness of Cornell in not allowing their search team staff and associated recovery participants to be interviewed. Their circle of control widened out to individuals who were not employed by Cornell but were under their immediate influence.

Obviously, this limited who I could interview and which perspectives I could include in the film. As time passed, there was a broadening of the debate between believers and skeptics, and as passionately as it was argued by both sides within the birding community, this heated discussion didn't really travel beyond the birding world. My conversations with non-birders left me with the impression that while most folks had heard about the rediscovery of an extinct woodpecker, they were unaware that the rediscovery had been contested by other scientists and birding experts. Furthermore, people often attributed evidence to the rediscovery that had not been obtained, like clear photographs or roost holes with feathers or eggs in them. Since the confirmation of the Ivory-bill's existence carried more popular weight than the criticism of the evidence, the more skeptical perspective that Ghost Bird ended up having seemed to right the imbalance. Based on the general feedback I have heard from viewers, the film achieves this delicate balance.

On a related note, I am often asked what I think about the bird's existence. While I did a lot of poking around and had lengthy conversations with many of the better informed people chasing Ivory-bill's, I think the question misses the mark. Whether I think it is or isn't alive doesn't mean very much. The more central question that I believe the film raises for viewers is whether the search beginning in 2004 compromised the scientific method in its effort to confirm the species persistence. My personal answer to that question is "yes". That still leaves open the question as to whether the bird was seen flying through the Bayou DeView. Without irrefutable evidence to support the alleged sightings, only the eye-witnesses have an answer to that. The rest of us are left choosing between believing that they saw an Ivory-bill, or not. Unfortunately, no matter how you look at it, that is a choice of faith not science.

2. CT: Were there any individuals who you really wished to interview or otherwise include in the film who refused to participate, and can you say why they chose not to take part?

SC: While there are many people I wanted to interview for the film, most of them originally agreed to participate. It was only after agreeing to being interviewed that they retracted their consent. In the case of Cornell search leader Martjan Lammertink, his consent was retracted for him by the Lab of Ornithology's Director of Communications. Needless to say, that set a strong precedent with respect to the Lab's position on my interviewing their people. As I previously mentioned, the Lab exerted its influence over numerous others beyond just the individuals who had signed non-disclosure agreements with them. This sounds like paranoia or a conspiracy theory, after all we are talking about scientific research and a major university, both of which we expect to meet our expectations of openness and inclusiveness. However, my experience has been corroborated by both a senior editor and a writer at Science, the same publication that originally published Cornell's confirmation paper. The bottom line is that individuals who had agreed to be interviewed were coerced not to participate.

This leads one to ask why would the Cornell Lab of Ornithology do this? What is most telling is that most of the interview denials happened in 2005, before the public skepticism had really galvanized. My sense is that initially, the Lab's exclusivity and control of access to people and information was driven by their understandable desire to keep the story from being scooped. After all, they immanently anticipated finding an active roost hole and photographing Ivory-bills at close range. As the months flew by, their coercive behavior looked more and more defensive. After several search seasons ended empty-handed, their controlling behavior appeared more like damage control.

While it may sound shocking, I have spoken with a number of people who work in academia that say Cornell is hardly alone in this kind of activity which is becoming increasingly common as research funding gets tighter and the race to publish accelerates. Sadly, science takes a back seat.

3. CT: Were there certain people whose views you found particularly convincing and well-thought-out among all those you interviewed?

SC: Everybody I interviewed had something to offer so it is hard to single anyone out. I especially appreciated David Luneau's contributions. As someone who has searched for Ivory-bills for over a decade, both independently and with Cornell, he was able to put a lot into perspective. He is also really methodical and was possibly one of the most thoughtful scientists involved with the searchers. Where others were quick to express optimism, David seemed to maintain a healthy degree of open mindedness. Jerome Jackson has also been a great resource and was incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. This is nicely illustrated by one of the nine extra scenes included on the DVD where Jerome leads a tour of his collection Ivory-bill memorabilia. It's truly astonishing and a reminder both of the profound legacy of the Ivory-bill and the tragedy of its demise as a species.

4. CT: Have you been at all surprised by the success and positive reviews of "Ghost Bird," or did you reasonably expect that it would strike a chord with viewers?

SC: I knew the birding world was fascinated by this subject, but my decision to make the movie was based on my I belief that the story of the Ivory-billed woodpecker had an important environmental message for everyone. The bird is iconic in its own right but it is also emblematic of other species that have needlessly gone extinct or had their populations severely reduced. What I was not sure of was whether I could tell the story in a way that would successfully resonate with a wider audience. Having poured five years of my life into Ghost Bird, I am incredibly grateful for the positive reviews that indicate I accomplished this. It is professionally very validating to have one of the more demanding critics at the New York Times write that the film is "a multilayered story that will fascinate practically everybody."

5. CT: In the making of "Ghost Bird" was there any one thing that stood out for you as the most surprising or unexpected element/occurrence that you hadn't foreseen?

SC: The most surprising thing I discovered while making the film had to do with the way government funds for searching for Ivory-bills had been robbed from grants to protect endangered species like Kirtland's warbler. This struck me as a disturbingly cynical way of celebrating the rediscovery of a species already believed extinct. Unfortunately, it also made a lot of sense given the Bush Administration's lip service with respect to environmental issues while at the same time it was de-listing species or increasing tolerance levels for toxins. In keeping with this underhandedness, I found it appropriately ironic when Gale Norton, who first announced the Ivory-bill's rediscovery, left her position as Secretary of the Interior to work as legal consul for Shell Oil. It's a slippery slope!

6. CT: A real hypothetical here: IF, in the next year say, the Ivory-bill was once-and-for-all documented to EVERYONE'S satisfaction, would you do some sort of follow-up to the story? Either another film or re-release of "Ghost Bird" with new material added?

SC: At this point I feel like the film does a really good job of chronicling the arch of the story beginning with the announcement all the way through to the loud silence of the inconclusive end to the search. It is an important time capsule. Were the bird to be irrefutably documented tomorrow, that would definitely upset the thrust of the movie which is fundamentally about uncertainty. In a strange way however, the current film would then become more about its own uncertainty rather than our collective uncertainty, which is still a powerful and profound message in an age of overwhelming information masquerading as knowledge. That said, it would be very tempting to do an epilogue for the next printing of the DVD.

7. CT: For fans, when will the film be out for purchase on DVD?

SC: The DVD is now available with forty minutes of extra scenes at www.ghostbirdmovie.com. We also have a cool Ivory-bill t-shirt that collectors and fans of the contemporary artist Mark Dion will love.

8. CT: What project(s) are you working on now?

SC: Believe it or not, Ghost BIrd still takes up most of my time coordinating materials for community screenings, launching the Educational Edition and promoting awareness of the film and the issue of species loss. I do have a project in suspended development about alternative energy and the race to find a silver bullet to our disappearing petroleum resources. You can get a preview at http://www.worldsfastestsubmarine.com.

9. CT: Anything else you care to pass along about the IBWO saga and your film that readers might be interested in knowing?

SC: One conspiracy theory about the rediscovery that I didn't have time to finish exploring has to do with the role of the Army Corps of Engineers and their plans to redirect and control the waters of the Bayou DeView on behalf of agribusiness in need of reliable irrigation for soybean and rice cultivation. Once the Ivory-bill was rediscovered, their plans have been put on indefinite hold. Sounds far fetched, but this is a huge industry in the Brinkley area, and it wouldn't be the first time a swamp was saved from destruction by unconfirmed claims that Ivory-bills lived there (read about Alex Sanders and the Santee Swamp). I am not implying the whole thing was a hoax, only that one guy in a kayak may have embellished a little to help preserve "the natural state". The rest, as they say, is history. True or not, I think if a similar hoax could have saved the Singer Tract and its Ivory-bills along with it, most people would have welcomed the deception.

CT: Thanks Scott, for your interesting, thought-provoking responses here, and continued good luck in your future film-making endeavors.

==> I realize some readers may take issue with various comments Scott makes here. I don't want to stifle opinion, but I will ask commenters to remain civil and on-point with any critical feedback they wish to offer. (...I'm grateful to all my interviewees who take time from busy schedules to answer a blogger's questions, and they ought feel free to voice their sincere opinions without concern about the tone of reader-response.)

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

 

-- Passing the Time... --

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Not a fiction-reader myself, but for those who are, and are also birders, I'll pass along this recent novel, that I came across on the Web: "Quick Fall of Light" by Sherrida Woodley, in which Passenger Pigeons, interestingly, play a major role:

http://tinyurl.com/63lahvo
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Thursday, January 20, 2011

 

-- No Giant Woodpecker, But Giant Crayfish --

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just gotta look under enough rocks:

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-01/uoia-rdg011911.php
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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

 

-- More Choctawhatchee Narrative --

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Donald Ware recounts his knowledge/experience regarding the Ivory-billed Woodpecker along the Choctawhatchee River (FL.) at the end of this post:

http://tinyurl.com/4buy477
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

 

-- Some Good News In Bird Conservation --

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Parrot species represent some of the most threatened bird species on Earth, but good news recently from the American Bird Conservancy for the South American Yellow-eared Parrot climbing back from the brink of extinction:

http://tinyurl.com/6b7pm8h
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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

 

-- Cuban Ivory-bill --

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Read elsewhere on Web that Dr. Giraldo Alayon, a renowned Cuban ornithologist/naturalist and one of the last people to see the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Cuba back in the 1980s, is currently writing a book on the Cuban IBWO.
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Sunday, January 09, 2011

 

-- American Melancholy --

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A little off-topic today...



...with thoughts/prayers for the latest victims of American violence.
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Thursday, January 06, 2011

 

-- Bit of Housekeeping --

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First I should probably link to the latest "I and the Bird" birding blog-carnival, since this edition links to my interview with Stephen Lyn Bales:

http://www.birdingisfun.com/2011/01/i-and-bird-141.html
(it is filled, like all editions, with a variety of good birding-related links)

And well-timed, for my recent interview with Mr. Bales, I just noticed there is a 1st edition of James Tanner's "The Ivory-billed Woodpecker" monograph currently up for sale at eBay, for any of you IBWO-book-antiquarians (who have some bucks to spare!):

http://tinyurl.com/275e7tv

For those few who were affected by the recent blog-glitches here related to the Internet Explorer browser, thanks for your patience with the matter (I didn't receive a single "Hey dorkhead, your %$!@*&! blog is all screwed up!!?" email at any point. ;-))
I've put in a fix for now to have text show up in IE, but there are still other issues that I may re-try addressing one day. ...And let me just say that there is no amount of evil that could befall Microsoft and Internet Explorer that would suffice from my standpoint for their sloppiness! --- I'll reiterate that Firefox, Chrome, and Opera seem to be the favored browser choices these days, and there's Safari for the Mac --- IE is just a sloppy, slow-loading, insecure, unstable, poor-quality browser (other than that of course it's fine-and-dandy) that people put up with 'cuz it came with their machine, but almost never deliberately choose anymore --- But enough soapbox!
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Sunday, January 02, 2011

 

-- Interview - Stephen Lyn Bales --

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Another "Ivory-bills Live" interview is finally here, this time with the author of "Ghost Birds" (a book I highly recommend), naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales. I very much enjoyed Stephen's answers to my questions, and think you will too:

1. CT: For those readers who aren't familiar with you can you say a little about your background and credentials, and what brought you to the James Tanner story?

SLB: I'm a naturalist at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, a member of the local chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOC) and a nature writer. Nancy Tanner is a member of Ijams and TOC; I've known her for years. In the fall of 2005, I was finishing the manuscript for my first book Natural Histories for UT Press and having lunch one day with Nancy when conversation drifted to her late husband Jim. Stories about Tanner and his search have fascinated me for years and all of a sudden I realized I should attempt a book about his ivory-bill studies and asked Nancy to help me. Such is the way that these projects usually begin.
But before you write a book, you have to find a publisher. I had been already working with UT Press, I approached them and they gave me the go ahead. Since, Jim Tanner taught at UT for over 30 years, it seemed like a natural fit.
2. CT: Your book puts a little more "flesh" on several of the names long associated with the Ivory-bill story. I particularly found the portrait of J.J. Kuhn interesting, almost semi-heroic. Besides Tanner which other figures did you develop a special admiration or respect for from your research?

SLB: Albert Brand’s story is tragic. A self-made man, he was able to retire from his first career as a stockbroker when he was only 39-years-old and begin a second career as an ornithologist. As a student at Cornell he developed an interest in the fledgling science of recording birdsong, which led him to publish two pioneering books, Songs of Wild Birds, which included two small 78-rpm phonograph disks and, in 1936, More Songs of Wild Birds, containing three disks and 43 bird songs. (I have a copy of the second.)
Because Brand had money, he helped plan and finance the 1935 Cornell Expedition and would have accompanied Allen, Kellogg and Tanner all the way but his health collapsed. That must have been heart breaking, to be on the threshold of such a great adventure, and not be able to go. Brand’s name perhaps would have become synonymous with recorded birdsong, he was already on the forefront, had he lived to complete other projects but his health never improved and he died of kidney disease on March 28, 1940. He was only 51-years-old.

3. CT: Your discovery (with Nancy Tanner) of additional photos of "Sonny Boy," the juvenile Ivory-bill, received a lot of publicity. Other than that, what were the most unusual or surprising findings you made in the course of researching the book?

SLB: Without a doubt, Jim’s 400-page field journal. Tanner donated it to Cornell a few years before he died in 1991. (Twenty years ago this month.) Most of it was handwritten, notes and maps he scribbled in the field or after a long day in the swamp. His handwriting wasn’t always easy to read, but I worked my way through it one page at a time and really felt I relived his peregrinations with him.

4. CT: Even given a 3-year period and all of his skills, with so much time spent at the Singer Tract and in Ithaca, NY., I've always found it difficult to imagine how Tanner could have adequately searched the rest of the Southeast for hideouts of the Ivory-bill. From your study can you say what level of confidence you have that he sufficiently explored all areas to reach the final conclusions he did?

SLB: He actually spent very little time in Ithaca those three years. Tanner put in long days on the road, month after month. I think it is safe to say he did everything humanly possible for one man to do, up before daylight and out all day until dark plus he had to pack in supplies to wherever he was at the time.
I do think his assignment was too broad and his time-frame too brief. He was asked to 1) Learn all that could be discovered about the historic range of the ivory-bill, 2) Discover where they still could be found, 3) Study the ecology of the species: what was its favorite foods, how did it raise its young, where did it nest and roost, what kinds of trees did if prefer, in short, learn everything possible about its life history. All in three years. This put him constantly at cross-purposes and must have pulled him apart, having to first: stay in one place observing ivory-bills and second: travel extensively throughout the Gulf Coast states searching as many locations as possible. If such a study were commissioned today, ten or more people would be assigned to the task.

5. CT: Your book focuses on Tanner's 3-year study in the late 1930s, but he didn't pass away until 1991. Can you say a little more about what his involvement was with Ivory-bill claims over the last 50 years of his life?

SLB: Books are assigned parameters by editors. My contract called for a manuscript of no more than 300 pages, 85 percent of which about Tanner’s field years. This gave me a time-frame of 1935 to 1941. But I know that Tanner remained outdoorsy after the war, explored the nearby Smoky Mountains constantly for birds, albeit not ivory-bills. He did take many canoe trips down the same rivers and others in the South during his vacations. On these, he was always searching for signs of IBWOs.

6. CT: A little more specifically, I've previously referenced (on my blog) Herb Stoddard's claims for IBWOs in Georgia. Did your research indicate whatever thoughts Tanner may have held towards Stoddard's claims? Or how about his attitude toward John Dennis, another IBWO claimant well past the 1940's, who more clearly seemed to feel some friction with Tanner (and others)? In short, were there any (U.S.) claims in the last 40-or-so years of his life that particularly excited Tanner as to a possibility for IBWO persistence?

SLB: Since my project became defined by the dates 1935 to 1941, I only concentrated of those years of his notes and letters. I was also under deadline, so I had to really focus on that time period. I do not have copies of his notes and letters dated after 1941; the originals should be at Cornell with the rest of his papers. The Tanner/Dennis friction is unfortunate. From what I have read about both men they are very similar. Both believed in spending long hours in the field. The truth is out there; go find it. James Tanner the professor always required his students to spend more time in the field than in the classroom or lab. He was no PhD snob. If he was on campus, his office door was open. Any student could stop by for advice at any time.
I think Tanner always hoped that someone would someday find living ivory-bills that he could go and observe. He was much too humble a man to let his ego stand in the way of the delight of seeing the species once again wherever it was found. What a thrill that would have been for him. In January 1968, after the Dennis report surfaced, Jim returned to the Big Thicket in Texas with Paul Sykes of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Almost 30 years after his initial visit, they found no feeding sign, good habitat or credible substantiating reports. Jim’s belief that the species was not in the area remained unchanged. Tanner and Dennis just simply disagreed. I’m a Colts’ fan; I have a close friend that’s a Packers’ fan. We just agree to disagree.

7. CT: What, if any plans, are in the works for a paperback version of the book? Also, any possibility of a movie (documentary) version of the volume, possibly for TV if not the big screen?

SLB: Once a manuscript is turned into the publisher, it’s out of his hands. From that point on, the book belongs to the publisher. They own it. Whatever happens next is up to them. I assume if the hardback sells well enough, they may produce a paperback. But sometimes that can take years.

8. CT: Are you planning or working on a new book project now?

SLB: Writing a book is a long, tedious process, hours and hours and hours. Since I have a day job, I write early in the morning, at nights, on weekends and use vacation days. For every hour you put in, that’s an hour you do not get to spend with your family, or hike a trail in the Smokies, or repair that leaky gutter over the front porch. I’ve spent much of my free time the past seven years writing the two books. That’s a lot of hours. But once you become an author, and understand how the process works, I suppose you are always thinking about other projects. I’m sure I’ll write a third, I’m just not sure what or when. I’ve been pulling together material for a sequel to Natural Histories, but here again, I have to find a publisher willing to give me the go ahead before I commit myself to the long hours to would require to complete.

9. CT: Is there anything else you would want my readers to know about the Ivory-bill story from your vantage point and research?

SLB: It’s a wonderful, bittersweet story, a story of hope and of sorrow. It’s obtained a mythical standing. I feel honored to have been able to flesh out in more detail, one of its chapters: Jim’s story.
Unless you have actually seen an ivory-bill recently, you have to wonder: Is it extinct or not? As I write in my preface, “And there the magnificent bird teeters, one zygodactyl foot in the here and now, the other in the hereafter. For over one hundred years, the grave has been dug, but no one can confidently fill it in. Dressed in black, we stand around the gravesite with no final corpse to bury.” Let’s hope there never is a final corpse. No Martha the last known passenger pigeon, or Incas the last known Carolina parakeet.
You often see the word “hope” associated with the ivory-bill. We all hope it’s still tucked away out there. Scott Weidensaul’s book The Ghost with Trembling Wings is filled with such stories. I’ve spoken to many people who feel they have seen it. Their stories are very believable. As Tanner would say, “If your observations do not match the books, go with your observations.” But getting the evidence to convince others is how science works. We all wait for that truly non-contestable photo. We’ll all breathe a sigh of relief and do back flips when it appears.
Jim Tanner came to believe they were extinct, BUT he hoped he was proved wrong. And he was very sincere in that desire.

CT: Thank you Mr. Bales for your illuminating answers here, and giving the birding/naturalist community such a wonderful reading experience with your book; wishing you much success in the future.

ADDENDUM: just occurred to me that I should've given a plug to Mr. Bales' own blogs somewhere in this post:
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Saturday, January 01, 2011

 

-- Happy 2011 and Techie Problems --

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JUBILANT NEW YEAR!!... sorta (when technology isn't a pain-in-the-...)

...heard from a few folks about the odd recent glitch of blog-text being invisible on posts here until one drags the cursor across the area making it appear (also, the heading/title and left-hand side-column may not be appearing properly)... mostly a problem for people using Internet Explorer, but if anyone is having similar problems with any other browser please let me know that. Luckily things appear fine in most browsers and for most readers.

Also, if anyone is using IE and having NO such problems with the blog, please let me know which version you're using, although I suspect all versions are affected.

My first suggestion is to switch to the Firefox browser (or other choices) in place of IE (for more reasons than I care to discuss! -- ya shoulda done so long ago ;-)). Here's the free download site for Firefox:

http://www.mozilla.org/

If you're using IE it may also help some to reduce the size-view to the smallest size that is still readily legible for you. I'll be working on the problem, but have no idea if/when I'll figure out the corrective measure needed.

If one of you HTML (or it may be a CSS problem?) whizzes can describe for me what to look for in the source code to find and correct this sort of problem (invisible text; post-titles & footers are fine) please email me (cyberthrush@gmail.com) --- so far as I can tell, I only played with 2 lines that seemed to initiate the problem, and off-hand I don't see the problem in either line myself. Oy veyyy....
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