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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.

Web ivorybills.blogspot.com

"....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, November 12, 2009


-- Permanent Open Thread --


Issues, Thoughts, Ideas, Concerns, Questions....

Taa Daaaaa!... an experiment: trying a permanent "Open Thread" (which may or may not succeed).
As I'm mulling over all-things-Ivorybill these days I suspect others are as well, with other thoughts. At the top of the "Ivory-bill Links" in the left-hand column I've listed "Permanent Open Thread" linking directly to this one post. I'm attempting to create a space that folks can quickly access for more open-ended discussion of things on their own minds. Am dubbing it a place for issues, thoughts, ideas, concerns, questions that readers just want to throw out for discussion.
The operating rules, as usual, are 1) keep things civil, and 2) that space not be monopolized too much by 2 or 3 people going 'round and 'round with each other repetitively on a single matter --- make your best case, maybe with a couple of follow-ups, and then move on if it's clear that you and another person simply don't agree on the matter.

Hope folks of all persuasions in the debate will feel free to voice their thoughts in constructive, yet critical ways.
If this works, you may wish to just check in from time-to-time to see what if any discussion is taking place even if you have nothing to add... or, it may simply not succeed at all!
With that said, comments are open to you readers:
In response to my Nov. 14 post query of whether insufficiently experienced volunteers may have contributed to the failure of official searches to document Ivory-bills, I've had a range of reactions in email, taking the following forms:

1) that it WASN'T participants (who simply did what they were asked), but methodologies that were flawed in the searches; or alternatively that the volunteers were not at fault, but the problem was higher up; one of too many chiefs, so to speak, or bickering and indecision among official planners.

2) neither the methodologies nor searchers were deeply flawed; the projects basically were completed successfully, and the most logical conclusion is simply that the birds aren't there.

3) some agree, to one or another extent, that quality and experience of searchers was a factor in the lack of results attained.

4) and of course a 4th alternative, that no one mentioned, but that comes to mind, is that the searchers, the leaders, and the methodologies, were ALL fine, but just needed still more time to succeed.

Anyone have further comments/ideas toward accounting for the lack of conclusive results from official searches?
I think the Guthrie sighting (possibly among others) in Arkansas was part of the official Cornell search. It seems that if there were sightings or audio encounters with limited searching, by a thorough follow-up search with few or no encounters means the birds probably were not there anymore. Just because the follow up didn't produce results, that doesn't mean the bird wasn't actually detected originally. It's another debate as to whether the detected bird(s) wandered away by their own choice or if the presence of many searchers self-nullified their efforts by driving birds away.
I was tempted to email this instead because I don’t want to deviate too much from the norm…

Why would better birders have produced better results. Sightings of ivory-bills haven’t really been accepted as proof by those you want acceptance from, so that doesn’t seem to be the key. Ivory-bill sounds are so simple that even a non-birder like myself can recognize them. Unless platinum-level five-star birders have a sixth sense or the ability to smell a species from a great distance, I don’t see it making a difference.
Although it doesn't take a pro to identify an Ivory-bill given a decent look, a high level birder will have some advantages in tracking the bird. A finely tuned and practiced ear can better recognize and separate kents and double-knocks from the other sounds of the forest. Familiarity with flight styles and the effects of light on observations would also be very helpful in correctly identifying a bird in flight or otherwise when conditions are less than optimal.

That said, credible sightings from Arkansas and the Choctawhatchee have been made by both high level and casual birders, so I don't personally think the skill level of volunteers has been an impediment to the search process.
I would have to agree. Even a decent photographer has a hard time getting a photo of a backyard bird 100 yards away that is identifiable - we can identify them usually because we know what they are. But a grackle from a starling from a crow on a branch of a tree 100 yards away? We need excellent cameras, and excellent nature photographers. And, I agree, excellent birders. I looked at the recent video and couldn't even tell you for sure it was a woodpecker - and there was some debate on the boards about that, as well.

So, what would it take to mount a search of amazing birders with amazing equipment and high quality nature filmmakers and photograpers? Spielberg or Gates or National Geo (or Ken Burns) to fund a project that concentrates a year on it - paying the participants enough to take their families with them for a year or a season, providing craft services :), setting up permanent pontoon boat camps? Or maybe a "Survivor, the Swamps?"

I would love to go and search. And I am a good amateur photographer and OK backyard birder. And I'd be next to useless in this effort. ON THE OTHER HAND, I volunteered and wasn't chosen, so one can only assume those who did go were somewhat more skilled than I.
Ivorybill sounds are not at easily recognized. The list of other birds that make kent-like sounds is long and growing, and that does not begin to cover frogs, mechanical sounds, etc. It is an exceedingly simple noise, spectrographically, which makes it HARDER, not easier, to conclusively distinguish them from the multitude of similar noises. Double knocks are likewise subject to many kinds of confusion. Personally wouldn't credit a report of either from someone who does not have extensively experience in careful discrimination of natural sounds; I've not even credited *my own* encounter with kent calls as reliable.

As for sightings, we all just watched a birder with many years experience mistake a Red-headed Woodpecker for an Ivorybill on a quick view. I have also had my heart skip a beat from a quick look at a Red-headed where the apparent size was unclear or distorted by illusion. I can only assume that novice birders, or non-birders, who do not have many years of practice at NOT being fooled by illusions and mistaken first impressions, are going to be even more liable to such seemingly gross misjudgments.

So many people on all sides of this discussion have adopted a position that, unique among the world's 10,000 bird species, birding experience is neither helpful nor even desirable when it comes to finding and correctly identifying Ivorybills. This is just bizarre...
I appreciate that birders probably have above-average visual and auditory memories, otherwise birding would be a frustrating hobby. However, it doesn’t mean that everyone else is blind and deaf. It’s a bit like a well-trained and experienced auto mechanic telling a school teacher that they’re not qualified to change their own oil.

Ivory-bill sounds are in fact easy to identify by ear, which is probably why ivory-bills have localized nicknames such as “kints.” A double-knock might show a lot of variation on a sonogram, but the timbre of the sound is more consistent and identifiable. It’s like a crow’s caw: not terribly distinctive on a sonogram, but I know it when I hear it.

Bill, you wrote once that you had a fairly large readership for your recent journal. Why would people bother to read it regularly if they thought you were mistaken in hearing Campephilus double-knocks? It’s a distinctive sound, and a series of them has no significant competition.
Re: kents... you seem to not be up on the last few years on this topic. Kent-like sounds have been documented from many species of birds, and suspected from others. Just because local people recognized the sound back when it was more frequent does not mean they reliably distinguished it from other similar sounds. Many non-birders have a familiarity with the song of a Carolina Wren; one friend of mine calls it the "video bird" because it says "video-video-video-video" to his ears. However, these same sorts of people don't accurately distinguish it from a Kentucky Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, or even the more polysyllabic songs of Cardinals. Kents are much LESS distinct from the *documented* (not just hypothetical) confusion sounds than those examples.

As for my readership and whatever credibility I might have, this comes mostly from the fact that I have been doing this for 36 years and have a well-established reputation in addition to tangible credentials within the birding community. Some of these people actually *know* me, and have known me for decades before this whole situation came up. Google my name plus the word "bird" and minus "woodpecker" and see what you find, if you wonder why at least some in the community find my tales perhaps more interesting than some others.

And, by the way, I have NEVER claimed to have heard a Campephilus double knock in Tennessee. I have only reported sounds that appear to be essentially identical to known Campephilus double knocks, from an undetermined origin. These are not just semantic distinctions. They make a great deal of difference in the scientific and birding communities alike.
Bill, your friend may have a tin ear. It happens, perhaps even to birders who otherwise have exceptional visual skills. I would never suggest that tin-eared people be recruited for IBWO duty.

I know you never claimed you heard Campephilus double-knocks in Tennessee. That was inferred by those reading it. Nobody is interested in a story of a sound from “an undetermined origin,” unless it’s a short story. Maybe a short thriller.

I wonder if any philosophical cracks appeared between birders and non-birders on the IBWO Recovery Team.
Coyle -- I'm an empiricist and a scientist. What is uncertain is much more interesting than what is known. "Established facts" are the most boring part of science. Knowledge grows by pursuing what you don't know, not what you do know. You and I seem to approach this from vastly different perspectives.

Readers have doubtless found my stories interesting for a wide variety of reasons; I would hardly presume to know what everybody or nobody makes of it. I suspect you'd find everything ranging from "this is the most ridiculous thing I have ever read; it's like a train wreck in that I can't stop watching it" to "Oh my god there are Ivorybills in Tennessee!"
I agree with Bill Pulliam that excellent birding skills are vital for successfully searching IBWOs or any other bird, rare or not, but specially rare birds. The point that the simplicity of IBWO sounds is a source of confusion is well taken too in my estimation. The other problem is that, with the exception of a handful of very elderly people, no person in the USA today has unequivocally heard an IBWO (ie, had an identifiable view of an IBWO while the bird was either vocalizing or DKing) and thus nobody can really evaluate a putative IBWO recorded sound. Thus the only reference sound that we have available is the 1935 recording which may or may not be representative of the typical calls of this bird. There are those that think that the calls might not be representative, arguing that the birds were stressed by the close presence of observers around their nest hole and may have been more agitated than usual. In any case Tanner cites 4 vocalizations for the IBWO and states that only two are in the 1935 recordings. Therefore there is plenty of room for confusion.

Another skill needed for searching the IBWO is a willingness to deal with a harsh and icky environment. The overwhelming majority of birding done in the USA is done under very comfortable conditions by comparison and I suspect that this is a deterrent that prevents many people with good birding skills from participating in IBWO searches.

Dalcio Dacol
Gainesville, Florida
Bill is spot on in finding it bizarre that birding skills don't seem to register highly on some people's lists. Reading the IBWO.net comments on Mike Collins' videos should shed some light on the import of ability.

I also check Bill's blog from time to time. He's one of the good guys and has his feet planted firmly
on the floor. I disagree with him on the IBWO but, I expect, on very little else. I respect his position, he argues it well. I just think he's wrong.
Tanner cites 4 vocalizations for the IBWO and states that only two are in the 1935 recordings.

I don't follow Mike Collins very much, but I recall that a few years ago he thought he might've recorded a third vocalization? Was that resolved to be from something else?

Bill, I'm not a scientist. Having an "established fact" such as an active cavity would thrill me to no end. To me it's a search for an entity, not a science project. Progress matters.
Speaking of active nests...

The first Marbled Murrelet nest was not located until 1974. When it was finally discovered it was found in a well-known State Park in one of North America's most heavily-birded Counties (Santa Cruz, CA), about 25 miles from downtown San Jose and 45 miles from downtown San Francisco, smack in the middle of one of the largest concentrations of birders anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. And, it wasn't even found by a birder. At that time the species was still locally common, though it had been in decline for decades.

And yet we're supposed to believe that we certainly should have found an almost extinct bird lurking in a vast area of one of North America's least birded environments in just a few years?
One of the most valuable chapters in Geoff Hill's book, has to do with the distinction between science, and looking for birds.

Hill is eloquent in describing the distinction - right now all I can manage is a weak recollection that science depends on the scientific method: observation, recongition of a pattern, formation of a hypothesis, and repeated tests of the hypothesis.

Birding is valuable, and the observations from birding can ultimately contribute to science.

But all we searchers are trying to do right now, is find the bird.

There is no question the bird exists. When you read the descriptions by birders who've seen it, there is no possibility of confusing it with a pileated or even an abnormal pileated. It's a different bird. The dark plumage is different, the white plumage is different, the size is different, the behavior is differnt, the flight is different. It ain't the same bird.

Look at Tim Gallagher's sketch drawn minutes after his sighting. Gallagher was a member (the captain?) of Cornell's competitive birding team. The sketch is conclusively an ivory-billed woodpecker. As is Bobby Harrison's sketch. Two birders - observed the same bird at the same time, independently draw the same sketch. That's solid.

Read Hill's account of Tyler Hicks' sighting of a female ivorybill perched on a trunk 40 feet away. Naked eye observation by a crackerjack birder. Step off 40 feet from a license plate and look at the plate. I know people like Hicks - that sighting is rock solid.

Watch the video of Brian Rolek nearly coming out of his kayak as he raises his arm, points, turns and yells "ivorybill!". We may not have a clear video of an ivorybilled woodpecker just yet, but we certainly have an unambiguous, clear video of someone seeing an ivorybilled woodpecker.

The bird exists.

We're indebted to Cyberthrush for keeping this blog going. It's a great place to check for updates.

But there have been several posts recently that seem to do what Hill cautions us not to do in the chapter on science. It seems like we're trying to draw conclusions based on data that doesn't exist.

The data are clear: people go out into the woods, and observe the ivorybilled woodpecker. The observations are rare, usually brief, sometimes clustered about a location, and then later, the bird is no longer seen at that location.

That's it. Nothing more. There are no data to substantiate more than that. We can speculate that photos SHOULD have been obtained by now. But why? What data conclusively proves that a photo SHOULD have been captured?

We're still just birding. Just looking. We haven't got to the science part yet.
I disagree with your assessment of others' field ability and you fail to recognise the potential for mistakes to occur in birding, particularly in a charged atmosphere. The cold light of day casts a long shadow on events in the Choctawhatchee.

Birders make mistakes regularly, even some of those you may have been told were 'infallible'. Birders who make absolutely sure of what they have seen before making claims are probably in a smallish minority.

I disagree that the bird has been reliably documented anywhere in recent times. I know Bill is sure the Luneau video is an IBWO but I disagree. Every other claim has fizzled out. But time will tell. Any birds that are left are surely in dire straights.
Why does the bird in the 2004 tape have a steady 8.5 wing beat Hz?

It has almost leveled off 3 secs into the video segment, 3 secs post take off yet maintains an unprecedented Hz for the null species.

Is this interesting or just trivial when considering no video of a PIWO has been found to do this?

The bird in the video, if a PIWO, is certainly very, very unusual; it remains something to ignore as very inconvenient for some.

Interestingly a LA 2008 video that shows a bird with the correct wingspan for an IBWO and white in the trailing half of both wings also shows a steady wingbeat Hz above 6 Hz. By sheer odds this is where Kulivan, a few biologists and 3 to 4 others with some experience claim recent sightings.

It's then rapidly exclaimed by authors from both of the Science rebuttal papers as being a Kingfisher !

The Choctawhatchee videoed birds, one IDed in the field as an IBWO, shows an impossible amount of ventral white for a PIWO, and in shaded conditions. As we just saw in the 11/5 tape it doesn't take much for video settings to shade a white chest to gray.

In all the above locations hundreds of kents and DKs are recorded by skilled field personnel and the data tempospatially correlates very closely with sightings.

Control ARUs upriver in Alabama record no such DKs or Kents.

Multiple repeat sightings from a dozen people occur in the area.

Have we ever heard any comprehensive, plausible, and consistant explanation on all these AR, LA and FL facts from anyone?

Curious if anyone can tell me why most Campephilus woodpeckers live in mild or tropical climes? Is there anything about the birds' physiology making that necessary, or is it a simple case of a large bird needing extensive food sources, more readily available year-round in warmer climes than cold (or some other ecological explanation)?

I ask because western Tennessee is probably the coolest, most northerly of the locales IBWO have been searched for, and am wondering how much (if at all) winters there may restrict likelihood of the species' presence?
Well, in general there are a lot of widespread neotropical general of plants and animals that include one or a few species that occur north into the temperate zones in North America. They display all range of adaptations to the temperate climate. The biogeographic divides between north and south have more to do with paleoecology and paleoclimatology that have created environmental barriers for long periods in the past, causing differentiation. Then, when there's contact again, a few species diffuse across the weaker barriers.

Extant range is also often not a good indicator of physiological tolerances; Baldcypress grows just fine in southern Canada when planted, 1000km north of its usual range. There's a whole lot more behind biogeography than just physiological limitations.

As for west TN, there is plenty of hard documentation that the species occurred even farther north than this in the past, and it has been looked for in recent years in Illinois.



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