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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

Sunday, November 01, 2009


-- Through The Looking Glass --


Just a long mish-mash of random things a'buggin' me:

1) People keep talking about how poor/inadequate automatic cameras have been in this search... funny thing though, those dicey, poor, crummy, worthless devices DID get decent pics of Pileateds, flickers, songbirds, squirrels along the way... just NO Ivory-bills. I agree the chance of any one camera capturing the bird we want is slim-to-none, but there have been 100's of deployments and millions of pictures by now (which increases that probability signifcantly), and, still, no IBWO... THAT is concerning. Moreover, in truth, I fully expected the advanced ACONE system used in Arkansas, even with all its downtime, to get the bird on film (again, it captured plenty of other identifiable species), but nada.
Still, the lack of a decent photo after 2 years of searches was no big deal; after 3 years disappointing, but still plausible; but after 4 years (and really 5, counting Cornell's initial year-in-secret) it becomes increasingly problematic. Recall too that when Cornell discovered a leucistic Pileated Woodpecker cavorting around the Big Woods, pictures followed in short-order. Things just don't add up well. Even if we have to find a nesthole to get pics... well, 5 years seems like perhaps enough time to have done that... just once, that's all we need. The planning of search procedures, despite flaws, often seem on paper, to make good sense, so what's gone wrong in the execution I'm not sure.

2) Even without technical analysis the bird in the Luneau video always looked to me like an IBWO; or to be more accurate, maybe I should say it looks NON-PIWO-like. BUT, I have to respect the field identification skills of Jerry Jackson and David Sibley --- that both of these individuals can look at that film clip and UNHESITATINGLY perceive a PIWO gives one pause. Their "analysis" of the video means little to me; but their immediate, subjective impression ("gizz" as it were) of this bird as a normal Pileated actually DOES carry weight for me. And that's what they perceived from the get-go, not after extensive consideration or technological manipulations. I've written before that I take the "gizz" of bird identification, from experienced birders, at least as seriously as I take any after-the-fact delineation of field marks from memory. (But again, I don't ultimately regard the Luneau clip as a resolvable, or even important, piece of evidence in this saga; it simply turned into a terrible side distraction.)

3) Most, including Cornell, focus on habitat in trying to decide where to expend energy looking for IBWOs... and so they've focused strongly on South Carolina's Congaree, where possibly the best habitat remains (and credible claims have also been made). I'm slightly less interested in habitat though, and more interested in probabilities... specifically, the probability that a species could hang out in a given area for 60+ years and evade detection. I think it unlikely (though by no means impossible) that IBWOs remain in South Carolina, where they've been looked for extensively over six decades, but much more plausible that they could move back-and-forth along forest and river corridors of the Gulf Coast (La./Miss. to Fla) over that same amount of time and evade human encounter. And as I previously wrote, the possibility of a more northerly population (again with wooded and riverine corridors) between Ark.--Mo.--Illinois--Tenn. (where they were never extensively looked for), also intrigues. Someone still has to convince me that the glimpses and sounds from S.C. are so much better than those from elsewhere as to merit the time and money expended there --- if Ivory-bills are still with us it is almost certainly because their progeny adapted, and DO NOT require the quality of habitat offered in the Congaree.

4) Martjan Lammertink is highly regarded as one of the world's premier experts on woodpeckers, especially large, endangered ones. In 1995 though I was surprised (indeed, incredulous) when he published a paper entitled "No More Hope for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker." It focused on the Cuban Ivory-bill subspecies which he'd concluded was gone, after an unsuccessful search. Yet without any similar extensive search in the U.S., Lammertink was apparently willing to write off the North American Ivory-bill as well, based solely on the views of others who had already concluded such. For someone regarded as a leading expert to proclaim "no more hope" seemed almost irresponsibly loose and premature language. That was odd enough...
But I was even more surprised, 10 years later, when Cornell made their stunning announcement of the Ivory-bill's re-discovery in Arkansas, to see that Lammertink was part of the field team... someone I would've expected to be a skeptic, if there were to be skeptics... someone who's very academic reputation might even be compromised by finding the Ivory-bill alive 10 years after he'd summarily proclaimed it gone. Indeed Lammertink's association with the announcement and field work (his willingness to so publicly alter his view) was one of the many things which I thought lent the claims substantial credibility.
Lammertink never saw the Ivory-bill himself, but after declaring "no hope" for it a decade earlier, now acknowledged very suitable habitat for it in central Arkansas, and apparently became a believer... over the ensuing years as part of Cornell's Mobile Team he found more potentially suitable habitat across the Southeast (although, funny, these were the same locations that had been talked, rumored, and/or written about for six decades --- not like they were ever any huge secret). What a difference 10 years makes, I guess... from zero hope, to a mini-assortment of locales the species just might hang out.

The recent Ivory-bill saga is chock-full of ironies: Lammertink the doubter becoming a believer; Cornell, having done little on behalf of the IBWO since the 40's also becomes a cheerleader only when one of their own, Tim Gallagher, reports seeing it up close and personal. Meanwhile, Jerry Jackson, possibly the Ivory-bill's most vocal advocate for decades becomes among the first serious doubters of the Cornell claims. The best birders and ornithologists in America can't find the bird, yet amateurs do on occasion. Just as Cornell claims for Arkansas are fizzling, an unheard-of Auburn team announces even more IBWO encounters in an out-of-the-way patch of N. Florida... only to then go the same way as the Arkansas findings. The one-time birding gold-standard of repeatable sightings now barely means anything, while people apply physics to fuzzy video to try and convince skeptics. Every other place we look intensely, or so it seems, putative sounds and scrapings materialize as if by magic, but the 20" Houdini bird itself eludes us. It's almost as if we've stepped into some topsy-turvy, Alice-in-Wonderland Through-the-Looking-Glass-World... I thought I knew my way, but am now feeling less than sure-footed... and half-expect to run into the Red Queen any day now.

None of this means I think the Ivory-bill gone; indeed, for now, I'm persuaded of its presence (even as my confidence level shrinks)... I'm just less certain than ever, where, in what numbers, and for how much longer....
The comments about Martjan Lammertink are not fair. He based his beliefs about the Cuban ivorybill on visits to Cuba and the loss of what little habitat remained. He took the time and expense to go there. Maybe he should have added "in Cuba" to the title of his paper because it did not speak to the species elsewhere.

I don't know Martjan well but have met him a few times. He is passionate about the ibwo and scientifically objective. He has spent a large portion of his adult life searching for this bird. He spends lots of time in swamps in conditions most people, including ibwo searchers, would not be comfortable in. Given all this it seems unfair to write an unflattering summary of him and his work.

Dave Nolin
Martjan also remains one of the toughest skeptics involved in the Ivorybill search.

Cy, your constant dismissive comments about technical analysis smack of being downright anti-scientific. The same appeal to gut feelings over technical analysis is used by creationists, oil companies, and other well known science debunkers. This is very thin ice. "The best birders and ornithologists in America" don't find the bird because almost none of them will look for it, for many various reasons some of which relate to "common sense" and "gut feelings" over actual scientific analysis. And what exactly has the Luneau video distracted people from? I think you must have a very strange understanding of the big picture here. Without that vid almost none of what has happened in recent years would have taken place. It motivated agencies, public and private, and money, and organization, and effort. Without that we have nothing but another cluster of undocumented sightings. That video was the final thing that let Cornell decide they had enough to make the announcements, conclusions, and declarations that they made. Calling it unimportant is like calling Fort Sumter irrelevant to the Civil War.

As for the reconyx problem, I can resolve that really quickly by using some quantitave analysis that you would probably declare to be irrelevant. The coastal plain of the southeastern US is home to something in excess of 1,000,000 Pileateds. Throw 10 ivorybills in the mix, and you have to sort through on average 100,000 Pileateds before you find your Ivorybill. Have all the reconyx cams captured clearly identifiable images of 100,000 *DIFFERENT* Pileateds? Not even close, I'd wager.
Thanks for the input Dave; I didn't mean the passage above to be too "unflattering" of Martjan's overall work, but did mean it as an honest portrayal of my reaction to his 1995 paper and his turnaround on the IBWO story in ARK. (and I tried to make clear I admire that change-of-heart --- few scientists are willing to do such a 180) -- BTW, in fairness, I don't know if he personally chose the title to the '95 paper or an editor imposed it. But leaving M.L. aside, I'll more generally say that what is so frustrating is the incredible lack of good communication from Cornell to the public on its IBWO efforts --- no practicing scientist can read the output of their official website or the meanderings of their Mobile Search Team (where M.L. played a major role) and do much more than snicker at the amateurish lack of empirical detail or explanation; it is really quite embarrassing (almost makes one wonder if any of their 'citizen science' sites ought be taken seriously). I suspect they have done a lot of great work... but you can't tell it from their public correspondence, which in turn may call into question their more academic communications. If they don't want to communicate in detail to the public they should've said so from the outset, and halt the slow trickle of drivel getting released.
It appears more and more that if the IBWO is ever to be documented it won't be from to the efforts of Cornell, but in spite of them. I could have picked on Fitzpatrick, or Rohrbaugh, or Gallagher above, but just happened to choose Martjan to make the point of the odd ironies I see in this saga. Maybe they will all redeem themselves before all is said-and-done, but they won't do it by continuing business-as-usual.

As far as being 'dismissive' of 'technical analysis,' Bill, I'm all for as much T.A. as possible, but we may just disagree on the level of precision attainable, and the role it can ultimately play in the debate.
And re: the Luneau clip, I realize its importance in this whole story, but merely meant it plays no role in my own belief that IBWOs are extant; i.e., if someone proves tomorrow that IBWOs never existed in ARK. it would have no effect on my belief that the species persists in the Southeast based on other evidence (I believed that long before the ARK. story or Luneau video broke).
Your statement that "NO Ivory-bills" were imaged by the Reconyx cameras assumes that the species would be readily identified in a Reconyx image. Having used these cameras myself, I do not share your confidence. The few test images taken of ivory-bill specimens at VERY close range (7-15 m) don't help. Ivory-bills have very glossy plumage which may produce strange results in the infrared. It hardly needs to be said that neither Cornell nor the other search groups was likely to publish questionable images after 2005. And so it goes....
I agree Fang, the statement wasn't very nuanced, and long ago I posed the question myself (never answered) of how many of the ACONE photos were unidentifiable but in a IBWO size-range? -- it obviously makes a big difference if 50% of such photos couldn't be ID'd. vs say 2%, and same with Reconyx.
I'd still contend though that when carefully-chosen cavities and foraging sites haven't produced an ID-able pic of IBWO in 4+ yrs., but has of other critters it is "concerning."
David Sibley might be very well respected, but frankly I don't give him credibility when it comes to the Ivory-bill. His blog posts on the Ivory-bill took unnecessary liberties with the truth to promote his argument that we should give up on the Ivory-bill. To me, that belies an agenda getting in the way of critical thinking and fatally taints his analyses (such as a deeply flawed positive identification of the Luneau bird as a Pileated).
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