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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

Monday, January 04, 2010


-- We Have A Winner --

4 weeks ago I proposed a "contest" for someone to write their own blog post here; the deadline has passed, and lo-and-behold but one entry appeared (making selecting a winner easy!!).
Below the thoughts and experiences of searcher Charles Williams from Baton Rouge, Louisiana (which I think reflect the notions of many of us):

Ivory-bills: The Jury Is Still Out

Some people who know I have participated in several IB searches enjoy needling me about the minimal results of searches to date. Some of this is in jest and some is more aggressive, implying that there is something wrong, fiscally or morally, with the search effort. These jabs do not bother me. Based on the sightings’ reports that I’ve read and the experience level of the sources, I lean strongly toward the “believers” group but am not in the 100% sure category and won’t be until I see an IB or a clear photo thereof. More important, however, as a participant in several formal and informal searches, I have witnessed many shortcomings of the efforts, which strongly suggest that the search results are inconclusive. Simply put, the jury is still out. I begin by pointing out several fundamental weaknesses, from a thoroughness perspective, of the searches to date:

1. Over-attention to public lands versus private land. Public lands are legally accessible and hence have been the target of most searches. Private landowners are justifiably ambiguous in their attitudes toward an IB being found on their land and have not encouraged searches. Except in Arkansas, where most of the suitable habitat seems to be in public ownership, a large percentage of the potential IB habitat is in remote, lightly used private land that is often under lease to hunting clubs. Could these areas harbor IBs? Of course—and in fact they are more likely to do so than nearby or adjacent public lands due to the lower level of human activity (hunting, camping, fishing, etc.) that occurs on these lands.

2. Over-attention to areas that had the imprimatur of an institutionally reported and accepted sighting. The attention to SE Arkansas and the Choctawhatchee River in Florida was huge, based on the reputations of the sponsoring groups and their sightings, and this was later fueled by enthusiastic public and private funding. Like the recent housing bubble, these searches gained momentum well beyond when the shortage of actual, ongoing evidence raised questions about the extent of resources being devoted to these two areas.

3. Inherent weaknesses in the large, “institutionalized” search in Arkansas. I participated here for two weeks in February, 2007 and for one week in February, 2009. As an example of one weakness in the search methodology, I recall one of my days in the southern part of the White River NWR. Our search crew was staying at duck hunting lodge in St. Charles, Arkansas, an hour’s drive from the search area. We arrived in the search area around 7:30 or 8 a.m. and I was dropped off on a gravel road, with my target destination being Swan Lake, about a mile off the road to the south. After an hour of slow walking and wading, I came to Sixmile Bayou and experienced a somewhat hair-raising wade across this bayou with the water within inches of the top of my waders. Finally around 10 a.m. I arrived in the target area, which was indeed outstanding habitat with very large hardwoods of a variety of types and a good bit of woodpecker activity. I stayed in the area for around 5 hours, criss-crossing the area, and then started out by a different and longer path, getting back to the road after dark. This was a reasonably typical day in that my hours in the prime habitat were mid-morning to mid/late afternoon. These are the hours, per Tanner, in which IBs become rather inactive. How much credibililty was given by Cornell to my search effort that day? I don’t know, but I do know that my GPS track was entered into their data base and contributed, in some way, to their future decisions regarding deployment of searchers. In brief, the total time I devoted and the distance I covered that day did not necessarily mean the area had been thoroughly, or even moderately well searched. But since Cornell was working each day with, typically, 10 volunteers and half a dozen full-time staff, the practical aspects of lodging, feeding, transporting, and managing personnel produced limitations that affected search effectiveness.

4. Under-attention to Louisiana and Mississippi. These two states both have some excellent areas of potential IB presence--Louisiana in particular in the vast Atchafalaya basin where sightings have been periodically reported over the decades since the 1940s. Yet due to lack of recent sightings, remoteness and poor accessibility of the areas, lack of funding, and lack of a strong institutional backer, search efforts have been minimal and “broadbrush” compared to Arkansas and the Choctawhatchee. This same conclusion also applies to most of the river systems of the Florida panhandle. (Note: I exempt from this comment the lower Pearl River basin which has received a heroic, thorough, and ongoing effort by Mike Collins to find the birds (or their descendents) that Kullivan saw in 1999.).
As for Mississippi, there are large areas of good habitat along the Mississippi River between Natchez and Angola, Louisiana, where hardwood-dominated “loess topography” could have become a refuge for IBs fleeing the clear-cutting of adjacent bottomland areas. Searching here has been minimal. It would be simply wrong at this point to say that the search results mean that IBs are extinct. The small number of good quality sightings alone should rule out this conclusion. So what do I believe can be concluded at this point in time?

1. Despite its weaknesses, the well-funded and well-manned search in Arkansas has established that the White River NWR is not some kind of “motherlode” of IBs, and the population of 20+/- birds that I heard some Cornell people speculate about is probably not present. Instead, there are a handful of widely dispersed birds whose location and means/ability to reproduce are a mystery. This merits some further searching of a highly targeted nature.

2. The extremely meticulous search in Congaree NP, S. Carolina, has come as close as possible to establishing that IBs are not there. The Congaree search, which I participated in, was very thorough and avoided many of the glitches of the Arkansas methodology, and was conducted in a much smaller area, with searches starting from tent camps at daybreak. This is not, however, to say that minimally searched private lands closer to the S. Carolina coast should also be ruled out.

3. Based on sightings by at least four different individuals, there are almost certainly a few birds in the Choctawhatchee River bottoms in Florida, and this area probably has the best potential for yielding additional sightings and a photograph. Other river bottoms in the Panhandle also merit attention.

4. Since official searches will probably end due to lack of results, finding the IB may well depend on a chance encounter (e.g., Kullivan) in which some alert outdoorsman has a camera handy. Another possibility is that the efforts of a dedicated individual, creative and persevering in approach, and focusing on the best habitat in remote locations, will turn up a documentable IB. This could happen on private land, and I envision the possibility that a bird or birds could be photographed and their location kept secret by advance agreement with the landowner.

Comments or questions may be sent to chazbizz@cox.net. -----------------------------------------------------------------------

Thanks for the input Charles!

My own thinking is rather closely aligned with this, I would only add that neither Congaree nor the White River floodplain ever produced significant sightings even historically. It is unfortunate that the Gallagher/Harrison sighting occurred in such a peripheral area. There are indeed dedicated and determined independents out there, often operating on private lands, and it is far from a matter of chance encounters.
Charles - great blog post on your your ibwo experiences and perspectives! remain encouraged...ibwo's fly!
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