.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

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

Saturday, April 24, 2010


-- Of Final Reports and Ghost Birds --


Presumably, living Ivory-billed Woodpeckers traverse about and forage everyday, 365 days a year, week-after-week, year-after-year, decade-after-decade. And at some point during those daily jaunts they likely vocalize with 'kents' and double-knocks that have some carrying capacity through the forest. I've said before that while the lack of a clear photo/video after a 5-year effort isn't overly taxing, the lack of a marked increase in sightings, foraging signs, and auditory encounters with more and more searchers out-and-about in more and more fields over a 5-year period, is troublesome, and difficult to explain IF searchers are in the right places. With that said....

Two of Cornell's recent posted reports are early summaries from the Arkansas Big Woods, but since searching continued in Arkansas I'd prefer to wait for a final wrap-up before concluding much from the Big Woods in general. On-the-other-hand, the posted Louisiana and Florida "final" reports (essentially from Cornell's Mobile Search teams) are more interesting in that there may be no further significant data coming (from Cornell) for the specific locales addressed, and some very important areas are covered: in Louisiana, the central and northern Atchafalaya Basin, Lake Maurepas, and the Pearl River WMA are reported on, and in Florida the Fakahatchee Strand. And the bottom-line, take-home message seems to be that no sightings nor signs of any significance for the presence of Ivory-bills was found in any of these habitats (nor any response to artificial double-knocks played). Cornell always cautions (and rightly so) that they have not done an exhaustive search of these regions, and some suitable habitat certainly does exist therein, but still the implication seems clear that they find little basis for holding out great hope of Ivory-bills residing in any of these often highly-touted areas, even though they add the following about south Florida:
..."south Florida contains a remarkably large contiguous area of protected lands that has scattered areas of forest suitable for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, including pine forests, mangrove forests, bald cypress stands, and subtropical hardwood strands and hammocks. It is the largest block of protected areas in the historical range of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and has received too little survey effort for the species. "
and also this:
"...we cannot rule out the continued existence of a few Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in south Florida. If any birds remain in south Florida, the Fakahatchee Strand is a likely area to attract Ivory-billed Woodpeckers because it is the largest tract of tall forest in south Florida,with a suitable mix of hardwood and cypress forests and large royal palms mixed in. "
(Moreover, they recommend the use of Automatic Recording Units as a means of monitoring the more remote areas of interest in the event the need arises.) But the above are a few hopeful sentences couched within a primarily pessimistic report.
I've said for some time now, we probably need to begin setting aside from consideration many of the multitude of areas that have been touted for 60+ years for IBWO potential, and then see what remains. Perhaps we are finally, slowly on the way to doing that. Even though these reports only cover a few of the areas to be considered, they are some very key areas --- the Atchafalaya is often historically cited as one of THE most promising of all habitats; the Fakahatchee I believe was a key area of interest for Jerry Jackson (and others), and of course the Pearl is given quite a different take currently by Mike Collins (Cornell actually notes that the density of woodpeckers in general in the Pearl is much reduced since Hurricane Katrina.)

My sense from the reports, once again, is that these constitute areas that IBWOs might conceivably stray into on occasion, and future credible claims ought certainly be followed up on, BUT the likelihood of resident, ongoing populations of the species therein is EXCEEDINGLY slim; i.e. better to look elsewhere. Hopefully, future summary reports will cast doubt on other areas as well from major focus.
There are limited, even though several, plausible locales left for Ivory-bills; if they persist at all they must be residing/breeding in 1 or more of them, not merely hopscotching around willy-nilly from place A to place B; my interest in stray, dispersing birds is waning; we need to find a pair on a territory, that can be re-found (not because they are easy to see, but because they should be repeatedly audible and then locatable, although this will be very difficult for lone searchers)... anything else seems indeed, to be a ghost bird.
I suggest that you take a look at the size of the contiguous forest area in South Central La. on Google Earth and then take a look at the Cornell survey routes. While you’re at it, compare it to the size of the forest area in the White/Cache system in Arkansas and look at the results obtained there in relation to effort expended.

As far the lack of encounters associated with increasing search intensity, I’m afraid I don’t see it. I see intense search efforts on Bayou DeView, the southern part of White River NWR, and parts of the Choctawhatchee from 2004 to 2007. Considerable effort was also expended in Congaree during this time. These efforts are associated with most of the published/posted ivory-bill encounters over the last 6 years. Since then search efforts have declined sharply and so has the number of encounters. The efforts by Cornell’s Mobile Search team were admirable but hardly comparable to the intense searches mentioned above. They didn’t find a SINGLE INSTANCE of a cavity or foraging sign “matching” those of ivory-bills in the entire Atchafalaya Basin? Give me a break.

It seems to me there are 2 very divergent viewpoints about the status of the ivory-bill among those who consider it likely that it is still with us:

(1) The species exists only as a few very scattered individuals over vast areas of the historic range, near if not beyond the point of biological extinction.

(2) The species is sustaining itself, perhaps slowly increasing, at very low densities in large tracts of continuous forest, with occasional dispersal between these tracts.

I happen to hold the second view. I believe that clear imagery will be forthcoming at some point. When it is, it will be associated with the same pattern of very low encounter rates and more importantly, failed follow-ups, that we have seen over the last 6 years. I believe this is because even breeding pairs of ivory-bills do not stay in a given area for very long. We shall see.
Your view is reasonable if you hold that the bird has been reliably documented in the last six years. My opinion is that they most certainly haven't and that the descriptions are well below what I would call an acceptable standard are are, frankly, usually amateurish.

Your six years of data consists of Geoff Hill, who now admits they could have been wrong, Mike Collins who obviously is wrong (Red-headed Woodpeckers being his best effort so far to get 'that sucker')and Cornell who have been back-pedalling to save face since 2005 and the fuzzy video. Apart from that, there are several extremely poor accounts of 'encounters' with the species and pretty much nothing else worth a mention.

I can accept your optimistic opinions on the species' status and hope you are correct, but not your opinion on the recent evidence. It is astonishingly poor and betrays all the hallmarks of inaccurate observations.

I feel it would be much more sensible and dignified to wait until the bird is properly documented and then tell everyone what fools they have been.
(1) I never said anyone was a fool. But I might start. This is just one example of a pattern of willful misinterpretation/misrepresentation I have noted in some quarters.

(2) Neither Geoff nor Tim Gallagher nor anyone who has ever reported ivory-bills claimed omniscience or infallibility to my knowledge, nor are any such claims relevant to anything discussed above. See number (1), sentence 3.

(3) If the infallibility of scientists or their technicians is a criterion for anyone's acceptance of a scientific hypothesis, I think they are in for some major disappointment.

(4) Already I have wasted far too much time and energy on this comment. Bye bye.
Well, again you imply I am a fool just for having a reasonable (and widely held) view of some poorly documented 'encounters' that is different to yours and you have again turned it into some kind of issue about science which it simply isn't. It's about how you identify birds in the field safely and competently.

Your disregard and dismissal of someone who questions very poor evidence and wishes to see decent documentation of a bird sighting is a characteristic of the less able birder who stands by his sightings and often uses the 'I know what I saw and don't need any else to verify my sightings' approach. These birders see good birds that never hang around, for some weird reason.

If you don't want to waste energy
replying to me, then don't.
spat, the emphasis on field marks and notes (when it conveniently suits one's purpose to do so, and of course not for the 100s of 1000s of bird identifications turned in routinely on otherwise unverified bird counts and censuses), is largely a red herring.
Someone can claim a sighting of an IBWO at their backyard Brooklyn suet feeder today and write up an excellent set of notes and markings if you like, and what would it mean... absolutely nothing, because anyone with a field guide can compose such notes. Indeed, one of the slams against David Kulivan after his 1999 claim was that his description was TOO good; it surely MUST have been done only after consulting a field guide or other available info. Field notes can serve a purpose when there are 4 or 5 possibilities for a bird; when there are realistically only 2 possibilities they are far less useful/needed. And how many 1000s of Pileated sightings are turned in each year based on brief sightings of big black-and-white woodpeckers and a probabilistic assessment of what the bird was, with little recording of specific field marks?
Europeans have traditionally been more hung up on field marks and notes than US birders, probably going back to a day when binoculars and field guides weren't as good. If this bird is ever conclusively documented maybe I'll do a write up on why field marks/notes in certain circumstances are considerably over-rated (even meaningless sometimes).
You keep harping on the poor quality of the BRC submissions, and you're certainly entitled to your opinion. It just highlights the subjectivity involved in the records process. The facts are as follows.

The Arkansas BRC accepted the Cornell report and has not reversed itself. Moreover, nothing in the FOS rejection suggests that the committee shared your view on the adequacy of the observations. Here's the entire text of the decision:

"RC 06-610. Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis. 21 May 2005- 26 April 2006. Choctawhatchee River, Washington/Bay/Walton cos. A population of unknown size has been reported by a team from Auburn University from the lower Choctawhatchee River. There have been a few sightings but no photographs, some interesting recordings of “kent” calls and of double rap drums, and photographs taken of cavities and bark scaling. These observations were made on the heels of the much-publicized “rediscovery” of the species in Arkansas (Fitzpatrick et al 2005). The species had not been documented to occur since 1944. The video documentation of the bird(s) from Arkansas, however, has been debated by many, although the record was accepted by the Arkansas Bird Records Committee. Our Committee felt that given the controversy of the Arkansas evidence, the species is best considered still extinct. Therefore only evidence that undoubtedly showed a living bird would be considered sufficient to accept a report.

The last specimen taken in Florida was in 1925; there have been numerous sight reports of varying credibility since, and one record of a feather found in a nest cavity in 1968 that was identified as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker inner secondary by Alexander Wetmore."

VOTE: NOT accept (0-7)

Nothing about poor field notes there. Contrast it with the committee treated a report of a Common Merganser:

"RC 06-619. Common Merganser, Mergus merganser. 18 December 2006. Merritt Island NWR, Brevard Co. This report was of a fly-by male in non-eclipse plumage. An FOSRC form was submitted, but there were no photos taken. The bird was seen by three people, but only one submitted a form. The observation was brief. The Committee was skeptical because the field-marks provided (e.g., color of underwing coverts, deepness of the bill) seemed more detailed than possible in the conditions stated. A few characters, such the green head of a male, were not noted. In addition, even though the area is well covered by birders, the bird was never found again. As there has not been a verifiable record of this species in Florida since 1980 (Stevenson and Anderson 1994), the Committee felt that a sight report would have to be extremely persuasive to be accepted.

VOTE: NOT accept (0-7)"


Other submissions from that year with poor or inadequate descriptions were rejected or tabled and the problems were noted. Even in the case of an accepted report (White-eyed Vireo) a deficiency in one of the submission forms was noted.
The records will be overturned eventually. If the committee has the balls

If the IBWO reports were subjected to the same scrutiny as the Merg, they wouldn't last five seconds, and to be fair HIll's reports probably didn't. The FOS report is quite amusing, if you read between the lines.

And CT, as you're essentially a non-birder, I wouldn't recommend you write up anything about how field notes are sometimes over-rated or useless. That sort of comment is just what I would expect here.

Again, you're left with not much.
So I take it spat, you WOULD accept an IBWO sighting from Brooklyn, NY, IF the field notes were spot on accurate for the species...
And I don't bird as much as I used to, but I'm not exactly a non-birder.
Subjectivity again. I undoubtedly read something quite different between the lines, but then, neither of us was present.

/It must be nice to be omniscient./
Goodness, a committee from Arkansas... Unfortunately, this is a family channel, and I can't repeat the best Arkansas hillbilly joke I know...

Gotta love those august sorts; maybe my old man was engaging in child abuse when he passed on the old ditty, "a camel is a horse designed by a committee."

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who's probably the most prominent historian in these parts. Another friend, a physicist, was with us (he was the only one with a PhD). So my historian guy asked the scientist if he'd ever considered a career in academia. Nope, said the Doc; he'd TA'd for too many of them... And the historian said, "It's all politics; that's their entire life," and there was general agreement that facts tend to be relegated to the back burner.

I didn't understand politics--and my first undergrad major was in poli sci--until I got into some grad school psych stuff... Most of that stuff is really high level and probably disruptive (witness some "adolescent regressions" when a few posters were challenged, one in particular who appears to have been sent off to the principal's office), but here's a useful tidbit involving the old psychoanalytic views of obsessive-compulsive "over-analysis." O/C thinking is an interesting paradoxical symptom in that there appears to be "too much" of it, but in reality, there "isn't enough," and there's an "incompleteness of thought" and certain avenues are left unexplored because of simple emotional avoidance of the consequences. This gives rise to "the elephant in the living room" scenario in dysfunctional systems (where politics always hold sway).

The Kulivan sighting offers a prime example in that the "unspoken" element in reviewing them is the notion, "If they weren't authentic, he must've fabricated them." The "thoroughness" of the notes--at least per CT's description--leaves no other hypothesis other than Kulivan was either deliberately lying or he was telling the truth.

But of course it's bad manners to suggest someone is lying...

That's the O/C slant . . . The other is the "Histrionic Short Circuit" operation, "Ivorybills must be extinct because the evidence is inconclusive." Again, there's emotional avoidance--denial--of the issue because of the possible implications... Otherwise such sorts might have to consider the consequences of their actions, that legitimate sightings might've been scorned, and unwarranted namecalling might've been used as a substitute for reason...

More bad manners and lots of drama, and I'm left hoping the messenger doesn't get shot for bringing these drinks to the table...
Well . . . since only a photo or ten will convince the skeptics, what equipment should be at hand to get it? The Cornell team reported six sightings at "close range", 100 m, 100 m, 120 m, 15 m, and 80-120 m, and in all of these sightings the bird was FLYING when initially seen. This seems typical of other reports, as well. The goal is simple: under such conditions (2-5 seconds' view at ca. 100 yards) the picture must be good enough that it's either a live IBWO or it's fraud. The analysis attending the Luneau video is destructive. So, what gives you the BEST chance for an unambiguous, if not spectacular photo?

I have no experience with video cameras, but over the years I've shot thousands of bird photos with SLRs (film and digital). The lens must be fast enough. Image stabilization is not much good on a flying bird, because the wing motion will blur the picture under low light conditions. Furthermore, the field of view must be large enough that it's easy to acquire the target whether near or far. Take a look at your own photos; what fraction of your pictures of owls or woodpeckers FLYING in the woods would be good enough for unambiguous identification? For me, a 300 mm lens is waaayyy too long to get such a picture reliably, but I can almost always get something, often good, with a 180 mm lens.

Take the pileated woodpecker as an example. With a wingspan of 29 inches, a PIWO at 100 yards will span 250 pixels on a Nikon DX sensor when using a 180 mm lens. This is much more than enough for clear identification; all of the characteristic features of the PIWO are clearly visible, down to the red cheek of the male. In fact, since the chance of getting an in-focus picture goes way up as the focal length is decreased, it might be better to drop to 100 mm or so, if the overriding goal is to get a clearly identifying photograph. An IBWO is not a small bird, after all.

What's the current thought on this? What do/did the serious searchers actually use? Are the lenses on everyone's video cameras, not to mention the camera traps, too short?
I have seen it written that a camera should be pre-focused for 60 feet for optimum identifiability of an in-flight bird. Autofocus is a bad idea in dense forest, and proved disastrous for Tyler Hicks when he got an excellent view from close range. His autofocus got confused and he got no video in spite of having his camera running.
Tyler Hicks came very close, using an SLR although I don't recall the model. Unfortunately he had the camera on autofocus and the light was poor. The time it took for the camera to focus was enough for him to merely get a nice photo of a tree.

Commercial game cameras remain quite poor, and the fact is, most of the funding for remote camera work was used on monochrome 0.3 megapixel cameras, if you can believe it. I currently use a $700 camera, it's only 3.1 megapixels.

I think you get the idea.
By the way, the "advanced technology" of a zoom lens on my 3.1 megapixel game camera would have made the price tag more like $1200.
The prices have come down considerably in the past month or so, and the zoom lens may be a big step forward. The problem is these cameras are intended to photograph deer and turkeys on the ground, so there's no huge need and little market for higher resolution devices. I suspect that, with better camera traps, the debate would have been over some time ago.
Fang...The new and improved model (still 3.1 megapixel) of the game cam that you and I are very familiar with has an option for a zoom lens for "only" 150.00 more. I've ordered two of them, and will let you know how they work. Also, there is a software and firmware update that retros to the older cams. When I get the stuff downloaded to my machines, I'll let you borrow the disc. The updated time lapse functions include the ability to get a "burst" of several shots each time the cam turns on. Of course, this eats battery and memory (these are supposed to be more battery efficient, but who knows?)but does enable one to get more shots closer together...
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Older Posts ...Home