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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, July 22, 2010


-- The Good, the Bad, and the Fuzzy... --


Overview of the USFWS final summary report, "Recovery Plan For the Ivory-billed Woodpecker":

I'll say, for starters, that I basically enjoyed reading this USFWS summary of the 5-year organized effort to find the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which fleshes out in greater detail some of what has transpired over that time period. But... I also recognize that in some quarters out there the very title of the document ("Recovery Plan For the Ivory-billed Woodpecker") will be viewed with utter amusement. An alternative working title might've been, "What Friggin' Little We Know With Certainty About the Wholly Mysterious and Elusive Lord God Bird" ;-)) The emphasis in this summary document, in some ways, remains not on what we know about Ivory-bills, but on how uncertain and sparse our knowledge thereof is. And in short, there is nothing here that will sway proponents of the IBWO debate from their entrenched positions.

The first 35 pages of the 160-pg. offering are the main body of the report, and largely recapitulate what has already more-or-less been publicly available, much of which will be familiar to readers of this blog. The main findings from each of 11 states where organized searching took place, are reviewed on a year-by-year basis (
habitat descriptions and conservation aspects are also reviewed). This includes mentions, though not with great detail, of sighting claims and auditory encounters, that were deemed interesting/credible enough for inclusion, as well as possible ARU remote acoustic recordings. These potential claims were of course few-and-far-between (over scattered areas) compared to the initial mini-flurry of reports for the Arkansas Big Woods and Florida Choctawhatchee areas.
I would've liked to have seen more specifics on some of the sighting claims and maybe greater indication of which claims were granted most credence (although this is somewhat surmisable from the wording).

I had also hoped for a fuller report on the ACONE automatic camera system deployed in Arkansas, which is only alluded to in one of the appendices --- I take this lack of coverage to mean that the technology (which seemed to hold great promise, despite mechanical problems), may have been a failure --- my assumption 'til someone informs me otherwise.(???)

I also wish the report could've drawn some conclusions/recommendations for independent searchers on where best to continue their efforts, but there is nothing like a rank-ordering of locales most worthy of further time (one suspects there is simply no widespread agreement on this).

Overall, these are minor quibbles.

More interesting really, are the several Appendices which constitute much of the document, and which offer greater detail on aspects of the search not always fully-covered in public before. Appendix D includes over 20 abstracts of various studies that were offshoots of the Ivory-bill search, many relating to habitat or ecological variables pertinent to our understanding of IBWOs (Appendices H and I also cover habitat). One would need to access/read the full papers to gain fuller insights from these studies, but the abstracts do bestow a sense of the variety of research carried out in support of the IBWO effort (research which may in some instances be valuable to other species or situations).

Other Appendices cover some of the actual ground-search protocols (which were sometimes controversial) that were employed at various times through the 5-year study.
And Appendix C breaks down the costs of the overall project. Appendix K serves up USFWS responses to the motley group of comments that were addressed to the original "Draft" Recovery Plan.

I especially liked Appendix E which is Chuck Hunter's well-done succinct summary of the natural history of the IBWO, pulling together in a nutshell a lot of information and key points that are otherwise scattered among different sources/volumes.
One simple, but I think important figure (actually in Appendix F) is "Figure F2" (pg. 97), a simple map showing the entire interlocking southern river basin system stretching across the former historical range of the IBWO.
(IF Ivory-bills travel along riverine systems, they have a lot of roadway.)

The entire report and Appendices tend to focus quite heavily on the search effort in Arkansas, not surprising given the amount of energy and man-hours spent there. Still I couldn't help but wonder, if S. Carolina and Florida didn't deserve a little more space and detail, given certain reports (perhaps Louisiana as well), but again a minor quibble (and they are of course covered).

All of which brings me backwards to Appendix B... the "fuzzy" --- the Luneau video, of course. I was surprised that an entire Appendix was devoted to discussion of David Luneau's blurry 4-second clip, an obvious nod to all those who feel this was Cornell's most crucial piece of evidence (I've never regarded it as such). The report goes to some length to argue that USFWS did not find adequate support for David Sibley's (and others') contention that the film clip shows a normal Pileated Woodpecker with wings 'twisting' in flight and escaping at a certain angle from the camera. Quite the contrary, USFWS suggests that the only good (or at least best) match for the bird-in-question is indeed an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, until some future advanced technical analysis shows otherwise. A couple of bits from the report:
"...to date no video of an actual Pileated Woodpecker exhibits from frame to frame the same plumage characteristics and flight mechanics exhibited by the woodpecker in the Luneau video."


"Our review of the presented arguments leads us to conclude that the alternative interpretations of Sibley et al. (2006) and Collinson (2007) fail to credibly support their assertion that the woodpecker in the Luneau video could reasonably be a Pileated Woodpecker."
... Uhhhh, let the food fight begin anew!! ;-)

Critics will no doubt feel their views got short-shrift here. It might have almost been worth including a "dissenting opinion" appendix where some of the major critics got one more chance to state the problems with the evidence as they see it, given the highly controversial nature of what is being addressed (I wouldn't be surprised if trenchant critiques of the report are, right now, being composed!).

Unfortunately, in many polarized quarters, rightly or wrongly, any 'summary' report (on this topic) from USFWS, Cornell, or The Nature Conservancy, simply will NOT be viewed as objective or credible at this point... we still need a clear video or carcass!
(I don't know for sure about real objectivity, but perceived objectivity on this subject is torn to shreds by now.)

A lot more can be dissected from this USFWS summary, but let's cut to the chase...
In the end, the CRUX of the 5-year search and debate remains: This bird has been spotted, so it is claimed, sparsely but nonetheless repeatedly, over and over and over and over... again, for 65+ years, on many occasions by individuals with the experience and credentials that ought allow them to accurately identify an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And YET, consequent searches have failed over and over and over and over... again to consistently relocate the birds reported. USFWS attempts in this document to make the case that the evidence-on-file is persuasive, and that there are historical/logical/ecological reasons why the species may be so difficult to re-locate (let alone, photograph) once it is reported.
We can all agree that for any given instance, even subset of instances, this failure to relocate a bird, following initial encounter, may be plausible. The skeptics will part company though with that plausibility when the same fate is met in case after case after case after case, ongoing for 65 years. And there the debate stymies. Nothing in this USFWS document will put to rest the numbers or probability game that can be played by either side of the controversy. The naysayers, however, can never prove their point; they can only keep slowly building their evidentiary case (with every year that passes without documentation). The 'believers' or 'optimists' are the only ones who can yet be 'proved' right... and some of us still believe that is a very real probability.

This document from the USFWS is a nice addition to the IBWO literature, and there will be further reports and volumes still to come down the pike. Stay tuned. I'm not certain if this story will yet end with a bang or a whimper.
As I see it, the most significant passage in Appendix E, and perhaps the entire report, was the following:

"In summary, there is no evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was ever widely or consistently relocated in the same areas from year to year or from decade to decade prior to 1940, despite the impression one may have about birds at the Singer Tract during the 1930s. Actually, during Tanner’s study the chore in locating birds often took days or weeks even where pairs or family groups were known to occur from previous years (and actually only one nesting pair at John’s Bayou was consistently relocated during his entire study). Whether the birds were truly more nomadic than previously thought, or whether the low percentage of repeated locations historically has been due to the search patterns of ornithologists and collectors is unclear. What is clear is that the present pattern of reports that do not effectively document occurrence of the species has been repeated from decade to decade for more than a century and that the number of locations with potential encounters within the same decade has varied little since the 1870s."

So the last 65 or so years aren't much different from the 75 that preceded them. Given the great difficulty in relocating birds during a period when the species was unarguably extant, the 'failure' of modern searchers to relocate and/or photograph birds in the wake of credible sightings doesn't seem very consequential.
"...there is no evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was ever widely or consistently relocated in the same areas from year to year or from decade to decade prior to 1940..."

this is a great quote Mark, but the problem (from the skeptics' view) is not relocating the birds yr-to-yr or decade-to-decade; it is the repeated inability of even substantial search parties to re-find the bird even within 24-48 hrs. after an encounter. As a lone searcher (with some assistance) Tanner might've had more difficulty than would be expected of the larger-scale, highly organized searches recently completed.
All we can do is speculate...
Chuck Hunter, the author of Appendix E, is a skeptic. A genuine one. Many rationalize their hidden agendas by cloaking them in the convenient mantle of skepticism.
Appendix E has no encounters listed for Louisiana from 1990 thru 2004, except for Kulivan's. How can that be?
LOTS! of claims throughout the Southeast are not included, which is why some greater specifics on those that are mentioned would've been nice to better indicate what made them worthy of inclusion (in general, focus is on claims coming from people associated with the official search teams).
The criteria are admittedly somewhat subjective. But this seems unavoidable if any kind of meaningful filter is to be employed. Notice that pre-1950 reports without specimens must largely be taken second hand. These are admitted to be "encounters of varying quality," included on the authority of Tanner or Jackson. The crux of the ivory-bill records problem is that Tanner seems to have raised his bar considerably after 1950. In his monograph he included records based on verbal communication, with no details given whatever. It is clear that his willingness to accept a given report dropped precipitously if the area had been "clearcut."

Notice also that Tanner included reports from the winter of 1936-37 in the Santee region, despite that fact that his own rather examination of the area in 1937 not only turned up no ivory-bills, but NO candidate cavities or extensive foraging sign. But at that time, there was extensive old-growth in the area.

It seems quite likely to me that many of the post-1950 reports would have been accepted by Tanner if they had come from large tracts of old-growth forest. And it is inconceivable that some of the recent reports by highly competent observers would have been rejected by Tanner in such areas.

We should never forget that despite many man-hours of searching, Tanner never saw or heard a single ivory-bill outside the Singer Tract. Even within the Tract, he did not personally see many of the birds included in his monograph.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The exert and comments above are vague and deserve fleshing out since population estimates are important to determining the potential viability of the species.

It's likely an assumption and for the most part a fallacy that some and perhaps most pairs are not physically located somewhere in the same 10 to 50 square mile range from day to day and slightly less so, year to year. Excepting mortality as a periodic and expected cause for non-detection in a previously assumed occupied range must also be factored.

Its easy to confuse a very low detection function when combined with poor survey methods for evidence of no long term, year over year, presence within a hypothetical range. The poor survey methods and results can be misleading. Further confusement of natural movements of birds and range occurs when a male such as Elvis in AR wanders about giving a fingerprint for the expected detection rates which should not be applied to pairs. Young males, due to established outbreeding mechanisms in Picidae may certainly wander scores of miles to several hundred. In addition this bird was heavily pursued causing it to inevitable relocate.

Several searchers were not contacted and many good reports are not comprehensively integrated into the report. So how can an accurate picture of serial range occupancy be established when the accumulated data or reports are not collated? Granted this is a large task in itself.

More problematic is the major USFWS/Cornell endorsed/designed survey technique has probably been scaring IBWOs away, silently and unseen, rather than correctly utilizing the historically strongest survey method. More about this in the future.

The 10 square mile range is for contiguous, very high quality habitat which has relatively low human visitation. This is a rare type of open space. As habitat quality drops and or the frequency of pursuing human goes up, range size increases. We have found that optimal habitat produces one encounter with an assumed pair per an ~ 8 square mile footprint area acoustically surveyed.

Carrying capacity and search methodology should heavily consider seclusion and isolation as an important occupancy prerequisite for pairs. Unfortunately, by the birds' choice for seclusion, the core, nesting and roosting areas are often located in anastomising, braided bottoms or centrally located in extensive, dense swamps with at least mid-seral trees. Almost all of these small, concise areas, where a bird spends ~ 30-90% of its time, depending on season and phenology, are impenetrable to a searchers' stealthy entry. The secluded patch can be entered with determination but every individual of certain species ,whose genotype has been heavily selected for by severe hunting pressure detects the predators presence early and has fled or holed up accordingly. The Singer birds genotype, seemingly less wary than its contemporaries, has by now panmixed with the more wary stock of eastern or TX birds where guns had been more heavily trained on IBWOs for many more years than Singer birds. The Singer area had better game into the '30s and most IBWO specimens came from FL and other eastern states.

Individual modern birds/pairs in optimal habitat are being found in the same range year to year to year, etc. Again places with optimal habitat are very rare. Most of the forest in the US is subpar IBWO habitat due to commercial forestry practices (have private practices been tweaked for IBWOs at all?) and the excruciating slow adaptability of various federal, state and private entities to manage OUR forests for a neglected but valuable asset--- biodiversity, including keystone species like the Ivory-billed.

Management at the USFWS and state FWS may not be getting close enough to the ears of the USDA and their own managers of OUR land on federal and state NWRs/WMAs. We need to produce better habitat for biodiversity,Picidae and IBWOs. The land is already ours...this is not expensive. Did we delay this because of those 2 atrocious papers??

The FL IBWO memo should have went out in '72, the LA memo in '99; a range wide memo at the latest in 2006 after AR and FL reports of 20 people were sunlighted. The order for girdling near secluded areas, on high DBH Sweet Gum, etc., with a targeted prerequsite of inoculation with a small number of the historic, endemic, IBWO centric, Coleopteran community is overdue.

Another more clandestine memo would be exploring the attraction and netting of a non-nesting bird.

In suboptimal habitat the bird/pair wanders over a larger area but the same range from year to year and optimal feeding and roosting subareas within that huge range are familiar to the pair. If the immediate preferred and heavily utilized area in this large range becomes serially visited by searchers the birds will relocate to one of the other places within its large range to fulfill needs and immediately regain seclusion. It's possible that for even one stalking human encounter the bird may avoid that exact area for days if not months. Three of us on a permitted study not hiding at 1200, were startled by a close, thunderous Kent. The context and Singer tapes indicate this to be an agitated warning to its mate. Searchers that project the woods or themselves as some benign entity are bound to have few or no encounters. To an Ivory-billed you are perceived as intense negative stimuli, a predator, that flushes them at 300 yards or more....for perhaps days or weeks from that immediate spot.

Almost all casual IBWO searchers and birders focus their eyes and ears at 50 and 200 yards respectively. During post attraction broadcast stakeouts, searchers via a self-imposed, shallow depth of focus or inexperience, loose methods, eating, fidgeting, untimely note taking or exhaustion, miss detecting almost every flying crow, heron, Pileated or hawk that was more than 200 yards away and some that were much closer. And the phrase You have Big Ears, is unfortunately rarely heard to describe field searchers but is a needed commodity.

During early breeding phenology the pair will move to a part of its range that it may have been purposely avoiding in the prior 6 months to negate resource depletion there. The nest tree will likely be in a very secluded area that is also near the greatest concentration of 1 to 2 year post senescent trees within the entire range.

The nomadic response may occur when a pair gaged that there is not enough resources to support breeding and they attempt a change or more probable, a shift in the range. I believe its a rare event that a pair creates a new range but a sequence of range shifts over years could give one that impression. Disjunct habitat patches could also give the impression of a nomadic event when in fact its not. Within a pair there may be antagonistic behavior with a male having a greater tendency to vagility than a female even as range conditions deterioate. A female(s) lingered at the logged Singer tract for years. It seems unlikely a paired male would leave its female unless conditions were grossely inadequate and the male had located another patch or willing female.

Damaged resources due to logging or development can certainly cause pair relocation.

Unfortunately pairs may not attempt breeding every year. Low numbers, lack of suitable standing dead wood, poor forest stewardship, increased edge leading to owl and snake predation, feral hogs making some snake populations perhaps more arboreal than ever and a modern bird that is so skittish that it refuses to forage in some areas due to anthropomorphic presence are severe problems.

But some of these factors can and should be addressed vigorously.


F. Virrazzi
I too am concerned about forest management practices that tend to consider forests “mature” if they are approaching the century mark post-cutting. In general, I do not see good evidence that trees are allowed to senesce in southern bottomlands, even on federal wildlife refuges. I see quite a bit of thinning to promote structural heterogeneity, which may be okay for gap-loving warblers but inadequate for large woodpeckers. Many of the trees common in southern bottomlands are only middle-aged at 100 years. “Uncut old-growth” surveyed by Winters et al. in NE La. in the 1930’s averaged 80 “rotten cull” trees/100 acres >30 in DBH. The density of large snags in patches was undoubtedly much higher. I can’t help but notice 2 things about the recovery plan. The habitat assessment in the Big Woods (Appendix H) classified “large trees” as those >24 in DBH. The larger-scale assessment (Appendix I) classified “large” hardwoods as those >11 in DBH! No larger size classes were defined. INSUFFICIENT. That is a forester’s idea of a large tree, not an ivory-bill’s. There is still a lot of pressure to remove trees, especially in WMA’s. In my opinion, the surveys should make more direct comparisons with the Singer Tract and Winters et al.
The first comment on page 145 was essentially the skeptical view that there shouldn't be a recovery plan for a bird not shown to exist. I don't have a draft version in front of me, but Appendix B was apparently created in response to the skeptics. I am amused that skeptics literally asked for the debunking they received.
I agree that not enough is known to have a really good recovery plan. We'd be better off just protecting the land and not much else.
There's some action on David Sibley's blog under Ivory-billed Woodpeckers here http://www.sibleyguides.com/bird-info/ivory-billed-woodpecker/comment-page-1/#comment-2624 . I submitted a response to Sibley's response of 7/28/2010 2:15 PM which David unsurprisingly did not allow posted. For the record, here is what I wrote to him:

Appendix B of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan (http://www.fws.gov/ivorybill/pdf/IBWRecoveryPlan2010.pdf) is quite critical of your analysis of the Luneau video, indicating that your interpretation is "based on misinterpretations of video artifacts as plumage, and novel interpretations of typical bird flight". It seems like there is no harm in allowing for the possibility that the Fish & Wildlife Service, Cornell, Bill Pulliam etc. are correct and you, Collinson, etc. are incorrect about the Luneau video since as you say it is irrelevant at this point anyway. We all look selectively at evidence which supports our own interpretations in cases where a conclusion is not immediately clear, and as you make clear you apply that standard to yourself as well as to others like Cornell. Your statement, "And it’s especially easy to be tricked when the sightings are as brief as all of the recent Ivory-billed reports" is itself selective since Appendix F of the Recovery Plan lists several detailed and/or extended sightings. Indeed, the Kulivan sighting which began the recent attention to the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was a close observation of a pair of birds for 10 minutes.

Thankfully, there is alot of convergence between those who assert one thing or the other in the Ivory-bill saga or take a more agnostic view. As a practical matter, I think all of us across the spectrum agree that the right course of action is to do nothing for now. The gradual recovery of bottomland habitats gives us hope that if the Ivory-bill has there wherewithall to persist, it will have the opportunity to do so. Personally, I think it's pretty cool that the Ivory-bill has flummoxed us all and reminded us how much we don't know about the world around us.

It's the second time I've called him out over conveniently forgetting the Kulivan (and other) sightings which were for an extended time period.
Correction - Sibley did allow my post. I thought he wouldn't after one created after mine showed up first.
well, I've found it pretty much only sites run by those who still believe the bird extant, that have a thing about cutting comments.

Good to see Sibley allowing you to post.
Jackson thats wrong that this is the best plan we can have for recovery.

The document you see is by "committee" ....and at least 2 or more skeptics deep in its bowel having a dampening effect on real recovery when combined with the tradition of govt agencies to slow play things with bureacracy and timidity. Also its like herding cats to get proper forest management in place. Regardless each state or federal dept leader can assert control over their jurisdiction.

The spp needs real conservation and it will probably make it further than any of us.

Reading this report makes one alternately say, hmm thats a decent finding that should be elucidated in the field or in further data collation........... to shaking of one's head muttering "they did (or are saying) what?"

Perhaps the only place that did any long term management (33 years) was AR and look what happened there. Confirmation of presence.

Evidence that correct and assertive forest management works and that unconfirmed reports from the same area do exist and do evetually result in confirmation as has happened in the Big Woods.

pg 23

An unconfirmed sighting of
IBWO in the White River NWR during the late 1970s by the head forester
led to a distinct and repeated
emphasis to retain many olderage-
class trees. The emphasis on
larger trees has continued for 30
years and was adopted upon the
purchase of the adjacent Cache
River NWR and the subsequent
acquisition of about 55,000 acres
of former timber company land.

The result is that very large trees
(>30” dbh) are retained in about
200,000 acres of forest. With
staff moves and communication
between Service foresters, this
practice spread to the South
Arkansas Refuge Complex, Holla
Bend NWR, Theodore Roosevelt
Complex, West Tennessee
Complex, Tensas River NWR,
and other NWRs (J. Denman,
pers. comm.).
What a telling error:

pg 24

Clutch sizes in the Ivory-billed
Woodpecker range from 1-6 eggs
but more typically consist of 2 to
4. Incubation is by both sexes
and takes about 20 days. Both
adults feed the young for a period
of about 35 days and the young
may be fed by the parents for
an additional two months. Life
span may be in excess of 10 years.

In sum, our current knowledge
of the species suggests that
the relatively low reproductive
capacity of the species may
require many years for significant
population growth.

A capacity of a pair to fledge 30 plus birds is plenty; we are not dealing with a primate or an exceesivly altricial bird species here. The potential recuperative capacity of the IBWO population is substantial representing a hypothetical 1,500% increase in population size in 12 years if capacity is an isolated variable.

Capacity is fine despite the report......the root problems are likely related to inadequate forage to fledge young, or perhaps not enough forage to trigger ethological or physiological threshold barriers that then may preclude even egg laying in the breeding phenology.

Predation issues are not given more than a few paragraphs and need more action also.

There should be ANNUAL and significant morticulture to provide a species that had at better times, many thousands of acres of pine burns near the bottoms. Today we have forests that are mainly mid-seral at best with dead wood thinned out.

Its simply amazing how many millions (billions?) of trees we can manage to cut each year for profit yet we only managed to girdle a few thousand at best for the IBWO. Wheres the parity? IBWO's have signifificant value; they should be treated as the serious asset they are.

This is a tell for the committee's philosophy on certain important issues inclusive of how to present to the public inaction in some areas including inexpensive passive management.

We do realize that the lumber industry is on the committee...right?

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