"....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.”
"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, December 02, 2010
-- The IBL Interviews Commence! :-) --
Recently, I sent out inquiries, in an "interview-type" format to several people who have played some role in the internet Ivory-bill "story;" a way of getting some wrap-up on where we stand now. I've been pleased at the number who consented to fill out the inquiries and share their views, at this busy time of the year.
Once this first batch is complete, maybe I'll send out more!? At any rate, I'll start the ball rolling with the below responses from David Martin (known to some of you more recognizably as "fangsheath").
Despite coming out of a herpetology background, David has become a meticulous resource of information on all things Ivory-bill over the last 5 years, and as most of you know was a principal in the start-up and running of The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Researchers Forum elsewhere on the Web.
1. C: First, for those who don't know of you David, can you state a little of your background and credentials to put your viewpoints in some context?
DM: I’m not an ornithologist and I wouldn’t even call myself an avid birder, although I certainly enjoy birds as I do everything in nature. I’m a herpetologist. I received my M.S. in Zoology from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). In Florida I participated in research on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and Choctawhatchee beach mouse. Later I worked at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. In Texas I collected important information on rare, difficult-to-document amphibians such as the Mexican burrowing toad, white-lipped frog, and black-spotted newt. I have always had an interest in documenting rare species.
2. C: You had your own area of Louisiana that you were searching for awhile (at least partially on private land as I recall). Are you still spending time there, or anywhere else for that matter?
DM: I continue to conduct ivory-bill searches in southern Louisiana and continue to closely monitor one specific area of private land. This area produced a number of ivory-bill reports from 2005 to 2007. I monitor the area acoustically and conduct periodic forest inventories to determine if there are fresh cavities with promising characteristics. But I also investigate other forests in the parish. It is my belief that present-day ivory-bills are essentially nomadic and will not linger in a given area for more than 5 years, usually less. As far as that goes, most of the ivory-bill pairs in the Singer Tract couldn’t be found in a given area for more than a few years.
3. C: Which Ivory-bill sightings/claims from the last 6 years do you find most compelling?
DM: The Arkansas sightings by Tim Gallagher, Jim Fitzpatrick, Melanie Driscoll, Melinda LaBranche, and Casey Taylor are very impressive to me because they were made by highly competent, very careful observers who were keenly aware of the fact that they needed to eliminate confusion species. However, I think the single most impressive sighting is the one reported by Tyler Hicks in Dec 2005, again a highly competent observer. He saw the bird perched, at very close range, and reported virtually every ivory-bill field mark.
4. C: Which arguments of the skeptics do you find most compelling in arguing for extinction?
DM: Well, the arguments from the supposed inability of the southern landscape to support them after the 1940’s are pretty much worthless as far as I’m concerned. I think they’re based on patently false assumptions about bottomland deforestation in the region and the bird’s requirements. However, one thing does bother me a great deal. Why have no recent searches been able to discover an active ivory-bill roost, despite people hearing and recording putative double-knocks at a number of sites close to sunrise or sunset? This is worrying and is of course connected to the often-raised issue of why no clear imagery has been obtained. I believe it is very unlikely that such imagery will be obtained away from an active roost or nest.
5. C: IF the Ivory-bill persists do you believe there were any major flaws/weaknesses in the official searches that accounts for their failure to confirm at this point?
DM: I think there are a number of flaws, but the single most important one is an excessive dependence on Tanner’s statements about ivory-bill foraging and habitat use, some of which are plainly contradicted by recent and historical data including his own. I have the utmost admiration for Tanner but I focus much more on his data than his conclusions. There has been a strong tendency to look for “Singer Tracts,” and reject areas that do not fit that mold. There has also been an excessive focus on public lands. Ivory-bills may reject public lands for nesting precisely because they are public. The amount of secluded, mature private forest in Louisiana is unappreciated by many.
6. C: You likely hear various things through 'backchannels' that aren't made public. Have you heard anything (no need to say what) that especially sustains your hope for the species, and might give others more hope if they knew about it?
DM: My own studies have produced results that give me great hope, even though I have not seen the birds myself. In my study area, I found a group of very unusual cavities in one particular area in 2007. This area is within a “funnel,” a relatively narrow strip of forest connecting 2 large blocks, and it was in this area that a number of ivory-bill sightings were reported from 2005 through 2007. These cavities still appeared active in 2008, and more evidence of the presence of ivory-bills was obtained. Since 2008 these cavities have clearly become inactive, and the landowner has not reported ivory-bills in the area. In intensive inventories of almost 3000 acres of forest in the general area I have yet to find anything like this group of cavities. Much of my search effort is devoted to finding another such group.
7. C: You've been one of the more staunch defenders of Cornell's interpretation of the 'Luneau video.' How confident do you feel that the bird in that clip is likely an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, or have any of the various skeptics' arguments altered your confidence in that?
DM: Actually, there are aspects of the Cornell interpretation that I disagree with. For example, I think it is quite likely that the bird’s wings are open in frames showing light color at around the time of launch. However, I do consider the Luneau video compelling evidence of the presence of at least one ivory-bill in the area at the time. There are things about the bird that were not even noticed by Cornell which I find difficult to explain if the bird is a pileated. I have yet to see a pileated video that even approaches this one in a number of respects. How hard can this be if the bird is a pileated? Of course if someone were to produce such a video, my opinion would change.
8. C: You were one of the founders of the Ivory-bill Researchers Forum on the Web, a site that pays a fee for its upkeep and maintenance. With Ivory-bill interest fading, and especially if no major news breaks this winter season, are you concerned at all about being able to keep that site running? And if it is taken down at any point will there be any sort of archive that interested parties can search for certain information or past discussions?
DM: We don’t anticipate any problems keeping the site going. We have a core of supporters and I think it’s important for anyone who might see an ivory-bill to have a place to go to where they will not be subjected to haranguing and vitriol. I certainly don’t miss the hoopla associated with the 2004 “rediscovery.” The data I collected on rare amphibians in Texas will never be published. That is fine with me. It is in the hands of those who need it. It took years of patience and persistence to get some of those nuggets and I expect no less from the ivory-bill. I think many people have found the forum to be a place where they can find like-minded folks. Once they do so they often move on to using conventional email. That is fine too. The forum will still be there.
9. C: Can you name anything from the last 5 years that stands out as the most surprising or unexpected happenstance (either good or bad) for you from your involvement with the Ivory-bill saga?
DM: Just when I think I’ve heard all of the surprising and bizarre stories about ivory-bills, a new one seems to pop up. There are the fairly well-known cases of people like Neal Wright, Bill Smith, and the more recent one of Daniel Rainsong. In many of these cases I have access to far more information than the average ivory-bill researcher, and some of them are completely unknown to all but a few. Often, more information adds greatly to the bizarreness factor. I often imagine that a compilation of these snippets would be most entertaining, but it would require breaking a lot of confidences. I will mention one example although I won’t use the fellow’s name. I interviewed a man a few years ago who claimed to have seen an ivory-bill nest in St. Mary Parish, La. when he was a teenager, around 1970. Note that this is the same general time that Fielding Lewis took his famous photos. He said that he had even made sound recordings of the birds but they had been destroyed in a fire. The man said that he had walked up to the nest at one point and saw large white grubs at the base of the tree which had apparently been dropped. He showed me the general area. This swamp, like many in St. Mary Parish, is extremely difficult to penetrate and virtually no one ever does so. What is truly astounding about this guy is that he had never heard of Fielding Lewis, had no idea about his photos, and was completely unaware that there was any recent controversy surrounding ivory-bill. One of the hardest things for avid birders to understand is that most people who spend lots of time outdoors do not read birding literature or browse birding newsgroups or fora. Many of them have never heard the name ivory-billed woodpecker. In a few cases they have apparently seen the bird and can describe it quite accurately, but either have no name for it or use a local name such as indian head woodpecker or poule de marias.
10. C: Anything else you want to pass along to my readers that you think they should know or understand about the Ivory-bill situation at this point?
DM: I think the good news is that probably the ivory-bill is one species that can benefit from benign neglect. Bottomland forest acreage and maturity are increasing and there is a greater realization of the importance of large snags in bottomlands. In retrospect I think I and others were foolish to have given up on the ivory-bill. We bought a narrative about a specialized bird that clung to a precarious existence in one last refuge, until it was finally destroyed. It’s a poignant tragedy and I think we in the conservation community sometimes become enamored with poignant tragedies, rather than looking at the issues honestly and scientifically. In fact I think the species is slowly recovering and will continue to do so. Some of us will continue in our efforts to document the species, quietly and patiently. Stay tuned.
C: Thanks David for all you've done along the way, and taking the time to communicate your thoughts to readers here. We will indeed, stay tuned!
p.s. --- this is sort of an experiment, but if you've been active with the Ivory-bill story in some capacity over the last several years and feel you have something to say on the subject (pro or con), feel free to send me your email address if you'd like to be interviewed for the blog (don't be shy!). I can't promise that I'll go beyond the initial set that I've already sent out, but especially once the holidays are over I may consider more.
Speaking of books, I also enjoyed Bales' new book, especially the chapters pertaining to Louisiana. I learned a lot from it - a must read if you're going out searching.
1. Where, on the net, is the current best description of Tyler Hicks' Dec '05 sighting? With the Auburn U page down this is harder to find. Googling it produces a dizzy array of links...mostly for threads from forums and such. It gets tiring sorting through all of these.
2. David Martin's comment that private land in Louisiana may have been of benefit to the survival of the IBWO stands out. This is in direct contradiction to the "Elephant in the Room..." thread on this site from a couple of weeks ago. Feels much better...
I also hope that the very small minority who might shoot a non-game bird would tend to be on the lazier side.
Five years ago a fellow searcher (I won't give the name) said that an acquaintance of his claimed to have seen an ivory-bill floating in a canal in recent years. Whether this is true or not, few ordinary folk are going to be willing to take the risk of approaching authorities with a shot ivory-bill if they know they have an endangered species in hand. And even if they don't know, they are usually aware that it's illegal to shoot woodpeckers in any case, so why would they present the bird to authorities?
"In fact I think the species is slowly recovering and will continue to do so. Some of us will continue in our efforts to document the species, quietly and patiently. Stay tuned."
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