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Geoffrey Hill’s search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida

The author of A Red Bird in a Brown Bag describes how he found an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a Florida swamp
By Geoffrey Hill | Published: 12/21/2006

brd-b0207-500In 1999, some birder friends and I started talking about a trip to Alaska, but preliminary checks of package tours made us rethink the whole idea. None of us could afford the advertised prices.

Then my friend David Carr, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Blandy Experimental Farm, got the crazy idea that he could arrange the trip for a fraction of the price of any package tour. And he did. He arranged everything from rental cars to meals to a flight to Gambell on St. Lawrence Island, where he booked a spare bedroom in the home of a Yupik family.

Four of us made the trip. Within hours of our arrival, we ran into a tour group with two guides and about a dozen clients who had shelled out big bucks to be there. The leaders didn’t know what to make of us. Apparently, yahoos from Virginia and Alabama (I’m an ornithology professor at Auburn University) don’t turn up there sans guide very often.

‘The other guys’

At first the guides pretty much dismissed us, but then we told them about a Common Sandpiper and Long-toed Stint that we had found at an outer pond. After that, they wanted us checking in with them regularly. We became “the other guys.” If we reported a Yellow-billed Loon, one of the guides instantly got on his radio: “The other guys found a Yellow-billed Loon at the point this morning.”

I kind of like the title “other guys.” Outside the corporate box. Apart from the crowd. In the spring of 2005, I once again found myself in a small group of other guys, but this time the quarry was not a long list of rare birds but one particular and particularly notable bird, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

I don’t think there is a birder in North America who doesn’t know the gist of the recent Ivory-bill story: A kayaker spots a woodpecker in Arkansas in the winter of 2004. Ivory-bill chasers follow up and observe an Ivory-bill. A team of professional bird personnel is dispatched from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. An Ivory-bill is sighted briefly by additional searchers. A long-time Ivory-bill chaser and videographer captures a fleeting image of a black and white bird. Based on the video, definitive proof of an Ivory-bill in Arkansas is proclaimed in the journal Science.

The proclamation made most bird enthusiasts in North America want to go to Arkansas. I had exactly the opposite response. I’m not a social birder. I mostly bird alone or in small groups, and I go birding to get away from crowds and discussions. The thought of standing on the Highway 17 bridge above the Cache River with 30 other birders held no appeal for me. I was longing for an Ivory-bill search away from the frenzy and closer to Auburn, which is located about 30 miles northwest of Columbus.

Read more about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Truth is out there
Jerome A. Jackson assesses David Kulivan’s 1999 report of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Pearl River Swamp, Louisiana. June 2002.

Old friend found
Eyewitness accounts of sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers from the Cache River, Arkansas. By Chris Niskanen, August 2005.

Now what?
What’s next for the Big Woods Conservation Partnership and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. By Elliott Swarthout and Ron Rohrbaugh, August 2005.

First step
In the wake of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker rediscovery, a plea for conservation of the world’s other declining species. By George Fenwick, August 2005.

Old friend missing
Description, range, habits, and credible sightings of the Imperial Woodpecker. By Matt Mendenhall, December 2005.

Faith-based ornithology
Jerome A. Jackson argues that mistakes were made, putting support for future conservation at risk. By Chuck Hagner, February 2006.

1 in 15,625
Teams of researchers calculate the odds of finding a living Ivory-bill today. By Matt Mendenhall, February 2012.

Ghost bird
Ten years after Ivory-bill fever swept the nation, Jerome A. Jackson assesses the hope, hype, and disappointment. February 2015.

Sightings map
Historic ranges and reported sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers since 1944. By BirdWatching Magazine, August 2005, February 2015.

So on May 20, 2005, instead of heading northwest to Arkansas, I drove south with two of my summer bird technicians, Tyler Hicks and Brian Rolek. We were anxious to have a weekend away, exploring remote swamp forests on the Gulf Coast of Alabama and Florida. We knew we had no serious chance of finding an Ivory-bill, but I love kayaking and exploring, and this was just the adventure I needed after a long and busy school year.

We set out on a two-day trip. Intending to spend the night in a motel, we brought no camping gear. The first day, we floated the Pea River on the Alabama-Florida border but were unimpressed with the habitats. The forest corridor did not seem very wide, and most of the forest was young and had few big trees. We saw no cypress or tupelo nor really any of the old-growth swamp forest that we thought Ivory-bills would prefer. We hauled our boats out in the late afternoon and more or less on a whim opted to shift south into Florida to the parent river of the Pea, the Choctawhatchee.

Not disappointed

We launched our kayaks the next day at first light and paddled into a blank spot on the map. This time, we were not disappointed. Big, mature hardwoods grew to the river’s edge, and in many places the water flowed right into the forests, making it possible for us to paddle far back into the trees. The trees were large and well spaced, so the forest had an open feel, but the canopy was dense and unbroken.

We were amazed to have our first encounter with an Ivory-bill within an hour of launching our kayaks. Tyler, Brian, and I were drawn to a spot under a stand of huge oaks where something was banging up in the canopy. We heard slow, very powerful raps but couldn’t see the source. Then Brian alone got a good look at a bird flying out of the canopy. Tyler and I were looking the other way and missed the bird entirely.

A novice birder, Brian had studied the field marks of a perched Ivory-bill before our trip but not those of an Ivory-bill in flight. Nevertheless, he gave us a good description. He said he was positive that it was a large dark bird with large patches of white only on the back (trailing) portion of both the upper and underwing.

We continued to paddle slowly through quiet backwater channels. Then, as we moved through a stand of huge cypress and tupelo about an hour after Brian’s sightings, I clearly heard a double-knock, the characteristic display rap made by Ivory-bills and other woodpeckers in the genus Campephilus.

A striking sound

I’ve lived in Alabama for the past 13 years, and I grew up and started birding as a teenager in Kentucky. I do four breeding bird routes each year in Alabama (that’s 200 three-minute point counts annually), plus numerous additional point counts, bird counts, and big days for various research projects and recreation. All of this is to say that I’ve spent countless hours listening to birds in the Southeast. I have never heard a double-knock before, and it is not a sound that an individual with ears for birds is likely to overlook. It is a striking sound. Tyler and Brian were chatting a hundred feet away from me and didn’t hear it.

Read the paper

Geoffrey E. Hill, Daniel J. Mennill, Brian W. Rolek, Tyler L. Hicks, and Kyle A. Swiston. 2006. Evidence suggesting that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) exist in Florida. Avian Conservation and Ecology – Écologie et conservation des oiseaux 1(3): 2. [online].

As we moved through the forest patch, we also noted large, irregularly shaped holes cut into the sides of trees and places on dead trees where thick, tightly adhering bark had been scaled away. We were seeing and hearing things that I had never seen or heard before in southern forests. I left the area that weekend intrigued but a long way from convinced that we had found Ivory-bills. We had to come back and try to confirm.

The next weekend Tyler and I drove back to the area, and on May 27 Tyler got a clear view of a female Ivory-bill in flight. He was able to follow it in focus in his binoculars, and he clearly saw white in the secondary and innermost primary feathers of the wings, white stripes running down each side of the bird’s back, and a black crest. He described the bird’s flight as loon-like, straight, and powerful and unlike the rather floppy flight of a Pileated Woodpecker.

I’ve been birding for 30 years, and I’ve had the privilege to be in the field with some of the top birders and field ornithologists in North America, and I can say Tyler is the best birder I’ve ever been associated with. There is no one whose sighting I would trust more. He observed details on this bird that ruled out Pileated Woodpecker, even a Pileated Woodpecker with aberrant plumage.

More than one

Two months later, we got the first evidence that we were dealing with more than one Ivory-bill. Brian returned to the site and on July 31, through clouds of mosquitoes in sweltering summer heat, watched two Ivory-bills fly over his head.

After that, we began to plan for a follow-up search to gather better — we hoped definitive — evidence that not one but a pair of Ivory-bills lived in the forest. We thought about contacting the Cornell Lab, which was leading the Arkansas search, but in the end we decided it would be better to remain the “other guys,” conducting our own small and independent search.

Dan Mennill, my former postdoc and current faculty member at the University of Windsor in Ontario, agreed to take charge of setting up automated sound-recording stations, which we called listening stations. He persuaded his new master’s student, Kyle Swiston, to camp in the swamp with Brian from January through April to run the devices. Except for brief visits by a few guests, the five of us were the entire search team for the winter and spring 2005-06. We told virtually no one outside of our little group what we were doing.

The “other guys” approach had its advantages and disadvantages. Our search was low key and enjoyable. Everyone had plenty of elbow room. For most of the winter, Brian and Kyle were alone in the swamp, and I visited a few weekends per month. It was fun to have our own secret Ivory-bill locale where we knew we would never run into another birder. Now that we’ve announced our Ivory-bill discovery, we’ll never recapture the seclusion we enjoyed then.

A tiny search

But with few personnel and little funding, we were able to mount only a tiny search. For most of the season, and excepting the weekends when I helped, Brian searched alone. Kyle did a great job running the listening stations, which required memory cards and heavy batteries to be swapped out each day, but he was new to birding and spent little time actually searching for Ivory-bills. He didn’t even carry a video camera as he slogged between stations.

Watching cavities at dawn was one of our primary search techniques, but this was not as straightforward as it might sound. During my visits, Brian and I would discuss where to go and which cavities to watch as we drank our coffee in the dark, 40 minutes before first light. By January we had located more than 50 big cavities – the number would climb to nearly 200 by the end of April — but until March and April we didn’t know exactly how big any of the holes were.

Picking two cavities to watch was always exasperating. Usually we chose cavities near the area we wanted to search that morning and tried to navigate to them in the dark.

Later in the spring, when Brian measured a subset of the cavities on our list, we realized that some of the holes we watched were smaller than they looked from the ground and unlikely to have been cut by an Ivory-bill, and that some of the cavities we had dismissed were actually very big and should have received more attention.

Had we had a bigger team and more equipment — particularly remote cameras that could be set to watch cavities — we would have had a much better chance of finding an Ivory-bill going in or out of a cavity. We spent all of our time in a search area about two miles long and one mile wide, and we felt as though we could cover even that relatively small area only superficially.

Despite the small scale of our search, we amassed substantial evidence — including more than 300 sound recordings of kent calls and double-knocks — that Ivory-bills were in the forests along the Choctawhatchee River. By April we had heard double-knocks or kent calls 41 times, and we had 13 sightings good enough for the observer to be confident that he had seen an Ivory-bill. All of the sightings were of flying birds. As I write these words, none of us has seen an Ivory-bill perched. Twice Brian identified two Ivory-bills together, and when I made my best sighting on January 21, I heard a double-knock to my right as I watched an Ivory-bill fly away from me.

Photographic proof

In the end, we failed to grasp the brass ring — we failed to attain definitive photographic proof of a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Florida. Being the “other guys” and running a small search on a tiny budget was fun and adventuresome, but it may well have cost us a photo.

How could we detect birds so dependably for a full year and not get a photograph? My answer is that the woodpeckers do not want people close to them. They invariably detected us before we detected them. Every time we saw an Ivory-bill, it was moving, and we were never able to raise a camera in time to record a clear image.

I think the ultimate reason that we failed to get a picture was that we failed to find an active nest or roost cavity. Our two-square-mile search area was almost certainly smaller than the home range of a single pair of Ivory-bills. We weren’t able to watch all of the cavities within the pair’s range, and we never got lucky enough to watch the right hole.

What’s next? What are our goals for the 2006-07 field season? Our single purpose is to attain proof of the existence of Ivory-bills in the form of an indisputable digital, photographic, or video image of one Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Once we have that, then we can focus on enumerating Ivory-bills in the river basin and trying to document nesting. Until we hold a clear image in our hands, any attempt to study Ivory-bills will be meaningless.

We won’t be able to wear the mantle of “other guys” much longer. Our announcement in September 2006 generated a great deal of interest from birders, Ivory-bill chasers, and wildlife and conservation biologists. We are going to receive some state and federal funding for the upcoming field season, money that will allow us to have a much larger search team and to deploy many remote cameras.

With Cornell scaling back efforts in Arkansas, my Auburn University team will be the biggest and best-funded Ivory-bill search in 2007. We will have an excellent opportunity to capture an image of our bird, and I’m confident that we will succeed. I’m going to miss those quiet weekends when Brian, Kyle, and I had the whole swamp to ourselves, but ratcheting up the size and complexity of our search was the only path forward.

Very optimistic

I’m very optimistic that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker can persist in the Choctawhatchee River Valley. About 60 square miles of seasonally flooded mature hardwood and cypress-tupelo forest appears to lie along the lower 40 miles of the river. The Northwest Florida Water Management District, a state agency created by the Water Resources Act of 1972, owns a large portion of the forest. The agency purchased the property to protect the water source for beautiful Choctawhatchee Bay and has no plans to harvest timber, build additional roads, or do anything that might harm Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the lands they control.

Hunting pressure in most of the river basin — mostly for white-tailed deer and Wood Ducks — is light. Hunters are unlikely to pose any threat to Ivory-bills. Ironically, if any immediate danger looms for this remnant population of the Lord God Bird, it is being loved to death by birders. I ask them not to go into our main study site. An immense area of swamp forest awaits exploration in the river basin.

I also request that birders refrain from imitating sounds made by Ivory-bills. We have no idea how such sounds might disrupt the birds’ activities, but we know for certain that hearing broadcast Ivory-bill sounds will diminish the experience of anyone else in the area. Please spread out and be quiet and respectful. By doing this, we can maintain the one aspect of the swamp that we have proof existed in the winter and spring of 2006 — a remote and peaceful swamp wilderness.

Geoffrey E. Hill is an ornithology professor at Auburn University in Alabama and the author of three books: A Red Bird in a Brown Bag and the two-volume Bird Coloration. Oxford University Press will publish his book Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness, early this year.

Other guys’ timeline

2004

February 11 — Kayaker Gene Sparling spots what he believes is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Cache River NWR in Arkansas.

February 27 — Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison, guided by Sparling, report sighting an Ivory-bill.

April 25 — David Luneau captures what is believed to be an Ivory-bill on video.

2005

April 28 — John Fitzpatrick and co-authors describe the Ivory-bill’s rediscovery in a paper published online by Science Express.

May 21 — Brian Rolek reports seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker near the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle.

May 27 — Tyler Hicks sketches a woodpecker he saw flying near the Choctawhatchee.

June 3 — Fitzpatrick and co-authors describe the Ivory-bill’s rediscovery in Arkansas in a paper published in the journal Science.

June — Mark Robbins and co-authors argue in a manuscript submitted to the journal PLoS Biology that the Luneau video shows a Pileated Woodpecker. The paper was accepted, but the authors withdrew it.

August 25-28 — Fitzpatrick and members of the Arkansas search team announce rediscovery of the Ivory-bill at the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

2006

January — In a “Perspectives” article in The Auk, Jerome Jackson decries “faith-based ornithology” and alleges that mistakes were made in the confirmation of the Ivory-bill’s existence in Arkansas.

February 21 — Analysis of the Luneau video posted on the website of the Big Woods Conservation Partnership lists nine traits that support the bird’s identification as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

March 16 — David Sibley and co-authors publish a paper in Science challenging the identity of the bird in the Luneau video.

April — A search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker begins in Cuba.

May 18 — Search teams in Arkansas announce no new confirmation of the Ivory-bill’s existence.

September 26 — Geoffrey Hill and co-authors publish a paper in the online journal Avian Conservation and Ecology suggesting that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers exist in Florida.