Updates from Florida
I haven’t posted many updates on this site in the past 9 months because there hasn’t not been much to report. It was a low-key, calm, and uneventful winter and spring search by the Auburn group on the Choctawhatchee. Brian Rolek, my master’s student, and I employed two seasonal technicians to be in the swamp forest along the Choctawhatchee River in Holmes and Walton Co. Florida, looking and listening for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. To give the techs a bit of structure to their days and to help Brian collect the data that he needed for his master’s thesis on bird-habitat associations, the techs conducted point counts at pre-determined locations. The counts got the techs into all of our former ivorybill hot spots as well as a lot of other parts of the swamp during the season. Brian and I came down to the site as often as possible. We had planned for the techs to stay until late April but heavy rains in March and early April sent the river to one of the highest crests in decades and forced us to abandon our rented house and send the techs home in early April.
Since the winter of 2008, we have had few sightings or sound detections by anyone—none by Brian or me—and none that I would rate very highly. Some of the visitors to the swamp have reported fleeting glimpses or distant sounds that they attributed to ivorybills but unlike 2005, 2006, and 2007 when clear sound recordings were made, sightings were detailed and involved multiple observers, and detections clustered in one or a few areas of the river basin, all detections in the last year have been isolated. In short, our experience over the past year indicates that ivorybills have moved out of the areas where we encountered them from 2005 to 2008. That’s as much as I can say with any confidence. There is no way to know whether the birds are in different areas in the Choctawhatchee Basin, different forests in the region, or dead.
I’m not pessimistic about the situation yet. We know almost nothing about the remnant population of ivorybills on the Florida panhandle. The few birds that were in the vicinities of Bruce Creek and Old Creek from 2005 to 2008 may simply be up or down the river (where we never venture) or in some beetle-killed stand of timber in the region. I have to assume that one of these months we will again detect them in the area that we monitor.
I am at a major transition in the ivorybill search. Brian Rolek, my primary partner in the ivorybill search since our first weekend ramble in May 2005 has successfully defended his master’s thesis and will soon be moving on to start a new job. Grant money to support our ivorybill searches has dried up. The reporters and movie producers are gone. The groups of enthusiastic volunteers have dwindled to nearly zero. Ivorybill enthusiasm has pretty much evaporated. Honestly, except for the loss of Brian, this is the way I like it—calm, quiet, more about birding and wildlife photography than epic searchers for legendary animals.
My house in Auburn is 3-hour drive from the boat launches at Bruce Creek and Old Creek. I now have in my research arsenal kayaks, a motorized canoe, and plenty of field gear. I enjoy weekends on the Choctawhatchee, so I have no intention of terminating my effort to get a clear photo of an ivorybill. If it never happens then I will have needlessly suffered a few dozen weekends out in the beautiful swamp forest and a few dollars in travel costs. If the stars align one day and I get a clear photo, then maybe a focused effort on the conservation of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and southern swamp forests can begin.
From here forward, the primary means of getting definitive documentation of ivorybills will be automated cameras. The vibration-activated, automated cameras that we started using in January have, from the first, been a success when we can keep all of the components functional. When we set the cameras at a low sensitivity, over half of the photos that they take are of woodpeckers. The problem has been that the systems are prone to malfunction. The failure rate has been running at about 50% per three-month deployment. In other words, if we go down and check the cameras, we will find half have stopped working. We have yet to get more than 3 cameras deployed at the same time. Finally though, thanks to some trial and error and sleuthing by Brian, we think we know the problem—water. Not flood water but humidity. After a few weeks, humidity seems to kill the electronic components of the sensor and receiver (the Reconyx cameras in contrast seem indestructible). We think that by very tightly sealing the sensor and receiver boxes and using lots of desiccant we can get the cameras to work reliably. For as long as my interest and motivation hold up, the plan is for me to go down to the swamp about four or five times per year, collect images from the cameras, adjust the positions of the cameras, and try to get a photo of an ivorybill with my digital SLR.
I won’t post any more updates on this site. If I get a clear photo, all ivorybill enthusiasts will hear about it. I don’t mind answering e-mails and I like to hear about sightings or other detections.
February 9, 2009 Update
To those who check this site, I apologize for the lack of updates. There has been little to report, and my students and I have been enjoying the calm. We continue to work to get definitive documentation of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Choctawhatchee River Basin. This year we have two paid technicians who will be searching and setting cameras from early January until about mid-April. I visit the site occasionally and my master’s student Brian Rolek visits occasionally, and there are various searchers who come and go, sometimes telling us what they are doing and sometimes not.
To my knowledge, there have been no sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Choctawhatchee region since last spring. There were a few double knock detections in January, but not by my paid crew, Brian, or me.
This might sound like a pessimistic post, but actually for the first time since we tried going after ivorybills with our huge search teams in the winter of 2007, I’m feeling like we have a good chance of getting a clear photo. The reason for my optimism is that we now have automated cameras that really seem to work. Until this winter, our automated camera setup was a low-resolution, black-and-white Reconyx camera that we set to take pictures every few seconds. This sort of camera deployment required someone to search through endless streams of photos and even when something interesting appeared on an image, as in November 2006, it was not always identifiable. I felt like we didn’t really have a camera setup that gave us a good chance to definitively photograph ivorybills even if we got them in front of the camera.
Reconyx has recently upgraded their cameras so they take higher resolution color images and that fixed one weakness of our former camera setup. But most significantly, thanks to the help of the National Geographic Society, we have connected these higher resolution Reconyx cameras to seismic sensors. The seismic sensors are tripped by vibrations. If they are set correctly, wind won’t set them off. Clouds and sun won’t set them off. A deer walking by won’t set them off. Only something banging on the tree will set them off. We’ve now tested these camera setups for a month, and they really seem to work. Most of the images that we get out of the cameras show a woodpecker banging on a tree. With these new camera setups we now have a device that we can point at a feeding tree and leave for months if necessary. Such a camera will tirelessly wait for an ivorybill to land on the tree in front of it. All we have to do is guess where an ivorybill will land. We currently have six such camera setups and are hoping to get a few more.
I will try to post updates if we have credible sightings or sound detections, but the only thing that will change the nature of our search is a clear image of an ivorybill.
Geoff Hill, 9 February 2009
An image of a Pileated Woodpecker captured by a Reconyx camera triggered by a seismic sensor. The black box above the pileated is the seismic sensor. These boxes could be made more cryptic by gluing bark to them. At sites where there is low risk of flooding they could be placed near the ground and partly concealed by leaves.
We completed our 2008 effort to get definitive evidence for ivorybills in the Choctawhatchee River Basin in early May, and I’ve been negligent in posting a final summary. It seemed that it was just as well for us to keep a low profile while we continue our effort to get a clear picture of these elusive birds. Almost every day, however, individuals from around the country write to ask what’s going on, so it seemed that I really needed to present a summary of what my team has been up to and what we plan to do in the future.
The 2008 search was quite different than our searches in previous years. In 2006 and 2007 we pretty much just chased ivorybills, putting members of our search team where we had had sightings and other detections and following up on hot leads. For the 2008 search, to meet the requirements that went along with federal funding, we followed a randomized search protocol developed by Dr. Robert Cooper at the University of Georgia. Our entire search team was Brian Rolek, my master’s student, and two full time techs, Beth Wright and Jesse Swift. I only got to search on a few weekends mostly early in the semester. Each search team member was assigned a randomly chosen block that could fall anywhere in the Choctawhatchee Basin from I-10 south to Seven Runs Creek. We did not focus effort on previous hot spots or on areas with what seemed to be the best habitat.
Team members had no sightings of ivorybills and only two sound detections in 2008. I heard two clear double knocks in January as I’ve posted previously, and one of the techs heard a series of seven double knocks in February. Both of these detections were at locations where we had had sightings and sound detections in previous years. Despite many hours spent in all parts of the swamp, detections continue to cluster in the same spots.
A handful of competent birders came to the area to search in the winter of 08 and these volunteers were able to focus their efforts in the places where we’ve had regular encounters with ivorybills in past years. These volunteers had two convincing sightings (involving three people), recorded double knocks and kent calls, and heard what they thought were Ivory-billed Woodpeckers on a number of occasions. I have already written about the close encounter of John Agnew and the simultaneous but independent sighting of Sally Woliver. Later in the year, Larry Sanders, an excellent and experienced birder, got a brief but clear and positive view of a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker perched on a tree after hearing kent calls and double knocks.
Dan Mennill continues to use bioacoustic techniques to search for diagnostic ivorybill sounds in recordings collected between January and February, 2008 along the Choctawhatchee River. A sound analysis team of two, lead by University of Windsor master's student Karan Odom, collected thousands of hours of recordings that are being analyzed by sound analysts in the Mennill Sound Analysis Lab during the summer. We should have some results from this 2008 recording effort in late August or early September. In addition to recordings collected on the Choctawhatchee, the sound analysis team will be scanning recordings collected in other southern bottomland forests, which will provide an interesting point of comparison for our recordings from the Choctawhatchee.
So where does all this leave us? Pretty much in the same position as in June 2006. We have a large body of evidence that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persist along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle, but we do not have definitive proof that they exist. Either the excitement of the ivorybill hunt causes competent birders to see and hear things that do not exist and leads competent sound analysts to misidentify hundreds of recorded sounds, or the few ivorybills in the Choctawhatchee River Basin are among the most elusive birds on the planet.
The tone of this update might sound a bit defeatist but we are not done yet. The good news is that after years of having remote cameras that were largely inadequate to get definitive documentation of ivorybills, we finally have a remote camera system that I think will work. A major problem with the remote cameras that we’ve used to date is that the motion sensors haven’t functioned properly. Either they are triggered by shadows and wind movement or they only trigger for a large mammal. That left us with time lapse photography—taking an image every few seconds and then pouring over millions of random images looking for our bird. We needed a better way to trigger a camera when a woodpecker moved in front of it. We finally have such a trigger.
Engineers at National Geographic designed for us a seismic sensor—a camera trigger that is tripped by vibrations. In other words, we now have a camera that will only be triggered by something banging on the trunk of a tree. With this new sensor, we should have almost no false activations. Every picture should be a woodpecker banging on the tree. Along with this, the Reconyx camera company just came out with a new line of game cams that are much better than the old cameras we were using. These new Reconyx cameras are smaller, more compact, and most importantly shoot 3.1 megapixel color images—a huge improvement on the .5 megapixel black and white images from the old Reconyx. With these new Reconyx cameras the three mystery birds that we photographed flying through the woods in November 2006 would certainly be identifiable. The National Geographic team has replaced the motion sensors in some new Reconyx cameras with their seismic sensors. These customized units are just being completed as I send this update. In the next couple of weeks, Brian and I will go to the ivorybill site and set six of these cameras on trees with scaled bark or on dead trees showing signs of regular activity by large woodpeckers (ivorybills were recorded to feed on large decaying trees as well as fresh dead trees). These cameras can monitor a feeding tree for a couple of months with no maintenance needed. With this new setup, our approach will be like fishing for a scarce and finicky trophy fish. We cast out and wait.
The skeptics will certainly roll their eyes at the thought of our continued efforts to document ivorybills. But the cost at this point is miniscule – six trips per year by Brian and me to the ivorybill site to collect images from the cameras. Ivorybills are rare and extremely elusive. They are very good a staying away from people in the woods. But they are vertebrate animals that have to dig food out of the trunks of dead trees, and they will create a digital image on a camera. Guessing where they will land in this huge swamp forest will be difficult, but we know where at least a few birds focus there activity for at least a few months each year and we think we know what their feeding sign looks like. I think that there is a realistic chance that we will get a clear photograph of an ivorybill using these new cameras.
Geoff Hill 6-12-08
I’ve been very remiss about posting updates this spring. The lack of updates is partly a consequence of my very busy spring semester at the university, but mostly I haven’t posted updates because it has been nice to be back to working in obscurity as we try to get a clear photo of an Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. The lack of updates has not been for lack of encounters with ivorybills this year.
On January 5, 2008 I was searching alone in the swamp at about 2pm when I heard a clear double knock. Prior to the double knock I had heard loud banging coming from the same direction. I had dismissed the loud banging as likely coming from a Pileated Woodpecker when I heard the double knock. I focused intently on the direction from which the double knock had come and about 20 seconds later I heard a second clear double knock. I slowly and stealthily paddled in the direction of the double knocks with a digital video camera running and a Canon XTi with a 400mm lens in my lap. I spent the rest of the afternoon in the area but didn’t hear or see anything else that suggested an ivorybill.
The next day in the same area, Keith Collins from Birmingham, AL who was one of our volunteer searchers last year and is back this year to help on a few weekends, heard several double knocks. On Monday, January 7, he was able to get a decent recording of one of the double knocks. The spacing between the two bangs on this recording is consistent with other double knocks that we’ve recorded. Keith’s recording was made within a few hundred meters of where I heard a double knock on Saturday.
The next weekend, John Ruthven, a painter from the Cincinnati area who has been a supporter of our Florida search, led a volunteer search team into the swamp. Among the group was DeVere Burt, former President and CEO of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, John Agnew, an artist and naturalist from Cincinnati, and Sally Woliver, a birder and naturalist from Florida. Water was relatively low during that weekend – it has since risen considerably and stayed high through February and into March. Some of the team walked into the swamp and some paddled kayaks. On Saturday, January 12 they got into an area near where Keith Collins and I had heard double knocks, spread out, and quietly watched the swamp. At about 8:20 John Agnew was sitting in his kayak moored among some cypress trees when he got a glimpse of a large woodpecker flying towards him and then landing on the back side of a tree about 20 meters away. He had seen and heard Pileated Woodpeckers in the area just a few minutes before so he assumed that the bird was a Pileated Woodpecker. The bird paused briefly out of view and then took off and flew straight at him passing about 15 feet over his head. In John’s own words. Here is John’s account:
John had a digital SLR in his hands but did not take a picture. He explains: “So why didn't I get off a shot? For the same reasons that no one else has managed to do it. The glimpses are fleeting--a few seconds of fly-by in a dense swamp forest, and hesitation because of skepticism and thinking that it was a Pileated Woodpecker at first glance. I am now consumed by "If only..." --If only I had been quick to prepare, I would have been focused and ready when the bird took off toward me.”
John has posted his account along with a sketch of what he saw at his web site: http://www.angelfire.com/id/wildscenes/IvoryBilledWoodpecker.html.
While John was in the swamp in a kayak, Sally Woliver was a couple of hundred yards away on foot, conducting a stationary watch of a channel in the forest. At about 8:20 she noted a large woodpecker flying towards her. In her own words: “During one of my scans, what I first thought was a Pileated headed east toward me. I remember thinking, here comes a Pileated, but as it veered north I noticed the size and immediately observed it was much larger than a Pileated. (I mentally compared it with the Pileateds that forage around our home in Southwest Florida.) I was approximately 100 yards from the bird. I made a mental note of the place where it first emerged and continued to track its flight to the north into the woods. After noticing its size, I made a point to track how it flew. It was moving rapidly. It did not undulate, but flew almost flat. At this point, I purposefully glanced at the wings and saw the white trailing edge of the secondaries. Total time of observation was no more than four - five seconds. I had no time to either grab a camera or the binoculars.”
When they compared notes the timing of the sightings and position and trajectory of the bird that each had seen made it very likely that they had independently identified the same individual bird as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Both John Agnew and Sally Woliver are very familiar with Pileated Woodpeckers as they both seem them daily around their neighborhoods, and both are certain that the woodpecker they saw on January 12 was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Later in the afternoon that same day (January 12) and in nearly the same spot, DeVere Burt and then Sally Woliver observed a large woodpecker that they thought was an ivorybill, but this sighting was less certain. In DeVere’s words: “About 3:20 P.M. a large woodpecker crossed xx xx flying south and over the cypress stand where John Agnew had first spotted the bird. It landed high in the crown of a deciduous tree on the edge of the cypress swamp and began foraging on the main trunk of the tree.
Unfortunately the sun interfered greatly with my being able to distinguish plumage patterns. The sun was low in the sky directly behind the woodpecker. It foraged on the site for about five minutes and was silent the entire time. Sally Woliver joined me on the bank at the moment the bird flew again around 3:25-3:30 P.M. and she watched it fly away with me.
We both concluded that it was large (larger than a Pileated). And we both noted it had a level flight line as it flew out of our sight. It did not undulate like a Pileated. I remarked to Sally that Pileateds nest in my yard in Ohio and this bird was larger than any Pileated I had seen. Sally noted that the size was the same as the bird she had seen in the morning. When I told John Agnew about my sighting, he told me that he had heard three sets of double knocks coming from the direction the bird had flown.”
The double sighting of an ivorybill on the morning of January 12 has been the best detection of the 2008 season. Brian Rolek and the paid techs have been covering far-flung areas of the swamp as they collect data for occupancy modeling following protocols established by our primary funding agency—the USFWS. We are deploying remote cameras in the area of the sighting and that remains our mostly like source for a definitive photograph.
Geoff Hill 3/6/08Update 1-8-2008
The 2008 Auburn/Windsor Ivory-billed Woodpecker search begins
On January 5 the Auburn/Windsor Ivory-billed Woodpecker Search Team commenced our 2008 effort to obtain definitive evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. Our approach this year will be different than last year. Instead of a large team of paid and volunteer searchers, our 2008 field crew will consist of just five members: Brian Rolek, my master’s student, and three seasonal techs to assist him and Karan Odom, Dan Mennill’s doctoral student, and one tech to assist her. We will work from a rental house in Ponce de Leon. We won’t have any permanent field camps, although searchers will occasionally camp in the swamp for a night or two during surveys.
Karan and her assistants will set and maintain sound recording stations. We will not attempt to review these recordings fast enough to use them to locate Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. We don’t have the resources to attempt this again. Our goal in making sound recording is to gather further evidence for the presence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. We’ll archive most recordings and Dan’s assistants at the University of Windsor will analyze them over coming months.
Karan and her assistants will certainly watch and listen for ivorybills, but their main goal is to run the listening stations. Brian and his techs will be focused on getting a clear image of an ivorybill. They will search a large area of bottomland forest by focusing on different, randomly assigned blocks each day. The basic search strategy will be to sit still for the first several hours of the morning and then move slowly through the forest in kayaks or on foot. They’ll have high definition video cameras as their primary means of documenting ivorybills. If we have a sighting or a convincing sound detection of a putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker, we will have one observer spend the subsequent week at that location with a camera ready and being as secretive as possible. We won’t conduct any systematic surveys for cavities or feeding trees, although we’ll mark and take notes on intriguing cavities and feeding trees that we happen upon.
Last year, we failed to get a clear photo of an ivorybill with a large search team and by saturating detection points with searchers. We’re hoping that our small, dispersed team of searchers has better success this year.
We are not embedding any volunteers in our search teams this year. Helping volunteers get organized is an enormous amount of work. Volunteers who are self-sufficient and want to contribute to our search effort this year can contact me, and I will suggest search areas that will complement the Auburn/Windsor effort.
We will be using a few remote cameras again this year, and we’ll aim them at both feeding trees and cavities. There have been no technological breakthroughs in our remote camera systems, so I’m not particularly optimistic that we will get a definitive photo in this manner. I’m more optimistic that one of the searchers with a high definition video camera will be in place when an ivorybill lands within sight and that he or she will have the time and composure to capture it on digital video.
Finally, a few ivorybill enthusiasts are still waiting to read a full account of our 2007 search. We submitted a report summarizing what we did and what we found to state and federal granting agencies in September. All of the most suggestive detections have already been posted on this web site. Our summary compiles all of the evidence that we accumulated and assesses the cumulative evidence as to whether it supports or refutes the existence of ivorybills. We didn’t post this on our web site because we wanted to publish the account in a peer-reviewed journal. We are still trying to get our report published.
Geoff Hill 1/8/08
My book about our first-year search for ivorybills along the Choctawhatchee River, Ivorybill Hunters: the Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness, is now published by Oxford University Press. This book is almost entirely a first-hand account of the search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers by Brian Rolek, Tyler Hicks, Dan Mennill, Kyle Swiston, and me. Unlike The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher, I don’t assess prior records of ivorybills unless they are recounted to me firsthand. The main exception to this is the recounting of some hearsay about the 1966 report of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker near the Yellow River by Bedford Brown and Jeffrey Sanders. Here is what I wrote on pages 247-248 after I mentioned their sighting:
“The 1966 sighting is very intriguing especially now that we are hopeful that we might find ivorybills along the Yellow River, but the more I learn about this record the less I’m willing to believe it. According to Ken Able who was a prominent birder as well as ornithology professor at the time, Brown and Sanders were active birders in the Chicago area in the 1960s and 70s. They nearly always birded together and over a period of several years they reported a number of very rare birds around the Chicago area. Ultimately, these reports were shown to be fraudulent, Brown and Sanders confessed, and a long retraction of records appeared in the pages of Audubon Field Notes the forerunner of North American Birds. The 1966 ivorybill sighting along the Yellow River occurred right during the time of the incidents in Chicago.”
The deletion of records to which I refer can be found on pages Audubon Field Notes 22(5): 613-614 (1968). The statement begins: “Corrigenda—Recent correspondence has indicated that the following records are subject to reasonable doubt. These records should be considered deleted for lack of independent verification by observers of known competence.” Following this statement is a list of more than 90 rare bird reports by Mr. Brown or Mr. Sanders that were stricken from the record by the editors of Audubon Field Notes.
I’m not writing this post to defend the paragraph in my book. To the contrary, I’m writing to acknowledge that I should have left mention of this out of the book. I wrote this paragraph without interviewing Brown or Sanders. In subsequent conversations with both Brown and Sanders, they told me that there were no confessions or retractions by them regarding their bird sightings. The retractions in the above citation were made by the editors of Audubon Field Notes. This is ancient birding history, and there was no need for me to delve into this issue since it was tangential to the topic being discussed. There are understandably a lot of hard feeling associated with this episode of Chicago birding. I will remove this unnecessary paragraph from future printings of my book.
Speaking with Mr. Brown and Mr. Sanders did give me the chance to hear more about their 1966 sighting near the Yellow River. According Mr. Brown and Mr. Sanders, both of whom I spoke with on the phone, they did not have Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in view for 16 minutes, as has been sometimes reported. That was a misunderstanding that appeared as their story was retold. In 1966, Brown was an experienced birder with lots of time spent in the Southeast. The August 1966 trip was Sanders’ first trip to the Gulf Coast and according him only his second trip far away from home. They had spent the morning birding the coast and getting many new birds for Sanders. In the afternoon they drove inland to find forest birds that would be new for Sanders. They stopped at Boiling Springs near the Yellow River, and they started to hear double knocks that sounded to Brown just like the double knocks of Pale-billed Woodpeckers that he had heard in Latin America. They both also started to hear nasal calls that Brown first tried to make into the calls of Fish Crows, the closest matching bird call he could come up with, but that just didn’t sound like Fish Crows. Sanders said the calls sounded to him like the sound produced when one blows into a clarinet mouthpiece— he played the clarinet and knew that sound well. He made this statement about the clarinet mouthpiece before he later read the same description made by biologists. As they stood trying to find the origin of the knocks and calls, a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker flew down the channel in front of them. Brown told me that he was very fast with his binoculars and that he was able to bring the bird into focus in his binoculars. He noted the red crest, dorsal stripes, and white trailing edge on the wing. About a minute later a female ivorybill flew along the same path. Again, in focus in his binoculars, Brown saw a black crest, dorsal stripes, and a white trailing edge to the wings. Sanders saw the birds and got the male in his binoculars but all he saw was lots of flashing white and red on the head. He was unsure of the pattern of white on the bird and didn’t feel like he could positively identify it. They never saw the birds foraging in pines as has sometimes been suggested. The entire event from the time they first heard double knocks to the flight of the females may have taken about 16 minutes, and Mr. Brown thinks that is where the reported 16 minutes of observation comes from.
Geoff Hill 10/2/07
I want to thank the searchers for their devotion to the project. It is not easy to live in a tent in the swamp for 5 five months. The search season began in bitter cold and ended with sweltering heat and mosquitoes. We had a few kayak and canoe mishaps including a couple of near tragedies, but in the end all of the folks associated with the Auburn/Windsor search came through the season unharmed. We are also very grateful for the help of the volunteer search team led by Mark Bailey and of course for the financial and logistical support from many individuals and organizations.
Brian Rolek and I will be giving oral presentations on our 2007 Ivory-billed Woodpecker search at the American Ornithhologists’ Union Meeting in Wyoming in August. We will write a summary of our 2007 search this summer and post copies of this document as soon as it is completed.
I stand by my contention that at least a few Ivory-billed Woodpeckers live in the forested wetlands along the Choctawhatchee River. We just need more time and a bit of luck to gather definitive proof for their existence. Unfortunately, time does not seem to be on our side. The region of the Florida panhandle around the Choctawhatchee River bottomlands has retained a low density of people and an abundance of wildlife into the twenty-first century. The winds of change of blowing, however. The new international airport that is proposed to be built between the Choctawhatchee and Apalachicola Rivers will not directly destroy bottomland forest, but it is intended to be the stimulus for a major development for this part of the Florida panhandle. Already, there are preliminary plans for a new 4-lane highway across the Choctawhatchee River to connect the new airport-related developments to Interstate 10 and the rest of the region. Preliminary plans that I have seen would have the new highway crossing East River Island, an uninhabited forested island with some of the best potential ivorybill habitat in the region.
I find it ironic that the forested wetlands along the Choctawhatchee River were ignored by ornithologists through the 20th century only to be “discovered” as a major center of abundance for southern bottomland forest birds, including Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, just as civilization pushes into the area, rendering it less suitable for species that need space and little disturbance.
Geoff Hill 6/2/07
We will prepare and disseminate a summary of our search effort and findings as soon as possible this summer. Dan Mennill is in Costa Rica for a couple of months and his absence will slow down finally tallies of recorded sounds. I will be giving a presentation at the American Ornithologists’ Union meeting in Wyoming in August summarizing our 2007 search effort and Brian Rolek will be giving a presentation at that meeting on the cavities that we measured.
I’ll post at least one more update before the end of May.
Geoff Hill 5/2/07
On Friday April 13, I was on site and decided to roam to the fringe of our study area where few of our searchers have been lately. We’ve been focusing our effort in the area where we’ve repeatedly heard and recorded kents and double knocks since December. I paddled the entire day, only getting out of my kayak for a 10-minute lunch and for bathroom breaks. At 3 p.m. I was about 5 km from where we’ve been focusing our search, in a scenic stand of huge cypress and big tupelo that was still mostly flooded. It was a warm afternoon and much of the bird song of the morning had tapered off. The channel within the swamp seemed like a dark cave after paddling on the brilliantly lit river. The only sounds were the monotonous warbles of Red-eyed Vireos, which never seem to stop singing, punctuated occasionally by the sharp staccato notes of Prothonotary Warblers. As I drifted without paddling, I heard a double knock high and to my left. Distance to this sort of sound is very hard to judge, but these bangs came from a point not very far away. My rough estimate was 200 feet away. About 10 seconds after this first, close double knock, I heard a second faint but clear double knock to my left and behind me. This second double knock sounded much farther away, perhaps two hundred yards or more away, but this distance was very hard to judge. It sounded to me like a bird knocking and a second bird answering. It could have been the same bird which knocked just before it flew and then knocked again as soon as it landed. It seemed to me that it would take every bit of ten seconds for the first knocker to reach a position to give the faint second knock.
I am certain that both of these double knocks came from something banging on wood. Neither double knock sounded anything like a gunshot. They weren’t particularly powerful and there was no hint of an echo. They were just good solid whacks on wood. The tempo of the two knocks seemed very good, meaning that the spacing between the two double knocks was probably close to 100 ms. Over the past two years, I’ve listened to and assessed hundreds of putative ivorybill double knocks from Florida and Arkansas as well as many recordings of other Campephilus woodpeckers. Dan Mennill and I describe putative double knocks as “too fast”, “two slow”, or “good”, based on how well they match the tempo of big Campephilus woodpeckers. (We also assess other qualities of putative DKs of course but tempo is what we pay attention to first). The putative double knocks that both Dan and I rank as “good” have a spacing of around 100 ms (below about 60 ms double knocks sound noticeably fast and above 160 ms they sound noticeably slow).
On this same afternoon at about 2:30, Lawson Yow, who has been on the search team since December, heard what he described as a clear double knock. Lawson’s detection was about 5 km away from my detection 30 minutes later.
These recent sound detections have re-energized the troops. We’re still optimistic that we’ll get some definitive evidence for the existence of ivorybills before this year’s search ends.
Geoff Hill 4/16/07
Update Addendum 4-9-2007
For a while last week it felt like June or July along the Choctawhatchee River with temperatures pushing 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity. With the warm weather came clouds of mosquitoes, more than we experienced last year until mid-summer. Suddenly this weekend it is unseasonably cold with strong winds. The good news about the cold weather is that it knocked the mosquitoes back. The river also has been in a cycle of extremes. It dropped to a depth of three feet on the Caryville gauge early last week, which is a level typical of mid-summer, leaving most of the swamp dry. Then a few Alabama counties in the upper Choctawhatchee drainage got five or six inches of rain in localized thunderstorms and the Choctawhatchee River rose 8 feet in less than three days to the highest level all year. We had to scramble to get our cameras down (or more literally scooted way up the trunks of trees) before then were left deeply submerged by the rapidly rising river. Now the river is dropping a foot per day.
A lot is made of the negative impact on ivorybill searches of the leafing of trees in the spring. There is widespread thinking that leaves makes ivorybill hunting much tougher and that everyone should call it quits when the trees have leaves. Leaves make seeing cavities much tougher and foliage can make setting cameras to monitor cavities a nightmare. In my opinion, however, a leafy canopy doesn’t affect ivorybill hunting all that much. Most of the forest along the Choctawhatchhee River has little midstory so you can get long clear views through the forest under the canopy. If we want to put this in cynical terms, no one on my search team got good looks at ivorybills through most of January, February, and early March when trees were bare, so how much worse can it get with leaves on trees? Some of the best ivorybill sightings by Brian Rolek and Tyler Hicks in 2005 and 2006 were made when trees were fully leafed out. I think that leaves on trees will have only a minor negative impact on most ivorybill searches.
Mosquitoes are a much bigger factor than leaves for ivorybill hunters. When mosquito numbers are high, it becomes very tough to sight still and watch for ivorybills. A sitting person seems to draw every mosquito in the region, and the mosquitoes have time to search out the vulnerable spots on a stationary person. Mosquitoes are extremely distracting, and I personally end up spending all my time during stationary watches swatting and battling mosquitoes instead of looking for ivorybills. I hope that the recent river flood and cool weather will knock the mosquito populations back for a while. It’s going to be a long April and May for the searchers if mosquito numbers stay high.
Geoff Hill 4/09/07
Dr. Ken Able, who is a professional ornithologist and an outstanding birder, spent a couple of weeks in late February and early March along the river searching areas outside of our main study site. On March 6, Ken heard a series of kent-like notes that he could not readily attribute to any animal other than an ivorybill. Following up on Ken’s detection, Eric Soehren and Dr. Bill Summerour, two ornithologists and well known Alabama birders and volunteers on the Nokuse team, went into the area on March 9 and simulated a few double knocks using Mark Bailey’s hammer and box. Eric heard what he is confident was a Campephilus double knock in response to one of the simulations. I’ve included write-ups from both Ken and Eric below. We continue to monitor this area.
Note that we are using double knock simulations sparingly in coordinated efforts with all times and locations carefully recorded. We ask that birders visiting the area do not use kent or double-knock simulations in the forests along the Choctawhatchee River.
Ken Able’s write-up: Notes on Possible Detections of Ivory-billed Woodpecker on XXX the Choctawhatchee River basin, Washington County, Florida. Kenneth P. Able
These notes are copied from those written in the field at the time of observations.
6 March 2007 – Sunny with frost in the early morning, high to near 70 deg F. Wind calm at the time of observation. At 08:30 CST, I was stationary on XXXX, when I heard a series of “kent” calls emanating from the opposite side of the river. When I crossed the river later, I determined the GPS position XXX. The calls came from some unknown, but not great, distance inland from that point.
The calls were not loud, but were quite clear and distinct (I was using hearing aids at the time). I heard a total of six notes in three groups of two notes each. The bird could have been calling before I heard it, of course. The individual notes sounded pure toned and toot-like. There was no beginning consonant sound, e.g., a ‘k’ or ‘p’ sound. To my ear, the notes sounded like “aaant”, somewhat nasal, but not extremely so.
The sequence consisted of a pair of notes on the same pitch separated by ca. 1 sec, a second pair ca. 5 sec later with the second note higher in pitch, and a third and final pair on the same (lower) pitch ca. 2-4 sec after the second.
There was no indication that more than one bird was calling nor that the bird was moving while calling.
I remained in place for 20 min following the last call, but heard nothing more. I heard no knocks, tapping, etc. I then crossed the river in my kayak and went ashore on the side from which the calls came. Because of dry leaves, twigs, palmetto, etc., it was impossible to move quietly on foot, so I sat for an hour. I did not see nor hear anything else suggestive of an ivorybill.
During the course of this 1 hr 20 min, the only other birds heard or seen in the vicinity were red-bellied woodpecker, Carolina Wren, northern parula and northern cardinal. Over the next four days, I spent about 22 hours in the general vicinity of these calls, During that time, I did not detect any blue jays nor northern flickers in the area.
Comments on notes (16 March 2007): These calls sounded to my ear exactly as I expected an ivory-billed woodpecker to sound based on other recordings. Of course, I have no prior field experience with the bird. I have heard a few blue jays making kent-like calls (in AR and elsewhere, but not in FL) and in all cases they became recognizable as such reasonably quickly. Apparently blue jays can make very convincing imitations, though I have not heard one. Could these calls have been made by a blue jay or something else other than an ivory-bill? Of course, anything is possible. Personally, I am convinced that they were made by an ivory-bill.
Eric Soehren’s write-up:
Bill and I arrived in XXX a little after 0800 Hrs and landed down stream of XXX. We chose to search this area after we were informed by Mark Bailey about Dr. Kenneth Able’s kent call detection in the area a couple days earlier. Bill carried the custom-made simulation “double knock” box and I carried the GPS and digital camcorder. Bill performed the double knock simulations while I recorded the data. Nothing unusual or ordinary was heard following first simulated double knocks. We followed an old logging road to the location, stopped, and performed another double knock survey. It was after this second simulated knock survey we heard some interesting sounds. After ten minutes or so, two sets of double knocks (better described as whacks) were heard directly to the east. The double knocks were heavy and evenly spaced. Additionally, Pileated Woodpeckers subsequently called in the general vicinity, so I immediately dismissed the double knocks as Pileated based on location and the cadence of the heavy, evenly-spaced double knocks (loud whacks). I also turned off my camcorder after detecting Pileateds. Bill simulated double knocks again following the initial detection around 0910 Hrs. Bill was looking south, while I was looking north. After one minute, I glimpsed a single large, dark, woodpecker fly in a westerly direction near canopy level. I couldn’t see any detail other than a dark silhouette (no color visible) and relatively slow wing beat (typical of Pileateds). Bill did not the see the bird I observed based on the direction he was facing. I concluded the bird was a Pileated because it came from where we had just heard the Pileated activity. Bill continued to simulate double knocks. About 2 minutes following Bill’s last simulation knocks, I heard a distant, but resonating and reverberating (echo-like) double knock to the west northwest of our location. I estimated it to be about 200+ meters away. Although distant, I heard the double knock very distinctly and there was no mistake about the cadence and quality of it. About the same time, heavy whacking and sporadic Pileated calls were heard south of the “new” double knock area, which indicated to me that this double knock was from a bird separate from the Pileated Woodpecker activity. After I heard the double knock, I turned to Bill immediately and asked if he had heard it. He did not because at that very moment when I heard the double knock he shifted and simultaneously rustled the leaf litter beneath his foot preventing him from hearing it. We paused for a couple more minutes and did not hear anything like the double knock I detected.
Description of single double knock: The double knock was characteristically different from any other “double knocks” Bill and I heard in the area. Periodically, we heard several double knocks from Pileated Woodpeckers (heavy, evenly-spaced quick whacks) and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (softer double knocks mixed in with stuttered pecking) during the morning. However, the double knock I heard was distinctly (although subtle) different from the aforementioned species. My immediate impression was that of a Magellanic Woodpecker double knock as shown on David Attenborough’s Life of Birds. Its fast reverberating cadence differed from the evenly-spaced heavy double whacks of the Pileateds and the softer double knocks of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers we were hearing in the area.
My overall impression of the encounter: I heard a double knock clearly and was able to discern the cadence with little doubt as that of a Campephilus woodpecker. It was characteristically different from Pileated Woodpecker double knocks/whacks. Additionally, the nature of the double knock (cadence and resonance) would be very difficult to simulate by a person based on its speed (fast echo-like, reverberating cadence), resonance, and distance. Although the double knock led to no visual observation, my encounter may offer a clue that builds upon other recent encounters in the vicinity, which might suggest an Ivory-billed Woodpecker may be utilizing or passing through the area occasionally.
Geoff Hill 3/19/07
We passed the 2500-cavity mark in our inventory (still not completely finished) and more than 50 of these cavities are judged to be relatively fresh and unlike typical pileated cavities. (These would be “A” cavities in the Lab of Ornithology classification system but we give each cavity a score of 1 to 30.) Some of these large cavities are in old hollow cypress but large, oblong, and asymmetrical cavities tend to also occur in 4 other situations: 1) in dead trunks or branches of sweetgum—never, to my knowledge, in live sweetgum branches or trunks; 2) in the trunks of large, living tupelo; 3) in the trunks of living mid-aged cypress that are not hollow; 4) in the trunks of living overcup oaks. I’ve attached some photos of some cavities that I’ve found during my weekend visits this year. These are not the best cavities from the whole study area—just a few of the cavities that I personally found and tagged as I wandered around. We are monitoring all of the top-ranked cavities with Reconyx cameras and hope that one of these days an ivorybill will get its picture taken coming or going. I don’t yet have measurements for the cavities pictured below—they each looked to be five inches or more in vertical dimension.
Geoff Hill 3/05/07
We continue to study bark scaling and large cavities. Our camera surveillance of scaled trees should provide an opportunity to document the bark scaling behavior of all woodpeckers in the forests along the Choctawhatchee River. Extensive fresh scaling of recently dead sweetgums are again conspicuous in a few areas of the river bottomlands after being scarce or absent since last summer. We are monitoring these freshly scaled trees with cameras and by the end of the spring we should have a good idea what makes this sort of scaling.
Students in my ornithology class at Auburn are required to complete a research project centered on a hypothesis using simple statistical analyses. I suggested that some students test the hypothesis that the distribution of heights and widths of cavity-entrance holes is different in the forests along the Choctawhatchee River compared to the distribution in other forested regions within the range of the southern Pileated Woodpecker. The fifty students in my ornithology class live mostly in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, and to conduct their studies, students are borrowing a 40-foot pole and taking it on weekends to their hunting lands, parent’s farms, local game management lands, etc. They locate large cavities estimated 3 inches in diameter or greater and take digital photos of each cavity with the ruler on the end of the pole placed as close to the hole as possible. It is then a simple matter to measure the height and width of the cavity from the digital photo. This class project should generate over 100 measured cavities within the range of the southern Pileated Woodpecker. A subset of these cavities will be known pileated cavities, as some students know of active roost cavities or former nest cavities. We can then test whether the mean size of cavities on our study site is larger than expected. These data will likely be part of Rusty Ligon’s and Brian Rolek’s masters theses and Rusty or Brian will likely be presenting the results of the cavity comparisons at bird meetings this summer.
Geoff Hill 2/19/07
We have immediate need for a full-time searcher. Please contact me (Dr. Geoff Hill) ASAP stating birding experience, outdoor experience,
and skill in a canoe or kayak. Also send names and contact numbers for two references. Searchers work on an eight-day rotation--six days
living in a tent in the swamp and two days out. Pay is $1200/mo, no benefits, and the position is scheduled to last until May 31, 2007.
As we continue to position searchers around our study area, we are also monitoring cavities and feeding trees with automated cameras. James R. Hill, III (aka, Jamie — no relation to me) is our supervisor of image surveillance. Along with his assistant, Zoe Tarbell, Jamie is in charge of deploying cameras and looking at the images they collect. Jamie and our team decided that motion-activated cameras would not work for our ivorybill search and that we should commit to time-lapse cameras for this project. In theory, motion-activated cameras are the way to go. You point a camera at a place on a tree where you think an ivorybill might land, and if a bird shows up it trips the motion sensor and a definitive image is taken. The problem is that the motion sensors in game cameras track heat (infrared) motion not necessarily motion as a human eye sees it. Birds are well insulated and tend to give a poor heat profile compared to most mammals. In tests with motion-activated cameras, we found that they often did not deploy even when a large bird like a Pileated Woodpecker or Wild Turkey moved in front of them.
Time-lapse cameras, in contrast, are virtually certain to get a photo of a woodpecker if it lands on a tree in front of the camera, but this certainty comes at the cost of considerable time wasted looking at blank images. The Reconyx company makes what we think are the best commercial cameras for cavity and feeding tree surveillance, and we now have 25 Reconyx cameras being deployed along the Choctawhatchee River by Jamie and Zoe. With twenty-five cameras, Jamie and Zoe estimate that they can complete about 400, 5-day camera deployments by the end of May. This compares to 125 deployments in the Big Woods in Arkansas last year.
Reconyx cameras take simple black and white images at 2.5x magnification. A 2-GB memory card will hold about 25,000 Reconyx images and our rechargeable batteries will fire the camera for at least 25,000 images, so 25,000 images is our basic camera set. Reconyx cameras are fully programmable, so Jamie programs cameras for watching cavity trees to come on before dawn and turn off a couple of hours after dawn and then to come on again in the late afternoon and shut off after dark, hoping to capture a woodpecker coming from or going to its roost cavity. These cavity cameras take a photo once every three seconds. For feeding trees, Jamie sets the cameras to come on just after sunrise and go off just before sunset and take an image once every 12 seconds. For both types of sets, we get about five days of coverage of the hole or bark scaling.
After Jamie or Zoe collect the memory card from a camera deployment, they open the images on Macintosh computers and use Preview software to rapidly scroll through the images—rather like playing back a movie. They note whatever animals appear in the images. Even scrolling through Reconyx photos very quickly, an alert person will not miss any birds that are photographed by the cameras.
With our cavity inventories past the half way point, Jamie and Zoe have lots of places to put cameras. We would love for one of our searchers or a local hunter or fisherman to capture beautiful color images of an ivorybill. Realistically though, a relatively boring black-and-white Reconyx image of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker perched on a tree is most likely to be the source of definitive documentation of ivorybills along the Choctawhatchee.
Pictures from this week
Geoff Hill 1/29/07
Through January 18 we have recorded no more putative ivorybill sounds with our listening stations. The only putative ivorybill recording to date was made on the day that the stations were first set up. The listening stations are positioned far from where the recent detections occurred.
We are beginning deployment of numerous remote cameras at cavities and feeding trees. In a future update, I’ll post more about how we are using these cameras and what we are finding.
Geoff Hill 1/21/07Update 1/15/07
We’ve had only a few detections in the last week (1/7 to 1/13). A flurry of encounters in a short period followed by a period when Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are rarely detected is the same pattern that we experienced last year. Either ivorybills go through periods of making noise and being quiet or they move in an out of the places where searchers are.
Dan Mennill and his grad student Karan Odom and his sound technician Justyn Stahl got to Florida in early January and started putting up listening stations. The first listening stations were in place by mid-morning on January 5 and, remarkably, our first double-knock recording was made at about 3pm that afternoon. Since then, with more listening stations up and sound files checked through Jan 13, we’ve had no more putative ivorybill sounds recorded.
Jan 5 was at the end of a period with numerous ivorybill detections that began on Christmas Eve. We had several different in-life double knock detections on Jan 5 within a kilometer of the listening station that recorded the double knock. When human observers stopped hearing ivorybills, listening stations quit recording them.
Thanks to the hard work of Dan Mennill, our goal to have 24-hour turn around of listening-station recordings seems to be working—at least for the first half of the stations. This scheme requires that we transmit a very large volume of data through cable internet from our rental house in DeFuniak Springs to Windsor, Ontario. DeFuniak Springs is small-town America and the fastest cable internet available is barely sufficient for our needs. To install a fiber optic cable directly to our rental house is cost prohibitive. We’re making due with the highest speed residential internet available. We might be limited to 24-hr turn around on only about half of the 16 listening stations that we will eventually deploy. Dan is pretty resourceful, though, and I won’t be surprised if he finds a way to get 24-hr turn around for all 16 stations.
With 24-hour turn around on sound recordings, we can call searchers to spots where listening stations detect ivorybills. We did this on Jan 7, the day we got word of the Jan 5 recording, but this time we were too late—we weren’t quite up to 24-hr turnaround then and the birds had apparently moved away from that spot anyway. Maybe next time we’ll be waiting for the birds.
Dan’s web page will provide continuous updates on efforts to record ivorybill sounds: http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/biology/dmennill/IBWO/IBWO07News.html
Geoff Hill 1-14-07
It’s been a whirlwind December and beginning of the New Year for our search group. We’ve now re-established our tent camp that is the base for our search operation, and all of our paid searchers as well as several volunteers have been in the forest looking for ivorybills. We had planned to have cavity searches largely completed by the end of December, but we barely got them started by that time. Brian Rolek and Rusty Ligon were incredibly busy taking classes, teaching classes, and trying to order equipment and get things organized. The few dozen cavity transects that we completed out of several hundred that need to be conducted indicated that we are going to be dealing with a daunting number of holes in trees. At one point I estimated that we might have 3500 cavities over our entire search area, but this projection was made based on some particularly cavity-rich transects. We will probably end up with cavity total somewhere between 1000 and 2000 if we cover our entire search area, but that stills seems overwhelming. These totals are for cavities, not cavity trees. The numerous large cypress with ten or so cavities each is largely responsible for this enormous number. Obviously these are not all active ivorybill cavities or cavities dug by ivorybills. This is the number of cavities estimated to be 3 inches or greater in diameter. This forest is simply full of big cavities. A relatively small subset of these cavities are very big—over five inches in vertical dimension—and then a subset of these large cavities are fresh and have a shape like the ivorybill cavities photographed in the Singer Tract. Despite having huge areas of forests still to survey, we have found more than twenty fresh, big, correctly shaped cavities and we are starting to monitor these high-scoring cavities with Reconyx cameras.
In November, Dr. Bruce Lyon, an ornithologist from UC Santa Cruz, and his former grad student, Jeff Barna, visited our site. They camped in the area for a week before we established our permanent camp, and Jeff had several ivorybill sound detections. Jeff also had an ivorybill fly over his head at treetop level just at sunrise. He only saw the silhouette of the bird but he could clearly see that it was a large woodpecker with long wings, a thin neck and a long wedge-shaped tail. It had a straight, stiff-winged flight pattern. He was confident that it was an ivorybill and not a pileated woodpecker. Since we have established our remote camp in December we have had a flurry of sound detections—at least 15 independent double knock and kent detections as of Sat (Jan 6 when I paddled out of the swamp). We have also had three recent sightings including two by Bob Anderson, a Virginia birder who visited our site as a volunteer. Bob’s second sighting was particularly good. He observed an ivorybill 25 meters away as it flew up from the ground or from a very low perch. He clearly saw the broad band of white on the trailing edge of the wing of a large black woodpecker. He reported that it had a stiff-winged flight and that he heard loud wing flaps as it flew away from him.
On Christmas Eve, Tyler Hicks got an outstanding look at a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Only three people were in camp that day—Drs. Greg and Diane Lewbart and Tyler. Tyler heard double knocks in early morning, and using his radio he called Greg and Diane toward the location. Diane was first on the scene and she heard three kent calls. Things then quieted down and everyone went back to cavity surveys. An hour or so later, Greg and Diane heard four double knocks southwest of the area birds had been detected, and they called Tyler. Tyler rendezvoused with Greg and Diane and headed off in the direction they heard the double knocks. While hiking along a narrow fast flowing channel he heard two kent calls. Tyler was hiking along the channel and it began to rain. Tyler tucked the SLR under his jacket and stealthily hiked in the direction of the kent calls. As he came around a bend in the channel, he saw an ivorybill on the trunk of a tupelo. It was only about 40 feet away. Tyler could clearly see the “ivory-white” bill on the bird—he said the pale bill “glowed” against the dark trunk of the tree. The crest of the bird was black. He’s sure. No red. The bird presented a profile so he saw one dorsal stripe running from the head to the back. The lower portion of the back of the perched bird was brilliant white. The bird paused on the tree for just a second and then fled. As it launched off the trunk and flew off Tyler could clearly see the broad white trailing edge covering the secondaries and innermost primaries of the dorsal wing surface. In flight, it had a long pointed tail and a long neck which he described as “like a pintail duck”.
Tyler’s encounter was a great photo opportunity, but the camera failed us. Tyler’s SLR was set to auto focus and it focused instead of taking photos during the couple of seconds the bird was in front of him. This is extremely frustrating for all of us, but we are getting very close to a photograph of these woodpeckers. We’ll have a photo or video soon. Having a larger search crew is making all the difference. We are able to locate and track these birds now.
Tyler’s sighting cannot be dismissed as a misidentification. The details reported by Tyler absolutely rule out any other species of bird.
Things are extremely busy for all of us but I’ll try to post an update each week during our search.
Geoff Hill, 1/7/07
Associated with Brian Rolek’s December 27, 2005 sighting of an ivorybill, which was included in the sightings table in our ACE-ECO paper, was interesting series of loud arrhythmic knocks and then a very loud, single knock. With his video camera running, Brian approached a bird that was banging loudly. As Brian got close to the bird it went quiet for several seconds and then it gave one loud powerful bang. Immediately after this bang, Brian saw a large, long-winged woodpecker with white trailing edges fly from the spot. You can listen to this encounter on the audio clip below. Unfortunately, Brain failed to capture an image of the fleeing bird—the auto focus on the camera focused on trees and bushes in the foreground as the bird flew off and the view of the fleeing bird was poor, through thick bushes.
On several occasions in the winter and spring of 2006/2007 Brian and Tyler Hicks heard loud banging and single knocks sometimes with clear double knocks mixed in. It is interesting to compare Brian’s recordings and descriptions to Tanner’s descriptions of ivorybill banging:
“These single and double raps are surprisingly loud. The birds would often peck or tap until they found a good place, would often move to a hard dead stub, and then strike a resounding single or double blow.” (Tanner 1942)While far from definitive proof of an ivorybill, this single knock is intriguing especially because it was associated with a visual ID of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Since our announcement of evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Florida Panhandle in September, my students and I have done relatively little searching for ivorybills. The late summer/fall is a tough time to detect the birds. No one in our group has yet heard a double knock or kent call between August and the end of December. Tanner indicated that ivorybills are very hard to locate during these months. So, we put our effort into preparing for the 2006/2007 winter/spring search.
Searches under the umbrella of the Auburn University search team will have two main components: 1) a group of full-time paid searchers led by my graduate students Brian Rolek and Rusty Ligon to work in the area where we worked last year, and 2) a group of skilled, part-time volunteers led by Mark Bailey to search an area south of HWY 20 using Nokuse Plantation (a non-profit organization focused on habitat restoration) as their base. Updates on activities of Mark Bailey’s team can be found at http://ibwo.blogspot.com. My lab group at Auburn University will be in charge of all organized searches along the Choctawhatchee River this year. The Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University is assisting us by providing advice and some equipment loans, but Auburn and Cornell are conducting ivorybill searches independently, with the Cornell effort focused on the Big Woods in Arkansas and our effort focused on the Florida Panhandle.
Our approach this season will be to locate all cavities in the study areas by walking transects through the forest in November and December 2006. Cavity searches may extend into January; at present it is hard to estimate how quickly we can complete this activity. All cavities will get a score based on size, freshness, and shape, and we will use cavity scores to prioritize cavity monitoring. We have decided to do no cavity stakeouts by humans. We want to conduct our search this year in a manner that minimizes the chance of disturbing resident ivorybills. Instead of human watches, we will use remote, time-lapse cameras to monitor cavities. We will actually create perimeters around the highest ranked cavities and have searchers avoid getting near such cavities until we have completed camera monitoring. The cameras that we will use can record five days of morning and evening activity at a cavity and should get definitive images of any woodpecker that goes in or out of the holes. Jamie Hill who ran remote cameras in the Big Woods last winter has joined the Auburn search team and will be responsible for running the remote cameras.
Jamie could deploy as many as 30 remote cameras, but at present our budget will limit us to about 10 remote cameras, which cost about $1500 per unit. If anyone is interested in contributing to the Auburn University search of the Choctawhathcee River, buying a Reconyx camera would have an immediate positive effect on our effort.
Dan Mennill and his University of Windsor team will continue to monitor sound this year. Dan’s team will be led by two grad students—Kyle Swiston analyzing sound files in Dan’s lab in Canada and Karen Odom deploying listening stations in the swamp. Dan’s group will put out sixteen listening stations throughout the forests along the Choctawhatchee River. In contrast to Dan's approach last year, however, his group will search audio files within 24 hr of downloading the recordings from the swamp. We will do this by transmitting the audio files via high speed internet from our field house to the Mennill Sound Analysis Laboratory in Windsor. There, Kyle and a team of 20 University of Windsor undergraduate research technicians will search the files and call the field crew when putative ivorybill sounds are detected. In this way we can get to “hot spots” within 48 hrs of detection of a double knock or kent call. Our approach will be to go into such areas in full camo and wait for the bird to return. Last year, our sound files indicated that whatever was making double knocks and kent calls often returned to a spot for three or four consecutive days. This year, we’ll be waiting for the source of such sounds to return.
We will divide our search area into territories of about .75 square miles with each searcher being assigned to a territory. Searchers will spend their days sitting and listening or slowly walking or paddling through their area. We want to create as little disturbance as possible in our search areas, assuming that ivorybills are very sensitive to human disturbance. All searchers will be directed be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible. All searchers will carry video cameras unless they own a digital SLR camera. We do not have a budget to purchase digital SLR cameras for all searchers but I’m becoming convinced that such cameras are better for documenting IBWO than video cameras. Digital SLR cameras by Cannon (and likely other models but I haven’t had a chance to compare) will now turn on in less than a second and can shoot several very high-resolution frames per second. A small ivorybill image on such a high-resolution frame has greater chance of showing diagnostic plumage pattern and than a small ivorybill image on a video frame.
We’ll start our cavity transects by the end of November and begin deploying time-lapse cameras by the beginning of December. I’ll begin posting bi-monthly updates in December.
Should we get a definitive photo of an ivorybill, we will not make an immediate announcement. We will first present the image to identification/ivorybill experts throughout the North American ornithological community for opinions. If there is concensus that the image is definitive evidence for an ivorybill then we will write a journal article presenting the image as definitive evidence of ivorybills and submit the paper to scientific journal. If the paper is accepted for publication, there would be the typical press embargo pending publication and simultaneous publication and public announcement of the evidence. This process would likely take 6 weeks from the time the image is captured. If a freelance birders/photographer outside of our research group is lucky enough to get a definitive photo, we encourage him or her to bring the image to us so we can authenticate it through the above process. The photographer would of course retain full copyright and distributional rights and announcing such a photo through a scientific journal and establishing its authenticity would add to its value.
Geoff Hill 11.09.06
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