Monday, September 25, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Florida

Researchers are reporting evidence for the presence of ivory-billed woodpeckers along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida. Up to nine pairs may be breeding in the area. There have been 14 sightings by multiple observers, including of female woodpeckers. In addition, the searchers recorded audio of kent calls and double-knocks. Unfortunately no photographic or video documentation has been obtained. Until such happens, the findings are likely to be attacked by self-proclaimed skeptics. If nest sites do exist, and the researchers can find them, then visual documentation should be produced soon enough.

The search efforts were coordinated by Geoffrey Hill of Auburn University and Daniel Mennill of the University of Windsor. Hill and Mennill have been more cautious in describing their findings than the Cornell team was with regard to the Arkansas sightings.

In a phone interview, Dr. Hill said only an indisputable photograph or DNA evidence would be scientifically conclusive. He said he knew how heated the subject of ivory bills had become, but asked, “Once we found them, what was I supposed to do?”

“The mistake,” he added dryly, “was ever looking for them.”
This report has been in the rumor mill for some time. An official announcement with more details on the sightings is set for tomorrow.

Update: An article from the Anniston Star (in Alabama) has much more detail on the search team and its findings. Geoffrey Hill and two research assistants made their first sightings in May 2005, and then returned to the area for prolonged searching in the winter of 2005-06. Apparently there are 210 recordings of kent calls and 99 of double knocks. The audio evidence was gathered at seven locations from December 2005 to April 2006, and then the recordings were searched for the audio signatures of ivory-billed woodpeckers, as well as more common animals. The sightings and recordings occurred in a section of the Florida panhandle that was not searched by James Tanner in his famous expeditions. This area has been cited by Jerome Jackson, among others, as having the best chance for ivory-billed woodpeckers in the southeast United States. An article describing the research is due to be published in Avian Conservation and Ecology.

Another update: Daniel Mennill has posted his page on the ivory-billed woodpecker search. The page includes sound files for all of the recordings made along the Choctawhatchee River. I listened to a few of the recordings, and in most cases the putative woodpecker sounds are faint and difficult to hear over the ambient noise.

The team is asking birders to stay out of the search site and look in other areas for the time being:
If we encounter birders in our study area, we will ask them to leave and suggest other areas to search. It is not worth endangering this small population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers to try to get this bird on your life list. Our observations of bark scaling and large cavities from I-10 to the Choctawhatchee Bay suggest that ivorybills may be widespread in the Choctawhatchee River Basin, and there are many areas to explore outside of our small study area with great potential for ivorybills. Below, we suggest several places to search. If birders spread out, the impact on any given area will be small. If birders crowd into one spot, ivorybills will be driven out of that area. We ask that you put the interest of the bird first.