This Thing Called Courage

Monday, March 27, 2006

Ivory Bill Woodpecker

The Ivory Bill Woodpecker was undoubtedly the most beautiful, majestic, and mysterious bird to grace our country's once-magnificent habitat. About the size of a hawk, making it the largest woodpecker in North America and the third-largest in the world, it made its home in the wild bayous and swamps of the Southeast. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker thrived on the great expanses of virgin timber that covered much of the South before the Civil War. These vast tracts of bottomland hardwoods were home to numerous dead and dying trees that produced beetle larvae, the ivory-bill's favorite food. After the Civil War, the lumber industry took off and the great trees of the South were felled to feed a nation starved for wood, wood, and more wood. The destruction of the ivory-bills' habitat continued unabated through the 1940s until suddenly, there was no more timber left to cut. Gone were millions of acres of the great bottomland forests that once blanketed the southern delta regions and in its place were areas of vast destruction left after the lumber companies moved on. Habitat destruction forced the ivory-bill into smaller and more fragmented pieces of forestland. This loss of habitat certainly pushed this magnificent bird of the forest toward extinction. The fad of collecting birds was another factor contributing to the demise of the ivory-bill once it became rare. Bird collectors, including many prominent ornithologists, became experts at targeting threatened birds to add to their collections. There's a photograph from 1890 of famed ornithologist William Brewster sitting on a scow on Florida's Suwannee River with a freshly shot ivory-bill on his lap. Frank Chapman, later director of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and founder of the National Audubon Society, sits a few feet away holding a double-barreled shotgun. The last documented Ivory Bills lived in a very remote swamp in Louisiana known as the 'Singer Tract,' as the land was owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company of Chicago-- the thinking was, it was cheaper to own the forests from whence your company would get its wood, rather than just buy wood from a middleman. Nearly every home in America had a sewing machine, and nearly all of them were encased with wood. This was one of the last bottomland bayous remaining, and as such it was filled with trees in excess of 1000 years old. The company was told by Audubon and other conservation-minded groups that their woods contained the last known Ivory Bills in America (a small remnant population survived in Cuba until the 1960's-- they too are extinct now) but the company only accelerated its clear-cutting schedule. The last bird, a female, was seen atop a giant pine, one of the last trees remaining-- and then that tree was felled, and the bird flew off, presumably into extinction.

The story of the quest for the ivory-bill moved from Louisiana to Cuba in 1948 when John Dennis and Davis Crompton traveled to the Oriente region search for the birds. The habitat they found was nothing like the appropriate habitat described by Tanner. They were in an area of cutover pines, which Dennis described as being like hell on earth. However, amid the destruction they found a breeding pair of ivory-bills nesting in the hole of a dead pine tree. Dennis snapped the last scientifically accepted photographs ever taken of an ivory-bill, an adult male perched on the side of its nest tree. One of his pictures and an article by Dennis were published later that year in The Auk. John Dennis continued to search for ivory-bills for the rest of his life. In 1950, he checked out reports of ivory-bills in northwestern Florida with fellow graduate student Whitney Eastman from the University of Florida. Dennis left the search after a few days and at first dismissed later reports that Eastman had located a pair of ivory-bills after Dennis had left. But he returned to the area and reported hearing an ivory-bill call from its roost hole. Over the years Dennis followed up on numerous ivory-bill reports. In December 1966 he found himself in the Big Thicket area of east Texas. Olga Hooks Lloyd, a birdwatcher in Beaumont, Texas, had reported seeing one that April in a swamp along the Neches River. After two days of searching, Dennis heard the kent calls of an ivory-bill. Several days later, after days of heavy rain that precluded searching, Dennis visited the bayou again where he spotted an ivory-bill flying. "Sweeping majestically from where it apparently had been feeding on the ground, it soon settled upon the trunk of an enormous cypress tree," wrote Dennis. The bird left almost immediately and Dennis waded across the bayou to try to get a better view of it. He walked in the direction in which the bird had flown and stumbled upon her, perched like a vision on a stump, her wings outstretched. Dennis' subsequent report was greeted with skepticism in the ornithological community; Jim Tanner searched the area for two days, saw nothing, and declared the habitat totally unsuitable for ivory-bills. Nonetheless, the Big Thicket National Preserve, a more than 97,000-acre preserve, was set aside by Congress in October 1974.

Almost every decade since the 1940s has brought its share of ivory-bill sightings in Cuba, and many southern states including Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. In the late 1970s a deer hunter reported spotting an ivory-bill while sitting in his deer stand in the Achafalaya Basin in Louisiana. A team of searchers set out from Louisiana State University and a couple of them heard possible kent calls and caught glimpses of what they believed were ivory-bills. The problem with all of the searches since Dennis's 1948 search in Cuba is the lack of hard physical evidence. People were catching fleeting glimpses of ivory-bills but not photographs. In 1971, ornithologist George Lowry, Jr., then director of Louisiana State University's Museum of Natural Science, brought two blurry photographs of an ivory-bill perched on the side of two different trees to the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union. These photographs had been brought to Lowery by a man who had taken them while out training his hunting dogs. Lowery believed the photos to be real, but he was one of the few who did.

But somehow, the miraculous occurredd- and the bird survived. The re-discovery was announced last April, and here is their release:

By Jay Harrod, Miyoko Chu, and Blaine Friedlander
April 28, 2005
Long believed to be extinct, a magnificent bird--the Ivory-billed Woodpecker--has been rediscovered in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas. More than 60 years after the last confirmed sighting of the species in the United States, a research team today announced that at least one male ivory-bill still survives in vast areas of bottomland swamp forest.
Published in the journal Science on its Science Express web site (April 28, 2005), the findings include multiple sightings of the elusive woodpecker and frame-by-frame analyses of brief video footage. The evidence was gathered during an intensive year-long search in the Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges involving more than 50 experts and field biologists working together as part of the Big Woods Conservation Partnership, led by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy.
"The bird captured on video is clearly an Ivory-billed Woodpecker," said John Fitzpatrick, the Science article's lead author, and director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. "Amazingly, America may have another chance to protect the future of this spectacular bird and the awesome forests in which it lives."
"It is a landmark rediscovery," said Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy's Arkansas chapter. "Finding the ivory-bill in Arkansas validates decades of great conservation work and represents an incredible story of hope for the future."
Joining the search team at a press conference in Washington DC, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton announced a Department of the Interior initiative to identify funds for recovery efforts. Through its cooperative conservation initiative, the Fish and Wildlife Service has a variety of grant and technical aid programs to support wildlife recovery.
"These programs are the heart and soul of the federal government's commitment to cooperative conservation. They are perfectly tailored to recover this magnificent bird," Secretary Norton said. "Across the Nation, these programs preserve millions of acres of habitat, improve riparian habitat along thousands of miles of streams and develop conservation plans for endangered species and their habitat."
The largest woodpecker in North America, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is known through lore as a bird of beauty and indomitable spirit. The species vanished after extensive clearing destroyed millions of acres of virgin forest throughout the South between the 1880s and mid-1940s. Although the majestic bird has been sought for decades, until now there was no firm evidence that it still existed.
The rediscovery has galvanized efforts to save the Big Woods of Arkansas, 550,000 acres of bayous, bottomland forests and oxbow lakes. According to Simon, The Nature Conservancy has conserved 18,000 acres of critical habitat in the Big Woods, at the request of the partnership, since the search began. "It's a very wild and beautiful place," Simon said.
While kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge on Feb. 11, 2004, Gene Sparling of Hot Springs, Ark., saw an unusually large, red-crested woodpecker fly toward him and land on a nearby tree. He noticed several field marks suggesting the bird was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
A week later, after learning of the sighting, Tim Gallagher, editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Living Bird magazine, and Bobby Harrison, associate professor at Oakwood College, Huntsville, Ala., interviewed Sparling. They were so convinced by his report that they traveled to Arkansas and then with Sparling to the bayou where he had seen the bird.
On Feb. 27, as Sparling paddled ahead, a large black-and-white woodpecker flew across the bayou less than 70 feet in front of Gallagher and Harrison, who simultaneously cried out: "Ivory-bill!" Minutes later, after the bird had disappeared into the forest, Gallagher and Harrison sat down to sketch independently what each had seen. Their field sketches, included in the Science article, show the characteristic patterns of white and black on the wings of the woodpecker.
"When we finished our notes," Gallagher said, "Bobby sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began to sob, saying, 'I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill.'" Gallagher said he was too choked with emotion to speak. "Just to think this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills. It's like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave," he said.
The sightings by Sparling, Gallagher and Harrison led to the formation of a search team, which later became the Big Woods Conservation Partnership. On April 5, 10 and 11, three different searchers sighted an ivory-bill in nearby areas. The views were fleeting, leaving little opportunity to take photographs.
David Luneau, associate professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said he thought the best chance to film the elusive bird would be to have a camcorder on at all times. On April 25, Luneau captured four seconds of video footage showing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker taking off from the trunk of a tree.
Frame-by-frame analyses show a bird perched on a tupelo trunk, with a distinctive white pattern on its back. During 1.2 seconds of flight, the video reveals 11 wing beats showing extensive white on the trailing edges of the wings and white on the back. Both of these features distinguish the Ivory-billed Woodpecker from the superficially similar, and much more common, pileated woodpecker.
On three occasions, members of the search team heard series of loud double-raps, possibly the Ivory-billed Woodpecker's display drumming. On Feb. 14, 2005, Casey Taylor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology heard the drumming for 30 minutes, then watched as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, being mobbed by crows, flew into view.
In addition, autonomous recording units detected sounds, among thousands of hours of recordings, which resembled double-raps and possible calls of the ivory-bill -- reminiscent of the sound of a tin horn. Researchers say ongoing analyses of the recordings have not yet enabled them to rule out other potential sound sources, such as the calls of blue jays, which are notorious mimics.
In all, during more than 7,000 hours of search time, experienced observers reported at least 15 sightings of the ivory-bill, seven of which were described in the Science article. Because only a single bird was observed at a time, researchers say they don't yet know whether more than one inhabits the area.
So far, the search team has focused its efforts in approximately 16 of the 850 square miles in the bottomland forests of Arkansas. Fitzpatrick of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology said that the next step will be to broaden the search to assess whether breeding pairs exist and how many ivory-bills the region may support. To expand the area being monitored and minimize disturbance to the endangered woodpecker, the team will continue to use acoustic monitoring technologies as well as on-the-ground searching. Fitzpatrick said the team will also encourage others to search for the ivory-bill elsewhere in suitable habitats throughout the South.
Simon of The Nature Conservancy said that over the years, state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, hunters and landowners have aggressively worked to conserve and restore the bottomland hardwood and swamp ecosystem. "Now we know we must work even harder to conserve this critical habitat -- not just for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but for the black bears, waterfowl and many other species of these unique woods," he added.
The partnership's 10-year goal is to restore 200,000 more acres of forest in the Big Woods. The effort will include conserving forest habitat, improving river water quality, and restoring the physical structure of the river channels, focusing in locations with maximum benefit in reconnecting forest patches and protecting river health.
"The ivory-bill tells us that we could actually bring this system back to that primeval forest here in the heartland of North America," said Fitzpatrick, who is also a member of The Nature Conservancy's board of governors. "That's the kind of forest that I hope some generation of Americans and citizens of the world will get to come and visit."

I had the privelege to hear and see Tim Gallagher speak at the Harvard Museum of Natural History last September-- and to shake the hand of the man who has seen a living ghost. While it will take centuries to restore the remnants of the great southern forests to their original haunting grandeur, it can happen-- and we may smugly congratulate ourselves that, in these 'enlightened' times, similar, reed-based destruction could never occur; but we would be wrong. The current adminstration has been a wrecking-crew on environmental laws and public lands, even offering them for sale.



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