Saturday, 19 March 2011

Winged hope: Auburn professor is confident the magnificent ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct Read more: Anniston Star - Winged hope Auburn professor is confident the magnificent ivory billed woodpecker is not extinct

by John Fleming
Editor-at-large Anniston Star
Mar 13, 2011

AUBURN – Professor Geoff Hill is a careful observer and a careful talker.

He knows what he saw, but he also knows what to say about what he saw.

In 2005 and 2006, deep in the swamps of the Florida Panhandle, he made several sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct, last proven beyond a doubt to be alive in the 1940s. The professor of ornithology at Auburn and author of several books on birds, an accomplished birder and a man who knows his woodpeckers (one of his books is about the ivory-bill) will tell you in detail about the Holy Grail of the birding world, because he has firsthand knowledge.

But then he will quickly add, “It proves nothing.”

It proves nothing because neither he nor any of the other accomplished members of the research team he led from Auburn University into the Choctawatchee River basin came back with a clear, indisputable photo of the bird. Yes, they have hundreds of recordings of a distinctive call similar to the one an ivory-bill was known to make. And his team, accomplished birders, well-trained graduate students and fellow ornithologists, made at least 14 sightings.

“It doesn’t prove anything.”

Hill, who has recently returned from studying another dying species in New Zealand, has a video clip of what he says is the bird. But before he even speaks about it, he dismisses it as essentially useless.

The clip is fuzzy and short. If you tease the backstory out of him, he’ll add that on the video, his grad student, Brian Rolek, is heard to say, “ivory-bill.”

Geoff Hill is convinced the ivory-bill is not dead. But he’s having a harder time convincing himself that the research has any more life in it.

A fuzzy video image

Proving the existence of the ivory-bill is a big deal for science and the birding world. This, the largest of the woodpeckers, once occupied the forests and swamps of the South, until huge swaths of timber were cleared, destroying the bird’s habitat.

Once a common sight, the ivory-bill faded with the forests of the South, until scientists and birders stopped finding it at all.

Through the years, people have reported sightings. Many of them turned out to be the cousin of the ivory-bill, the much smaller pileated woodpecker. But sprinkled in among the false alarms have been enough credible reports to keep the scientists and the hopeful interested.

The biggest problem is there is no photo. Not since a scientific expedition penetrated a swampy region of Louisiana to film ivory-bills in the 1930s has anyone obtained an undisputed photo of the bird.

Oh, there have been close calls. But these signs of hope have also proven to be letdowns for the general public and for funders of projects like the one Hill led.

First, there was great excitement in Louisiana in the late 1990s, which turned up practically no evidence. Then a video (another inconclusive affair) from Arkansas sent the birding community into euphoria, until some experts began to cast doubt on it.

This is one reason Geoff Hill is so careful. He doesn’t want to build up expectations, but he’s also a scientist. He has respect for the skeptics, even when they heap scorn on him and his dedicated group that braved the flooded river bottoms of northwest Florida.

There is a new documentary, for example, Ghost Bird, that focuses on the Arkansas episode in the ivory-bill chronicles. It does not heap scorn on Hill and the others, but it takes a decidedly skeptical approach to the question.

In the documentary, hope that the woodpecker is still alive and, by extension, hope for the future of wildlife is given a backseat because Hill and others who share his mostly optimistic view were not interviewed.

But “that’s our fault,” said Hill. “The producer didn’t leave us out of that film, we didn’t give him access.” Hill already had an arrangement with another film producer who asked for exclusive access. So he honored that.

That film has not been made and may never be made, said Hill.

He speaks matter-of-factly, but he is not a defeatist. There has, after all, been some action since his expedition was forced to quit the swamp because the funding had come to an end.

He just wants everyone to understand that none of it is conclusive.

“There is that one weird image,” he said, shaking his head while turning to his computer monitor.

The team, he explained, mounted remote cameras in the forest, cameras that took million of images of squirrels, small birds, ducks and woodpeckers that were not ivory-bills.

Out of more than 7 million images, no bird resembling the big woodpecker showed itself. Except for that one image.

“Well, look at it,” Hill said when he brought the image up on his screen. “What is that? I don’t know, could be an ivory-bill, could be a cormorant, could be herons. It’s like an inkblot. It gets us nowhere.”

Deep in the Choctawatchee

Then there is the interesting case of a group that traveled from across the nation to the Choctawatchee at the end of Hill’s research effort in 2008.

Among them was John Agnew, an accomplished wildlife artist from Cincinnati, Ohio. Agnew was in a kayak working along a tributary called Bruce Creek, in the same area where Hill’s group had spent a lot of time and previously spotted the bird.

In his article in Bird Watcher’s Digest, he described what happened to him that cold morning in early 2008:

“About a hundred yards to the west of me, some pileated woodpeckers were making a racket, apparently involved in a territorial dispute. It was then that I saw a large dark woodpecker flying towards me from their direction. It landed on the far side of a cypress about 20 yards away. I thought that I might as well practice my photographic technique on this pileated woodpecker, and was raising the camera (a Nikon D80 with a 300mm lens) to focus when it took off and flew directly towards me. There would not be time to get the camera ready, so I just watched this magnificent bird fly. When it was about 15 feet overhead and nearly at my position, I realized that something was different. My eyes were drawn towards the brilliant white secondary feathers, their edges glowing in the morning sun. My subconscious mind was telling me that this was no pileated, but no alarm bells were ringing. I noted the red crest and a white stripe on the side of the head. The bird flew past me, and by the time I got the kayak turned around, it had gone on downstream. I sat a moment digesting what I had seen.”

The pileated is about the only bird, according to Hill, that you could possibly confuse with the larger ivory-bill. But Agnew went on to say that he is intimately familiar with the pileated woodpecker, and what he saw was not a pileated, but an ivory-bill.

Perhaps most importantly, Agnew noted the white trailing edges of the underwing of the bird, a signature of an ivory-bill.

When he reached his friend Sally Wolliver, who was a short distance away but out of sight down Bruce Creek, he found her “gesturing wildly and mouthing the words, ‘I saw an ivory-bill.’”

Wolliver, a south Florida veteran of many a birding outing, agreed with Agnew that they had almost certainly seen the same bird, and that it was an ivory-bill.

Agnew, the artist, drew his own sketch after the sighting. Wolliver described what she had seen to artist Devere Burt, who was also on the trip and who serves as director emeritus of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History.

“My back was against a cypress tree,” Wolliver said in a recent phone call. “It was early morning, cold but spectacular. Coming toward me on Bruce Creek was what I thought was a pileated woodpecker. But when it turned, I could see how big it was.”

Wolliver described the flying pattern as “zipping,” not undulating or up and down, a description often given to pileated woodpeckers.

“Then,” Wolliver said, just before the bird disappeared out of sight, she saw “a white trailing pattern” on the wing.

Ivory-bills are strong flyers, with rapid wing thrusts, and, again, the underwing and trailing edge of the wing is white.

In his office in Auburn, with books about ivory-bills, sketches of ivory-bills and research about birds all around him, Hill talked about this sighting and the respect he has for both Agnew and Wolliver, and how in all likelihood they saw an ivory-bill, maybe the last one on earth.

“But,” he said, turning his attention back to class preparation, “it doesn’t prove anything.”

http://www.annistonstar.com/view/full_story/12311160/article-Winged-hope--Auburn-professor-is-confident-the-magnificent-ivory-billed--woodpecker-is-not-extinct?instance=home_news

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