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'Tantalizing' new evidence of ivory-billed woodpecker in Florida expands Cornell's search for the elusive bird

John Fitzpatrick
Fitzpatrick

Reports from ornithologists claim 14 new sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Florida over the past year.

Researchers from Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Windsor, Ontario, report they have sighted and recorded the woodpecker, once thought to be extinct, along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle. They also have found possible cavities and foraging signs on tree trunks, according to their paper published in the Sept. 26 issue of the online Canadian journal Avian Conservation and Ecology.

There are still no clear photos of the elusive bird, leaving the new evidence open to interpretation -- and criticism.

"The evidence is intriguing, and it certainly warrants additional research," said John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell's Lab of Ornithology. "It's not conclusive evidence, but it is suggestive, and it is very tantalizing."

Agrees his colleague Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science at Cornell's lab: "The evidence is not going to satisfy people in terms of being any new confirmation. But it's definitely enough to make others want to go back in there."

The authors of the new paper, led by Geoffrey Hill of Auburn University, consulted with the Lab of Ornithology in late July over the evidence. As a result, that week Martjan Lammertink, a Cornell ivory-billed woodpecker expert, flew to Florida and, he said, found the newly discovered habitat, cavities and foraging signs promising.

"We will be working with Geoff Hill and his group, and we will be part of his search team this winter," added Fitzpatrick. "And we will also continue our efforts searching for the bird in Arkansas this winter." Cornell will provide cameras to the Auburn team.

The bird was thought to have been extinct since 1944, until a Cornell researcher and colleagues sighted the bird in February 2004 in the Bayou DeView, a fingerlike tributary that feeds the Cache River system in Arkansas' Big Woods. In April 2005, Fitzpatrick was the lead author of a paper in Science discussing evidence (including a low-quality video of the bird) for the ivory-billed's existence. Some skeptics challenged the 2005 claims, stating that the unclear video and audio recordings of the bird's typical "kent" calls and its double knocks were inconclusive.

Subsequently, Hill and colleagues began to search for the bird in Florida. Within a month, they sighted one.

"The Florida panhandle, in general, was the mother lode of where ivory-billed woodpeckers used to be," said Rosenberg.

Hill's team sighted ivory-billed woodpeckers a total of 14 times, including two birds together on two occasions. They also recorded 99 double knocks and 210 kent calls and found numerous large cavities characteristic of the ivory-billed. And, they found foraging signs of stripped tight bark, which is unique to ivory-bills. The rare woodpeckers are specialists at getting at large grubs that attack trees early in the decay process, when the bark is still very tight on the trees.

The foraging signs are promising, Rosenberg said, since "the bark is much tighter than you would expect compared to trees where other woodpeckers take off the bark."

Still, he added, "it's another piece of circumstantial evidence."

Rosenberg acknowledges that all audio evidence is open to interpretation. "Some of their recordings sound very good, and others are not in the range that we would characterize as very good," said Rosenberg. What the researchers tout as the best kent calls "do not match the known recordings of the ivory-bill. But we don't know what they are. We can't identify the hornlike kents as any bird that should be in that forest."

While many of the sightings were made by a highly reputable ornithologist, Tyler Hicks of Auburn University, Rosenberg said that all the birds were in flight. Notes and drawings from these sightings are available on the ivory-bill Web pages posted by Auburn University.

Although other ivory-bill seekers had searched in the Florida panhandle along the Chipola River, the Choctawhatchee River, which is one river east from the Chipola, was not targeted to be searched until now.

"We definitely support the publishing of this [Geoff Hill and Dan Mennill's evidence in Avian Conservation and Ecology]," said Rosenberg. "It's all a very positive step."

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