Filed under: Adventures, Ivory-Billed Woopeckers | Tags: Bruce Creek, Choctawhatchee River, Ivory-Bill, Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Ivory-Bills
I returned to the Choctawhatchee basin in the Florida panhandle in February, with the Cincinnati group lead by John Ruthven. The last time I had been there was 2010, when we froze in the swamps, sometimes breaking ice as we launched our kayaks. I missed last year’s expedition as it conflicted with my term as Artist in Residence at Everglades National Park. This year, the mild winter spared us the frozen mornings of the last trip. We had near perfect conditions, although the water was about 6 feet lower than during my last visit. This limited boating to stream channels, as the swamps were nearly dry. This enabled us to hike further than we had on other trips, and we found some promising habitat for Ivory-Bills.
We had no sightings and heard no double knocks, but we did find some trees with tantalizing evidence of large woodpeckers foraging. Ivory-Bills like to use their beaks as chisels to pry off bark from recently dead young hardwoods. The tip of the beak is even flattened like a chisel, and we hear it leaves a mark like someone used a screwdriver to pry the bark off. Pileated woodpeckers can also leave similar horizontal marks, but they aren’t supposed to have the same sharp-edged grooves that Ivory-Bills leave.
One area in particular had a tree with some very hard-edged grooves, and the general habitat matched the description given to us by old timers in the area who claim to have seen the bird several times over their lifetime. They tell us, “You boys are spending too much time down in those river swamps.” Of course, we’ve had some success in river swamps…. myself and another in our group, Sally Woliver, had a good sighting in 2008 of a male Ivory-Bill along Bruce Creek, and Geoff Hill’s gang has made several sightings in the Choctawhatchee basin, mostly along stream channels. What the locals have told us, though, is that the IBW’s prefer upland swampy valleys surrounded by hardwoods. The spot where we found this tree fit that description. On Google Earth, you can see a horseshoe-shaped cypress/gum swamp, with mature hardwoods all around. We walked out on an old logging road through the hardwoods until we encountered the swamp forest, and found several trees within a 100 square yard area that had been worked on by possible Ivory-Bills. Unfortunately, we found this place on the last day, so a more detailed investigation and “stake out” will have to wait until next time.
Here are a few sights from the trip to the Choctawhatchee River basin:
Filed under: Ivory-Billed Woopeckers
On our last trip to Bruce Creek, I talked to a few locals about Ivory-Bills. To a man, none of them want the Ivory-Bill to be discovered in their area. They don’t have anything against Ivory-Bills, and most of the people I talked to claim to have seen the bird in the area at some point in their life. Here is their problem: “If they find that bird here, they’ll turn this place into a national park and kick us out!” I don’t think their fear is totally unfounded. Like most conservation minded people, I’d like to see the Ivory-Bill recover, but it will likely require huge tracts of land where they can remain undisturbed. This would likely mean removing the hunters and their ATV’s. While I don’t have any particular fondness for these activities (ATV’s are particularly annoying and destructive), the locals have been using these lands for generations, and their rights to continue these uses should be respected. After all, the bird has managed to survive there despite the presence of hunters. The larger danger to the birds, and one that could very well be affecting them now, is disgruntled locals shooting Ivory-Bills to keep them from being discovered. I have no doubt that this has already happened.
Like any conservation project, the local people need to be included in the management plan for it to be a real success. I think it would be possible to include hunting as part of the plan with some education about Ivory-Bills. If the Ivory-Bill became a symbol of the preservation of these lands for the continued use of the locals, they would be behind it 100% instead of trying to kill off whatever they feel threatens their hunting lands.
I spent last week down in the Choctawhatchee River area, looking for Ivory-Bills with a group including members of my art group, Masterworks For Nature, the Cincinnati Zoo, and Miami University (OH). While we had a large group, we were spread out every day up and down the Choc, exploring various tributaries including Bruce Creek. Some people were heavily camouflaged and sat waiting in likely places. Others explored for IBWO sign, looking for new areas for future stake-outs. The Cincinnati Zoo’s videographer, Pat Story, made a documentary of our trip, and we plan to have an art show at the Cincinnati Zoo based on our experiences on the Choctawhatchee (dates to be announced). We experienced record cold while there, seeing ice in the swamps, shivering through the teens in the mornings, and a chilly 50 degree high most days. It did make it to 70 on our last day. Sigh.
We saw no Ivory-Bills, and no definitive sign. Hanging out with this group, some of whom have spent quite a long time in the field looking for this ghost, gives me a better sense of what the common experience of Ivory-Bill hunters is like. After all, I got spoiled by seeing the bird up close and personal in the first 24 hours of my very first attempt. This trip was more like the usual effort–no evidence found. Some of the more hard-core experienced types were shaking their heads wondering if it is really worth the effort. I thought it was interesting that they gave me a nod when I was present, but then went back to their skepticism. My sighting is not proof to anyone but me. It was too clear, too in-my-face to be a mistake, but it isn’t proof. I’ll keep going back to look, but I fear I missed what will likely be the only chance I’ll have to get a clear photo of this ghost.
I believe our chances will diminish as time goes on. A major airport is being constructed nearby, and will add a lot of noise to the area when air traffic ramps up. As the airport is developed, sprawl will begin to spread towards the Choctawhatchee. As more people move into the area, more weekend warriors, ATV riders, and even bird watchers will descend on the Choc. Despite the abundance of good habitat at the moment, disturbance and habitat degradation may eventually chase the Ivory-Bills elsewhere.
The current issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest (Jan.-Feb ’10) has my article about my sighting of the Ivory-Bill back in ’08. It also has an ad for the print of my painting recreating my sighting. 20% of the purchase price will be donated to Dr. Geoff Hill’s (Auburn University) project on Bruce Creek and area. National Geographic has helped them with specialized robot cameras, which may be our best chance of catching the Ivory-Bills on “film.” If you’re interested in the print and helping out, see my website at: http://www.johnnagnew.com Check the “Prints and Books” section.
My art group, Masterworks For Nature, is teaming up with the Cincinnati Zoo and Geoff Hill of Auburn University to conduct an Ivory Bill “hunt” in the Choctawhatchee River Basin in January 2010. The Zoo is bringing a videographer to film the expedition, and a DNA expert in the hopes that we’ll find potential IBW feathers or droppings. A few of our Masterworks members have been involved with IBW research for a while. John Ruthven was involved in the Arkansas search before it was made public, and was commissioned by the Interior Department to paint the bird. The painting was unveiled at Interior’s announcement of the bird’s rediscovery.
There will be a fairly large number of people involved (2 dozen??), so we can coordinate efforts to cover a large area at any given time. Our trip in 2008 was successful in that two of our members saw the bird, but we know it slipped by others because of gaps in our coverage. Finding active nest holes is the main objective, other than photographing the bird (always the top priority). I’ll post more as the expedition is planned in detail, and of course, a full report after it happens.
Watch for my article about my 2008 sighting in the January-February issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.
A little over a year ago, I was incredibly lucky and got to see an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker as it passed almost directly over my head while I sat in a Kayak near Bruce Creek in northern Florida. Mind you, this was my first attempt to find an Ivory-Bill, and it happened less than 24 hours after I arrived in the area. Is that lucky or what? I know people who have searched for years without seeing one. Of course, I had to share this experience, and the best way for me to do that is through my artwork (I missed getting the photo). The painting captures not only the bird, but the incredible setting in which I had this experience. A misty morning, the rising sun illuminating ancient cypress, the distant calls of Barred Owls, and then… “Ivory-Bill!”
I now have made available giclee canvas prints of my painting, “Ivory-Bill!” My plan is to donate 20% of the proceeds to Geoff Hill’s Ivory-Bill research project. The 16×20 canvas print is mounted on wooden stretchers, coated, signed & numbered by the artist (me!), in an edition of 250. Number one has been sold, number 2 is available for you. See my art website, http://www.johnnagnew.com for price and ordering details. I will attempt to keep this blog updated as to which print number is currently available.
I spent some time last week in the Choctahatchee River basin in northern Florida, looking for Ivory-Bills again. We had no luck. We heard no double knocks or kent calls, and had no sightings of Ivory-Bills. This is more like the typical experience of Ivory-Bill hunters, unlike my almost instant gratification of last year, when an Ivory-Bill practically landed on my head in the first 24 hours of my first effort to see them. We did meet another woodpecker hunter who said he heard kent calls on the Appalachacola River.
We enjoyed perfect weather, clear blue skies and 70 degrees. There was lots of Pileated woodpecker activity, which made us catch our breath occasionally, as we saw large woodpeckers with flashes of white and black amid the emerging foliage. The Pileateds seemed to be laughing at us, as if they enjoyed getting us excited. When we hunted down the sounds or glimpses that we thought just might be an IBW, we were rewarded with the laughing call of the Pileated. There were at least 4 pairs in the area. Other WP activity included Red-Bellied and Sapsuckers. The warblers were active, mostly Parulas. The Barred owls were especially vocal, and I was able to get up close and personal with a couple of them. One even posed as I spent a few hours painting him and his environment from the kayak.
While I watched birds of all sorts as I sat in my kayak, I pondered the difficulty of getting a good shot of an Ivory-Bill. Skeptics like to point to the lack of unambiguous photo evidence. I suspect that these are people who have never made the attempt themselves. Just out of curiousity, I decided to try hard for a decent photo of a Pileated woodpecker using the same technique that I was using for Ivory-Bills. The technique consists of sitting in the kayak for a very long time in one spot, or drifting quietly downstream. The Pileateds were very obvious and vocal the entire time we were on Bruce Creek and other spots. Although I had several good looks that allowed a positive ID, there were zero opportunities for photographs. All of the sightings were over before you could say “woodpe-“, let alone sight in and focus, set exposure, etc. A large woodpecker crossing the stream in front of me would be visible for 2 seconds or less. Granted, it was a bit more difficult because the trees were leafing out, but I didn’t find it much easier in January last year. Using autofocus in a wooded setting is impossible, as the camera wants to focus on the background of trees and branches rather than the bird. I tried presetting the focus at a likely distance, and hoped it would be good enough for a shot from the hip. Lots of people have tried staking out a likely tree, but for whatever reason, have not succeeded.
Other treats included some reptile activity, with a sighting of a large corn snake, lots of green anoles, and plenty of little mud turtles. The muds like to climg several feet up overhanging branches. When I approached in the kayak, they’d do a back flip into the water. I only saw cooters far back in the swamp forests away from the main channel. I suspect that they are used for target practice by local boys with 22’s. They should have been present in fairly large numbers along the main channel.
We talked to a local named Jerry, an employee of Mosquito Control and a life long(60+ years) resident of the area. He says he has seen the Ivory Bills many times. He told us that he thought we were spending too much time in the river swamps. He says the birds prefer more upland forests, especially cypress bottoms surrounded by upland hardwoods. He told us about suitable places in the area including such a spot where he has seen the birds on three occasions. The problem is that many of these areas are now in private hands and entry is restricted. He also says that the birds started making a comeback in the late seventies, after DDT was banned. He remarked that the songbirds and others, like the Ivory Billed, had virtually disappeared for awhile in the late sixties. Another local we talked to said he thought that few locals would tell us if they did see an IBW because they fear losing access to their traditional hunting grounds. “They’ll turn this place into a national park and kick us out.” That makes me wonder if they’d also shoot Ivory-Bills for the same reason, similar to instances where landowners in other places, fearing take-over by the Park Service, have destroyed habitats to make them worthless to the Parks.
Next week we’re off to the Choctahatchee River of northern Florida to look for Ivory Billed Woodpeckers again.
I’m amazed at some of the venomous criticism that was published about our sighting last year. We never claimed we had proof of live Ivory Bills. Eyewitness accounts just don’t count. That said, I am 100% certain that I saw one. It was “right in my face,” (about 15 feet away) and although I am only a casual birder, any observant person with a field guide would have come to the same conclusion. I feel that skeptics provide a very important function, but the fevered nature of their criticism makes me wonder if they have a stake in Ivory Bills remaining “extinct.” The stake is likely the preservation of their own reputations, which they have placed firmly in the extinct camp.
Seeing another Ivory Bill and getting a chance to redeem myself by getting the picture this time is so unlikely that I dare not even hope for it. I know very experienced birders that have searched for years for this bird without success. That I got to see one last year was a combination of being in the right place at the right time, with a huge portion of dumb luck. If I had simply been facing the other direction, I would have missed the bird entirely. Let’s hope I get luckier this time.
Scroll to the bottom of this blog to see the account of my sighting last year near the Choctahatchee River.
My previous post was written nearly a year ago, just after I returned from Florida. Since then, I’ve talked to a lot of folks about my Ivorybill sighting. The hardcore birders (I’m not one) are jealous in a good-natured way, although some remain skeptics. Of course, I don’t expect them to change their views on my word. I have nothing more to offer than any other witness to this extant, “formally extinct,” bird. I was a skeptic before I went down to Ivorybill country, so I understand where they’re coming from. When people tell me, “You did not see an Ivorybill,” all I can do is smile. I know what I saw, and it was independently confirmed by another witness. But we are left with only our own experience, since it doesn’t count as proof. The fact that I had a camera in my hand and didn’t get a picture makes the experience very bittersweet.
I have completed a painting based on what I witnessed. Actually, it is pretty damn close to what I saw, but I hesitate to call it an eyewitness account. The reason is that the bird is not based strictly on my observation. I was also influenced by published photos and museum skins. The sketch that I made a couple of days after the sighting is missing some details. Not necessarily because there were not there, but because I only had a couple of seconds to see and my brain to record. Your eyes fix on attention-grabbing details. In my case it was the sunlit secondaries, glowing in their translucence. The other white that is supposed to be on the underside of the forewing was lost in shadow to me. So, I had to resort to other sources. besides, I don’t have a memory good enough to recontruct the proportions, exact colors, etc.
I had the good fortune to be invited to be a part of an adjunct study to the Auburn U. Ivory-Bill research group in the Choctohatchee River basin north of Destin, Florida. It is a 64 square mile study area. We arrived in the study area Jan 11, ’08, and hiked to a known “hot spot” where we found trees that the Ivory Billed Woodpeckers had been feeding on. They leave a horizontal groove in the wood when they chisel the bark off of dead trees in search of grubs. The next day we got out very early in the morning and stationed 5 people in various spots within a hundred yards of the feeding tree. I was in a kayak, parked in a cypress/gum swamp across the creek from the tree. I heard some Pileated woodpeckers raising a ruckus about 100 yards from me, and from that direction came a large, dark woodpecker. Thinking it must be a Pileated, I wasn’t in a big hurry to raise the camera up (A Nikon D80 with a 300mm lens was around my neck). The bird landed on a cypress tree about 20 yards from me, but on the other side. Thinking that I might as well practice on this “Pileated” I was raising the camera up to focus on the tree when it took off and flew right over my head at about 15 feet up. It was then that my eyes fixed on the brilliant white secondaries,
the trailing edge of the wing. In the 3-4 seconds that the bird was in view, I could clearly see the field marks of the Ivory-Bill, but still didn’t believe what I was seeing. It passed over my head and off to the east. By the time I turned the kayak around, it was long gone. I paddled down to team member Sally Wolliver about a hundred yards away, and she was gesturing wildly that she had seen an Ivory Bill. We quickly determined it had to be the same bird I saw because of the direction and timing. I checked the Sibley guide with her, which has an illustration of the underside of the Pileated’s wings, and then I was absolutely sure that what I had seen was NOT a Pileated! Other factors that confirmed the sighting were behavioral, the flat flight profile (not undulating like a Pileated), and no vocalization as the Pileated is prone to do. We heard the distinctive double-knock drumming sounds in the area as well. The Auburn group has had several sightings in this area, too.
Let me say that I went on this expedition as a big skeptic. I know people far more skilled than I at birding who have spent months and months in the field looking for this bird without success. I read the skeptics’ websites and found them convincing, so I thought this would just be a great excuse to go kayaking in a pristine river swamp and take pictures. Count me among the hard-core believers now. I also feel a bit guilty about it, as if I were an unworthy heathen just given a vision of the Lord God (Bird). I was in the field less than 24 hours and the thing practically lands on my head.
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. A photo would have gone a long way to convince skeptics.
Now the Auburn group has set up robotic cameras in this spot in hopes that the bird has a roost in the area.
Let’s wish them luck! !
You can see a larger version on my website