Posted by: Craig Woolheater on October 9th, 2006
A woodpecker considered the Holy Grail of bird-watchers could be in Pearl River Basin
Sunday, October 08, 2006
By Jenny Hurwitz
For nearly half a century, Susan Epps has been haunted by the specter of an ivory-billed bird.
She claimed her first sighting in 1958, at age 10, while scouting the fringes of a state park near St. Martinville. It darted into a tree: an oversized woodpecker with a telltale white beak, a ringer for the famous one she had scrutinized relentlessly in her birding books.
Her father said she’d made a mistake; the mythic, ivory-billed woodpecker had disappeared from Louisiana at the turn of the century, after loggers drove it from its natural habitat among old-growth hardwood forests, and into extinction.
But Epps was unconvinced. She has been searching ever since.
"It’s been this thing in my life — this gap, this missing part of me," she said. "I wanted to see it again."
A legend among scientists for its oft-disputed history and striking features, the ivory-billed woodpecker remains one of nature’s most elusive species, a mystery that has evaded even the most fervent bird-watchers for the past 60 years.
Despite repeated claims from ornithologists and bird watchers — and a pair of university-led sightings in Arkansas and Florida — the scientific community remains staunchly divided over the question of the ivory bill’s existence.
"It almost has a Bigfoot association," said Auburn University ornithologist Geoffrey Hill, who warned that skepticism runs high among ivory bill enthusiasts. One false move, and "you can get cast as a amateur."
Epps, a resident of Diamondhead, Miss., and fellow birder Michael Collins, of Washington, D.C., contend they saw one flit across their path just days ago, as they combed the forest in the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area.
"You don’t need a Ph.D. to identify this bird," said Collins, an avid bird watcher who, in fact, holds a doctorate in mathematics from Northwestern University. "It’s an easy bird to identify."
But as hobbyists in a highly competitive and occasionally petty field, where careers have been ruined by ivory bill allegations, their sightings mean little to a dubious academic community.
"It’s an exciting experience, but it’s not something you can rejoice about or share," Epps said of the recent sighting "It just felt like, ‘OK, I’m going to go tell people I saw it, and they’re going to think I’m a nut case.’ "
Louisiana bird-watchers have long suspected the bird’s existence in the Pearl River Basin, a swamp and forested reserve that straddles the Mississippi state line.
In 1999, Louisiana State University forestry student David Kulivan inspired a full-fledged expedition after he reported seeing a pair while turkey hunting. That search proved fruitless, however, yielding only some possible nesting cavities and stripped bark patterns that could indicate the presence of the bird.
Since then, experts have turned their attention to other Southern states — and found varying degrees of success.
In 2004, researchers from Cornell University announced they had rediscovered the ivory bill in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas. And last year, during a small-scale search led by Auburn professor Hill, woodpeckers were spotted along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle.
But each announcement unleashed a steady stream of criticism, skepticism and disbelief. Neither yielded what scientists had most desired: a clear-cut photograph, video or nesting cavity.
Cornell’s best evidence consisted of a blurry video, which experts continue to dispute. Even Hill, who says he saw the bird with his own eyes in Florida, admits his findings fell short.
"Sight records are never definitive proof," he said. "We don’t claim proof — no one’s had it since 1944," when the bird’s existence was last verified.
Oddly enough, the ivory bill isn’t subtle-looking or particularly quiet, making its obscurity even more puzzling. Dubbed "the Lord God bird" for its elegance and stature, the woodpecker is crow-sized and conspicuous, jet black with white wing markings. Males sport a pointy, red crown, while female caps are black.
It also has a distinctive rap — two, quick knocks — and a call that sounds like the plaintive bleat of a tin horn.
But the ivory bill is also skittish and shy, which makes capturing it on film difficult. In an added twist, it is often confused with the pileated woodpecker, a smaller, squatter species common to the South with a grayish beak and thicker neck.
Additionally, the question of Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the population remains largely unanswered, although experts say the severe deforestation in both Louisiana and Mississippi probably had some impact.
"It’s a mixed bag for birds," Hill said. "They will not stay in an area with no canopy cover. But then, lots of dead trees means lots of beetles, which means lots of food."
The ivory bills use their chisel-like beaks to drill through tree bark and feast on beetle larvae that cling just below the surface.
The swaths of felled trees across the region have led to a banner year for beetles, which are drawn to damaged or stressed trees.
Still, researchers have not given up on their quest for absolute proof. On the local front, Epps and Collins plan to continue scouring the Pearl in hopes that their efforts will win greater protection for the wilderness they believe is serving as home to the endangered species.
Collins, who has recorded 12 sightings in the past year, intends to return in the winter, after hunting season, when the forest is still.
Hill is launching a second Florida search in December, armed with a bigger team and time-lapse cameras. They hope to check every cavity they come across for evidence of nesting.
But even with more manpower and better technology, nothing is certain; the quest will still depend on the finicky patterns of a creature that has eluded scientists for decades.
"We’ve just got to get lucky," he said.
Source: The Times-Picayune