September 26, 2006

Ivory-billed Woodpecker Evades Ornithologists

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Elliot Swarthout, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher, discussed the challenges of the past season’s search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in a bottomland hardwood forest in eastern Arkansas, last night at the Lab of Ornithology.

A member of the audience asked the crucial question after Swarthout finished his talk: how many confirmed sightings of the ivory-billed were recorded in the search season?

[img_assist|nid=18561|title=Bird-watching|desc=Ryan Dunn / Sun Staff Elliot Swarthout speaks about the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker.|link=none|align=left|width=95|height=100]

Swarthout answered the question “without answering the question,” as he said himself. Before giving an actual number, Swarthout said that anyone who reports an ivory-billed must go through a lengthy interview process about the sighting. After the process, the sightings are rated on a scale of one to four. Four signifies that the sighting was probably not reliable. After explaining this, Swarthout said that there were four sightings over this past search season; all were rated either three or four.

“This was not a good year for sightings,” Swarthout said.
The Lab of Ornithology has different plans for its ivory-billed searching next year. Swarthout said that the searching this season, which will run from Dec. 4 to the end of April 2007, will be smaller than last year’s. There will be four full-time staffers for Cornell’s search in Arkansas, two technicians and another team member, as well as six to ten volunteers. The past search season had 22 full-time staffers, 112 volunteers and 10 agency/NGO personnel.
What accounts for this difference? Money, according to Prof. Kenneth Rosenberg, ornithology.

“Since we haven’t come up with a bird or a nest, the number of donations we’ve received are reduced,” he said.

However, researchers are still holding out for an ivory-billed sighting. Prof. John Fitzpatrick, ornithology, believes that “this year we’re armed with two and a half years worth of experience. We can target things much better than before – we can target areas we haven’t looked at before and search again areas in which we’re most likely to find an ivory-billed.”

Rosenberg added that this year’s searchers will have to be “more efficient, given the reduced chances of seeing something due to the smaller search team.”

In addition to Cornell’s scaled-down hunt for the bird in Arkansas, other research groups will look for the ivory-billed in Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana.

Rosenberg made it clear that last year’s ivory-billed woodpecker search did not receive $10 million in grants from the government – according to Rosenberg, that money was already committed to other important projects in the area.

“We had roughly one million dollars for the search last year,” Rosenberg said. He added that the Lab of Ornithology, which is a non-profit organization and depends on government grants and private investors, “definitely did not profit from the searches conducted.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology team is also excited about pending news on ivory-billed woodpeckers in an area different from Arkansas, found by another group of researchers. At the time of publication, the exact details of this news were under embargo.

According to Swarthout, two caveats guided the past season’s search.
“It was unchartered territory, and we’re searching for a bird we know very little about,” Swarthout said. A major source of information about the ivory-billed is the 1930s dissertation of James Tanner, a former Cornell PhD student.

The total search area for the ivory-billed was about the size of Rhode Island – 500,000 acres – while the ivory-billed woodpeckers themselves have a home range of two to six square miles.

Some of the methods the team used to find the bird included standing atop construction booms, from which researchers could look down into the forest, as well as recorded playbacks and decoys, which are carved wooden birds.

One effective tactic the team took was aerial surveys using ultra-light aircraft, equipped with two cameras. According to Elliot, a con of this method is that it “generates a lot of film to review.”

“It was fascinating to see behind the scenes,” said Jane Graves, a volunteer at the Lab of Ornithology and birder. “I think the progress they’ve made is as good as it can be – they’ve found an enormous amount given the size of the area they’re searching in. It’s really like finding a needle in a haystack.”