Mobile Search Team Update

See more images from Florida.

March 2009
For the past two months, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s mobile search team has been plying the swamps, creeks, thickets, and hummocks of remote protected lands in Florida, looking for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. So far they have spent time in Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park.

Tangled mangrove roots are a daunting obstacle. Photo by Martjan Lammertink

The team has not documented an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in either location to date. They remain watchful and motivated, however, based on historical evidence of the ivory-bill’s existence in the area and large tracts of undisturbed habitat.

Big Cypress Preserve

According to team member Caroline Poli, habitat in Big Cypress is incredibly diverse. “Our search areas include everything from tall, airy pine forest with scattered palmetto and fire-managed cabbage palm patches--good potential ivory-bill habitat--to strands of tall, wide-girthed cypress, and vine-choked patches of ponderous oak and maple,” she says. Water levels in all areas are at seasonal highs, causing some problems getting to more remote sites, and frequently resulting in soaked feet.

Tell-tale panther tracks!. Photo by Abe Borker
There are an impressive number of birds in Big Cypress. The most abundant species seen include Common Grackle, American Robin, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Tree Swallow, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and many other warbler species. The list is sure to grow as the field season spills into March and the start of migration. The team has seen several rare and unusual birds, including the Hairy Woodpecker. Though abundant in the rest of the U.S., Hairy Woodpeckers are extremely rare in south Florida. Sightings also include the Rusty Blackbird, a fast-declining species that tends to arrive in Florida at this time of year, but remains rare.
 
Encounters non-feathered wildlife include fox squirrel, grey squirrel, raccoon, opossum, and black bear. “We’ve been especially hoping to see a Florida panther, from a safe distance of course,” says Caroline. “I did find one set of fresh panther tracks, but we never actually saw the animal.”
 
Into the Everglades

The mobile search team's floating home.
Photo by Martjan Lammertink

Five at a time, members of the mobile search team have taken on the Everglades in a 26-foot house boat. Everglades National Park biologist Sonny Bass advised the crew: “If the wind changes direction, you’ll have to reset the anchors on the houseboat or the whole thing will tip over. Actually, scratch that. Just cut the lines, cut the lines!”

After three days on the Shark River, team member Morgan Anderson says dirt and bugs covered everything and everyone. “By day five, some of us were unrecognizable,” she reports. “Our facial features were obscured by tiny red welts from all the bites. Caroline was taken to the nearest emergency room because her face was bitten so badly.” (She’s fine now.)

Temperatures dropped to the upper-thirties for a second houseboat trip up the Harney River where the team found only patchy areas of good habitat and lots of very unpleasant mangrove wind-throw. “You can be walking along a log thicker than your thigh and have it suddenly bust apart under you,” Morgan says. “And when you reach out to steady yourself on a snag, it could very well break off in your hand, sending you crashing through more branches to land face down in the muck.”

The team saw sharks, tarpon, and manatees near the houseboat, as well as a bobcat, and a Burmese python. Open-ocean paddling through choppy waves proved to be considerable challenge. But Morgan says, “Hopes are high for the remainder of the season, our no-see-um head nets are in order, fishing rods locked and loaded. The crew is awesome and morale is great, due in part to Jell-O Instant No-Bake Desserts!

Mobile search team (L-R): Abe Borker, Morgan Anderson, Martjan Lammertink, Paula Shannon, Marty Piorkowski, Nathan Banfield, Caroline Poli. Photo by Martjan Lammertink

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Caroline Poli and Morgan Anderson contributed to this report.