Searching New Habitat

By Pat Leonard

January 7, 2009

There will be a distinctly different flavor to this season’s search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Seven members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s mobile search team will plunge into some of the most forbidding wilderness in southwestern Florida.

“Up till now, we’ve concentrated on bottomland hardwood swamps and forests,” says Ron Rohrbaugh, director of the Lab’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project. “But there’s a huge area of pristine mangrove forest in southern Florida that could support ivory-bills. In fact, the historical record shows the birds did live there and that collectors took specimens from the area. Although there haven’t been any confirmed sightings there recently, the great habitat certainly warrants a closer look.”

Search methods fine-tuned over the course of several seasons will include the use of remote cameras, deployment of autonomous recording units (ARUs) if promising sounds are heard, and use of a mechanical double-knock device to prompt a response. Searchers will snake through waterways and trudge through tall mangrove forests, camping for five to eight days at a time.

Challenging Terrain

The work begins in Florida in early January and continues through mid-March. The task is daunting. The team aims to cover as much ground, as efficiently as possible, with the help of federal, state, academic and other agencies familiar with tall coastal mangrove forests in Everglades National Park as well as Big Cypress National Preserve, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and Picayune Strand State Forest.

Mangroves are tropical evergreen trees and shrubs with stilt-like roots and stems. They form the foundation of a unique ecosystem that is vital to birds, land animals, and sea creatures. The mangrove forests of the Everglades have never been logged and possess all the right ingredients for ivory-bill habitat: big trees, plenty of dead trees, beetle larvae, and lots of other species of woodpeckers.

L-R: Dead trees blown down by a hurricane; beetle larvae; large-diameter black mangrove. Photos by Nathan Banfield. 

“Who would have thought to look for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the mangrove forests of South Florida?” says Sonny Bass, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist with the National Park Service. “I certainly didn’t until the recent search effort lead by Cornell prompted me to take a serious look at historical ivory-bill sightings reported from the Everglades mangrove forest. This is exciting not only because of the possibility of  finding the ivory-bill, but because this search effort will also provide a unique opportunity to better understand the birdlife found in this remote area of Everglades National Park.”  (Learn more about Florida mangroves here.)

Adjoining the Everglades is Big Cypress National Preserve and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge. “This tangled maze of nearly impenetrable mature mangrove forests forms one of the most pristine ecosystems in the United States, says Layne Hamilton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “As you move inland, the mangrove forests give way to marshes and expanses of cypress and hardwood swamps and wet prairies within the Big Cypress ecosystem. These vast protected areas of forested wetlands provide hope that a hidden sanctuary still exists for the Ivory-billed woodpecker in south Florida.” 

The team will also delve into smaller state-owned parcels that include Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and Picayune Strand State Forest. “Many of these dense forests in Collier County once supported Ivory-billed Woodpeckers,” says Karl Miller, upland nongame bird leader for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. “I am glad that Cornell is covering all of its bases by giving these state lands a look this winter.”

All these areas present new challenges to the searchers, not the least of which will be the abundant insect life. “We’ll probably have to use full-body bug suits,” says search coordinator Martin Piorkowski. “On top of that, we’ll have to be on the lookout for crocodiles, alligators, sharks, Florida panthers, and even escaped pet pythons!”

Alligators gather by the shore. Photo by Ron Rohrbaugh

The Florida team has a second conservation mission: to survey other birdlife in remote areas of the Everglades. It’s possible that the mangrove ecosystem serves as an important wintering or stopover point for Black-throated Blue Warblers, Swainson’s Warblers and other species—but nobody knows.

Other Searches

Also with support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, other agencies and partners are leading searches in eastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, southern Illinois, the Florida panhandle, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, and east Texas.

In mid-March the Cornell Lab of Ornithology team will join the South Carolina search along the Congaree, PeeDee, and Santee Rivers. “There’s good reason to return because South Carolina has some of the best ivory-bill habitat in the country, and lots of it,” says Rohrbaugh.

The Nature Conservancy and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission are fielding the search team in Arkansas. It consists of three full-time staff plus 26 professional volunteers who are “adopting an area” to keep track of during the season. The full-time staff will target areas not reachable last season because of flooding. The volunteers will maintain a presence in many of the highest quality habitats identified over past seasons.

Some areas of Mississippi will also be searched. Two groups, one led by Jim Stallings of Delta State University and the other organized by Nick Winstead of Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, will search habitat directly across the Mississippi River from the Big Woods of Arkansas, and in the Pascagoula River Basin.  Many of these areas were identified as promising ivory-bill habitat in previous visits by the Lab’s mobile search team. 

Future Efforts

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-funded Ivory-billed Woodpecker searches will continue through the 2008-09 search season,” says Laurie Fenwood, Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team Coordinator for the U.S, Fish and Wildlife Service. “State search groups and non-government partners may continue additional active searches in the future. Many acres of potential habitat were located and evaluated during the three years of searches and the initial tasks identified by the Recovery Team have been completed. The draft recovery plan will be finalized in 2009. In the future, we will focus conservation actions in locations where an active roost or nest is located, or other new information provides a compelling reason to implement additional tasks identified in the recovery plan.” 

If no birds are confirmed, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will not send an organized team into the field next year. “We remain committed to our original goal of striving to locate breeding pairs,” says Cornell Lab of Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick. “We will continue to accept and investigate credible reports of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and to promote protection and restoration of the old growth conditions upon which this magnificent species depended across the entire southeastern United States.”


Top photo: aerial view of the Florida Everglades, by Ron Rohrbaugh.