2006-07 Field Season Summary

Ivory-bill search included more partners and places
By Pat Leonard

A foggy bayou. Photo by Martjan Lammertink

“If there is even the smallest chance that ivory-bills survive, then our goal is to find them,” says Ron Rohrbaugh, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project. The Lab and its partners concluded the 2006–07 field season in Arkansas at the end of April with no additional definitive evidence of ivory-bills to complement the data gathered in 2004 and 2005. But Rohrbaugh and others are convinced the research should continue, not only in Arkansas, but in other states that are part of the bird’s historic range.

“We’ll return to Arkansas for at least another field season,” says Rohrbaugh. “Searches there and searches conducted by other agencies throughout the Southeast are still turning up reports of sounds that cannot be explained away. However, there’s no way to know for sure yet if reported double knocks and kent-like sounds were made by an ivory-bill or something else.”

Arkansas volunteer Jeff Bahls. Photo by Peter Schoenberger

Rohrbaugh says more survey work should be done in the vast White River area as well as the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area. This year a hunter in Wattensaw reported watching a bird for many minutes that he later described as an ivory-bill.

Five full-time staff and 57 expert volunteers searched many areas of high-quality habitat in Arkansas that had not been searched well, or searched at all, during previous field seasons. Field team leader Ken Levenstein says. “Water levels were much higher this year,” he said. “It took longer to get into some areas compared to last year when the water was so low searchers could actually drive into some of those same areas.”

Reconyx remote camera. Photo by Martjan Lammertink

Electronic eyes augmented the human effort. Reconyx cameras mounted on trees snapped digital images every few seconds. The search team pilot-tested a new robotic camera system developed at the University of California, Berkeley, and Texas A&M University. It uses light and motion to recognize and record passing birds.

David Luneau from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock said that he and a group of trained volunteers reviewed well over a million images from the Reconyx cameras and many thousands more from the robotic camera. The remote Reconyx cameras captured Pileated Woodpeckers foraging and ducking into tree cavities. The robotic camera picked up hawks and woodpeckers zipping by and will be used again next year in Arkansas. Even though it’s a long-shot, researchers hope that one day these unblinking eyes will see an ivory-bill fly by.

Mobile search team (L-R): Nathan Banfield, Martjan Lammertink, Utami Setiorini, Chris McCafferty. Photo by Martjan Lammertink

The Lab also fielded a new mobile search team—four biologists who traveled to South Carolina, Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana to assist in searches led by state or other agencies and supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Lab’s team also provided advice on search strategy and loaned equipment for the other searches.

The mobile team endured vehicle breakdowns, impenetrable undergrowth, alligators, frosty mornings, and legions of mosquitoes. But their travels also took them to some of the best potential ivory-bill habitat, especially in the old-growth forests of the Congaree River in South Carolina.

Forest canopy in Congaree, South Carolina. Photo by Martjan Lammertink

“We were awed by the quality of the habitat there,” said woodpecker expert Martjan Lammertink, who led the team. “There are lots of very big old trees of species preferred by ivory-bills. We were impressed with the sheer size of the Atchafalaya basin in Louisiana but were disappointed to find that most of the forest there is very young. Even so, there are some sites of interest because they have older hardwoods or cypress stands.”

Though the mobile search team had no definitive ivory-bill sightings, they did hear some strong double knocks in April in the Congaree of South Carolina.  Lammertink concluded, “We are encouraged by the good habitat we have found. I’d like spend more time in the Atchafalaya basin, in the Pascagoula in Mississippi, parts of South Carolina, and in the Escambia, Apalachicola, and other rivers of the Florida Panhandle.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which supports searches throughout the southeast, agrees there’s more to be done. "It is imperative we continue with searches for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker," said Chuck Hunter, Regional Refuge Biologist. "Enough credible evidence continues to come to our attention that leads the Service to believe several  isolated pairs or very small populations may still exist."

The Nature Conservancy is another key player in the ivory-bill search and in the effort to preserve bottomland forest habitat. Allan Mueller, avian conservation project manager for The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, says, "The 2006-07 search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas was another season of easy cooperation between the members of the Big Woods Conservation Partnership. While we did not come up with the 'iron-clad' evidence, we did discover new promising locations to search and again produced tantilizing evidence of this great bird's continuing presence."

Utami is dwarfed by a massive old cypress in South Carolina. Photo by Martjan Lammertink.

Lab director John Fitzpatrick sums up the effort to find the Ivory-billed Woodpecker: “As a society, we owe it to this species and its habitat to try. Even if we fail to find further evidence of the species, the effort will be well worth it. The most important thing about endangered species is what they tell us about the future and the choices we make. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is doing this today, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.”