Encounters in the Big Woods

February 10, 2006

By Pat Leonard

Details of “possible encounters” with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were


Martjan Lammertink, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

announced during this week’s meeting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team in Brinkley, Arkansas. Martjan Lammertink, project scientist for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology search team, is cautious when noting there have been about six possible visual encounters since the field season began in November 2005. “It's really positive that we are getting a lot of these encounters now. It keeps us motivated, and it gives us the idea that we are honing in on something,” said Lammertink, an international expert on large woodpeckers.

The visual encounters have been reported by members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's search team, as well as birders, hunters, and refuge employees. In one case, there may have been two birds in flight.

These are being called “possible encounters” because they do not rise to the level of confirmed sightings, which require better documentation. “There is nothing more definitive than anything we’ve reported previously and we certainly are not claiming any new confirmation of the bird," said Ken Rosenberg, the Lab’s director of Conservation Science and a member of the Recovery Team. "But when you put these encounters together there is a very interesting pattern—there has been a flurry of encounters from a couple of key areas.” The search team is using that information to further guide its work in the Big Woods.

In another 10 instances during this field season, people have reported hearing possible ivory-bill sounds in the Big Woods—double-knocks and the bird’s kent call. In two instances, Cornell volunteers or their supervisor used video cameras to record the sounds they were hearing. The knocks were recorded shortly after playback of some ivory-bill calls.

Although no recordings exist of the ivory-bill’s drumming with which to compare, woodpeckers in the Campephilus genus all have that distinctive BAM-bam cadence to their drum and the ivory-bill is the only Campephilus woodpecker in the United States. Analysis shows the recordings made by the search crews have the right characteristics, placing them well within in the expected range of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s drumming cadence and frequency. Lammertink says there has also been a nice series of kent calls picked up by an ARU (autonomous recording unit) strapped to a tree in the Big Woods.

According to Ron Rohrbaugh, director of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project, the search team uses a well-defined system for ranking any possible encounters. He says the latest visual encounters all rank in the lowest classification. "They’re all number ones. That means that no more than one field mark was observed, and it was observed by just one person,” he said. Although the visual and audio encounters may not constitute new confirmation of the presence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Rohrbaugh agrees with Lammertink that these encounters keep the crew energized and the morale high.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is heading the ivory-bill recovery effort. Jon Andrew, the agency’s Recovery Team leader, says he is also encouraged by the latest reports. “It gives you hope, thinking that they’re out there and we’re on the right track in finding them," Andrew said. "We’re just getting into the best time for the search and perhaps the next few months will result in finding a roost or a nest hole.” The ivory-bill’s breeding season is believed to begin in February, a time when birds become more active and vocal.

More than 70 people attended this week’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team meeting—experts from all over the country. Andrew is delighted with the spirit of cooperation at the meeting and the progress in laying out a blueprint for the recovery of the bird. A draft of the recovery plan will be released in September for public comment. The goal is to finalize the recovery plan in June 2007.

It is likely searches for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will also spread to other states in the species’ historic range. With training and coordination assistance from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it’s hoped systematic searches in other states, such as South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Florida can begin by the fall of next year.

The complete results of this year’s search in the Big Woods will be made public as soon as possible after the close of the field season at the end of April.