NRL Researcher Studies Rare Ivory-billed Woodpecker

4/24/2006 - 16-06web
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In late April 2005, the sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) in the Big Woods of Arkansas was one of the most widely reported events in the history of conservation. There had been no confirmed sightings of this species since 1944. Ornithologists have spent the past three field seasons in the Big Woods trying to obtain data. Due to the elusiveness of this species, there have only been a handful of sightings, a brief video, and some audio recordings of calls and double raps.

In February 2000, Michael Collins, a Naval Research Laboratory scientist and bird watcher, heard the unmistakable calls of an ivorybill at NRL's Stennis Space Center site, located next to the Pearl River Basin, which runs north of Interstate 10 along the Mississippi-Louisiana border. After hearing the news of the discovery in Arkansas, Collins was inspired to conduct a serious search in the Pearl.

Collins has located ivorybills in an area where there had been a history of unconfirmed sightings. A sighting by David Kulivan, a Louisiana State University (LSU) graduate student, in 1999 generated a renewed interest in searching for the ivorybill. Scientists from LSU and Cornell University and many bird watchers visited the area in the following years, but they were unable to confirm the sightings or obtain data.

Collins spent three weeks in the field last November and had one possible sighting. He returned in late January, and within a week had two sightings and heard the booming double raps that are characteristic of the woodpeckers of this genus. In the middle of February, Collins located a hot zone, where he had several encounters and obtained some video and audio. He saw an ivorybill fly into the woods and then immediately started hearing unusual calls coming from that direction. Minutes later, he noticed movement in one of the trees in the same area and captured video of the bird perched on the side of a tree, then flying to a nearby branch, and then flying a longer distance. The quality of the video is poor, but several aspects of the bird are consistent with an ivorybill, including posture, wing shape, field marks, wing beat rate, and flight style. Collins is presently analyzing the audio recording, which might be one of the ivorybill calls that was reported by ornithologist James Tanner in the 1930s but never recorded. On one occasion, Collins heard ivorybill calls coming from two directions at the same time, which provides hope that there is a breeding pair.

While Collins has been working in the field, two biologists, David Martin and William Pulliam, have been analyzing the data. One of their conclusions is that the bird in the video is approximately 20 inches from tip of beak to tip of tail. This measurement is consistent with an ivorybill. Pileated Woodpeckers, which are sometimes confused with ivorybills, range up to about 17 inches as far south as the Pearl.

In the past month, Collins has had six sightings and heard the birds several times. He has observed that the ivorybill no longer behaves as described in textbooks, but has become extremely wary and reclusive. Combined with the inaccessible swamp habitat and extreme rarity of this species, it is no surprise that it was widely believed to be extinct for many years. Studying this critically endangered and magnificent species, which was never really well known to science, is going to be like studying a new species.

The video has been analyzed by Julie Zickefoose, a well-known bird artist whose paintings of ivorybills have appeared on the covers of major books and journals. Ms. Zickefoose said, "I like the head/neck/crest and especially bill to head proportions. They do not suggest pileated to me - too massive, especially the large, long bill. The rared-back pose, long but fluffy and squared-off crest, and extremely long, erect head and neck suggest ivorybill. I kept seeing flashes of what looked like white dorsal stripes, though the lighting is too poor to make out a white wing saddle. The flapping leap the bird takes to the right, across the two trunks, is very unusual, and unlike anything I've seen a pileated do. The flight appears ponderous and heavy, and the wings altogether too long and thin for a pileated. The wingbeats are very deep and there seems to be none of the pileated's habit of folding the wings into the body in between every few wingbeats. The bird overall just looks very large and heavy."

Bob Russell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conceived of using ultra-light aircraft to fly over inaccessible locations in the hopes of flushing and photographing ivorybills. The use of this idea commenced in February in both the Pearl and the Big Woods. The aircraft were piloted by members of Operation Migration, who are famous for their work with migrating Whooping Cranes.

Still image of woodpecker taken from video. Woodpecker is in center of red boxed area.

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