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A bird worthy of Melville

Scientists across the nation drop everything in pursuit of a great white striped bird, the ivory-billed woodpecker.

By Jeff Klinkenberg
Published March 4, 2007


“We need the photo. The big question is, how unlucky can you be, and for how long, before you give up?’’ wonders Geoff Hill, who comes from Auburn University to Florida’s Choctawhatchee River.
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PONCE DE LEON - A woodpecker flaps through the swamp trees. It isn't the Moby Dick of woodpeckers, though.

It's a run-of-the-mill, red-bellied woodpecker.

Dr. Geoff Hill, looking through the trees of a river forest in the Florida Panhandle swamp, longs to make a photograph, or a video, of an ivory-billed woodpecker. Like Ahab, he has spent nearly two years in wet pursuit of a creature that may no longer exist.

"I am encouraged by evidence that suggests it's real," he says.

So much is riding on that picture: the reputations of some of the nation's top ornithologists; the existence of a species thought to be extinct for seven decades; our hold on a natural world that seems to be slipping away.

Hill twice has reported seeing an ivory-billed with his own bespectacled eyes in swamps along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida Panhandle. His Auburn University colleagues, who include birders of long experience, claim 11 other sightings.

But neither he nor others in the search party have gotten their cameras out in time to snap the photo that would remove all doubt.

* * *

"What was that?" Hill asks, suddenly lifting his binoculars while the boat drifts down the Choctawhatchee.

It's early February. Hill is looking for his Moby Dick along 65,000 acres of one of Florida's wildest rivers, kayaking, hiking or sitting still for hours as the mosquitoes swarm in the growing dusk.

The bird that caught his attention turns out to be a Northern flicker.

Without something definitive, the ivory-billed will continue to be the elusive bird of myth. The people who claim to have seen one will continue to be considered suspect, like the neighbor who claims to have seen an unusual glowing shape in the night sky.

Hill hates such comparisons. He is so protective of his credibility that he refuses to wear a T-shirt or ball cap bearing the likeness of an ivory-billed - even in his own home.

"We avoid anything that smacks of the lunatic fringe," he says. He doesn't want anyone thinking his desire to see the bird might color his science.

But he does want to see the bird. He wears a camera around his neck whenever he's in the swamp. And when he's paddling, a video camera is always stationed in the kayak's bow, ready to roll if an ivory-billed shows.

"It's a hard bird to photograph," Hill says on the lonely river. "Ridiculously hard."

Historically, ivory-billeds lived in swamps where trees were thick, tall and remote. Unlike the common cousin they superficially resemble, the pileated woodpecker, ivory-billeds avoided humanity, probably because Indians shot them for ceremonial feathers and pioneers shot them for supper.

Awestruck naturalists lucky enough to catch even a glimpse of an ivory-billed sometimes wept. "The Lord God Bird," they called it.

Who could blame them? The largest woodpecker found in the United States, ivory-billeds stood about 20 inches high and measured 30 inches between wing tips. Their color pattern, on wings and body, was as dramatic as that of a black-and-white cookie. The surreal head feathers - a preposterous red pompadour worn by the male, an Elvis Presley black crest on the female - seemed like something from a John Waters movie. Both sexes had Rosemary's Baby yellow eyes and powerful white bills that could quickly chisel a hole in the hardest of hardwoods.

Those who didn't call it the Lord God Bird called it the Holy Grail Bird.

* * *

There are two ways to search for ivory-billeds. By boat or on foot. You had better not be afraid of cottonmouth snakes, wet feet or getting lost.

If ivory-billeds have managed to somehow survive, and surely there can't be many if they have, they won't be found near Starbucks. Whoever gets the first picture will be making an image of a needle as it flies through a haystack of dark trees in the most inaccessible swamps in the Deep South.

Not to say it's impossible.

In 1935, Cornell ornithologist Arthur Allen made an excellent photo and a movie of nesting ivory-billeds in Louisiana. Then the forest was sawed down.

Bye bye, birdies.

A handful of sightings were reported later in the 20th century, but not one was accompanied by a good photo. In 2004, Cornell scientists went to Arkansas to investigate what seemed to be a credible sighting. While there, they got a four-second video of a huge black-and-white woodpecker flying through the tupelos.

Scientists spent the next 14 months analyzing the grainy video before announcing that the ivory-billed woodpecker, hallelujah, was not extinct.

In a world where mystery is stripped from life, where important things seem to vanish by the day, it turned out that something beautiful and precious and once thought to be gone was still flapping through the trees.

Scientists being scientists, skeptics stepped forward to say, "We hope you're right about the ivory-billed, but we're not convinced by your blurry video."

Still, the Cornell announcement inspired proficient birdwatchers throughout the South to pick up their binoculars, head into the swamps and begin looking anew.

In 2005, Geoffrey Hill and the boys from Auburn started searching the Choctawhatchee, which is born in Alabama and flows 170 miles before emptying in Choctawhatchee Bay near Destin.

"We couldn't even pronounce the name of the river at first," Hill says. "But it seemed like a good place to look."

On their first trip, near where Interstate 10 crosses the river, one Auburn scientist was confident he had seen an ivory-billed.

Hill didn't make a fuss about it, remembering the skepticism that followed Cornell's birding bombshell the year before. "We need real proof," he told his people.

Scientists, after all, are a notoriously conservative lot. If God showed up at a meeting and claimed an ivory-billed sighting, he would be battered by questions too.

As God sputtered in frustration, some smarty-pants scientist would ask "Did you get a photo?"

* * *

Geoff Hill doesn't mind sleeping in a tent. He has a good goose-down bag that keeps him warm when the temperature in the swamp dips below freezing, which it does often in the winter. He wears sturdy boots and Gore-Tex clothing to keep him dry. Like his colleagues, he showers once a week when he drives home. Even his wife asks, "Did you get a picture?"

He is a slightly built, red-haired man, intense but social. When he talks, his eyes seldom stray from the trees.

"It would be easier to shoot an ivory-billed with a gun than get a picture," he says.

He is joking, though 19th century ornithologists typically collected their most compelling evidence by shotgun. John James Audubon's marksmanship made his famous illustrations possible.

Modern ornithologists, loath to kill any bird, rely on digital equipment, gyroscopic-controlled binoculars, laptop computers and GPS to document their work.

Space age tools have been no match for the relic bird of the 19th century.

At least so far.

* * *

The Choctawhatchee, wild and remote, is not a place to go people watching. Gray, leafless trees that could be from the Blair Witch Project line the river, where a boat is waiting to take a flock of woodpecker watchers into the dreary rain.

John Fitzpatrick is the most prominent. Here to confer with Hill, Fitzpatrick tolerates inclement weather if there is the slightest chance of encountering the Grail Bird.

Fitzpatrick, 55, directs Cornell's prestigious ornithology lab. A Harvard graduate who got his doctorate from Princeton, he remembers reading about the ivory-billed woodpecker as a boy and regretting he had been born too late to see one.

Fitzpatrick was the scientist who announced the rediscovery of the ivory-billed in 2004. He was the scientist who was scolded by skeptics about the imperfect evidence. A crisp photo, a clear video, a fresh feather or ivory-billed woodpecker DNA would get him off the hook.

He says, "I believe in our evidence, and I believe that the ivory-billed exists."

He hasn't seen one, but every time he goes out he hopes that today will be the day.

* * *

Everybody calls him "Fitz." He has a bushy mustache and wears roundish spectacles a la Teddy Roosevelt. A $1,700 pair of binoculars dangles from his neck.

"This is good habitat for ivory-bills but not great habitat," he says. "Picture these woods with the original trees still here, 125-foot giants. They would make this forest look like grass."

Like every swampland forest in the South, the Choctawhatchee was extensively logged starting in the 19th century. Now trees are growing back and becoming more promising for ivory-billeds if they are indeed here. Most of the river forest is protected by the Northwest Florida Water Management District and the Nature Conservancy. Every big tree, even the dead and dying ones, is a snack bar to an ivory-billed.

Ivory-billeds eat mostly beetle larvae. Ivory-billeds chisel away the bark with those enormous, powerful bills to reach the treasure. Ornithologists in Arkansas and now in Florida have photographed trees that appear to have been picked apart by ivory-billeds. Unlike Holy Grail woodpeckers, trees politely stay put for photographers.

People confuse pileated woodpeckers with ivory-billeds but they are as different as they can be. Pileateds live comfortably in city back yards and eat almost anything. They fly in undulating swoops between trees. The ivory-billed flies more powerfully, straight ahead, like a duck or loon.

Fitzpatrick wonders whether he might conjure up an ivory-billed with an old ornithologist's trick. Imitate an owl and rile nearby woodpeckers.

"WHOWHOAHOOAH!" he calls. "WHOWHOAHOOARL!"

Woodpeckers, see, hate barred owls. When a barred owl calls, nervous woodpeckers want to know where it is.

Suddenly, woodpeckers previously hidden in the woods swoop above the Choctawhatchee River. A yellow-bellied. Northern flicker. Downy woodpecker.

No sign of the Lord God Bird.

* * *

Bald cypress. Tupelo. Swamp maple. It's Friday now and Hill is leading the trip. Gray skies, nose-running cold. Jackets and blankets all around.

Somebody in the back of the boat asks, "What's that?"

When Hill was 4, he carried toy animals in a plastic bag and could identify every one, amazing his parents back in Kentucky. Now he is 46, an Auburn professor with a doctorate from the University of Michigan, one of those rare birds who can identify most species by song.

"That was a red-bellied woodpecker," he says, not looking at the bird. He sits in the bow with binoculars trained on a hole in a water oak.

Pileated woodpeckers make baseball-sized cavities. Ivory-billed cavities are larger and more oval. Hill has photographed large oval cavities that suggest the presence of ivory-billed woodpeckers.

He says, "Not that one. It's a pileated cavity."

He saw what he believes was his first ivory-billed woodpecker on Jan. 5, 2006. It was a little after dawn. He was paddling a kayak when a large bird blew past him.

Later he wrote in his field notes: "I saw a bird with a wingspan greater than a wood duck fly over my head and away from me. The time was 0638. The bird was not exactly like anything I've seen before. It reminded me of a small loon. It had a long neck and long tail. Wingbeats seemed rather stiff and shallow. . . . I am rather confident that it was an ivorybill"

Jan. 21, 2006:

"Naked eye view. Bird flushed from about 30 feet as I was moving noisily through a flooded tupelo/cypress stand. It came off a tree about 3 to 5 feet from the water. . . . Flight was strong and fast. It made no sound at all as it flew. With naked eye and the bird flying away I saw few details: jet black except wide striking white band on trailing edge of wings. It looked large and longer-winged than a pileated."

There was something else. The double knock. The common pileated raps a tree in a series of knocks. The ivory-bill raps KNOCKknock. Hill was sure he had heard a double knock coming from the right, suggesting a second ivory-billed nearby.

Hill's crew has recorded more than 300 double knocks and the birds calling.

The ivory-billed's call sounds like a toy tin horn- "KENT! KENT!" Hill's crew has many recordings of those braying kent calls always played out of view in the gloomy woods.

Kent calls and double knocks are interesting, but they are not considered proof. There is always the chance they are something else: branches rubbing, jays jabbering, squirrels screeching. Or scientists hoping.

"We need the photo," Hill says. "The big question is, how unlucky can you be, and for how long, before you give up?"

Right now he has money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida state wildlife agencies, environmental organizations, Cornell and his own university. He has a legion of volunteers willing to sleep in the swamp with the wet and the bugs and the snakes.

In a narrow creek, Hill ducks under the laurel oaks where Resurrection fern has turned green after the rain. If an ivory-billed were to fly past, it would be gone in a blink, before any camera could be brought to attention.

Hill's science crew has installed dozens of remote cameras in the most promising areas along the river. If a bird passes, the cameras are supposed to take the picture automatically.

In the Internet age, patience can be as rare as certain mystical birds. Anyone who wants to see the notorious photos of Britney Spears without her undies can find them within seconds. Same with Saddam Hussein on the gallows. No effort, no waiting.

In the lonely woods, despite the double knocks and the kent calls and the tree cavities, the Grail bird, the white whale bird, the Lord God Bird, if alive, tests the patience of an impatient 21st century.

"How can there be a bird that is impossible to photograph?" Geoff Hill asks.

There can't be. Not if it's out there.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

 

FAST FACTS

How to recognize the Lord God Bird

Chances are, you've seen a pileated woodpecker in your back yard. They're common in west-central Florida, including St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa. The ivory-billed woodpecker - if it still exists - inhabits large, remote swamp forests in the South.

It's easy to see the pileated's resemblance to the rare ivory-billed woodpecker. But check out the color illustrations here and you'll notice the differences.

- The ivory-billed is significantly larger.

- The pileated has more white on its face, including a stripe right behind the bill.

- When a pileated is clinging to a tree, you won't see much white except on the neck and face. But an ivory-billed has lots of white, including a couple of stripes that look like the bird is wearing suspenders.

- Examine the bill. It's smaller and darker on a pileated woodpecker.

- If you see a woodpecker that looks like either of these shown in the illustrations, and it has a black crest, you've seen a female ivory-billed. Their crests are always black.

 

On the Web

- "The Search For The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker," Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory.

- "Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers in the Florida Panhandle," Auburn University, www.auburn.edu. Click on the search tag and type in "ivory-billed."

 

 

[Last modified March 3, 2007, 19:21:00]


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