Monday, June 27, 2005

Recent Birds, Thoughts On The IBW

It's the middle of a hot summer day in Southeast Texas, with temps in the 90s and scarcely a breeze. Texans constantly complain about the heat & humidity, but I'm acclimatized and it feels cozy to me. Hell, I've birded the Salton Sea in August, with the mercury rising to 112 degrees and not even a tree for shade. This ain't nuthin'.

Middle of a hot summer day in Southeast Texas. In theory this is the worst possible time and place for birding, but not so. As I sit here writing I can hear a Broad-winged Hawk whistling outside. Earlier I observed dueling Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a female Summer Tanager flycatching in the backyard, and a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers taking refuge from the heat in the big live oak next to the kitchen. When I approached the tree they didn't spook as I expected, but instead froze in position, pressed against the branches they were on. I was able to approach within 25 feet of them without either bird taking flight. It was surprising to me that such large (and normally shy) birds would allow me to get so close, but this strategy of concealment may not be so unusual. Had I not already known they were in that tree I could easily have walked right under them unaware. A Downy Woodpecker was also hopping around in the oak, and the size difference was striking. In comparison to the Pileated the Downy was absolutely puny.

Pileated Logic: If I Don't Move He Can't See Me 

I've been having a problem with carpenter bees burrowing into the facia of my garage (which is located too far from the house to be much use as a garage, so I just keep my mower and some junk there). Carpenter bees are big - about an inch long - and look like bumblebees. The holes they excavate are perfectly round and about a half-inch in diameter. They tunnel through the wood, and each of their tunnels (which may be several feet in length) leads to a nursery chamber in which they raise the next generation of carpenter bees. My garage has probably been infested for quite a while, because there are numerous holes in the facia on all four sides of the building.

Well, my neighbor Tim complained that the bees had been getting aggressive, and that I needed to do something about it. According to my research the big male bees don't have stingers, it's the smaller females that you have to worry about. On warm days the males stand guard, hovering close to their nest holes. They buzz around and try to intimidate interlopers, but the females stay inside their tunnels unless there is a real problem. One night, when the bees were all fast asleep in their beds, Michelle and I went around the garage spraying each of their holes with insecticide. I think we got most of them.

Since then something has been ripping gouges in the facia, tearing into the tunnels that run through the wood. I recently saw a Pileated Woodpecker perch on the edge of my garage, and I think I may have identified the culprit. My theory is that killing the bees that guarded the nest chambers made it possible for woodpeckers to go after the larva inside without fear of reprisal.

Another interesting tidbit. A few years ago you may remember there was an organized effort to find Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Pearl River Bottoms of Southeastern Louisiana. IBWs are known to knock the bark off trees to get at the goodies underneath, and signs of bark stripping were found by the search team. I recall an assertion was made at the time that this was an identifying behavior of the IBW, and that Pileated Woodpeckers do not knock the bark off trees in similar fashion. Well, the evidence that I've found piled under the pecan tree in my backyard indicates otherwise. Pileated Woodpeckers do indeed strip bark, and sometimes do so in an annoyingly messy way.

Earlier today I drove up to Silsbee where Michelle works. While driving back I saw two Red-headed Woodpeckers at two different (yet strangely similar) locations. One was just south of Silsbee, and happened to be in the same general area in which Michelle and I had seen one while driving up to Boykin Springs on the 29th of May. The other was across the road from the Walgreens in Lumberton. Both were seen flying to or from poles in open grassy areas. Even driving at highway speeds it's easy to identify a Red-headed Woodpecker in flight; the wing pattern is a lot like an Ivory-billed Woodpecker's.

...Speaking of which, I recently downloaded an article titled "A COMPILATION OF PUBLISHED RECORDS OF THE IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER IN TEXAS: VOUCHER SPECIMENS VERSUS SIGHT RECORDS" by Clifford E. Shackleford. It lists all of the Texas records that have appeared in literature, the most recent from 1976. The last fully documented U.S. sightings (prior to the recent discovery in Arkansas) were from the Singer Tract in 1942. So what to make of the continued sightings reported from Southeast Texas between 1956 and 1976? All erroneous? Possibly. Aside from noting that an audio recording made in 1969 had been disputed by James Tanner (who had studied the Singer Tract birds) the article offers no critique of the validity of these latter day records. Sightings of IBWs are frequently reported, but are discredited due to inexperience and poor documentation in most cases. I assume that these Texas records have at least some credibility or they wouldn't be cited. One of the observers, JV Dennis, was an ornithologist - someone unlikely to make such a novice mistake.

Here's what I think. The post-1940s Texas records are mainly from the Neches River Bottoms and its tributaries (a 1933 sighting occurred at the confluence of the Neches and Village Creek - that's only a few miles from my home!). I think that most likely a few IBWs survived in the remnant riverbottom forests north of Beaumont, perhaps as late as the 1970s. Since then the absence of records probably indicates a sad end to whatever tiny population had existed. Of course there's always the miniscule chance that one or more may still haunt the heart of the Big Thicket. We know that the IBW is a shy reclusive bird that can easily elude observation for years, especially if nobody is actively looking for it.

That's my hope anyway. The miraculous discovery of a verified living IBW in Arkansas has made the impossible seem possible, or at least a little less improbable. There are still places in the river bottoms north of here where an IBW might feel at home -somewhere deep in the timber, behind impenetrable undergrowth, far from any road or trail. Maybe, just maybe, there is still an Ivory-bill or two clinging to a tenuous existence in those remnant forests. Or are there only feathered ghosts to be found there? Guess I'll be looking for ghosts on my next trip into the swamp. The Big Thicket awaits...


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