Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Does the Emperor Have No Clothes?

About a year ago the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology announced the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Not only was it not extinct, they had conclusive proof of its survival in Arkansas. A year later that proof remains elusive, and the original claims look more and more dubious.

Science is a messy business, don't let the white lab coats fool ya. Reminds me of that old adage about politics and making's best not to watch. Then again, scientific controversy is most entertaining when it turns ugly. Professional ornithologists are divided into opposing camps on this issue. On one side you have the true believers, supported by the environmental establishment (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the Nature Conservancy, etc.). On the other side you have the skeptics and naysayers. Courtesy, decorum, and objectivity are getting trampled amid the accusations and personal attacks. Check out all the fun at IVORY-BILL SKEPTIC.

T-storms were predicted for Sunday. We didn't get any rain during the day, so that evening Michelle watered plants in our yard. Then it rained all night and most of Monday. Could hardly sleep with all the thunder and lightning - the commotion made poor Pipa a nervous wreck. Our property has good drainage and is covered by flood insurance, so I wasn't really worried. Despite hours of heavy precipitation I didn't see any serious flooding in or around Lumberton.

On Tuesday I drove to Houston to visit Troy. I was surprised to see the extent of the flooding along I-10 between Beaumont and Winnie. Water had risen to the edge of the highway, submerging rest areas and feeder roads. Drainage canals were overflowing their banks, fields had become ponds, and some residential property had been inundated. On a positive note, the deluge has produced a substantial increase in duck habitat.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Caddo Lake, May 20-21

Michelle's brother David and his family live in Bossier City, LA. They have a place on Caddo Lake, and we went there to spend the weekend with them. We met them in Bossier City and followed them from there, because Michelle wanted to see their new home first (nice house!). On the way into Shreveport we stopped briefly at a music store to look at instruments, and Michelle got me a wonderful gift - a telecaster-type guitar! That was very sweet of her. Thanks honey!

Here's Michelle and her niece Morgan riding a big inflatable pillow.Once we got to Caddo Lake we were on the water a lot, and we got to go waterskiing for the first time in years. Afterward David told me I was gonna be sore later. He was right. For me it was rare break from birding, not that I ever really ignore birds or put them out of my mind for very long.

The shores of Caddo Lake are forested with tall pines and magnificent cypresses draped in spanish moss. It's a big lake, but long and narrow where we were staying. One side of the lake is lined with weekend homes, trailers, and boat docks. The other side is undeveloped state park. The whole area is very scenic, and the swampy forest around the lake is awesome. If not for the presence of so many people and the constant boat traffic it would have been the best potential Ivory-billed Woodpecker habitat I've seen so far (James Tanner actually visited Caddo Lake back in 1938, following up on rumors that he subsequently dismissed as erroneous).

Swamp forest at Caddo Lake.As we boated around the lake I couldn't help but notice that Northern Parulas and Yellow-throated Warblers were singing from tall trees all along the lakeshore. Walking through the swampy woods I also found Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Prothonotary Warbler, and Summer Tanager. Pretty good for someone who wasn't really birding.

Actually we were gonna go out and try to see some of the local wildlife on Saturday evening. David's friend Al took us out in his boat for a trip through the swamp, but game wardens stopped us, and Al got cited for having insufficient lifejackets on his boat. We had to turn around. On the trip back the air was full of insects, and we saw fireflies flashing in the darkness along the shoreline.

Our captain at the wheel.I really enjoyed the watersports and visiting with David's family - and it was nice to do something other than birding for a change.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Searching For Ghosts Along the Neches

Yesterday morning Don Carrell and I canoed the Neches River from the (unnamed?) county park at the end of Craven Camp Road down to the Highway 96 bridge at Evadale. Don is working as a volunteer in the Big Thicket Preserve, and is also involved in the Texas search for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

The river was running high with a good current, and it only took us a little over two hours to cover the distance. We had to navigate around floating wood and submerged tree limbs, but they were easy to avoid and we didn't encounter any serious obstacles. Traffic was light - we only passed one other boat on our trip. Didn't see any other people (although there were many fishing shacks on floats tied off along the edges of the channel, the legality of which we questioned). It wasn't buggy and the weather was perfect, maybe even too perfect since I got a slight sunburn. All in all a beatiful day to be on the river.

The Neches River has been a focal point for Ivory-billed Woodpecker search efforts. I wanted to see what the habitat was like and whether or not it had the potential to support Ivory-bills. Of course we were also looking (and listening) for any sign of their presence. I can report that on this short trip nothing of the kind was found. We saw some nice habitat, although it's hard to tell how extensive the forest is from the river channel.

Birding by canoe is a challenge. It's hard to do anything besides canoeing while you are in a canoe. When you want to stop the current doesn't, and it's not easy to study a bird while trying to turn a canoe in a moving stream. So you tend to go with the flow and see what you can. For me it's mostly an auditory experience. Don's higher frequency hearing isn't good (although he noticed low sounds like the rumble of distant traffic ahead of me), but his vision is sharp. While I was busy listening he was spotting birds that I would otherwise have missed.

Particularly common along the river were Northern Parulas. I made a rough count of about 100 singing males. White-eyed Vireos were almost as ubiquitous, and Yellow-throated and Red-eyed Vireos were also heard all along the river. Prothonotary Warblers were surprisingly numerous - heard 40-50 males, with several seen in the streamside vegetation and flying over the water.

Woodpeckers were either being quiet or were simply scarce. We had only a few each of Pileated, Red-bellied, and Downy Woodpeckers. Our brief encounter with a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers illustrated how difficult it would be to observe and photograph Ivory-bills from a canoe. I frequently played Ivory-bill calls where the habitat appeared to have potential, hoping for a response. There was none.

We flushed a few Wood Ducks and Spotted Sandpipers as we made our way downriver. Other birds detected in low numbers included Red-shouldered Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher (heard about 10), and Great Crested Flycatcher. Our most interesting bird was seen before we even got the canoe into the water - a Swallow-tailed Kite flying across the river at the county park (where I had Mississippi Kite last summer). Considering the late date it was probably part of a local breeding population, not a migrant passing through.

Last night it was finally announced that the past field season in Arkansas produced no new evidence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Sad but not surprising.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Duck & Barred Owl

Been kinda stormy off and on here in the swamp. I like these Texas thunderstorms. They're much more entertaining and atmospheric than those cold drizzly winter storms back in California. And most of the time they are brief events - there's the booming and the lightshow and the sudden downpour and then it's all over.

A storm rolled through Lumberton on Sunday while I was at work. The rain stopped and I got home early enough to do some birding. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and a male Orchard Oriole were at the feeders by the kitchen window. While walking around the yard I saw a duck fly over - probably a Wood Duck, based upon its small size and rapid wingbeats. Went by too fast for me to get a positive I.D. (which is particularly frustrating because I have no ducks for my yard list!). Later Michelle and I saw a Barred Owl being abused by a mockingbird in our front yard. It was still there - and still under attack by the mockingbird - when we finally went back inside at dusk.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Woodpecker Weekend

Gulf Coast Bird Observatory has received a grant to do a comprehensive search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Texas. On Saturday I attended an orientation meeting for volunteers at the Big Thicket Field Research Station in Saratoga. John Arvin led the meeting, which was very informative. One of the attendees was John Dennis, son of ornithologist John V. Dennis, who had searched for Ivory-bills back in the 1960s, and had reported sightings in the Big Thicket.

A substantial part of the discussion focused on what we know and don't know about Ivory-bills. there is considerable uncertainty about the bird's habits. What we do know is mostly derived from the journals of 19th century naturalists, such as Audubon, and the work done by James Tanner, who studied the tiny population of birds in the Singer Tract. It is unknown whether Tanner's findings hold true for the Ivory-bill in other parts of its range, and there is the danger of extrapolating too much from limited information.

Some of the historic literature appears to contradict the recent experience in Arkansas. Ornithologists of the 19th and early 20th centuries seemed to have little trouble finding Ivory-bills where they were present. They described the birds as sociable and loudly vocal, traits which made them relatively easy to locate (and shoot). Contrast this with the almost impossibly wary and quiet bird(s) in Arkansas.

The continuing search in Arkansas was a hot topic. We endured an extended pixel-by-pixel analysis of the Luneau video, which has become the Zapruder film of Ivory-bill searchers. I'm still unconvinced that the bird in the video - one of the worst videos ever made - is anything more than a blurry Pileated Woodpecker. And we learned that results of this past field season in Arkansas are unlikely to end the controversy. Word is out that no conclusive evidence was found, despite a massive effort.

Different people at the meeting had differing ideas of what constitutes solid evidence. Some put their faith in recordings of "kent" calls and double-raps. Others see a smoking gun in physical evidence such as bark scaling and large cavity excavation. Personally I don't find any of the auditory and physical evidence compelling by itself, because in every instance there are other possible explanations for the phenomena. I've heard Blue Jays that sound like Ivory-bills, and there are other woodpecker and mammal species that engage in bark stripping. I'm a skeptic and I want definitive proof. Give me one good photograph, or a documented sighting (with full details) by multiple qualified observers.

On Sunday morning I walked Timber Slough Road in the Jack Gore Baygall Unit of the Big Thicket Preserve with John Arvin and some of the other volunteers. The road had been cleared since the hurricane, and was in good condition - we went almost as far as the river before turning back. It was an opportunity to see some of the best accessible habitat and how it had been been effected by the hurricane. We didn't expect to find any Ivory-bills, but who knows?

Hurricane Rita had damaged and knocked down many large trees, opening up the forest. Woodpecker workings were hard to identify amid the wreckage - we saw many trunks that had been stripped of bark where falling trees had struck them. Many of the trees still standing were dead, and for the next few years the abundance of snags and rotting timber should produce a feeding bonanza for woodpeckers. During my walk I counted about 15 Pileated Woodpeckers, also lesser numbers of Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers. No Ivory-billed Woodpecker (sigh).

Birding was good along Timber Slough Road, with relatively few bothersome insects. Highlights included a Swallow-tailed Kite and the first White-breasted Nuthatch I've ever seen in Southeast Texas (also the first one I've ever seen in a bald cypress). Birds were singing everywhere, with 3 species of vireos and at least 7 species of warblers. In areas of pine and cypress we had several Yellow-throated Warblers on territory. Two Magnolia Warblers and a Yellow Warbler were migrants south of their breeding ranges. Here's a photo of a Summer Tanager taken in a baygall beside the road.