Friday, June 23, 2006

The Search For Ivory-billed Woodpeckers Moves Closer to Home...

Because of my arduous work schedule and other responsibilities I haven't had much time to search for Ivory-bills lately. Don Carrell has been more active, and recently did some reconnaissance along Pine Island Bayou and the lower Neches River with John Arvin. He tells me that the bayou in particular looks great.

The area of this recent search is part of the Beaumont Unit of the Big Thicket Preserve, which as the name suggests is near the City of Beaumont (in fact it's just outside the city limits). Pine Island Bayou is the dividing line between Jefferson and Hardin Counties, with Beaumont on one side and Lumberton on the other. We live on the Hardin Co./Lumberton side, less than .5 mile from the bayou.

Of course this is not a remote wilderness area. There is a large city close by, and many people live on the edge of the preserve. It would seem an unlikely place for Ivory-bills, but there is a large tract of swamp between the Neches and the bayou that is seldom if ever visited by birders, and the area has a history of reports and tantalizing rumors. In his research paper titled "The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Texas," written in 1970, Fred Collins discusses this area and notes that "birds have been observed here by four different people on two separate occasions." Ms. B. M. Reid, to whom many unsubstantiated (and imprecisely dated) pre-1960s records are attributed, reported sightings in this vicinity circa 1937-1938.

Assuming that Ivory-bills are extinct in Texas (an assumption I have no qualms about), a good question is, when did their extinction occur? The last fully accepted record of Ivory-bills in Texas dates back to 1904, when Vernon Bailey shot two and saw four more in the Trinity River Bottoms near Gaylor Lake. It is likely that a few survived well beyond that date - the year 1915 is sometimes used as an approximate point of finality. But in the literature there are unsubstantiated records of specimens being collected as late as 1927, and claims of sightings continue to the present. John Dennis, an ornithologist who had actual experience with living Ivory-bills in Cuba, reported a sighting on the Neches in 1966. Personally I think a few probably persisted as late as the 1960s, but that's just speculation on my part. There's no proof.

Don Carrell asked me if I knew how to get to the saltwater dam on the Neches, and if there was a boat launch there that we could use. The dam isn't on my maps, so yesterday I did some exploring, and managed to find the dam and a couple of launching points just upstream from it. Saw quite a bit of development and many homes along the edge of the preserve, but there was some nice habitat across the river with big old trees. Since it was the middle of the day and hot there was little bird activity, but I did see a few Mississippi kites from the road. Here's a picture to give you some idea of what the swamp is like.There's a tall cypress in the center of the above photo that appears to have a large oval cavity just below its crown (hey, I gotta do my bit to keep rumors circulating and hope alive here!). But seriously I do think that this cavity is rather interesting. A hundred years ago such a hole might have been excavated by an Ivory-bill, and who knows? It's an old tree. Maybe it was.A closer view of the mystery hole.

Hopefully next week I'll be able to get out and do some real searching.


At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now you're blogging. Sounds like nice habitat. Are you going to "officially" search with Mr. Arvin or on your own?

How exciting! Wish I were there.


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