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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Kenn Kaufman Weighs in on Arkansas Ivory-bills

Birding luminary Kenn Kaufman posted this on the OH bird email list yesterday:

Subject: Woodpecker behavior
Date: Wed, 15 Mar 2006 09:58:51 -0500

The reported rediscovery of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Arkansas has been mentioned on ohio-birds many times over the last 11 months, which suggests that this is an acceptable topic for this forum.

Last month in Ecuador we caught up with a related species, the Powerful Woodpecker (Campephilus pollens). I'd missed it on previous trips to South America -- not surprisingly, since it's rather rare. In The Birds of Ecuador, Vol. 1, Robert Ridgely says that it's "rare to uncommon and perhaps local." In Vol. 2, he expands on this to say that its habits are "similar to other Campephilus woodpeckers, though Powerful's home range seems exceptionally large and as a result the species is encountered only infrequently." We found a family group in forest on the east slope. The birds were wary, as one would expect with a large woodpecker, and they were in dense forest, but we were able to follow them at a respectful distance for a long time, and Kim even got decent photos with her small digital camera.

The encounter got me to thinking about our North American species of Campephilus, and I went back and reread Roger Tory Peterson's account of seeing the Ivory-bill in 1942. (This was in RTP's wonderful book, Birds Over America, published in 1948.) He had sought the bird in South Carolina on the basis of rumors there in the 1930s, but finally he went to the Singer Tract in Louisiana, the last place where there were still known to be any living Ivory-bills (two adult females had been seen there a few months earlier). The Singer Tract was big, 80,000 acres, and there were no stakeouts such as roost sites, so Peterson and his companions knew it wouldn't be easy. It wasn't: it took them a whole day and a half to find the birds. Once they found them, though, they were able to follow them for almost an hour.

Now, about these freakishly elusive, supernaturally un-photographable birds in Arkansas... Once you look at the only "proof," the famous four-second video, and realize that it actually shows a Pileated Woodpecker, you have to wonder: What's really going on there?

Kenn Kaufman
Rocky Ridge, Ohio

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