Maybe only 30 feet away, great looks as it hitched its way up a tree. Even saw the large whitish bill! It was an unmistakable Ivory-billed Woodcreeper in the Tuxtla Mountains of Veracruz. Perhaps the only real ivorybill species left on the planet?
I was able to attend the Auburn Ivory-billed Woodpecker talk at the North American Ornithological Conference in Veracruz last week. While I'd like more than anyone to know that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are out there somewhere, the Auburn team still doesn't have any confirmatory evidence that the birds are really there in their Florida study site. A couple brief sight records--with one or two that initially sound better than the Cornell sightings in Arkansas--that are by themselves not sufficient evidence. Some sound recordings of kent calls and double knocks--which could be explained by lots of other things like deer and other woodpeckers out in the swamps. Large holes in trees and trees with bark stripped off--who knows what else can do that to a tree.
While I wish the Auburn team luck, I was concerned that they:
A) Tried to pull off this search all by themselves, which means it was usually just one grad student sleeping in a tent in the woods for months at a time wandering around in the swamp. I guess they thought they had a slam dunk case and that it wouldn't be so hard to get a photo of the birds they thought they were hearing all the time.
B) At the NAOC talk Hill made it clear that they rejected the possibility of using tape playback to attract the birds. I just don't get that. While I can understand not wanting to disrupt the routine of what might be the most endangered bird in North America, if it still exists, what the world really needs is a good video of the birds so we can all agree that they are still out there. Tape playback is not THAT disruptive. Any serious birder knows that, and should know that it is the best way to get a good look at a bird. For what some are claiming is the most secretive bird in North America, if you really think you have one in your area, play the darn tape to make it come in so you can get video footage! Otherwise, you just won't have the evidence you'll need.
C) Some of the published sight records in this published study are just awfull. A big bird flying through the swamp? No color, no field marks, just size (which is impossible to judge accurately all the time) and shape (which can be subjective, especially when you have ambitions to get a sighting of a rare bird). Some of these "sightings" should have been rejected by the initial observer and not included in the paper. While I applaud the Auburn team for publishing "everything" they have, I have to question the judgement about some of what is included as "evidence".
D) While there was a question and answer session at NAOC after the talk, nobody really asked any hard questions of the Auburn team. Me included. Somebody asked why they hadn't climbed up to look into some of the large tree cavities for feathers (answer: it was scary to climb up there, and they're just starting to do that now). Others asked why the tone of the kent calls seems to vary so much in the different recordings (answer: we don't really know enough about the calls of these birds to answer that). Another asked why they think they couldn't get photos (answer: we didn't really search that big of an area, only maybe two square miles and we didn't have enough people on the ground to find the birds). The more these guys answered questions the more it seemed like they were really just not that prepared for their search. Maybe they thought it was going to be easier to find the birds than they first thought, since they thought they were hearing the birds almost as soon as they started looking. I heard their presentation described as Amateur Night at the Ivorybill Improv. While that may not be the most charitable way to describe it, it sure was easy to get the impression that the Auburn team hadn't really done what it takes to deliver the goods.
E) These guys had Ivory-bills on the brain. They weren't just out for a kayak trip down the river. They were motivated by a desire to find "their own" ivorybills the weekend right after the Cornell announcement. With a full belief that Cornell had proved that ivorybills were still "out there", maybe it was a bit too easy for them to convince themselves that the quick looks at birds and strange sounds in the swamp were indeed the birds they really wanted to see. While the Auburn team admits that they can't yet prove that the birds exist, I didn't see much sign of their being skeptical about the birds really being there. They really believe it. If they can eventually prove that the birds are there, then great. If not, we'll have to find another explanation. Some already believe that these guys just got caught up in an ivorybill hysteria and convinced themselves that they had the birds.
Without a photo, or better yet, a video, there's plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the continued existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and about the claims of those who think they've seen them. While there is plenty of room for hope and giving people the benefit of the doubt, we should still closely examine all the "evidence" on both sides. The birds are either out there, or they aren't. While it may be too early to determine that ivorybills are actually extinct (long overdue searches are ongoing), when you really look at the evidence, there's a lot of reasons to doubt that anyone has actually seen one of these birds in a long, long time.