Birder's World has just published The Other Guys, Auburn University ornithologist Geoffrey Hill's report of his Florida Ivory-billed Woodpecker search. I heard Hill and Mennill give their presentation about the search at the North American Ornithological Conference in Veracruz this past October.
A couple of notes on this article:
Hill reports on the Arkansas search started when "a kayaker spots a woodpecker in Arkansas in the inter of 2004." While this has become the official story, others have noted that Gene Sparling, the kayaker, was aware of an earlier report of Ivory-bills in the area by 1999 Pearl River IBWO searcher Mary Scott. So, the Arkansas report is not an independent report out of the blue by an anonymous kayaker, but the continuation of a crusade to find IBWOs that started in the Pearl River.
It's also clear that Hill was looking for IBWOs in Florida because he had just heard a few weeks earlier about the Arkansas sightings and he was "longing for an Ivory-bill search" of his own. So again, the Florida sightings are not independent, but rather came from a search inspired by reports from Arkansas, that fueled expectations that IBWOs were in Arkansas and perhaps elsewhere, just waiting to be found.
Their first sighting was of a flying bird by "novice birder" Brian Rolek. An hour later, Hill alone heard a double-knock. While Hill writes that "I left the area that weekend intrigued but a long way from convinced that we had found Ivory-bills." OK, that may be the official story, but as a birder, I wonder if there was more going on. We've all had the experience of missing a rare bird seen by others. This is frustrating, but never so frustrating as when someone you are with sees the bird and you don't. When that happens, your brain gets a little crazy. You really, really want to see the bird. Does that impact your judgement? Fuel your expectations? Did that impact this search in Florida? Hard to tell, but you have to wonder.
At the very least, Hill and Hicks were back the next weekend. What were they expecting to find? How anxious were they? Did they have cold clammy palms? Having chased lots of rare birds, I can only imagine how keyed up I would be if I really thought there was a bird as rare as the IBWO out there, and that I had almost seen it the week before. I would be very, very determined to get the bird!
So Hill and Hicks are out looking for the woodpecker that their associate saw the week before, and Hill thinks he may have heard. Hicks sees a bird fly. He describes it as a picture perfect IBWO--except he didn't see the bill. Its perfect. Is it too perfect? It sounds good. But brief view, with high expectations, can be a recipe for disaster when looking for a rare bird.
At this point, the whole team is surely convinced that IBWOs are there on the Choctawhatchee. Everything now becomes a search for evidence to support their claim. All doubt seems to have vanished. Was enough critical judgement expended to judge those two quick sightings?
The rest of the article goes on to detail their continued search for evidence of the woodpeckers. Not really a search for evidence, because they already think the birds are there, but a search for proof that the birds are there. We all know what they came up with...some interesting sound recordings, a couple more quick glimpses of birds that look like IBWOs, some large holes in trees, and bark scaled from trees. Lots of trees have large holes in them, and Pileated Woodpeckers are known to scale trees. The sound recordings? Who knows what are making those? But its impossible to prove that they were made by IBWOs. The thirteen sightings are all brief glimpses of flying birds--a tough sell to birders critical of brief rare bird sightings.
"The Other Guys" are out there again this year, with help from Cornell. Hill is "confident that we will succeed" in finding the IBWOs. It won't be long before the whole world will be able to judge that confidence for themselves.
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