Ivory-billed hopes flit to Florida

There’s no photo, but an ornithological search team says that its sightings, plus signs on trees and recorded sounds, suggest that a few ivory-billed woodpeckers still live along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle.

The big, showy species had been widely presumed extinct by the end of the 20th century. But hopes of the bird’s survival rose in 2005 when a Cornell University–led team released sound recordings and a blurry video as corroboration of their reported ivory-billed sightings in Arkansas. Other bird experts have disputed the video evidence, and the birding community now agrees only on the need for clearer proof of the species’ survival (SN: 3/25/06, p. 189: Available to subscribers at Woodpecker video is challenged and defended).

Inspired by the news from the Arkansas swamp, ornithologist Geoff Hill of the University of Alabama in Auburn led two colleagues in May 2005 on a search of other possible habitats. After just 4 hours in the woods along the Choctawhatchee, the team saw what it identified as an ivory-billed woodpecker.

The researchers worked with staff of Daniel Mennill’s lab at the University of Windsor in Ontario to put sound recorders out in the woods. Two team members spent last winter camping there.

The searchers report 14 sightings. Their recorders captured 99 double knocks that match old accounts of ivory-billeds ‘hammering’ on trees, and they picked up 210 tinny bleats resembling past descriptions of the birds’ “kent” calls. The searchers also photographed what might be nesting holes and tree bark stripped by foraging birds. The evidence appears in the publicly available electronic journal Avian Conservation and Ecology.

The Florida researchers have posted on their Web site locations that they invite birders to search. However, the Choctawhatchee team warns that the swamps are unmapped and home to mosquitoes, poisonous snakes, and alligators. Nevertheless, “as soon as the leaves fall, we’re going back,” says Mennill.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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