Monday, September 3, 2007

Whither the Ivory-Bill?

Today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette includes a front-page article on the continuing search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods area of east-central Arkansas. Several sightings of a lone male woodpecker were made in 2004 and 2005, including a lucky video recording by David Luneau (the video is contained within a report here). Since then, researchers from the ornithology labs at Cornell have led the search for more of the birds, without much success.

The article quotes ivory-bill expert Jerome Jackson, who has built himself quite a reputation as a skeptic where the bird is concerned. Jackson authored an article in The Auk, the premier ornithological journal in the country, in which he attacked Luneau's video and the work of the other scientists who observed the Arkansas ivory-bill (he called the sightings "faith-based ornithology"). In the Democrat-Gazette article, Jackson is quoted as saying "no highly trained ornithologists have seen the bird." This may be construed as an attack on Luneau, who is an engineer, and not a biologist. My own undergraduate training in biology was at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and when I took the Ornithology class there, Luneau was a classmate of mine. I can vouch for his abilities in spotting birds; he is as proficient an amateur ornithologist as I've met.

But Jackson's point is that Luneau is not a trained ornithologist--let's give the devil his due and assume that Jackson's point is justified. What about the sightings by Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison, who are trained ornithologists? Both Jackson and Katherine Marks, the Democrat-Gazette reporter, completely ignore recent sightings of the ivory-bill in Florida by Geoff Hill of Auburn University. Hill and two graduate students have made repeated sightings of the bird in the Florida Panhandle. Hill is a world-renowned, highly trained ornithologist who has dozens of peer-reviewed publications to his credit. He has authored technical books and popular articles, and has acted as the academic mentor to several graduate students. Hill's credentials are above reproach. I know Geoff Hill myself, and I can attest that he is the best field birder I've ever had the pleasure to be around. Hill and his students have seen the ivory-bill several times in Florida, and have recorded sounds made by ivory-bills on dozens of occasions.

It's hard to understand why Jackson is such a skeptic where the ivory-billed woodpecker is concerned. Perhaps he is miffed that he wasn't included on the research team for the sightings in Arkansas or Florida. Jackson spent much his career searching for the ivory bill (see here and here). Gallagher and his crew have written a point-by-point response to Jackson's criticisms. Evidence for their original sightings in Arkansas is strong. Although the evidence for a thriving population of ivory-billed woodpeckers at the Cache River site is not good, the observations from 2004 and 2005 indicate the presence of a population somewhere--probably in the White River Wildlife Refuge just to the south of the original sightings.

UPDATE--Cotinis points out (in the comments) that Gallagher and Harrison are not ornithologists. However, both are long-time birders with woodpecker experience. Cotinis also mentions a Dr. Melinda LaBranche who has seen the woodpecker in Arkansas. Also, the Arkansas Times has a brand-new update on recent sightings in Arkansas.


hipparchia said...

faith-based ornithology! funny, but not very helpful.

i learned far more bird-spotting skills from dedicated amateur birders than i ever learned from academic ornithologists. i'm not knocking you academics, the two sets often overlap, but not always.

it's almost too much to hope for, that my little part of florida-space should turn out to be tha last refuge of the ibwo [ibwo is almost as much fun to type as it is to say].

Cotinis said...

I agree that people don't have to be trained ornithologists to be good birders, and that many trained ornithologists may not be the best at field ID. However, a clarification on some things:
Tim Gallagher is not a trained ornithologist--he is a journalist and editor of The Living Bird, see Wikipedia, or this TNC release, for instance.
Likewise for Bobby Harrison--he is not a trained ornithologist, he has training in art and photography (this TNC release).
As far as I can tell, and I'm not infallible, the only person who is a "trained ornithologist" (academic degree in ornithology) and who claims to have seen the IBWO in Arkansas is Melinda LaBranche, who has a Ph.D. in zoology. The story of her sighting is here, and also on Cornell's seven Sightings account. (She had just put her video camera away, unfortunately.)
Again, that is a statement based on what I think I understand from Cornell's material.

Right--Hill is an ornithologist, and says he has seen the bird himself, details here.).

Again, I'll agree with you that one does not have to be a formally-trained ornithologist to be good at field identification.

Archaeopteryx said...

Thanks Cotinis, for the info--I'll correct the article to reflect it.