Monday, December 10, 2007

Mike Collins, Ivory-billed Woodpecker Tracker

The birding world is experiencing an ugly hangover in the wake of the potential rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The large woodpecker filmed in Arkansas in 2004 - thought to be the first confirmed Ivory-billed (IBWO) sighting in decades - brought a frenzy of national interest and was hailed as a success story in a time where science headlines are dominated by pessimism.

The party didn't last long. Hundreds of researchers and birders failed to produce more conclusive evidence after scouring supposed IBWO haunts. The original evidence was looked at with closer scrutiny. The majority of those in the birding world now admit, queasily, that the celebration was premature and that there is still no conclusive evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is still alive.

Mike Collins, however, is not in that majority. Back in 2005 I would regularly check Mike's Fishcrow website to track his progress searching for IBWOs in the swamps of Louisiana's Pearl River Basin. Mike reported several encounters with the birds along the river, and was able to produce a video and audio recordings. The birding world, however, was not yet swayed by Mike's findings, and clearer evidence seemed always just out of reach (or focal length).

When I approached Mike for an interview he acknowledged that his outspoken beliefs on the existence of the IBWO in Louisiana have not made him very popular among ornithologists and birders, yet he has not relented. Mike is currently on his third full season of IBWO-searching in the Pearl, optimistic as ever, and is still putting in hard work long after the band has stopped playing and the party's died down.

How did you first get interested in looking for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker?

MC: I've been interested in the ivorybill for more than ten years. Having grown up in Florida, I knew there were remote places where these birds could still be hiding out (such as the Florida Panhandle). I visited the Pearl and heard kents [note: IBWO calls] shortly after Kulivan's sighting was made public [David Kulivan, a biology student, reported seeing IBWO in 1999]. I started considering a serious search after reading Jerome Jackson's book in 2005. About a month later, the news came from Arkansas, and it took me several nanoseconds to make up my mind that I was going to find the Pearl Ivorybills.
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers
Where exactly have you focused your efforts and why?

For practical reasons, most birders aren't able to spend the months in the field that it takes to have a reasonable chance of seeing an ivorybill. I've been fortunate to have the opportunity to search for several hours per day while working full time at Stennis Space Center, which is located on the Mississippi side of the Pearl. I've focused my efforts on areas near Stennis that are just above the cypress-tupelo zone and less impacted by human activities than other parts of the Pearl.

What is an average day like when you're on the hunt for woodpeckers? Is there a method behind where you're searching at a particular time?

There's no such thing as an average day in the swamp, and that's one of the things that keeps it interesting. While searching by kayak, I use persistence and stealth, cover as much territory as possible, and keep the paddle-cam running. To reach remote areas that aren't accessible by kayak, I bushwhack through fallen trees and wade through sloughs. I've recently been trying out the exciting approach of watching for ivorybills from tall trees, which makes it possible to keep watch on an area that is perhaps a hundred times larger than what can be seen from the ground.

Who is footing the bill for all this exploration?

I received a significant donation of equipment and training from a tree climbing biologist (who wants to remain anonymous for now). The rest of it has come out of my own pocket. So far, I've spent more than $30,000 on travel, living expenses, medical expenses (e.g., a broken arm that required surgery), a standard video camera, a high-definition video camera, a cell phone, two kayaks (the first one wore out), a canoe, paddles, camo, chest waders, a GPS, flights over the Pearl in a Cessna, artwork to explain the data, a laser rangefinder, replacements for a camera and a pair of binoculars that were lost when the kayak capsized, etc.

And so what have you discovered in the Pearl so far?

In February 2006, I found a pair of ivorybills about five miles from the location of David Kulivan's sighting. Seven of the encounters (including two spectacular sightings) occurred over a five-day period in a concentrated hot zone, where I obtained video footage during an encounter that lasted for about twelve minutes. This is the first video that shows the head, neck, bill, crest, a perched bird, level flight, and what appear to be geometrically well-defined field marks (e.g., what appears to be a dorsal stripe versus what appears to be "white on the dorsum" in the Arkansas video). The video provides new insights into the ivorybill, such as vigorous and rapid flaps at take-off, which aren't mentioned in historical accounts but make sense for a massive species with long and thin wings. The video also contains what I believe to be the first recording of a high-pitched alarm call that Tanner observed but didn't record. The calls fit Tanner's description, and I heard them during two encounters. Both times they came from the direction of an ivorybill, and they tracked the movements of an ivorybill during the second encounter. The sonograms have a fundamental property in common with sonograms of kents despite the fact that they sound very different.

Although your website chronicles your many encounters, you (and the rest of the IBWO-searching world) have yet to obtain a definitive piece of evidence - such as a clear photograph or an active nest - that would convince the skeptics. Why has it been so difficult for IBWO searchers to find more convincing evidence?

Ivorybills reside in vast and inhospitable habitats, are non-territorial, are capable of rapid and long flights, are often silent, have calls that don't carry far, and are extremely wary of humans. It's very difficult to keep a camera running all the time in order to be prepared for extremely rare encounters that typically last for a few seconds. It's necessary to move quietly, cover a lot of territory, and have the ability to point the camera instantly. The most effective approach that I have found is to mount a video camera on the kayak paddles. I would have obtained several stunning videos if I had gotten the idea for paddle-cam earlier.

Eventually, someone will get lucky and obtain a high-quality image. But can we afford to wait? Should it really be necessary to wait? It is my opinion that the Pearl video should be conclusive to a competent and objective scientist who studies it carefully. The posture, profile, bill, neck, crest, wing shape, flap rate, flap style, and apparent field marks are all consistent with ivorybill but not pileated. The calls that are recorded in the video fit Tanner's description of an ivorybill alarm call and have a fundamental property in common with kents.

Let's consider one aspect of this body of evidence in detail. The flap rate is about 7.5 Hz in level flight. Cornell performed a study in Arkansas of pileateds in level flight (perhaps the most extensive study of its kind to date) and observed flap rates in the 2 to 4 Hz range. If pileateds actually achieve 7.5 Hz in level flight, we should regularly observe flap rates in the 5 to 6 Hz range, but we don't. If this were any other problem in science, sanity and common sense would have prevailed long ago, and we would have moved on to the work that needs to be done to save this species.

How has it been to deal with skepticism surrounding your findings?

The evidence that I have obtained in Louisiana is at least as strong as the evidence that has been obtained in Arkansas and Florida, but it is being ignored. It's wrong for scientists to refuse to acknowledge the contributions of another scientist. This is a form of scientific fraud that could come back to haunt the perpetrators, but it really doesn't matter to me. What does matter to me is that I have obtained the first recording of an ivorybill call, I have discovered new facts about the way ivorybills fly, and everyone will eventually have to accept these findings.

How has the 2007-2008 search season been going?

Since lucking into the hot zone in February 2006, I've been discovering just how difficult it can be to find ivorybills. It's fortunate that the good luck came early because I might have given up long ago otherwise. My last definite sighting in the Pearl was in October 2006. I had a possible sighting last week near a stand of dead pines. If the ivorybills are concentrating on such widespread food sources outside the Pearl, then it will be almost hopeless to obtain better data. I will continue to monitor the hot zone and another similar area. I want to spend more time watching from tall trees. I'm very optimistic about this approach, but it's difficult to venture deep into the swamp to those trees and then climb them before the sun gets too high.

What is it about these "hot zones" that makes them more likely for a woodpecker sighting?

Only the ivorybills know for sure, but the hot zone seems favorable since this remote area is near several waterways and the transition from the cypress zone into the hardwoods. There are a few similar areas between Old Hwy. 11 and I-10. There have been encounters near one of these areas, but it's too remote to monitor regularly without camping, which isn't permitted in the Pearl. The other area can be visited regularly, and I plan to do so. I have no idea what the ivorybills were feeding on in the hot zone. I flushed them from the ground near the bank several times but never heard any hammering sounds that I would attribute to an ivorybill. They must have been attracted to something since they remained in the area after multiple encounters. They finally seemed to move after I brought in other birders, but I had one last sighting (possible but nearly certain) in the hot zone a few weeks later. Perhaps they came back hoping the humans had left the area.

You mentioned bringing other birders along, are there other birders or scientists still looking for woodpeckers in the Pearl? How have you been received by the local birding population?

Birders and ornithologists have visited from California, Colorado, Florida, Germany, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Ohio, Ontario, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. Two local birders from Mississippi occasionally join me in the field. One of them had two sightings. The other invited me to present my findings to an Audubon chapter in Hattiesburg.

What is the conservation status of the Pearl?

During the past two years, I have seen many truckloads of timber hauled away from areas surrounding the Pearl. There has also been logging within the Pearl itself in recent years. An ornithologist who has been doing research on Swallow-tailed Kites in the Pearl speculated that a major clear-cut on the Mississippi side (which turned the area into a wasteland) may have caused the ivorybills to move into the area where Kulivan saw them in 1999. The logging took place in one of those isolated areas where ivorybills tend to seek refuge. It's important to protect not only the river basins in which ivorybills reside but also the surrounding forests where they are known to feed from historical accounts (such as Arthur Allen's 1924 account of a pair of ivorybills in Florida).

An immediate conservation threat is a live firing range that the military is planning to open in good and isolated habitat that is within 500 meters of the hot zone. There have been threats by hunters to shoot the Pearl ivorybills. I take such threats seriously, especially after two pairs of pileateds that I used to see regularly disappeared shortly after an article on the Pearl ivorybills appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune last year. It's possible that they were mistaken for ivorybills and shot.

According to an employee of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the redirecting of waterways has also caused major damage in the Pearl. He specifically mentioned large numbers of trees that were killed in the lower part of the East Pearl by salt water intrusion that resulted from this type of interference. My vision of the future of the Pearl is to restore water flow as close as possible to its natural state, protect the forests in the interior of the Pearl, and restore the surrounding forests to their natural state with species such as Longleaf Pines and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.

How much longer do you plan to search for IBWOs in the Pearl? Can you imagine a situation where you would conclude that there are in fact no more IBWO's alive in the area?

I don't want to see the ivorybill fall through the cracks as it has done repeatedly over the decades. So I will try to keep searching until the job is done. It follows from well-known facts regarding the biology of small populations that there must be a substantial number of ivorybills throughout the range of the species (or at least this must have been the case during a significant percentage of the past sixty years). It would have been impossible for small populations to have survived all those years in isolation in the Big Woods, the Choctawhatchee, and the Pearl. There are probably at least a hundred birds out there, and there must be movement between river basins. We have direct evidence that this has been happening in the form of reports from the DeSoto National Forest, which lies about halfway between the Pearl and the Pascagoula.

Although there hasn't been a sighting in the Pearl since late last year, that doesn't mean the birds aren't still here. I'm only capable of monitoring a small part of the Pearl. If the birds never return to the areas that I cover, I will never see them (except perhaps from the tall trees). A biologist who works here at Stennis saw an ivorybill in April 2002, just after the Zeiss search failed to turn up any evidence of the birds. His sighting was just across the Pearl on the Mississippi side, where I heard kents in 2000. It's possible that the Pearl ivorybills have died. It's also possible that they have moved to another part of the Pearl, an area nearby that is rich with standing dead trees, or to another river basin.

Ivorybills have been reported in the Pearl for many years. A biologist at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries had a sighting in the early 1990s. There may be several pairs in the Pearl at any given time. Birds hatch and die and move around within the Pearl and to and from other river basins. The birds that I have seen in the Pearl probably aren't the same birds that Kulivan saw. If I'm fortunate enough to have more sightings in the Pearl, it may not be the same birds that I saw last year. ΓΈ


Lori Lumley said...

I have personally seen this bird, almost six years ago, in NC. It was when I lived in the Grassy Creek/Shoals area of Pinnacle, NC. Never got a pic or video, because at the time, I didn't know that it was so special. Wasn't sure if it was male or female, but we called it Woody & I always knew when it was around, because of the "double-knock" sound it made when it was pecking.

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