Monday, July 25, 2005

Sibley Questions IBWO Evidence.

Well, this is getting really interesting now. Apparently quite a few folks felt that they should not publicly question the evidence presented by the Cornell team, but now that the dam has broken, more doubts are being raised publicly. The following story is from the New York Times:


Mystery Woodpecker Upends a Bird Lover's Life

By JAMES GORMAN
Published: July 24, 2005
HUNTSVILLE, Ala., July 23 - In the church of birds, where passions run high and prophets emerge from swamps and thickets with revelations, nothing can ruin a reputation like admitting that you have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Bobby Harrison says he has seen ivory bills.

Bobby Harrison, a large, gentle man with thinning hair and a soft Alabama drawl, knows this and can recite the casualties. Consider John V. Dennis, one of Mr. Harrison's heroes. He took the last accepted photograph of an ivory bill in Cuba in 1948. But when he testified to seeing one in the Big Thicket area of southeast Texas in 1966, he was ridiculed.

Even worse, at a 1971 meeting of ornithologists, George H. Lowery Jr., head of the Louisiana State Museum of Natural Science, presented what he was convinced were photographs of an ivory bill, taken by an acquaintance he would not name at a location he would not specify.
"Look at what happened to him," Mr. Harrison said, sitting in his office here at Oakwood College, where he teaches photography. "He was just ostracized by the ornithological community for the rest of his life."

Mr. Harrison is willing to take the risk. He has had a major part in the most recent report that the ivory bill lives and now, after a period of acceptance and celebration, some scientists and birders are questioning the strength of the evidence: a videotape of a bird and eyewitness accounts. What the critics want is an absolutely clear photograph and a bird that can be seen repeatedly by a variety of observers.

It is 17 months since the day - Feb. 27, 2004 - when he and Tim Gallagher of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology were paddling a canoe in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas, bumping into cypress trees and searching tall tupelos for some hint of an ivory bill.
They were following up on the report of Gene Sparlin, a kayaker who had seen some sort of bird but was not sure what it was. "We knew what we were looking for," Mr. Harrison said.
Then a bird appeared in the distance and he and Mr. Gallagher watched its flight, wondering what it was. "As soon as it broke over the bayou and tipped, I knew what it was," Mr. Harrison said.

When it flew over land, they tried to chase it through the swamp, running over the wet ground, carrying binoculars and notebooks.

Finally they stopped, he said, and he wept. Recalling the moment in an interview, he choked up again.

Like other birders, Mr. Harrison developed his passion early in life. He has been looking for an ivory bill since 1972, when he was 17. He is a particular species of birder; he has always had a single-minded dedication to one bird. It is no surprise that he picked the ivory bill. It was - or is - the largest American woodpecker and has long haunted the imaginations of birders because of its elegance and its disappearance.

He took a video of another ivory bill sighting, one that has not been widely released, that he has provided to the Cornell Lab. The video, played at normal speed, shows about a quarter-of-a-second glimpse of something fast flying by a tree where he had placed a decoy bird. Shown in slow motion after some technical manipulation to separate each frame, the video shows a black and white bird.

This is not what he wants. He wants to get a photograph that nobody can argue with, the kind that does not need an expert to interpret it, so that the average person can clearly see the bird.
He will be back in the swamp in Arkansas in August and this fall, and in other swamps after that. He knows he has seen the bird. "I've waited all my life for this," he said. "Still haven't got that photograph I want."

Mr. Harrison said he always called the people who had seen ivory bills "the chosen few."
"And I was one of the chosen," he said. "It's a moment I waited for most of my adult life. And it happened. Never thought it would really happen."

The sighting that day was the beginning of a major - and secret - search, by a team of experts from the Cornell Lab and other groups. It culminated last April in a public announcement and a paper by a gaggle of experts in the June 3 issue of Science. The ivory-billed woodpecker, the group reported, was alive.

Unlike reports of past sightings, this one seemed so solid that it provoked only elation, a public sigh of relief and wonder. The re-discoverers floated on the almost palpable gratitude of birders and others who treated the news as a sign of hope.

Until now.

Three scientists have a paper in the works at the Public Library of Science challenging the report in Science. No details have been released, but there are other signs of doubt.
David Allen Sibley, the prominent American birder and the author of popular field guides, said Thursday that he had concluded that in the Science paper, "the evidence they've presented falls short of proof."

Mr. Sibley said he decided this independently of the three scientists who wrote the rebuttal, although he had been in contact with them.

Kenn Kaufman, another major birding author, also said in an interview that he was not satisfied with the evidence. Although he said he believed the sighting was real, he did not think the re-discoverers had proved their case.

Mr. Harrison said that he could not comment on an unpublished paper, but that he was confident in the finding, and welcomed a scientific discussion.

"I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner," Mr. Harrison said.

Nor do the critics question his integrity or that of Mr. Gallagher or of the other authors of the Science paper.

"The people who originally announced this thoroughly believe they got an ivory-billed woodpecker," said Mark B. Robbins of the University of Kansas, one of the three scientists preparing the challenge to the Science report. "They believe one thing, we believe another. This is how science plays out, the fabric of science getting at the truth."

Except that with the ivory bill, nothing is ever business as usual. Even when it was common, the bird had a certain majesty and mystery. For the last 50 years it has been a symbol of loss, and of human failure. Most people were afraid to hope.

So the report in Science, reviewed by other researchers, with multiple sightings over the course of a year by respected observers, and a blurry videotape that was exhaustively analyzed, was greeted with almost religious fervor.

Mr. Kaufman described the initial reaction as: "The bird is back from the grave. Eureka! We're saved."

Pete Dunne, vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society and a prolific author on birds, said he was one of many who thought the ivory bill was gone for good.

"If someone had said to me, what was more likely, the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker or the Second Coming, unhesitantly I would have gone to the latter."
He is now a firm believer. "The credentials of the people who saw this are stellar," he said.

Usually, scientists and birders are skeptical. In fact, Mr. Kaufman said, "I've actually been shocked that virtually everyone has been embracing this."

He added, "I do in fact believe that there was a bird there last year, but it hasn't been proven and we could have a more honest discussion if people accept the fact that we don't have proof."

Mr. Sibley is unconvinced. At first, he, too, was elated, and went down to Arkansas for 10 days to look for the ivory bill without success. It was only when he returned, he said, that he began to think critically about the Science report. "It's really crushing to come to the conclusion that it might not be true, that there is room for some reasonable doubt."

He has been reluctant to speak publicly about his doubts, and described doubters as being treated as "heretics" in online discussions. The reason he is speaking out now, he said, is that he worried that money might be diverted from other conservation efforts.

What he said he wanted, for proof, was "redundancy. Repeated sightings by independent observers of birds really well seen."

This is what Mr. Harrison wants, more than anything. And he understands the skeptics, because he has been one. But this time, he and his colleagues are following in the long tradition of Mr. Dennis and the late Dr. Lowery. "I know the bird is there," he said.

3 comments:

Tom said...

Here's a related blog post:

http://tomnelson.blogspot.com/2005/07/ivory-billed-woodpecker-room-for.html

pt barnum said...

"Theres a sucker born every minute"

So step right up folks only a quarter to see a dancing cobra, a three-eyed frog, four bearded ladies and an old goat that speaks fluent Chinese.

But don't mind the naysayers David Sibley, Ken Kaufman, The New York Times and mw blogger. You judge for yourselves. Here's the bird. Again.
Free of charge. For a quik peek.
http://www.ivorybill.org/video.html

Anyone REALLY think thats an aberrant Pileated?

Barnum made his millions by delivering the goods.
What we need here is not doubt but better looks.
So step right up and buy your ticket.....

Anonymous said...

Its interesting that D. Sibley was initially "elated" by the evidence- enough so that he rushed to Arkansas immediately, and spent 10 days searching. (I wonder how many others joined him?). THEN, once he was back home, he reconsidered and became skeptical. Did the evidence change? No. What changed was he didn't see the bird where he expected to see it.