Monday, December 05, 2005

Report from the Field Museum Ivory-billed Woodpecker Presentation

I'm no Tom Nelson (then again, who is?), but a couple of people (not just Tom) have asked me to report on the IBWO presentation at the Field Museum on Wednesday so here goes:

Basically, there was no "new" news, and the presentation was similar to what has been reported from the other presentations.

There was a very large crowd on hand, someone said there were 600 tickets sold. I think that estimate may be a bit high, but there certainly were several hundred people there. The largest (Simpson) Theatre at the Field was nearly full. At $20/$25 a head, that's more than $12,000 from this single presentation.

This was definitely *not* your typical birding crowd. Let me say that the Nature Conservancy had some *fine* women working at the event. People were dressed very well, many wearing suits and sipping on the free wine. No whiskey or bourbon, so I just stuck with a Sprite. I got the impression that most of these people were Field Museum or Nature Conservancy donor-types. There was a decent number of birders present, but not as many as expected. I did have a very interesting conversation with a couple of birders who were discussing their idea to start an online pornography business. Maybe that's why I missed the Burrowing Owl conversation. Priorities, priorities.

I found myself standing next to Gene Sparling, who was wearing a green suit. British Steve commented that Sparling looked a bit like a Leprechaun. I wholeheartedly agree, and believe that the special powers possessed by Leprechauns could explain a lot of strange things that have happened in Arkansas with the IBWO.


Before the presentation, Dave Willard, Curator of Birds at the Field, had a bunch of specimens available for people to examine, including Pileated and Ivory-billed woodpeckers, he also brought out a number of other extinct or near-extinct species, like Carolina Parakeet and Passenger Pigeon. There has been a lot of talk about how the Arkansas observers were sure they saw IBWOs because of the huge size of the birds they saw, so I though it was interesting for Dave to compare the size of two specimens, as seen in this photo (note the encased Auk in the background!):
I know its not a great photo, but they're pretty similar in size, huh? Here's another photo that illustrates the point even better:


OK, I know what you're thinking: that can't be right. Here are two reasons why the two birds in the photo look so similar in size. First, the specimens were prepared by two different people, and the appearance of skins and stuffed birds can vary greatly depending on how they are prepared. The PIWO in the photo might have gotten a little extra stuffing from the preparer. Second, Dave stated that the Pileated pictured is a "northern" Pileated, which is much larger than the race of "southern" Pileateds that would most likely be found in Arkansas. Still, I think these photos illustrate a valid point to be made: the largest Pileateds can be nearly as large as the average Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The presentation itself was opened by John McCarter, the President of the Field Museum. Nobody here cares who he is or what he said, so I didn't even take a photo. He did read from an original Audubon journal that is in the Field's library, which was pretty cool.

Fitz was up next. His presentation was pretty straightforward, nothing that hasn't already been said. I was a bit surprised when, at the beginning of his talk, he used hypothetical terms to describe the existence of the IBWO. He used phrases like "might possibly" and "may still exist." But for the remainder of the presentation he dropped the hypothetical language. Fitz emphasized that this was a "conservation" and not a "birding" story, but of course that hasn't stopped Cornell from asking dozens of birders to help them search for a bird that they've spent millions of dollars on and have been trying to find for almost two years.

Fitz did mention that they have identified six potential nest holes, not sure if this new info or not. You'd think they might cut one of those roost holes down to check the groove marks and see if there was any DNA evidence inside...but I can't be the only person who has thought of that, can I?

Of course, he also played the Luneau video on the big screen. It does look better in person than on the computer, but not *that* much better. I think I would describe myself as a "skeptical believer." I think all of the evidence points to an IBWO living in Arkansas, but the evidence is flimsy as hell. If I was a 60% believer before the presentation, I am maybe at 63% after the presentation. One interesting thing was the total lack of emotion or movement from the Luneaus in the boat when the bird flies by. If I had thought I'd just seen an IBWO, I'd be jumping up and down and probably end up in the water. One detail that is much clearer on the blown-up video is the white on the bird's back, which I could never clearly see on the computer or even on television. It does look like the bird starts its flight from a tree, but I'm still not buying the "pixels on a tree" argument that Cornell claims shows a perched IBWO.

The sound evidence was also played, nothing new there, Fitz said they don't know for sure what the noises are but that there are clusters of them. He also talked about the "wingbeat calculation," and stated that the baseline for IBWO wingbeats was taken from a sonogram made of brief film clip of a flying IBWO that was filmed in the Singer tract in the 1930's.

Gene Sparling also spoke for a bit. He was sitting in the audience, but when Fitz introduced him, he magically appeared onstage! To be serious for just a second, I thought that Gene was by far the most credible and effective speaker of the night. His general theme was something like "I'm proof of how ordinary people can have a positive effect," and his story was much more compelling than having some TNC suit from Arkansas ask for $12 million.

Next up was Scott Simon, some TNC suit from Arkansas who asked for $12 million. Or something like that. I took this opportunity to take a bathroom break and grab some IBWO bookmarks out in the lobby.

That was pretty much it, there was no question-and-answer session. No mention, of course, of any abnormal Pileateds. A bit of a letdown, I suppose, but still a nice presentation.

Really, though, I got the feeling that the whole event was more about raising money than talking about the IBWO. I guess that's to be expected, to a point, but it also shows what is really at stake if they don't find a nest or roost hole this season in Arkansas.

Even if the IBWO does exist in Arkansas, if Cornell does not definitively document a pair or a nest hole during the upcoming field season, will Cornell's efforts be considered a failure? How can habitat be preserved if you don't even know what habitat a bird prefers? What if Elvis was only a wandering bird, and the only remaining breeding IBWOs are located miles away in Louisiana and Mississippi, on private property that needs to be protected right now? What if the money being spent in Arkansas could be better spent acquiring land in other places? That's why nailing down a definitive sighting, and a nest or roost hole, is so critically important. Tom Nelson and others have criticized Cornell's findings by using the assumption that IBWOs have not recently lived in Arkansas. I think that the whole identification debate tends to obscure an even more important issue: Assuming that the IBWO does currently exist in the southern U.S., has Cornell adopted the right strategy to find the bird and foster its existence? That is the debate that should be occurring right now.

P.S. They never caught the carjacker but they did recover a weapon in the parking garage across the street from my place.

1 comment:

Patrick Coin said...

Some comparisons of IBWO and PIWO size from the literature are on Cyberthrush's Blog, here.

By several measures (overall length, wingspan) the two species do just overlap. Apparently the IBWO is/was much heavier than the PIWO, though the data are not very extensive, apparently.