Another chance

another chance 1

A twig falls from a tree and lands on my hat — I feel a gentle tap, much too light for an acorn. I take the hat off and watch as the twig arches and inches forward: an inchworm, the larva of a geometer moth.

another chance 2

It crosses the machine-stitched message on the front of the cap — another chance — and the lower wing of the ivory-billed woodpecker. I bought the cap last November on a visit to Brinkley, Arkansas (see here and here) and have worn it regularly ever since. The colors have faded quite a bit. The dot of yellow thread in the woodpecker’s eye has become virtually invisible, and its black-and-white suit looks ready for a trip to the cleaners. Unfortunately, it’s hard to wash a ball cap without shrinking it or warping the brim.

another chance 3

I am among those who continue to believe in the ivorybill’s rediscovery, because I believe in Occam’s Razor, that rule of logic which asserts that the simplest explanation that accounts for every case is most likely to be correct. The many small pieces of evidence and testimony, though hardly unassailable by themselves, do add up, inch by inch. Skepticism and cynicism risk nothing, but they also offer few rewards beyond the sense of membership in an elite club of fellow Brights.

another chance 4

Geometer means “earth-measurer.” The inchworm — also known as a spanworm or looper — takes the earth’s measure with its body, one prostration at a time. This isn’t a progress, but a pilgrimage, with no goal other than to be a caterpillar: it very likely has no notion that any transformation lies ahead. It reaches the far side of my hat and stretches out into space. I flick it onto the ground and watch to make sure that its course takes it away from the tractor tires. The next morning, there’s news of another ivorybill discovery, this time in the Florida panhandle.

another chance 5

Our observations, acoustic encounters, audio recordings, measurements of cavities, and analysis of feeding sign provide evidence that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers may live along the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle. In a 1-year period from 21 May 2005 to 19 May 2006, members of our search team saw birds that we identified as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers 14 times. We heard sounds matching Ivory-billed Woodpecker kent calls and double knocks, and our listening stations recorded numerous putative kent calls and double knocks, including both sounds at the same recorder on the same day. At the location of our sightings and sound detections, we documented trees with very large cavities with dimensions exceeding the published range for Pileated Woodpecker cavities and exceeding sizes of cavities measured in a nearby area where Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are known not to occur. Also at this same location, and sometimes on the very trees with large cavities, we observed bark scaling unlike that seen in other southern bottomland forests. Any one of our lines of evidence could be dismissed as coincidental or a mistake, but together, these observations, collected by experienced ornithologists, suggest that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers may be present in the Florida panhandle. The persistence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers will be established definitively only by a clear photograph or video image, a fresh feather, or perhaps genetic analysis of material from a nest or roost cavity, but the evidence presented here warrants an expanded search and protection of this bottomland forest habitat.

It seems we may still have another chance to get it right.
__________

For more on the Florida panhandle ivorybills, see the evidence presented by the authors of the new report at their respective websites: Geoffrey Hill and Daniel Mennill.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

5 Comments


  1. A beautiful piece. I hadn’t heard about this Panhandle series of observations, but will now want to look for a lot more …

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  2. Thanks. Yeah, I’m anxious to check out the bird blogosphere and see what the skeptics are saying.

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  3. “It seems we may still have another chance to get it right.”

    Aimed at one such as myself who has not a thing to help this phantom bird’s plight, the idea that I might do anything constructive at all seems overly generous. I have been very busy infact ignoring Mr. Ivory Bill and carrying on blindly and as usual. On a certain day last month, while thinking over its failure to fly by a spotter any time recently I might have even said “Who need’s him”!

    Have been picking at “Rising Tide”, an account of the great flood of 1927. It has a very thourough acount of the development of the Mississippi flood plain. I’m just getting to the clearing of the Yazoo Delta, cotton, and the blues. It’s oh so recently gone, that great forest. We missed it by a hair, but only because our former selves were there. After the Civil War the Yazoo delta fell in to the hands of the state through property tax defaults. Mississippi sold a track of nearly eight hundred-thousand acres to the Illinois Central which was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, (known to you perhaps “yellow dog” of blues songs) became by far that railway’s most profitable line. Other capitolists such as J. P. Morgan and his railroad bought other vast tracts, slavery was more or less re-instated.

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  4. Sounds like a good book. I’ve gotten some of that history through other books – “the most southern place on earth,” someone once called it.

    Aimed at one such as myself who has not a thing to help this phantom bird’s plight, the idea that I might do anything constructive at all seems overly generous.

    A well-written letter to the editor once and a while in support of conservation measures can really have an impact. Letter-writing and phone calls to congresscritters, especially as part of well-coordinated aampaigns, can be effective, too. Over time, a drumbeat of public pressure on the need to conserve land and water for wildlife can have a great impact. In Arkansas, conservation has become (or remained) a thoroughly bi-partisan issue, from what I understand. That’s because people who love the outdoors have found ways to make their voices heard. Had a bridge been built across the Mississippi River at Rosedale as the Yazoo cotton growers wanted, the ability of the White River NWR to support a source population of ivorybills would have been greatly diminished.

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  5. I thought of you when I heard the news about the ivory billed. And I love that inchworm! (I like the tiny green ones better, but great capture on your hat!)

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