Ivorybill update: hearing IS believing!

My newspaperman friend and fellow blogger Alan forwarded me this story from today’s Science Times (the only part of the New York Times that’s too important to miss). Readers of my review of Tim Gallagher’s book will remember that I couldn’t understand why the skeptics weren’t convinced by the audio recordings. Now, it seems, a new set of audio recordings from the White River National Wildlife Refuge has persuaded two out of the three scientists who had authored a paper questioning the rediscovery to withdraw their objections. (The third is out of the country and hasn’t had the opportunity to hear the new tapes yet.)

Even more exciting is the fact that these newly released recordings clearly feature a pair of ivorybills. The immense White River NWR appears to harbor a breeding population of ivorybills, just as Gallagher and his friend Bobby Harrison always suspected.

“We felt all along that the White River was probably the core of the bird’s habitat and it was dispersing out,” said Sam Hamilton, the Southeast regional director for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and chairman of a panel overseeing the drafting of a recovery plan for the bird.

The scientific consensus on the strength of the sound recordings from that region was “very, very exciting,” Mr. Hamilton said. “It gives you chill bumps to think about that vast bottomland hardwood being certainly home to more than one bird.”

This is a real vindication for the Cornell Lab and for the audio-birding techniques that its specialists have pioneered. I imagine they’ll have their hands full now with requests to help set up recording stations in every likely forest from the Carolinas to east Texas.

Incidentally, according to my brother Mark, who teaches at Delta State University right across the Mississippi from the White River NWR, birders should not feel that they should stay away in order to protect the woodpeckers. The swamps where the ivorybills hang out are pretty much impenetrable anyway, but just to be on the safe side, the Fish and Wildlife Service has set up limited-access reserves and has designated areas just outside their boundaries where birders might have a chance of seeing or hearing an ivorybill. (Recall that several sightings were made right from Interstate 40.) And the friendly folks in rural Arkansas can use your tourist dollars. They have generally gone along with the state’s decision to support large-scale conservation efforts and to push hunting, fishing and ecotourism to “the Natural State,” so it’s only appropriate that we show our gratitude by paying them a visit. I’m planning to go down in November.

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