Thursday, November 26, 2015

Conclusion - Winter of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker

     It landed on the snag. I was, I must admit, too awestruck to even think about my camera. It was huge. The description fit. It hitched it's neck, and turned it, looking behind. I was later told by one expert on that bird that even an Ivory Billed Woodpecker probably could not do that. But then, he had never seen a living Ivory Billed Woodpecker, and this bird did that. As it walked out a limb, certain distinguishing markings were very clear to me. Unfortunately, my forgotten camera sat idle in my hands, and I just gawked.

     A piliated woodpecker has a white line running from it's head to it's wing, disappearing under its wing when the wings are folded, as this one was. The Ivory Billed Woodpecker's white line goes up onto the wing, and down the length of it.

     This bird had that white line, the full length of the wing.

     That marking was very clear to me. The first rays of the morning sun spotlighted the bird as he reached the end of the limb. My camera suddenly came awake, and I shot again and again. The bird flew.

      Afterwords, I went over what I saw and what I did not see in my mind carefully. The angle of my view was pretty steep.  I had no memory of seeing the white shield on the back. I felt, at some point, though, I could have seen that. But, it was not in my memory afterwords.

     I heard the "Bam, bam, bam, -- bam!" drumming sound, totally different from the Pileated wood Pecker, three more times that morning. Then it was time to go home. Deer season started up again the next day, and there would be hunters swarming  this area, so I stayed away a few days.
     I knew I would need all the help a great lab could give me with those pictures. From our professional days, I knew just the lab. I instructed them to "push" the film two stops. It was still very early in the morning for a film camera.  I had no digital camera at that time. It was at about the time, 2006, when digital was beginning to take over, film was about to become a thing of the past.

      It took several days, during which I knew I had the first modern day photo of an Ivory Billed Woodpecker. I was torn. Should I make it public, and risk an influx of people running the birds off?  Or should I keep their secret, hopefully allowing them to make some sort of comeback in that very isolated place?  The habitat was great. The Ouachita Mountains arose out of that river, with thousands of acres of pine timber. Down river about a mile, there was a very large plot of beetle killed pines, very attractive to large woodpeckers. They simply strip the dead bark off the tree, and eat the beetles underneath. Hundreds of acres.

     When the pictures arrived, I had the best books I could find in hand, showing all the markings. But, after studying the best photo, I knew it would not hold up. The bird had turned toward me, and the wing markings were indistinct. The best photo was not totally sharp.

     I was still torn. I knew what I knew, but I had no real evidence. I decided to contact the man who was, it seemed, considered to be the world's expert on that bird. I discussed my situation several times with him, and  I sent him my picture. After studying it, he said he needed a video. One questionable photo was not enough.

     While I knew I was lacking in proof, I did see that bird well, and there was not a bit of doubt in my mind. I bought a good video camera, and went to work. I set up several blinds, some with bait stations. About fifteen mornings that winter, I left home at  two AM, arriving in the river bottoms at daylight. But, to make a long story short, I never heard that particular drumming sound again, though I saw many Pileated Woodpeckers, and  never another sighting.

      I downloaded  the actual sounds of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker,  made over half a century ago, and amplified and broadcast them out. The Blue Jays went crazy. Their sound is similar. I videoed several birds responding to that call, but they all turned out to be a dead end. One particular bird that responded seemed to sound a little different. I only saw it through my video viewfinder, and my video only showed a few flaps of its wings before it disappeared over the tree tops. Since my only view was through the video view finder, I could tell little about the real size of the bird. I could not stop the action at a point where I could see markings that would tell me something. I  called the expert. I asked him, "If I send you a video I have, will you call me back and give me an opinion?"

      He replied, "I'd be glad to, Pat." I sent it. A few hours later, I managed to stop the video at a critical point. Markings showed. I knew it was not what I had hoped. I waited to see if he was a man of his word. He never replied. Since he was not a man of his word, even to give me a negative answer, that told me a lot about this expert. That was our last communication.

 What I saw, and heard, that one morning in November just seemed to be there no longer.
     The last morning I spent looking for the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, the Corps of Engineers did a control burn on my plot, and the fire ran me out. My blinds and bait stations were destroyed. I knew by now the Corps of Engineers were curious about what I was doing there so often, and a local farmer was also, seeing me drive by his house so often. He sent word to me, "If there are Ivory Billed Woodpeckers down there, I'll shoot every one of them." I sent word back, "If you can find one down there, you're a better man than I am." I decided it was time to drop this search, and let that totally isolated spot become isolated again.

     I knew I could never convience anybody else with my lack of evidence. But I know what I saw, that morning in November, 2006. And to my dying day, I will always remain convienced that the Ivory Bill Woodpecker was alive and well in the Fourche River bottoms in 2006. Their secret is safe. Maybe, that's as it should be. That was one difficult decision I didn't have to make. Making such a claim as I have made here, without proof, makes one seem to be somewhat of a kook, so I have since been hesitant to talk about this, and I have told few people. I felt they may have raised young that year in that hollow tree I saw the one in. But if so, they have moved on. I pray they are making some sort of a comeback in those thousands of acres of the Ouachita National forest near by. I won't bother them again. Six years have passed. I decided to tell it here.

 The world needs to know.

     Please do not ask for details about the location. I will not tell. That area is totally isolated, with no good reason for people to come in, except to deer hunt. It needs to stay that way.   THE END

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