Chasing the Ivory-Bill

Day 1: The Journey Begins

Armed with a special invention that mimics the drumming of an Ivory-bill, the team boards a plane for Cuba.

January 23, 2016: Toronto, Canada — It was an unseasonably mild day as I drove from my home near Ithaca, New York, this morning and crossed the border into Canada. While the East Coast was getting hammered by the worst snowstorm of the year, we had clear skies and sunshine. Now I’m sitting at the Toronto airport with Dutch ornithologist Martjan Lammertink and journalist Mac McClelland, waiting to board a plane to Cuba. We’ll be spending the next two weeks chasing the alluring shadow of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker—a species that may or may not still exist there. People often ask me why I’m so obsessed with the Ivory-bill. It’s a fair question. I’ve spent countless hours searching for them over the years. Of course, the beauty and elegance of the bird is attractive to me, but there’s so much more. Perhaps it’s the bird’s air of mystery—the fact that it seems always to be flying just under the radar, with a sighting here, a sighting there. I feel an insatiable need to track these birds every chance I get to try to determine whether any might still live.

Yesterday, Martjan and I spent the day at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where I work and where he is a research associate. We met with Lab director John Fitzpatrick, who shared some of his own experiences in Cuba and encouraged us in our quest. We also looked at some Ivory-bill specimens in the Cornell collection, which is always a bittersweet experience. I took several pictures of a century-old taxidermied pair, stuck to the side of an upright log, and felt sad. But later, for our sendoff, we had dinner with my wife and daughter at a local restaurant that features a huge metal sculpture of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker flying overhead.

Cuba is a place that looms large in the heart of any Ivory-billed Woodpecker searcher. It was here that John Dennis (a budding ornithologist who would go on to become a popular bird author) and Davis Crompton (an avid birder) found and photographed a nesting pair of these birds in 1948—a time when many people had already given them up for extinct. (They found the birds in a ruined pine forest in the mountains, mostly cutover already—probably the last place they expected to see any, but a lumberman had insisted he’d seen them there.) And it was also here that in 1956 George and Nancy Lamb—recent college graduates at the time—came to study Ivory-bills on a grant from the Pan-American Section of the International Committee for Bird Preservation. (A few minutes ago I actually received an email from the Lambs, now in their 80s, saying: “That should be a great adventure! Good luck and please let us know what you find. Thanks for keeping us in the loop, George & Nancy.”) The two spent several months in eastern Cuba, in the same area we will be traveling, and located six pairs. In the paper George Lamb published the following year, he suggested conservation measures to the major landowners in the area (Bethlehem Cuba Iron Mines Company and Freeport Sulphur) that should be taken to preserve the birds’ habitat. And the companies seemed to be amenable to the measures.

But in January 1959, the Cuban revolutionaries, who had been fighting government forces for several years, finally overthrew the Batista Regime and took over Cuba, and very little news of the birds came out of the country—that is, until 1986, when Lester Short of the American Museum of Natural History and his colleagues announced seeing Ivory-bills in the mountains of eastern Cuba. It was a huge story, and so hopeful. Perhaps the birds could be saved. But then the trail went cold. The last sighting in Cuba was in 1987.

My fellow searcher Martjan and I go way back. We scoured the swamps of the American South a dozen years ago looking for Ivory-bills, and later for Imperial Woodpeckers (the Ivory-bill’s closest cousin) in the rugged high country of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. And I also spent a couple of weeks last October with Martjan at his Helmeted Woodpecker study site in the Atlantic Forest of northern Argentina. We are both obsessed with rare, spectacularly beautiful woodpeckers.

This is my first visit to Cuba. Martjan has already made two intensive Ivory-billed Woodpecker searches in 1991 and ’93 but didn’t find any of the birds. I’m glad to be going with him, since he knows the area well and has many Cuban friends. We’ll be traveling though the countryside, interviewing people in remote villages who remember this species, and perhaps might have seen one in recent years. And we’ll be exploring likely-looking habitat—which should be in much better shape than it was nearly 30 years ago when the Cuban government shut down logging in the area of the sightings. It is now fully protected and part of Humboldt National Park.

The double knocker can mimic the sound an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would make on a pine tree. Photo: Greg Kahn

Our hopes for finding the woodpecker are buoyed by a special piece of equipment—never previously used in Cuba—that is stowed in my luggage. It’s a double-knock box that mimics the distinctive Bam-bam drumming of Ivory-bills and other Campephilus woodpeckers. The device, designed by Martjan, consists of a wooden box that we lash to a tree to act as a resonator and two broomstick-sized dowels with a pivot bolt in the middle. You strike the box with the first dowel, and the second one pivots around, hitting the box a few milliseconds later, sounding exactly like the sound made by an Ivory-bill. Martjan has tried this technique successfully with Pale-billed Woodpeckers, Magellanic Woodpeckers, and Robust Woodpeckers (Ivory-bill relatives) in Latin America and gotten the birds to fly in and do double-knock drums back at him. We’re hoping it will make all the difference if any Ivory-bills are present near us.

Follow my daily blog as the search for the Ivory-Bill unfolds.

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