Day 12: A Screaming Absence

After stumbling upon ideal Ivory-bill habitat, the birds' silence weighs heavily on the group.

February 3, 2016, near Cayo Probado, Humboldt National Park, Cuba—Today Martjan measured and photographed a tree cavity Vladimir found several weeks ago. He had to design his own measuring device, cutting a long, thin branch, stripping nine centimeters of bark from its end, and having Vladimir climb up an adjacent tree and hold the branch in front of the entrance hole, using the stripped-off end of the branch to see how wide the hole is. It was almost certainly an Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest or roost cavity—no other bird in the area would make a cavity of that size and shape. But it was very old and had several cracks. It might even have been dug by the Ivory-bills seen by the Lester Short expedition—the tree is less than 3 kilometers from the 1986 sighting area and could easily be within their territory. But the trail had gone cold.

This is yet another bad sign for us. In the past few days, we’ve come across a number of dead and dying pine trees, some infested with beetle grubs, and yet we have not seen any signs of foraging by Ivory-bills—none of the characteristic bark stripping. “This screams of the absence of Ivory-bills in these woods,” said Martjan earlier as we gazed at a dead pine with its bark still intact. It was a dramatic statement but not an exaggeration. If Ivory-billed Woodpeckers still exist here, wouldn’t these trees attract them from miles around? It’s a sobering thought and one I haven’t been able to keep out of my mind. Although these mountains are rugged, with deep valleys and steep hillsides, they do not cover a huge area, and Ivory-bills are known to travel a fair distance to forage. Why aren’t they taking advantage of these trees?

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