Fairbanks naturalist unsuccessful in search for ivory-billed woodpecker

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2007

FAIRBANKS - This time, it was a cormorant that got Mark Ross' hopes up.

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For the second time in four months, the Fairbanks naturalist traveled to the Lower 48 to join in the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, the thought-to-be extinct bird that has been the subject of a massive hunt by ornithologists over the past five years in the southeast United States.

Ross spent eight days searching for the bird in the Congaree Swamp National Monument in South Carolina as part of a volunteer search team for The Nature Conservancy and National Park Service.

While he saw lots of interesting snakes, birds, insects, butterflies and plant life, Ross didn't see or hear any sign of the ivory-billed woodpecker, though even if he had he wouldn't have been able to say so because of a confidentiality agreement he signed with the National Park Service.

The closest Ross came to finding an ivory bill was on day four of his search when he spotted a cormorant flying toward him from about 90 feet away. The large, dark bird turned and gave him a broadside view of its head, wings and body in good light. It was only a naked-eye view, but for a few seconds Ross thought it could possibly be an ivory bill.

"I kept thinking ... cormorant, cormorant, but I could never fully discern a cormorant," said Ross, education coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. "I immediately stopped paddling and wrote notes and sketched."

In the end, though, Ross concluded it was a cormorant.

"There was not enough brilliant white on the wings or bill," he said.

It was the second time that Ross had his hopes dashed. In January, Ross traveled to the Florida Panhandle and undertook a solo 11-day search for the ivory-billed woodpecker along the Suwannee River. During that search, the sighting of a pileated woodpecker, a smaller ivory-bill look-alike, temporarily got Ross' hopes up.

This time, he joined an organized search party in the Congaree Swamp, an old-growth forest that is considered some of the best habitat in the southeast U.S. for ivory-billed woodpeckers. The Congaree Swamp floods about 10 times a year, Ross said. When it's not flooded, as was the case when he was there, the forest is filled with sloughs that allow a person in a canoe to maneuver around in water or on land, said Ross, who used a compass and landmarks to orient himself. Ross paddled an estimated 40 miles and hiked the same distance during his search.

"I walked or paddled until it got dark and couldn't see, then I stopped to put my bivy up and when it got light I started moving again," said Ross, who spent the entire time searching by himself.

While he saw just about every kind of woodpecker except an ivory bill - hairy, downy, pileated, red-headed and red-bellied - Ross' search did produce some interesting sights and sounds for the longtime Alaskan.

The highlight was watching and listening to a flock of chimney swifts feeding on insects at dusk, he said. Chimney swifts are small, swallow-like birds that are famous for their acrobatic aerial displays while foraging for insects.

"The wind through their wings had a sound like little jets over the water," said Ross.

One of his biggest concerns going into the trip was the possibility of encountering poisonous water moccasins.

"The first person I see is this guy getting ready to go out and fish and he's snapping snake guards on that go up to his knees," said Ross, laughing.

As it turned out, Ross saw only one water moccasin. It was curled up on the bank trying to stay warm in unseasonably cold temperatures that had Ross more worried about hypothermia than snakes.

Ross saw three or four species of butterflies that he had never seen except in field guides, including a zebra swallowtail and red-spotted purples.

"That was exciting," he said.

So was seeing fireflies, or lightning bugs as Ross used to call them growing up in upstate New York.

"I saw fireflies for the first time in 27 years," he said.

There were lots of snakes, something Alaskans aren't used to seeing, since there are no snakes in Alaska. In addition to the water moccasin, Ross saw a four- to five-foot long black rat snake and a red-bellied water snake.

Feral pigs were also a common sight, said Ross.

"There were places where there was a complete acre that was rooted up and turned into a giant mudhole by pigs," he said.

At this point, Ross' theory is that if ivory-billed woodpeckers still do exist, they are likely nomadic individuals that breed on an intermittent basis. He isn't sure if he will travel south to search for the bird a third time, but he doesn't regret his two unsuccessful search efforts.

"I couldn't not go," he said. "I had to take a look for myself."

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