Friday, May 30, 2008

Ophidiophobia, Part 2

This guy and I clearly live in different worlds. (I put out roofing tin on my land to attract snakes.) Click the image for a full-sized view.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Of Ivory-bills, Bigfoot, and Skepticism

Link to the past: my daughter Ava (then 4) with undisputed
ivory-bill eyewitness Nancy Tanner, Atlanta, March 2007

As a skeptic, I don't put much stock in extraordinary claims if the evidence is lacking, be it homeopathic medicine, acupuncture, telepathy, 9/11 conspiracies, Bigfoot, dowsing, "intelligent design" (don't even get me started on Ben Stein's movie), aroma therapy, feng shui, faked moon landings, alien autopsies, or whatever. There's a reason I have a link to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe in the short blogroll here; I never miss a podcast, and I highly recommend it for critical thinking. I don't know--maybe the ivory-billed woodpecker is my Achilles heel of skepticism, because I'm still holding out hope against what some call long odds. I acknowledge that no conclusive evidence exists to show with certainty that the species survived past the 1940s. And I know a skeptic has to be ever diligent about being seduced by something that he would really, really want to be true. For that matter, I think it would be wonderful if Bigfoot actually did exist, and I can understand (to a degree) why the people at BFRO are obsessed with proving it's "out there," but come on, guys, get real. There are no Bigfoot roadkills, bones, DNA, or uncontested photos or film/videos. There is also zero evidence that a large hominid (other than Homo sapiens) has ever existed in the Himalayas, Pacific Northwest, Florida, etc., and virtually every "Bigfoot" photo or video has been shown to be a hoax. So say what you will about David Luneau's controversial 2004 video of a putative ivory-bill, it is what it is, and it's no hoax. Unlike Bigfoot, we have plenty of specimens, and we know the ivory-bill existed within living memory. Just last year I met someone who saw five, and few will argue with her. It is far more conceivable that the ivory-bill is still hanging on in dense southern swamps than that there is a reproducing population of North American giant apes unknown to science.

Ivory-bills in Louisiana, 1935. Arthur A. Allen photo, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

The answer to the question of when the last ivory-bill died is unknowable, and you can't prove a negative, so we really can't know the species is extinct, at least not at this point. Complicating it all is the presence of another large black and white woodpecker (the pileated) that could have absorbed any number of actual ivory-bill sightings by proficient observers who may have been operating for decades under a false "ivory-bill = extinct" paradigm. "For a second there I could have sworn--naah, it had to be a pileated." If there was no pileated woodpecker, we would by now pretty well know the ivory-bill's fate. I have been closely involved in the Florida search (I blogged from it here), and I know some of the main players quite well. I have also met Gene Sparling and Bobby Harrison (who along with Tim Gallagher reported the 2004 sighting in Arkansas). I have not seen the bird, nor have I personally heard anything that I could attribute to it. But when you talk to these people who claim sightings, you can tell they are convinced. And most of these people are birders with well-honed observational skills, for what it's worth. Geoff Hill's Auburn team has also amassed considerable acoustic evidence that is strongly suggestive that ivory-bills are or were in the Choctawhatchee River swamps of Florida. But until that million dollar photo (or better yet, video) surfaces that convinces everybody, or until I see one myself, I can't count myself among the True Believers.

In a recent interview, renowned ivory-bill expert Dr. Jerry Jackson is quoted as saying, "I think it would be something short of a miracle if it is there," and, "I think that any betting person would have to say it's probably extinct."

Campephilus principalis
might indeed be extinct. And it might not. Even a skeptic can be hopeful, and I hope the ivory-bill is still with us. I intend to keep looking. Time will tell.

Six years before Cornell's 2005 ivory-bill "rediscovery" announcement, Julie Zickefoose wrote a wonderful article on her imagined encounter with the ghost bird. Well worth a read.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Exploiting Ophidiophobia

I learned today that a professional exterminator in Birmingham, Alabama is marketing a snake trap. Nothing necessarily wrong with that; I used a very different sort of trap to catch and relocate several copperheads from my yard last summer (I have a five-year old daughter who likes to run barefoot). But it's both the way this trap works and the way it's marketed that raises my hackles. It's a glue trap, which is often used for mice and typically results in a miserable death by either dehydration or suffocation. Sure, you can release the animal by drenching the glue with vegetable oil, and on this they rest their claim of "humane," but how often does this actually happen? Several animal rights groups are opposed to glue traps, and although I disagree with many of their positions, cruelty is cruelty. The website says the trap "also helps control lizards," among other things. Now, why would anybody need or want to control lizards? And what about other non-target animals, like chipmunks, toads, baby 'possums, etc.? I cringe to think of a little green anole or tree frog hopelessly gummed up in that goo. But inventor Buddy Hawkins thinks God gave him the idea, so, well, there you go.

I'm a herpetologist, and I know better and more effective ways to catch (and humanely release) snakes, like those copperheads in my yard. Using funnel box traps made from plywood and hardware cloth, we caught over 400 snakes in a recent 2-year survey of the reptiles and amphibians of Conecuh National Forest (pdf here).

Several of the snake trap website's testimonials are disturbing. Here's one:
We left for vacation and when we returned five days later the snake was caught. I have attached pictures to see if you can identify what type of snake it was.
It was a gray rat snake. Harmless and quite beneficial. Five days.

On the following "news" clip (which doubles as a commercial for the trap) the owner demonstrates the depth of his understanding of the ecological value of snakes and their role in ecosystems:
"Snakes are not totally bad for the environment."
Here's Birmingham Fox 6 News reporter Chris Montana reporting from upscale Mountain Brook where people are not as accustomed to yard snakes as some of us are:

This was the line that almost made me scream:
“Not that you would want to, but with the proper supervision, you can actually humanely release a snake or whatever you catch...”
Not that I would want to? The underlying message is that it's OK to let the nasty thing suffer until good and dead. I'm also left wondering what sort of "supervision" Mr. Montana thinks a grown person would actually need to release a snake. Cool name, though, Chris Montana.

It would be nice if there had been some fair and balanced discussion of reptile conservation, but of course local TV stations know that's not what the public wants to hear.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Longleaf and Mountain Laurel

When you see longleaf pine and mountain laurel together like this, it's typically where fire suppression has allowed the mountain laurel to invade upslope out of the ravines where it normally would be confined by natural fires backing down off the ridges. This is in the Red Hills of northern Monroe County, Alabama, and near sites for the Red Hills azalea and Red Hills salamander.

Scarlet Tanager

This gorgeous male Scarlet Tanager had just flown across the Gulf of Mexico when I photographed it on 19 April at Shell Mound Park on Dauphin Island. It's unusual to get such a good view of this bird of the eastern interior forest, but the spring migration offers such opportunities along the coast.

Snowy Plover

Snowy Plover at nest, west end of Dauphin Island, Alabama, 19 April 2008. Very few nests are known from Alabama for this rare species that needs undisturbed beaches. The day before, someone had walked within inches of this nest, nearly stepping on the camouflaged eggs. Thanks to Dr. Bill Summerour for leading me and Eric Soehren to this spot.

Monday, May 5, 2008


This amazing video was made by a friend, Jeff Humphries, a great herpetologist and conservationist. I've never seen a hellbender in Alabama, where most of their free-flowing stream habitat has been impounded along the Tennessee Valley, but I have seen them in Tennessee and north Georgia. Check out Jeff's hellbender website.

Good Luck, Class of '08...

...looks like you'll need it.

And Montevallo is a college town.

Red Hills Azalea

Rhododendron colemanii
Conecuh County, Alabama.
Photo by Ron Miller.

Today Dr. Alvin Diamond at Troy University shared with me a reprint from the current issue of the Journal of the American Rhododendron Society with a paper by W. Zhou, T. Gibbons, L. Goetsch, B. Hall, T. Ranney, and R. Miller describing a new deciduous azalea, Rhododendron colemanii, from the Coastal Plain of Alabama and Georgia. As many years as I've been fooling with Red Hills salamanders (Phaeognathus hubrichti) in the steep ravines of Monroe and Conecuh counties in Alabama, I'm pretty sure I've seen this gorgeous May-flowering species, but like others I probably mistook it for the more widespread (but April-flowering) R. alabamense. Alvin recognized its uniqueness some time back, and was very instrumental in the authors' verifying this exciting find. The Red Hills region of Alabama is poorly known biologically, yet it is geologically unique and supports species found no place else. The Red Hills salamander was described in 1961 as the sole member of its genus, and now 37 years later this new rhododendron is documented from the exact same habitat. I'm told the disjunct Red Hills population of what we've been calling the seal salamander (Desmognathus monticola) is almost certainly distinct from D. monticola, and that's being investigated. Makes you wonder what else is out there under our noses.

Roads are Gettin' Slippy in Wiggins Mississippi

It rained in south Mississippi yesterday, and the dirt roads are still muddy. And Wiggins is where I am at this moment, 200 miles from home near Wing Alabama, and this is the first entry for a blog I envision as being about my various adventures and observations exploring the backwoods and traveling the back roads of Alabama, Mississippi, the Florida Panhandle, and such. This thing will evolve with time, assuming it gets traction. I don't expect to pick up many readers beyond immediate family and friends (if that), but we'll see where it goes.

I'm here at the De Soto National Forest most of the week to wrap up a survey begun last summer for the gopher tortoise, a federally protected species of some note. More on gophers later...