Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our National Woodpecker

I'm vacationing with my wife and daughter in Washington DC. Yesterday morning, as we exited the new Capitol Visitor Center and walked south toward Independence Avenue, I heard the familiar cackle of a pileated woodpecker. Tourist camera in hand, I managed to get this (cropped) photo as it flew from a massive post oak.

I then turned about 180 degrees to take this photo, just to put the scene in context.

Now, I don't know how many acres of pileated woodpecker habitat exist on the National Mall, but I've walked most of it, and it's really not that much. It's hard to imagine more than a pair or two living there. I was quite surprised to see the bird, but perhaps I shouldn't have been. The area is basically a park, and there are a lot of old deciduous trees, but it's a very urban "forest," interspersed with museums, monuments, and open spaces. Still, had I been tasked last week with driving 900 miles to obtain evidence of a pileated woodpecker in my first hour of exploring the National Mall, I'd have probably said it couldn't be done.

I suppose there's a list of the birds of the Mall, but I haven't found one. The pileated is listed as "common" in nearby Rock Creek Park, a protected area. I'm fairly certain the presence of such a conspicuous bird at the Mall is already known. But reflecting back on my unsuccessful searches for the larger ivory-billed woodpecker down in Florida's Choctawhatchee, where people I know swear they've seen ivorybills, I wonder how long it would take for a team of experts to confirm my DC pileated sighting. Probably not very long, I'll grant you. If the tables were turned and it was the pileated whose existence was in doubt, would a photo of the same quality and resolution as mine be acceptable as evidence? No. Sadly, no photos or video even as good as this exists for the ivorybill. I remain hopeful, but I'm not nearly as optimistic as I once was.


David Steen said...

Is Cornell as convinced as ever? Do you think there will ever be a point where we 'reclaim' the species has gone extinct? Would our collective credibility be damaged if this were the case?

Mark Bailey said...

I don't know how convinced Fitzpatrick and others remain, but Cornell in general appears to be backing down in a big way. I'm sure some there are embarrassed by the whole thing. For the first time, no coordinated search is planned for next year. Their website prominently displayed the ivorybill, but no more. It's hard to prove a negative, so it will be a good many years without additional evidence before extinction can be claimed with certainty, especially in light of the Cornell and Auburn claims of 2004-2006. And Kulivan in 1999. As for damaged credibility, I believe things could have been handled better, but this was not a hoax--it was action taken to give the species the benefit of the doubt. And there's still hope. Check out Bill Pulliam's blog (on my blogroll) for the latest from Tennessee. Can't wait for his next installment, but from the context so far, I suspect the tale will yield nothing tangible.

Margaret said...

This is a great post Mark. That pileated photo is amazing! Good to see that you can still enjoy nature in the big city-