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Ivory-billed Woodpecker Spotted in Florida Swamp

AUBURN, Alabama, September 26, 2006 (ENS) - Ornithologists have spotted the very rare ivory-billed woodpecker in a remote swamp forest in northeastern Florida, but have failed to capture a picture of the large woodpecker, previously thought to have become extinct in the United States more than half a century ago. An international research team announced the discovery on Tuesday, giving hope to conservationists that a breeding population of the elusive bird still exists.

Uncommon, but once widespread across the mature, swampy hardwood forests of the southeastern United States, the ivory-billed woodpecker vanished after the extensive logging of region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 20-inch bird, roughly the size of the American crow, is the largest woodpecker in the United States -- and the world's third largest woodpecker.

Hope was renewed in 2005 when ornithologists from Cornell University announced they had spotted the bird in eastern Arkansas, although the recordings and inconclusive video failed to convince all bird experts. Prior to those sightings, there had not been a confirmed sighting of the bird in the United States since 1944. The last sighting in Cuba, the only other place the species was known to exist, occurred in 1988.

The research team that spotted the bird in Florida acknowledged that visual confirmation is ultimately needed to fully prove the species still exists. woodpeckerpair

The dramatic appearance of the large woodpecker has prompted the name "Lord God Bird." This painting depicts a male ivorybill on the right, a female on the left. (Painting by Mark Bowers courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service)
"The only evidence that would constitute irrefutable proof is a clear photograph or video of an ivory-billed Woodpecker, and such an image has to date eluded us," said Geoff Hill, an Auburn University ornithologist who led the research team.

Hill said the first spotting was a fluke - he and two of his research assistants were on kayak expedition in swamp forest on the Choctawhatchee River in the Florida panhandle.

"It was just to be a weekend outing looking for potential habitat," said Hill. "We really never dreamed we'd actually find an ivorybill."

Hill and his assistants returned the following weekend and got a clear view of a female ivorybill, which has distinct plumage, including a white trailing edge on the upper wing, white stripes down the back and an all black crest.

The Auburn University ornithologist then organized a research team, including acoustic experts from the University of Windsor in Canada, to search for the bird and to set up seven listening stations.

The researchers spent 16 months collecting data in swamp forest and recorded 14 sightings of the large woodpecker between May 2005 and May 2006. On two occasions, two birds were seen together.

After exhaustive analysis of 11,400 hours of remotely recorded swamp sounds, researchers confirmed more than 300 sounds matching historical recordings and descriptions of the bird.

In addition, the researchers found 20 nesting cavities in the appropriate size range for ivorybills, and identified trees bearing the distinctive feeding marks of the long-sought woodpecker.

"Among the promising evidence are recordings of 'kent' vocalizations apparently being given by two birds in response to one another, and double raps recorded in conjunction with vocalizations," said Jerome Jackson, an ornithologist and professor of biology at Florida Gulf Coast University. "The researchers have presented this evidence with an appropriate note of caution, but let's keep the hope alive that Hill and his colleagues may have quietly found an ivorybill Shangri-la along the Choctawhatchee."

Florida state wildlife officials said they would aid the search for the elusive bird and would try and secure additional funding and protection for the area if the species is confirmed.

"There is not enough evidence to confirm the birds' presence yet but the indications are promising," said Ken Haddad, executive director of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We will work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Auburn University and the Northwest Florida Water Management District to see if we can confirm the reports."

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