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Choctawhatchee River September 3-9, 2006
Ivory-billed Woodpecker search

I have put this web page together together to show what the area along the Choctawhatchee River looks like.  Hopefully this will let other birders who are interested see what they might expect if they visit this beautiful area.   I will not give any exact locations of where I searched in order to protect the study area set up by the Auburn University crew.  Go to their website to see what areas that they recommend for searching: 
http://www.auburn.edu/academic/science_math/cosam/departments/biology/faculty/webpages/hill/ivorybill/Advice.html

I spent several days preparing for this search for the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the Choctawhatchee River area.  A friend e-mailed me about wanting to know if I could keep quiet about recent information of possible multiple birds in the area of the Choctawhatchee River.  He had good information about fairly specific areas to search, I was able to gather good maps for the area.  I also purchased a GPS unit which is a very valuable tool to search this area.  A compass will work as well but I would feel better with a GPS unit or even better both in case the GPS fails.  Most of the Choctawhatchee River area is owned and managed by the Northwest Florida Water Management District:  http://www.nwfwmd.state.fl.us/lands/lands.htm they list 57,299 acres for the Choctawhatchee River area that they own.  I believe there is quite a bit more land owned by this non profit organization http://www.nokuse.org/ they list 53,000 more acres which I believe is on the west of the Choctawhatchee River.  I am sure there are many private holdings as well.

I left South Florida on Sunday September 3rd with a small boat in tow to travel to the Orlando Airport to pick up my friend.  From Orlando we made decent time and arrived in the Tallahassee area by about 10:00 p.m. that night.  We found an inexpensive motel for the night and left early the following morning.  We arrived at a boat launch along the Choctawhatchee river around 10:00 a.m., we launched the boat and started in the direction of the search area.  We were not able to go far because the boat's prop decided to go bad, I had just used the boat a week or so prior and it worked well.  I was surprised that it had gone bad on us.  We drove to Panama City in hopes of getting a new prop only to find that most stores were closed due to Labor day.  We asked around and found out a couple of places that should have them the following day.  We were not too excited about this but you have to do what you have to do.  We again spent the night in an inexpensive motel in Panama City to wait until the next day.  The following morning we went to the one location that should have had the prop only to find out that they did not have any in stock.  We asked about another place that should have them but they really did not want to send us to their competitor which we thought was odd.  We called the other location and were happy to find that they had a brand new one in stock for about $70.00.  We hurried over to the other boat place and bought the prop, I replaced it right in the parking lot, we hurried on our way back to the Choctawhatchee.  I don't remember the exact time that we arrived but it was around 9:30 a.m. or 10:00 a.m., we launched the boat again and found that it worked perfect.  We were able to go as fast as 17 knots which is not bad for a small motor.  We arrived at the first search area and tied the boat to a root or branch of a tree.  I walked in a north east direction while my friend walked in a south east direction, we met back at the boat a few hours later.  I saw decent habitat in this first area but not as good as I thought it should be.  I heard a few woodpeckers, mostly Pileated, but did not hear or see any Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.  There was some nice Water Tupelo trees and some Bald Cypress with other mixed forest around these areas with several species of oak and some Spruce Pine.

View of the Choctawhatchee River


Another view here.


A large Spruce Pine leaning over the Choctawhatchee.


We also checked another area on the opposite side of the river from our first search area.  This area was much better than the first area with lots of mature trees.  The photo below shows some of the forest that is wet most of the time.

A Bald Cypress on the left and a large Water Tupelo on the right.


There are other large areas of forest that are wet and have the Choctawhatchee River running right though it at certain times of the year.  We were able to walk all of the areas that we searched with knee high boots, there were hardly any areas that we would have needed hip waders.  We could tell that the water level was much lower than normal and that we probably could not walk most of this area when the water level is much higher.

I don't remember what kind of tree this was but it was large!


Here is another photo showing a larger view of the same tree.


It is hard to see from the photos just how big some of these trees are, some are really large!

This picture shows the boat that we used, it worked perfect after fixing the prop.

We may or may not have heard one "kent" type call, we only heard it once.  It sounds to me like the same calls on Dan Mennill's website:  http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/biology/dmennill/IBWO/IBWOindex.php  It had the same tone quality to my ear, we heard it while drifting the river.  It is possible the sound was made by something else, who knows.  We did not hear any double knocks or hear any other calls during the visit.  We are sure that it was a time of year thing when most birds are fairly quite.  Mosquitoes were very numerous and it was very hot and humid, not very pleasant for searching.  At night it cooled down enough to use a light blanket while camping.

A black Lubber Grasshoper first time I have seen one of these.



Can you see the moth on the tree below?  I believe the tree is a very large Water Hickory.

Here is a closer view of the moth, I don't know what kind it was, underwing or sphinx?


Hummingbird moths were not that uncommon and several were seen.


Hornet nest, one of many.  The hornets looked black in color.


Another Hornet nest.


Gulf Coast Box Turtle, there were lots of mosquitoes flying around its head and mine!


Spider Lilly.


This was a very large Wild Boar that was not happy about my presence, I was thankful to be on the other side of a small creek.  It snorted the whole time that I was looking at it, there were several others that I heard in back of this one.


We saw several White-tailed Deer in the area.


The Choctawhatchee River has lots of fallen timber all along it course, we had to navigate through a few areas very carefully.  This was a little tricky because you have to deal with the strong current as well.


An American Alligator, we only saw a few the whole time we were there.  They were pretty shy, not like the ones that I encounter in the Everglades which will allow close approach.


A family of Raccoons looking for food.


Red-spotted Purple with a Question Mark to the right with its wings folded.


We had quite a few good birds, many of them I am sure were local breeders.  We had four species of woodpecker, I have listed them in order of abundance.

Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker.  We did not see or hear any Northern Flickers which we thought was odd.  Some of the better birds seen were:  Swainson's Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler and Hooded Warbler.  We also had many Acadian Flycatchers, calling and seen in many places.  Summer Tanager, Great-crested Flycatcher, Swainson's Thrush, Veery were some of the other birds seen.  Barred Owls serenaded us each night in our camp which was nice, they are very abundant here.  I also heard thrushes calling just before dawn, most of what I heard were Swainson's Thrushes.

I had this immature Red-shouldred Hawk perched in the forest, these are much darker in color than the ones here in South Florida.  This bird was very wary and kept an eye on me finally flying away as I tried to get more video.


Many of the photos are video grabs, sorry about the poor image quality.  I was able to get video of this Swainson's Warbler below, I bet they are a common breeder along the river.


Do I think that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers exist here in this part of Florida?  I think that the habitat is very, very nice and I really think that it is possible.  Those that have seen the bird are excellent birders and I believe that they have seen one or more.  I was hoping to see one and to try and get proof, I failed at both.  I carried my video camera every where that I hiked and had it next to me in the boat.  If we had seen or heard something I was ready to use the camera but we did not have any luck.  I was also equipped with a digital camera with a 400mm lens.  I also had a digital recorder with a shotgun mic to record any sounds.  I don't think we ever turned it on because we did not hear anything.  I think the best way to get proof will be to use a video camera, it is much faster to get video than a still picture.  The video camera can record sound very well which is a plus.  In early September the forest canopy was very thick, which made lighting conditions in the forest very bad for any kind of photos.  Even video would be hard if the bird has a lot of back lighting.  The winter time would be so much better with hardly any leaves on the trees.

The habitat is very much like what Jim Tanner described in his book The Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Not all the areas that we saw were good but many of them were.


Another shot of mature woods.


What looks like two seperate tree trunks is in fact one large trunk, split over the years from decay or fire.  This was a very large tree at one time, it was either a Bald Cypress or Water Tupelo. 



Some interesting cavities that were probably made by Pileated Woodpeckers although the holes were fairly large.


This hole seemed to have more of the correct shape for an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, could it be?


Interesting bark scaling on a huge dead Spruce Pine, this was made by a woodpecker but what kind?


Some more scaling on the same tree, higher up than the other picture.


Here is the last picture of scaling on the same tree about half way up.  The tree is about 100 feet tall, you can see in this photo pine cones still attached.  I guess the tree died a year or two ago?  Perhaps more?



From what we were able to see in the 5-days tromping through the woods, I think that the habitat is right for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.  In fact from what I have been told the area is better than all of the areas in Arkansas!  There is very nice forest with many species of trees, I list some of the ones below that I could I.D.

Sweet Gum, Water Hickory, Ash, Spruce Pine, Overcup oak and many other species, Red Maple, American Sycamore, Southern Magnolia, Sweetbay, Elm, Water Tupelo and Bald Cypress.  I am sure there are many more trees present, if Ivory-billed Woodpeckers do exist here than a complete survey should be done.

Lets hope that this is the real deal, if it is, than other areas in the Florida panhandle should also be searched.  As much private, state, county, city and federal funding should be used to buy as much land as possible to continue to protect the birds.  I think that the evidence that Geoff Hill and company have come up with, is the best evidence yet in the last 60-years!  The bottom line though is that there has to be good video, photo or DNA from a feather to prove that the birds really do exist.  I sure hope that they are able to get it this season, it won't look too good if they don't. 
 

 

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