Every Picture Tells a Story . . . Certainty and Doubt

That’s me on October 27, 2021 at a little before 8 AM. I had just seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The essence of this post and other sightings from the area, dating back to 2015, are posted on the National Aviary’s Notes From the Field page. Be sure to check it out.

Though I saw no field marks, I was (and still am) sure, and the look on my face reveals that certainty. This was a life-changing moment.

Here are my brief voice recorded notes about the sighting (in bold and italics) with some commentary (in italics) added the next morning.

7:54 AM stakeout at tree number one, Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting, bird flying at canopy height east to west. (This was an excited error, compass showed direction was wsw to ene.) Silhouette only, long neck and tail projections, rapid flight, and one clear wing tuck noted.*

Before recording the above I had yelled “Ivorybill”! Not ‘what was that’? Or ‘did you see that’? Or even ‘I think I saw one’. It was an expression of shock and certainty.

The sighting lasted perhaps 3 seconds. Skies were overcast, and no field marks were noted on a couple of pileateds that flew by. The bird I saw did not remotely resemble a PIWO in profile, flight style, or speed.

My first impression when the bird entered my field of view was that it was a duck. Seeing the distinct wing tuck is what led to the shout.

In the aftermath of the sighting, I thought about what kind of duck it most closely resembled, and I came up with Common or Red-breasted Merganser as the best analogy. It’s possible I subliminally noted a crest, but I don’t have a conscious awareness of that. I looked at a field guide and thought, merganser’s a good analogy, but the tail’s too short.

I had always intellectually understood Tanner’s reference to Pintails. It’s apt in terms of neck and tail projections, less so in terms of body shape. This sighting deepened that understanding. Overnight, it struck me that the similarity in body structure to a diving duck might relate to some of the swooping and diving we see in one of the drone videos.

I’m really adept at questioning myself, but this was not a mistake about the position of the marks. The default to duck followed by the shock of seeing the tuck would seem to rule out some kind of expectation bias.

I have had nagging doubts about all my other possible sightings, though I also doubt the one from 2016 could be anything else. If I were serious about keeping a life list, this would be on it. That’s a first.

*For the casual reader, wing tucks are also known as flap bounding, a flight style that is universal or nearly so in woodpeckers, including the ivorybill.

Tree #1 is the tree where many of the trail cam images shown in the preprint were obtained and where Don Scheifler, who was with me on this stakeout, had a sighting and took a cell phone photo in 2019. (Also on the Notes from the Field page.) As is so often the case, he was looking in a different direction and did not see the bird, but he heard me yell and snapped the picture immediately afterwards.

Lest anyone think this was expectation bias, I had staked out Tree #1 many times during the 2019-2020 season without seeing anything. I have spent countless hours in the field over 15 years without seeing anything I could be absolutely sure was an ivorybill. My expectation of having an encounter, visual or auditory, on any given day is extremely low. Any possible encounter is exciting, but this one was a shock, albeit a delightful one.

I have an inner skeptic, something that has positive and negative aspects. On the plus side, I see it as a kind of healthy humility, a check against my own biases. On the minus side, it is, to some degree, a colonized response to the vitriolic debate around the ivorybill and the cognitive bias imposed by conventional wisdom. A mindset that says, ‘The ivorybill is gone, who you gonna believe, me our your lying eyes?’ It may come as a surprise, but this mindset is not uncommon among ivorybill searchers.

I have had a handful of possible sightings in my 15 years of searching. My approach has always been to pick them apart in retrospect. The nagging doubts mentioned in my notes reflect that approach. In a few cases, they have led me to decide I was mistaken. In most, they have led me to place my observations in the ‘possible’ category. In 2009, I heard wingbeats and saw the underwings, but have had a little uncertainty due to the brevity of the visual observation, even though it was followed by what is, in my view, a compelling trail cam capture a week later, in the exact same location. Similarly, in 2015, I couldn’t fully rule out Red-headed Woodpecker, though I see that possibility as being extremely unlikely.

I feel a kind of ethical obligation to rigorously interrogate my own perceptions, but even now, after almost 8 months, I can’t talk myself out of what I saw on October 27, perhaps because field marks are not an issue and there is no question about size. RHWOs and PIWOs don’t look like ducks. And ducks don’t tuck.

But there’s an even more elusive species of doubt involved, one that I hadn’t recognized before this sighting. Despite all my years of searching, despite my advocacy, despite being labeled a “true believer” in some quarters, despite my conviction that the evidence for persistence is strong, at some level, I still harbored a lingering feeling that maybe, just maybe, it was all mistake, a series of mirages, the product of wishful thinking.

I no longer have that feeling. Evidence still matters, but I know the birds are there and care a lot less about what others believe.

With one tuck of the wings, those hidden doubts were swept away. And that has made all the difference.