Choctawhatchee River Basin provides excellent birding opportunities
The existence of the ivory-billed woodpecker has been a disputed subject for many years. Thought to be on the brink of extinction since the 1940s, there has not been a documented sighting since 2005. However, the largest woodpecker in North America has been the quest of many a birder both on an amateur and academic level.
If the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWO) exists, the Choctawhatchee River basin in Walton County is the perfect habitat to explore the possibilities. An alluvial river, the Choctawhatchee River is characterized by a broad floodplain and seasonal flooding. Its old growth bottomland hardwood forests has drawn ornithologists searching for the IBWO for several years.
In 2005, Dr. Geoffrey E. Hill, Auburn University ornithology professor, and two research assistants, Tyler Hicks and Brian Rolek, took a kayak trip down the river. Within an hour of launching their boats, they heard a bird hammering loudly on a tree. When the bird flew off through the canopy, Brian got a clear view of a large woodpecker with white on both the upper and underside of the trailing edge of the wings; a unique characteristic of the IBWO. Although members of the search group are convinced that ivory-billed woodpeckers persist in the swamp forests along the Choctawhatchee River, they conceded that the evidence fell short of definitive. Definitive evidence must come in the form of clear, indisputable film, digital image, or video image of an IBWO. They continue their studies on the river to this day. For more information on Auburn’s efforts: Click here
On Jan. 15, 2011, the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society ventured on a field trip of the river basin exploring the IBWO habitat. Although no IBWOs were identified, more than 40 species of other birds were found including warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, red shouldered hawks, wood ducks, hermit thrush and winter wrens to name a few. The river basin is also home to several woodpecker species as well, including pileated, red-bellied, downy and yellow-bellied sapsucker.
Whether you are exploring for the elusive ivory-billed or simply interested in a great day of birding, the areas along the Choctawhatchee River provide excellent viewing. If you are interested in exploring by land or water, there are several access points along the river:
Donald Ware, bird count coordinator for the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society has been tracking the IBWO for several years along the Choctawhathcee River. Donald has written an account of his experiences:
Ivory-billed Woodpeckers of Choctawhatchee River
by Donald Ware
After at least one male Ivory-billed Woodpecker was discovered in Arkansas, Dr. Geoffrey Hill, head ornithologist at Auburn University, assigned his graduate students to search historical IBWO habitat in the Florida panhandle. He came down with them to the Choctawhatchee River, and he reported seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker on his first day in the river. Since I was a board member of the Alabama Ornithological Society, I knew that Dr. Hill knew the differences between the Ivorybill and the still thriving, nearly as large, Pileated Woodpecker. I trusted his identification.
I felt guilty that I had not been in that river during the 20 years that I had been Bird Count Coordinator for the Choctawhatchee Audubon Society. On 26 Oct 06 I received a call from Dr. Bob Larson reporting an IBWO a few feet from McCaskill Road. It was on a small dying pine with the top blown off. While investigating that with a friend, I met Jerry Williams, 1801 McCaskill Road, who reported that he had seen one from the deck of his home on a tree in early spring of 2006. His home is on 12-foot pilings in the flood plain. He said that he saw or heard Pileated Woodpeckers quite frequently, and this bird had the black and white wing pattern of a Red-headed Woodpecker, though “five times larger”.
That day I also met Paul Ward launching his fishing boat at Morrison Springs. I asked if he had seen a bird like the one on my Ivory-billed Woodpecker T-shirt. He reported seeing one in his yard 15 Oct 06, south of Byrd Intersection on CR 181. Paul was then a 75-year-old card-carrying Creek Indian who said he knows all of the creatures in that flood plain, and he sees Pileated Woodpeckers every day he goes out. He started to work for a logging company there in 1950 and had his first Ivorybill sighting in 1955. The October 2006 sighting was probably his 12th. When he and his wife watched the TV announcement of the Ivorybill being “rediscovered” in Arkansas, he told his wife “they have been here all along.” Later he saw the bird on a dead Live Oak 70-feet north of his home, and he got his wife out. They both watched it sit on the tree and then fly away, showing the white trailing edge of the wing, top and bottom.
Between November 6th and 29th, 2006 I spent four days exploring the river and minor creeks from US 90 to Bozman Fish Camp south of FL 20. That was about 50 miles of exploration. On 29 Nov 06, the 4th day in the river, at 12:45 PM I saw an IBWO fly east to west above the treetops into Walton County north of Morrison Springs, 30 deg. 39′ 10″ N. I said to George Russell, in the back of his canoe, “I think we just saw one.” It appeared long and slim with a shallow wing beat and a red crest. I saw no white on the wing in that a profile view, but as it the moved away it exposed increasing amounts of white on the trailing edge of the wing. At 1:30 PM we heard the double-knock distinctive to that genus of woodpecker come from the Reedy Creek area where we last saw it heading. Note to IBWO searchers: the Pileated Woodpecker has a deep wing beat like a crow, exposing some white in the middle of the wing from all perspectives.
I spent six days supporting the Auburn Research Team documenting GPS coordinates of the large woodpecker cavity trees and feeding trees. On 5 Dec 06 at 10:30 AM I heard two kent calls near Sandy creek about two miles south of the previously heard double-knocks. My hearing and my bird call experience is very good, and I think this was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Later I interviewed Mr. Byrd who has lived on the land between Reedy Creek and he Choctawhatchee River all his life. He reported seeing an IBWO fly across his property a few years ago, and seeing them twice while fishing in the Choctawhatchee. I left him my card, and after that he reported having just seen an Ivorybill fly across Bunker Island while fishing well down the river, apparently his forth sighting. Jerry Williams reported his second sighting while on a deer stand in January 2007. Also, Dr. Larson took a canoe to where I saw the bird, and he and his wife reported that one was flushed by a motorboat, along with a Pileated Woodpecker, on 17 Aug 08, his second sighting. They had the bird in their binoculars and reported the white trailing edge.
In 2007 Geoffrey Hill published Ivorybill Hunters documenting the Auburn study of the 2005/06 season where several sightings were made, but no good photos obtained. It is $24.95 new and about $15 used or on Kindle at www.amazon.com. His Auburn web site has links to audio recordings of 350 apparent knocks or calls from the 05/06 and 06/07 search seasons. James R. Hill had a six-month contract for operating camera traps there in the 06/07 season, but was not successful in obtaining photo evidence of the presence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, though he has friends who have had brief looks.
I think there is overwhelming evidence that this beautiful bird, once thought to be extinct, still lives after we harvested most their big feeding and nesting trees. A few apparently were cautious enough to avoid the hunters when they became rare and museums unwisely offered money for their skins. We are wiser now, and I pray that the only shooting we do now is with a camera so future generations can experience what some called the “Lord God” bird.
To learn more about the ivory-billed woodpecker go to: http://www.fws.gov/ivorybill/pdf/IBWFundingfactsheet.pdf