I’ve spent another day at Cornell talking to interesting people about birds, the environment and environmental issues. Everyone has been very open and welcoming.

The day started with birding at 6am. We saw a few waders – a familiar Dunlin,  some almost familiar Semi-palmated Plovers (much like a Ringed Plovers) and Spotted Sandpipers (much like Common Sandpipers with spots) and the slightly less familiar Least, Solitary and Semi-palmated Sandpipers (although I have seen all those species on this trip already).  Also a new warbler – Blue-winged – and the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the trip.  And the checklist is on EBird with my name attached to it along with my companions’ names.

Amongst my conversations I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with the boss of the Cornell Lab – Professor John Fitzpatrick.

Fitz – as he is known throughout the lab – is an eminent ornithologist.   I first came across his work when I was studying Bee-eaters in the early 1980s and his book with Glen Woolfenden on the Florida Scrub Jay was a landmark publication.

As we talked, it was clear that we see nature conservation in very similar ways – and a couple of Cornell staff told me in my conversations with them ‘You sound just like Fitz’ and I take that as a compliment.

Fitz told told me that he’s seen all but three of North America’s 700-odd breeding birds, and that he got hooked on birds as a child when he saw that the picture in the Peterson Field Guide looked just like the bird he was looking at – and that the book was full of birds – ‘All those treasures’.

We agreed that urban America sprawled across the landscape in an unpleasant way – wasteful of space and harmful to nature.  And we talked briefly about those extinct American species that fascinate me – the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and Heath Hen and we touched on the probably extinct Eskimo Curlew which was pillaged after the Passenger Pigeon’s decline and thus came to be known as the Prairie Pigeon.

Fitz also told me that the Wood Duck, now common again, and visible from his office window as we talked, had once been expected to be the next American bird extinction before Theodore Roosevelt introduced better regulation of hunting.

It was time to broach the subject of that other possibly extinct species – a picture of which is outside Fitz’s office and a postcard-sized image was behind his head as I talked to him – the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

On 3 June 2005 the Cornell Lab published a scientific paper in the journal Science entitled ‘Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America’ which set out the evidence for there being a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker living in the Big Woods region  of eastern Arkansas.  The evidence is of some observations and some rather fuzzy video footage which has allowed speculation and debate to rage over the last six years.

Some people believe the record, others definitely do not, many are undecided but hope that it is an indication that there are still a few individuals of this magnificent beast out there in the woods of the South-Eat USA.

Fitz gave me a copy of the paper and I asked him to sign it, which he did with the words: ‘For Mark, hoping one or the other of us sees one some day!’ as Fitz, although senior author on the paper, and the main recipient of other’s scepticism or derision, did not witness the bird himself.

I read the paper at the time it was published but have read it again a couple of times and it is suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker but probably not strong enough evidence to be totally convincing.  But as with any good piece of science it lays out the evidence, draws some conclusions, and allows others to draw their conclusions too.

Possible sightings of Ivory-bills still come in to Cornell.  Maybe one day someone will get a perfect image of a perfect Ivory-bill and the world can rejoice, although it seems quite likely that if any still exist they are so few, and far apart, that they are, in Fitz’s words ‘ecologically extinct’ even if there is the odd ‘Martha’ still out there.  I guess we’ll see.

But the abiding memory of Cornell and Fitz for me is of a tight team of good people working hard to do the science on which sound nature conservation has to be based.  It’s clear that the Cornell team admire and respect their leader – and my belief is that that admiration and respect has been well-earned.


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