My experiences with the tropical Pale-billed Woodpecker in recent years have caused me to wonder about our Ivory-billed Woodpecker situation all the more. Pale-billed is a big woodpecker in the genus Campephilus, same genus as the I-B. And just as the I-B must have been, Pale-billed Woodpeckers are large, extraordinarily showy, and often quite obvious birds.
In the past three years, in Costa Rica and Guatemala, I've seen many Pale-billeds and heard many more. That's the key - heard - that makes me more doubtful about the continued existence of I-B's in our southern swamps. The woodpeckers in the genus Campephilus, like I-B and Pale-billed, make an astonishing loud double rap knock as a way of communicating. These knocks, made by smartly rapping a tree twice in rapid succession, carries a very far distance, especially if the bird telegraphs it from a suitably acoustic substrate. There have been times where I have heard Pale-billeds do this quite clearly, and they were probably a good quarter-mile off, maybe further. The raps carry very well through the forest, are often repeated with some frequency, and are hard to miss. We've found Pale-billeds on a number of occasions by tracing the knocks to their source.
It's hard to imagine that the I-B lost the ability to double rap. If not, someone should be hearing this non-vocal call, and making good recordings. And probably finding the woodpeckers. Most of the old literature I've seen on I-B describes them as rather tame and obvious, and prone to producing double-raps, and that describes the behavior of their close relative the Pale-billed Woodpecker to a T.
Pale-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus guatemalensis, seen in the Peten region of Guatemala, March 2008. Our group of about 25-30 people was able to approach the bird quite closely, and those with larger lens got much more stunning photos. I think we could have gone much closer without causing undue disturbance, but didn't want to risk spooking the woodpecker. Besides, through the scopes we had absolutely killer looks. These big woodpeckers are real show-stoppers!
Cropped in closer. This is the male, the female has the front of the crest black. Look carefully; he is wrestling with a massive grub, probably of some sort of beetle. It is every bit as big as one of the mandibles of the woodpecker's bill, and he spent several minutes trying to choke this thing down. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker subsisted primarily on similar large beetle larvae.A bit later, the female came down the tree to join its mate. We probably got to watch these magnificent birds for ten minutes or so, finally leaving them be and still working this tree. I will admit these photos are not fantastic, especially taken as they were in the very early morning hours in a foggy and damp Guatemalan jungle. If only someone could produce their own poor photos of the ever-elusive Ivory-billeds...