Thursday, April 28, 2005

Another Email from a Search Participant

This email was sent to PABIRDS@LIST.AUDUBON.ORG at 826 am, by Scott Weidensaul, a nature writer who also participated in the "Ivory-billed Woodpecker search party".


I was going to wait until after noon today (when a press conference is going to be held in D.C. on the subject) to post anything about this, but with the NPR broadcast following several days of email chatter on the Web, I guess the cat is out of the bag: The ivory-billed woodpecker has indeed been rediscovered in the vast bottomland forests of eastern Arkansas, an area known as the Big Woods that includes Cache River and White River NWRs.

Unlike the 1999 report from the Pearl River in Louisiana, which was never confirmed despite several attempts, this time the search team, a cooperative effort of the Nature Conservancy [TNC] and Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, has documented the presence of at least one male ivorybill, thanks to multiple sightings, videos and audio recordings. The Lord God bird lives.

I was incredibly privileged to have been quietly invited last winter to join the search team for a week in order to write an article announcing the find for TNC's magazine. More than 60 people were in the field for 15 months, operating under such strict secrecy that in many cases, their own families didn't know what they were doing. The secrecy was in part to protect the bird while documentation was gathered and management plans were being crafted, and in part to give TNC time to buy up land to further safeguard the ivorybill. In that short time, the conservancy spent more than $10 million on land acquisition in the Big Woods.

The area in question is in the Mississippi delta, forming a corridor of swamp forest 15 miles wide and 130 miles long -- big, deep, and difficult to penetrate except by canoe (and even then, you'd better know how to use a GPS). Over the past 20 years, TNC and others have protected more than 120,000 acres there, bringing to more than half a million acres land that's in conservation protection, largely within the two national wildlife refuges and state wildlife land. It's been a largely unknown conservation success story, and this news is an incredible validation of that work. TNC has plans to buy and restore an additional 200,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest there, including land that was cleared for soybeans in the '70s and '80s and will be reforested. Things should only get better for the ivorybill. In fact, things have probably been getting steadily better for decades, as the once-cut forests of the South have recovered.

Later today, there will be a lot of information about the events in Arkansas posted at two web sites:, and on the web site of the journal Science, which is publishing an article documenting the sighting, including a frame-by-frame analysis of the video SciencExpress.

In a nutshell, the initial sighting came in February 2004, when a Hot Springs kayaker named Gene Sparling was exploring a remote part of the Big Woods, and had a close, unmistakable encounter with a male ivorybill. Gene, a birder and experienced outdoorsman, understood the significance of what he'd seen. Two weeks late, Gene escorted Tim Gallagher, editor of Cornell's Living Bird magazine, and Alabama photography professor (and longtime ivorybill hunter) Bobby Harrison to the same area, where Gallagher and Harrison both saw the bird. Cornell and the Arkansas chapter of TNC were informed, and immediately launched one of the most intensive wildlife searches I've ever encountered, all while keeping it almost completely secret. The plan was to announce the findings next month, coinciding with the publication of the magazine article, but someone blabbed over the weekend, and as the ripples started spreading, the decision was made to announce today at the Department of the Interior.

The sightings were all of a single bird, always a male (though there was one undocumented sighting of a possible female). It appears the search team was not operating near the bird's normal home range, since the sightings averaged only about one per month; this is a huge area, and there's lots of room for even a duck-sized woodpecker to disappear. No one thinks it likely that this bird is the very last of its kind, so it's likely there are more out there in the huge Big Woods region, or in other bottomland forests along the Mississippi Delta.

Interestingly, in contrast to the noisy, fairly tame behavior Jim Tanner recorded for the species in Louisiana in the 1930s, this bird has proven incredibly shy and wary, always vanishing at the first hint of a human. Many people -- and I include myself in this -- had long assumed that if ivorybills survived in the U.S., someone would have found and documented them decades ago. The fact that so many people, backed up with technology like automated recording devices and cameras, had such a hard time getting documentation in the Big Woods, suggests we've been underestimating the difficulty of finding this species. The "intensive" Pearl River search, for example, involved six people for 30 days; most times that a sighting has been followed up, it's been someone in a canoe poking around for a day or two at most. One lesson from the Big Woods is that we cannot easily dismiss any of the reports elsewhere in the species' historic range, especially those in South Carolina and Florida which have been persistent for many years. I know scientists are following up on some of those reports even as the news is trumpeted from Arkansas. Let's all keep our fingers crossed.

This is one of the most hopeful stories I've ever had the privilege to report on, and it comes at a time when conservationists need some good news. It shows how incredibly resilient nature can be if we give it a chance. And it's a second chance that, frankly, America probably doesn't deserve, given our treatment of Southern forests.

My part in this was very small and very secondary, as much as I treasure the opportunity. I want to close this by expressing my gratitude and admiration for the folks who pulled this off in an incredibly professional, collegial manner, including Arkansas TNC director Scott Simon; John Fitzpatrick and Ron Rohrbaugh at Cornell; and Gene Sparling and Prof. David Luneau.

The ivorybill lives. It makes the sunshine just a little sweeter, doesn't it?

Scott Weidensaul
Schuylkill Haven, Pa.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

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