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The bird is still the word 

click to enlarge ALAN MUELLER: Had an exciting spring.
  • ALAN MUELLER: Had an exciting spring.

 August was a good news-bad news month for the ivory-billed woodpecker, the bird rediscovered in the Big Woods of the Bayou de View in 2004. A video of the bird was its first documentation since 1944.

On Aug. 17, Science magazine, which published the first paper on the bird's discovery, authored by experts from Cornell University and the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, ran a story airing the doubts of ornithologists.

Five days later, on Aug. 22, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published its “Draft Recovery Plan for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.”

The government is not known for speedy action, but it's generally agreed by believers and non- alike that the draft recovery plan would ideally have been published a century ago, while the birds were scarce but most certainly alive.

Nevertheless, Fish and Wildlife would have been remiss not to draw up a plan, given the evidence provided by Cornell and the Nature Conservancy. The plan calls for nine recovery actions to be taken through the year 2010 at an estimated cost of $27.7 million, birdseed compared to the total federal budget. (A public comment period on the plan expires Oct. 22; the draft is available at www.fws.gov/ivorybill/.)

And while noted ornithologists like David Sibley and Jerome Jackson — neither of whom has spent much time in Arkansas — say nay, the 2007 field season gave researchers here much to be happy about, even excited.

Did they get a photograph? No. Will Sibley and Jackson and the rest be satisfied until they do? No. “It's all baloney until we get the glossy 8 by 10,” Nature Conservancy biologist Alan Mueller said.

But Mueller, who came to the Conservancy after working for U.S. Fish and Wildlife for 32 years, most recently as field supervisor for the Arkansas office, doesn't think the bird's existence is baloney. He's one of the searchers who got a glimpse this year, giving Arkansas birders who know him to be a reputable biologist a told-you-so moment.

On May 7, Mueller, 62, was walking in the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area, an 18,000-acre preserve between Hazen and the White River, when he saw a bird flying straight at him. “It saw me and did a U-turn,” Mueller said. “When it turned it flew briefly out of the forest and into the light. I had a very good look at the top of the wings, black on front and white trailing edges.” He saw the bird for four or five seconds, and was struck by how glossy the bird's black feathers were.

So how certain was he that it was an ivory-bill, North America's largest woodpecker, whose numbers were estimated at 22 in 1939? “If I was on a Christmas bird count and ivory-bills were expected birds, I would count it. But if I was not already alerted to that fact, I would have said, ‘Gee, I wonder what that was? It was sure something different.' ”

To people who know birds, that sounds pretty good — because if it looked different, had a different “jizz,” as birders say, from the ivory-bill's surviving cousin, the pileated woodpecker, what the heck could it have been?

There were several “high quality sightings” this past winter and spring, Mueller said. A hunter's was considered the best — he reported watching an ivory-bill for seven minutes, and made drawings of what he saw. He, too, was in the Wattensaw, the new “hot zone” for the bird. He did not have a camera.

A Cornell volunteer reported seeing the bird in the upper part of the Bayou de View for two minutes, perched on a tree. He made notes, but, to the dismay of some, did not use the camera he was equipped with because, he said, he didn't want to take his eyes off the woodpecker.

Mueller also said a group of six led by the Nature Conservancy — including board trustees who were there just to see the habitat — were brought up short by a series of kent calls, some close by. Briefly, searchers had their hopes up that the calls had come from a nest hole, but the cavity proved too small for the bird.

The season's team included five full-time searchers and successive two-week volunteers vetted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell is expected to make a public report soon on the sightings and the encouraging number of calls and “double-knocks,” described in the ivory-billed literature as two loud repeating knocks — “bam-bam.” Many of the calls and knocks were recorded in April; “it was a really exciting period,” Mueller said. However, he was quick to add, “certainly the audio material is never going to convince anyone — probably not me either,” since there is there is but one recording of an ivorybill in existence, a kent call made in 1935 in Louisiana.

Mueller and others will return to the Big Woods in November or December, but he said he wouldn't be surprised to find the Wattensaw silent. He noted that researchers along the Choctawhatchee River in the panhandle of Florida recorded numerous kent calls in one area in 2005-06, but the area was silent in the recent field season. They heard them eight miles upstream instead.

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