Perch, you ivory-bill 

Searchers buoyed by sightings, but photo needed.

SWAMPED: Elliott Swarthout
  • SWAMPED: Elliott Swarthout

Glimpses of The Bird — or what could be The Bird — have counteracted any blues that a skeptical article in a national ornithological journal may have caused, people engaged in the continuing search for Arkansas’s ivory-billed woodpecker say.

Six possible “visual encounters,” as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology puts it, and 10 audio reports of the bird’s double-knock and calls have been bagged since the hunt for the bird in the Big Woods of Arkansas resumed in November 2005. Some “good looking cavities” and feeding sign have also been found, field supervisor Elliott Swarthout said recently.

Jerome Jackson, a Florida professor and author of “In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker,” who has hunted the bird himself over the past two decades, raised doubts about the identification of the bird in the January issue of the journal The Auk. He was especially critical of the four-second video shot by UALR professor David Luneau in 2004 that served as the principal evidence in a report published last year in Science. “My opinion,” Jackson wrote, “is that the bird in the Luneau video is a normal Pileated Woodpecker.”

But opinion isn’t science, either, Jackson’s detractors have been quick to respond. Scott Simon, director of the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, the non-profit conservation group that partnered with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in the initial documentation of the bird, said an e-mail he’d received put his own response well: “If you don’t like the science, write a scientific article.”

Luneau, who serendipitously caught the bird on film as he canoed the bayou checking on equipment, called Jackson’s piece “paradoxical,” in that it criticizes the science in an article that was not itself peer-reviewed.

A still photograph of the bird still eludes the team, and it’s becoming abundantly clear how lucky Luneau was to get his video. Searchers don’t expect to get a good picture until the bird’s roost hole is located.

Cornell returned to the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and the White River NWR in November with 20 paid employees and rotating sets of 14 volunteers who do two-week stints at what Swarthout acknowledges is “inherently frustrating work.”

While searchers are doing a lot of sitting hoping to see the bird, Swarthout said Cornell’s main goal this winter is to find the bird’s home. Not only would that guarantee a picture of the bird — evidence to please the skeptics — but it would provide a wealth of information on the habits of a bird undocumented since the 1940s.

Until January 2004, when kayaker Gene Sparling saw what he believes was an ivory-bill on the Bayou de View — and set off the subsequent secret searching, fund-raising, land-buying and the current professional debate — the ornithological world had largely written off Campephilus principalis, the largest North American woodpecker.

Vic Coffman, an enforcement officer with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, was apparently the first person to report seeing the bird again after last April’s national announcement of the finding. Coffman called it a “very brief encounter,” but added he was “90 percent sure” of his I.D.

One afternoon last October, Coffman was about a quarter of a mile east of the Highway 17 bridge over the bayou, which has become the unofficial viewing area for the bird. “A large bird flew across the road in front and landed in a big cypress,” Coffman said. “I stopped, got my binoculars out. All I could see of the bird was his head … I could see his beak and his head. His beak was a mud-stained color and that’s when I got real excited.”

He elaborated, saying the beak was slightly darker than the color of a manila folder. He also said the bird had yellow eyes, which would not be particularly noticeable on the similar Pileated Woodpecker.

Coffman was questioned thoroughly by Cornell researchers. “I’m not sure they’re convinced I saw what I saw, and I’m not convinced,” he said.

But Coffman, who patrols the Cache River Refuge, said he believes the bird exists. “I do believe the bird is here; I think he’s very reclusive.”

Another searcher might have missed a chance to make history when she passed by a bird, thinking it was one of the ivory-billed decoys set in the refuge. The decoy, however, flew away.

Ivory-bill expert Jackson hit another nerve in his Auk article by suggesting that Cornell and TNC were using the bird as a fund-raising tool, noting instant solicitations for dollars by Cornell and the Nature Conservancy after April’s announcement of the bird’s discovery.

Poster bird for conservation causes? TNC’s Simon replied: “The science paper says the ivory-bill is alive. We have to go forward.” The Nature Conservancy’s focus on the Big Woods preceded the bird’s discovery by 20 years — and could, in fact, account for the fact that at least one of the Southern bottomland species has survived to today.

What if more evidence that the bird’s been correctly identified isn’t found quickly?

“I think it’s a really big place,” Simon said of East Arkansas’s woods. “Here’s what we know for sure: the bird was there.”

This season’s sightings have been reported by volunteers — who are skilled birders vetted by Cornell — as well as the paid search crew. Cornell is putting the volunteers up in a house owned by TNC at Cotton Plant and at a Fish and Wildlife service compound in the White River refuge.

The professional team includes Martjan Lammertink, an expert in large woodpeckers in Indonesia, who is evaluating the evidence for Cornell. “He’s helping us to think in a big-picture perspective,” Swarthout said.

Helping the human searchers are five remote cameras that shoot stills once every four seconds and can hold up to 15,000 images at a time. So far, the cameras, aimed at possible roosts or feeding sights, have picked up pileated woodpeckers, screech owls, squirrels and the like.

Cornell also has scattered remote listening devices throughout the swamp; a computer program scans the recordings and flags sounds that could be significant so that researchers don’t have to listen to them in real time. They’ve recorded double knocks, kent calls (though they aren’t definitive) and conversations by bemused fishermen.

UALR’s Luneau, who teaches computer technology, has his own cameras, time-lapse and motion-triggered, set up in the woods and checks on them weekly. Luneau was a member of the Zeiss-sponsored team that searched the Pearl River WMA in Louisiana in 2002 and has been Arkansas’s most dedicated IBWO (birder shorthand for the woodpecker) searcher since.

Cornell will stay until April, when leaf-out will make seeing the bird even more difficult.



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