Leader Blues

Monday, May 23, 2005

FROM THE PUBLISHER>> Call of the wild bird

BY GARRICK FELDMAN

“The greatest recovery this country has seen in 200 years,” Sam Hamilton, southeast regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told a town hall meeting Wednesday evening in Augusta.

He was talking about the discovery last year of the ivory-billed woodpecker and efforts by state and U.S. officials to ensure the bird’s survival in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge east of here.

The announcement last month of several sightings in the cypress and tupelo swamps created a worldwide sensation as people from across the country and from abroad started arriving in Arkansas in hopes of catching a glimpse of a bird that hadn’t been sighted in 60 years and was believed to have been extinct.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission have been holding public meetings near the Cache River bottoms to tell area residents about the bird’s miraculous survival and the need to protect it without interfering with the rights of hunters, fishermen and farmers.

Audiences have seen an all-too-brief video of the bird in flight in the swampy forest. The clip, which showed the ivory-bill’s huge black-and-white wings, seemed genuine.

Hamilton, who is overseeing the U.S. Interior Department’s $10.1 million program to save the rare woodpecker, said the sightings have confirmed the existence of just one bird.

Everyone’s hoping there’s another bird in the woods that will make it possible for the ivory-bill to reproduce, Hamilton said.

“We almost lost the Cache River bottoms,” he continued, referring to efforts 35 years ago to dredge the area. Environmental-ists and their political allies, including then-Gov. Dale Bump-ers, halted those plans.

“The ivory-billed woodpecker wouldn’t be here without the Cache River bottoms,” Hamilton said.

Arkansas hunters have contributed to the preservation of the Cache River bottoms with $38 million in duck stamps, according to Scott Henderson, chairman of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

The bird has survived here because of the rich bottomland forests that are ideal for its survival.

“We have the best and largest ecosystem in the Delta,” said Nancy DeLamar, regional external affairs director of the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, which had been buying thousands of acres in recent years to help the wildlife in the area.

AG&FC, which hosted the meeting at the Augusta National Guard Armory, had brought along the video of the ivory-billed woodpecker, but the projector unfortunately malfunctioned, and there was no sound. But for about five seconds, you could see the magnificent bird flying with its white wings spread out 30 inches above the water and heading toward a dead tree, where the bird thrives on grubs and seems to enjoy its isolation.

Although you couldn’t hear it, the bird is supposed to make a “toot-toot” call like a child’s horn.
There had been few credible sightings till an outdoorsman named Gene Sparling III from Hot Springs spotted the ivory-bill on Feb. 11, 2004 while kayaking in the Bayou DeView at the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area and posted his finding on a Web site.

Tim Gallagher of the Cornell (N.Y.) Laboratory of Ornithology contacted Sparling, and Gallagher and a friend soon headed for Arkansas and spent hundreds of hours looking for the bird.
They were in tears when they found it.

Gallagher has written a book about his adventures in Arkansas called “The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker” (Houghton Mifflin, $25). It’s a gripping story, with several photographs of the Cache River bottoms.

You can take it with you while you’re looking for the rare bird and read it at night while you’re camping out in the woods.

Bird lovers have a better chance of seeing the woodpecker now that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has reopened much of the refuge that was closed when the ivory-bill’s sighting was first announced.

Parts of the wildlife habitat between Hwy. 38 and the Dagmar Wildlife Refuge remain closed to the public for canoeing, although the Game and Fish Commission has reopened entrances to the swamps in many areas after ornithologists isolated the ivory-bill in a small area around Bayou DeView.

You can see why the ivory-billed woodpecker chose to live in the wilds of east Arkansas: Apart from some highways and dirt roads that cut through the Cache River refuge — few people know that I-40 goes through the refuge, as the freeway moves along just feet away from the bayou — the area farther north and south is where an outdoorsman and a bird can still find isolation, at least until the crowds arrive.