Leader Blues

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

FROM THE PUBLISHER>> Group to buy 200,000 acres to save woodpecker

There’s an abandoned railroad trestle bridge on a dirt road at the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area off Hwy. 70 just past Biscoe, where you can watch for birds before the weather gets hot and the mosquitoes want to eat you alive.

The dirt road is on the right, and to the left, there’s a display about the recently discovered ivory-billed woodpecker. If you go past that display on the left about five miles down a nearby dirt road along Bayou DeView, you’ll get close to where Gene Sparling of Hot Springs spotted an ivory-billed woodpecker on February 2004.

The ivory-billed was believed extinct until Sparling alerted the outside world that the elusive bird was alive in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge.

It is in this area and beyond that the Arkansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy hopes to buy 200,000 acres as part of a preservation plan for the ivory-bill, which was considered extinct until Sparling made his credible sighting. Volunteers with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have made several more sightings since Sparling’s discovery.

For three decades, the Nature Conservancy has helped preserve thousands of acres along the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge that probably saved the ivory-bill. The area could be the home to several other ivory-bills.

At the Big Woods Birding Festival in Clarendon last Saturday, Sparling was holding an ivory-billed woodpecker, just like the one he had spotted more than a year ago in the Bayou DeView near Brinkley.

But the coal-black creature in his hand was a stuffed bird that a collector had mounted back in the 1930s.

He was also holding a mounted pileated woodpecker, a more common bird that is sometimes mistaken for an ivory-bill. The pileated is smaller and its wing is all black on top, while the ivory bill has white on top of its wing. Both species have red crests, except for the female ivory-bill, whose head is black.

The man who spotted the elusive woodpecker is a shy outdoorsman who made an appearance at the Big Woods Birding Festival in Clarendon last Saturday and talked about how he spotted the bird on a February afternoon while he was taking it easy in his canoe.
"I sat my paddle down," he recalled. "It was a moment of contentment. I felt like one of the luckiest people in the world."

"At the end of the channel," he continued, "a long woodpecker headed toward me. I thought it was the biggest pileated I’ve ever seen. It became aware of me and dodged left toward a tree."

Sparling saw the bird’s white wings in flight, and as it perched near the base of the tree, he remembered that "the feathers on the lower portion of the wing were white-yellow on the tail."

"The bird made a jerky, odd motion," he continued. "It seemed animated. It made a quick jerk of the head. It bounced to the other side of the tree in typical woodpecker fashion. It continued its flight straight and direct, more so than a pileated."

"As the bird was sitting on the base of the tree, I thought of the ivory-bill," he said.

But then, sitting there in the bayou, he thought it couldn’t have been an ivory-bill. It supposed to be extinct, and when it was still around, it lived farther south in Louisiana, Texas and Florida.

"I didn’t know they ranged this far north," Sparling said.

But seeing the woodpecker’s white wings, he suddenly realized he had witnessed what was until then considered impossible: A dead species had made an appearance in the swamps of east Arkansas.

" If it wasn’t a pileated, it had to be an ivory-bill," he concluded.

He posted his discovery on a Web site, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology folks were soon in touch with him, and they hung out in the swamps for more than a year before they told the world about their amazing discovery.

Jay Harrod, a spokesman for the Arkansas Nature Conservancy, says preserving more land will ensure a spacious habitat for the bird, which thrives in southern swamp forests that have all been destroyed, except for the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas.

The real threat to the bird are not hunters but "the loss of habitat and the health and the health of the Cache and White Rivers," Harrod said.

But Scott Simon, who directs the state Nature Conservancy, warns against planned dredging of the White River, which could threaten the bird.

"The real threat to the ivory-billed woodpecker is hydraulic changes to the rivers, which serve as the lifeblood to this region," Simon says. "Higher water tables and periodic flooding made it possible for birds to survive."

What can the average person do to help preserve the ivory-billed woodpecker?

Act responsibly in the refuge and join the Nature Conservancy.