Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Author says ivory bill is alive here!

GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader Publisher

Last weekend’s Call of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Festival drew hundreds of birdwatchers to Brink-ley, where ornithologists remained upbeat about the bird’s existence after several reported sightings over the past two years.
“The ivory bill lives!”

That was the inscription Tim Gallagher wrote in my copy of his wonderful book, “The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker” (Houghton Mifflin, $25).

Gallagher is a fine writer with an ebullient personality who can hardly contain his excitement over the bird’s discovery in the Big Woods outside Brinkley.

He’s convinced the ivory bill can thrive in the Big Woods as its habitat keeps growing with better conservation. The federal government has announced a $2.1 million grant to help with the search.

What is worrying many birdwatchers is the paucity of sightings in recent weeks, although one Arkansan insists he has seen the rare bird — until recently believed to have been extinct — in the Bayou DeView off Hwy. 17 near Brinkley.

What’s more, a young Dutch scientist who is helping search for the ivory-billed woodpecker has taken photographs of a mostly white pileated woodpecker, which has a red head, like its cousin. That photograph has created some excitement among bird watchers, although a picture of the ivory bill is what everybody’s waiting for.

David Luneau of the University of Arkansas of Little Rock has taken a fuzzy video of what many people believe is the ivory-bill, so a sharp picture would convince the skeptics that bird does exist.

Gene Sparling, who first reported seeing the ivory-bill in the Bayou DeView more than two years ago, spoke at the woodpecker festival at the Brinkley Convention Center, along with Bobby Harrison, Luneau and Gallagher, who have reported seeing the bird not long after Sparling’s sighting.

There have been several credible sightings, but the bird may have moved on. The Cache River and White River Wildlife Refuge areas, the bird’s habitat, contain some 500,000 acres, so seeing an elusive bird in that huge area is like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack, but searchers are using sophisticated sound and video equipment that should help them find their bird.

The area continues to attract hundreds of visitors because they know the ivory bill’s discovery is the most important development in the birding world since the bald eagle was saved from extinction.

Peter Gilchrist, an attorney from Toronto, visited the area a few weeks ago, along with several other birders who were part of a tour group. Bird watching, he said, “is not a hobby. It’s a passion.”

He has seen more than 3,000 species, but the ivory bill’s sighting is a big deal. “I’m very impressed,” he told us.

He was heading for India to see some rare birds, but he would trade that experience for a good look at the ivory-billed woodpecker.

“It’s the most important bird in the world,” Gilchrist said.