Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

TOP STORY >> Lore of ivory-billed woodpecker sparks lovefest

Leader Managing Editor

Amateur naturalists and wildlife biologists and some genuine wilderness lovers gathered together in Brinkley in late February for a love- fest in honor of the “Lord God” bird, the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Long thought extinct, but recently spotted on more than one occasion in the Big Woods of the Cache River basin, the rediscovery of Campephilus principalis (the woodpecker’s scientific name) has created a wave of euphoria among bird lovers and scientists alike and brought a group of scientists from Cornell University to the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. The scientists operated clandestinely at first to determine if the bird truly had been seen.

The group’s original work, first publicly reported in June, 2005 in the journal “Science,” documented seven sightings and video considered to be definitive proof of the bird’s miraculous recovery from what had been believed to be extinction.
Hot Springs native Gene Sparling made the accidental discovery in February 2004 while canoeing leisurely in the Bayou de View, alternately soaking in the beauty of the thousand-year-old tupelo cypresses, which grow in the bayou and communing with nature.

Said Sparling, “I heard tales of Bayou de View and the property of the Nature Conservancy with 300- year-old trees in the Cache River Refuge. Many of the trees are estimated to be 1,000 or 1,200 years old. So in February 2004, I put a blue kayak in at the upper reaches at Bull Town and paddled my way south. There were huge cypress and the bayou had an ancient primeval feel to it. On the second day of the journey while floating around a small bend, I was thinking, ‘It’s so neat to be in this wonderful place’ and as I came around the small bend, a large woodpecker flew directly toward me and flared his wings. It’s the biggest Pileated I’ve ever seen in my life, I thought, and then the bird landed about 60 feet in front of me.”But he realized this bird was different. Sparling described the startled bird to those gathered at the Brinkley Convention Center as having a red crest “laid tight on his head” and having white feathers on its back with a yellowish tinge at the edges. The bird’s wing profile was long and straight and Sparling never saw it flap his wings as the pileated woodpecker does.
“I was familiar with the legend of the ivory-billed woodpecker as a child and I’m here tonight to celebrate the return of the ivory-billed woodpecker and this unique precious habitat. The Big Woods are critically important,” he said.

The bird’s discovery that February touched off a frenzy of activity aimed at protecting the ivory-billed woodpecker, expanding possible habitat and protecting its existing environment. Public and private groups joined together to rally ‘round the ivory-billed woodpecker including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Arkansas Game and Fish, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the Nature Conser-vancy, Audubon Society and forming the Big Woods Conservation Partnership to save this largest of North American woodpeckers, the second largest woodpecker in the world. The Interior Department pledged $5 million to save the bird.

Dutch ornithologist Martjan Lammertink, an international expert on large woodpeckers, was one of the first Cornell scientists to arrive at the Big Woods after Sparling’s discovery. He told the group at Brinkley that large woodpeckers need “really huge areas” to live and breed. Although large woodpeckers have a historical tendency to flock, he described the ivory-billed as very elusive and adapted for swift, sustained flight.

He added that in 1942 James Tanner, author of “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” wrote his observations of the Singer Tract, a now long-gone stand of huge tupelo cypress in northeast Louisiana. He said the large woodpeckers are vulnerable to extinction in part because they preferred large diameter trees, which were quickly being cleared for farmland.

There are doubters and skeptics as well as firm believers and Cornell has assembled a group of 22-foot searchers and 112 volunteers from birding groups who venture into the Big Woods 14 at a time. They do systematic searches looking for cavities and scaling particular to the ivory-billed woodpecker’s method of obtaining the particular beetle grubs which comprise their idiet and which are located under the bark of partially dead tupelo cypresses.

David Luneau of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, author of “Big Woods Bird,” began using remote cameras in late 2003 and early 2004 on a Zeiss-sponsored Pearl River WMA search for the bird in Louisiana.

The search goes on. At Brinkley, Luneau thanked Arkansas hunters for their support of the wildlife management areas, for their conservation practices and for their use of the federal Duck Stamp, the proceeds of which go to wetlands habitat preservation. In the meantime, hunters and who frequent the Big Woods between the Cache and White Rivers sometimes are honored by a glimpse of the amazing ivory-billed woodpecker.

Some, like Lonoke mayoral candidate Roy Henderson, say they’ve seen the great bird on more than one occasion while fishing in the spring-flooded bayou between the Cache and the White rivers south of Hwy. 70. Perhaps it’s only been the pileated woodpecker he’s seen but even that counts among the great sightings for some of us.

Information on the ivory-billed woodpecker and how to report a sighting can be found on the Web site www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory.