Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Woodpecker search takes break till fall

I hope I didn’t scare off the ivory-billed woodpecker when I called Gene Sparling on his cell phone on a recent Sunday afternoon.

Sparling, who first reported sighting the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker in the Bayou DeView near Brinkley more than two years ago, was in the White River National Refuge near St. Charles when I called. He was looking for the woodpecker, as were a couple of ornithologists, who are all convinced the fabled bird, long considered extinct, is alive in the Big Woods of Arkansas and in possibly other states as well.

“We’re encouraged,” said Sparling, an outdoorsman from Hot Springs whose discovery of the ivory-bill while he was canoeing on a quiet February afternoon has created worldwide sensation.

Critics say Sparling didn’t see the ivory-bill but the more common pileated woodpecker. A video shot by David Luneau of the University of Arkansas supposedly shows the rare bird because of the white on top of its wings, but skeptics say the white is really under its wings, which is characteristic of the pileated woodpecker.

But Sparling says he knows the difference between the two — the ivory-bill is bigger and flies differently — and he’ll be proven right.

“It’s simply a matter of time. There’s a tremendous amount of acreage to cover. We’re making a little progress every day,” Sparling told us.

A series of public meetings will be held next month to let people know how the search for the ivory-bill and an ambitious conservation program are coming along.

Sparling returned recently from New York, where the world-renowned Explorers Club presented him with the President’s Award for Conservation.

Other recipients were Tim Gallagher of Living Bird magazine and Bobby Harrison, a photographer, who have been in the Big Woods several times and have also reported seeing the woodpecker.

They think one reason it’s hard to spot the bird — there hasn’t been a credible sighting in several months — is that too many people are looking for the woodpecker in the Big Woods and have scared the creature deeper into the forest.

That’s not surprising, since for hundreds of years, civilized human beings have done all they could to wipe out the ivory-billed woodpecker — destroying its habitat in the southern swamp forests and killing them for trophies and using them to decorate ladies’ hats.

Sparling has spent a lot of time in the woods, along with scientists from Cornell University’s Department of Ornithology and some 100 volunteers.

They’ve been looking for a secretive bird, long considered extinct, that lives in small holes carved into dead trees in forests that cover some 500,000 acres.

Searchers have combed only about 15 percent of that area.

“It took three years to find the much larger swallowtail kite on the White River,” Sparling pointed out, referring to a hawk that was believed to have been extinct. “Its nest is as big as a large diningroom table. With the ivory-billed woodpecker, we’re looking for a four-inch hole.

“The important thing to remember is that the reason the bird survived here is because of decades of good conservation,” he said. “Let’s continue with more conservation.”

The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, which has preserved thousands of acres in the Big Woods, will soon receive about $150,000 from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to develop a habitat conservation plan for the Big Woods.
The plan will benefit the ivory-billed woodpecker and five other endangered species in the region — the red-cockaded woodpecker, the interior least tern and three mussel species.

The Interior Department had previously awarded more than $2 million to help with the search for the ivory-bill.
The Nature Conservancy, which has been helping to preserve the habitat for decades, has bought and reforested thousands of acres in the Big Woods, which is home to hundreds of species, including the mallard duck, which will also thrive under the preservation program.

The search for the ivory-bill is winding down for now since it’s getting hot outside and the leaves are back on the trees, making the task of finding the bird more difficult.

“We’ll be back next fall,” Sparling promised. “We’ve had a pretty good effort this year.
“We’ll be looking till we find it,” he insisted.