Leader Blues

Monday, May 22, 2006

FROM THE PUBLISHER >> Searchers confirm our report

BY GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader publisher

Hunters and nature lovers can now come and go as they please in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas, as the search for the rare ivory-billed woodpecker is on summer vacation.

As we reported here on April 22, the search for the woodpecker is on hiatus until fall, according to those in charge of the recovery effort. Journalists received confirmation of our report during a tele-conference call Thursday.

Several groups involved in the search also confirmed the obvious: The fabled bird is definitely not hiding out in the Bayou DeView near Brinkley, as earlier sightings seemed to indicate.

“There is no resident pair in the Bayou DeView,” said Ken Rosen-berg of the Cornell Lab of Orni-thology, who co-chairs the biologists’ working group involved in the recovery effort.

"There have been no additional sightings since last year,” he added, which either confirms the theory that the bird was never in the Bayou DeView or has flown away.

But that area includes just 72,000 acres, or 13 percent of the wildlife refuge. Searchers have not ruled out the possibility that the bird has moved somewhere else in the 550,000-acre White River Wildlife Refuge.

There is also that grainy video that appears to show the bird in flight in the bayou, which prompted me to ask the people involved in the search if they still think the video shows the ivory-bill, long believed to have been extinct.

“We still stand behind the video,” responded Rosenberg , as reporters from the New York Times, Atlanta Journal-Consti-tution, Kansas City Star, Arkansas Times, Reuters and other media outlets listened in on their phones.

Several scientists think the video, shot by David Luneau of UALR, actually shows the more common pileated woodpecker, but people who have led the search insist it’s the ivory-bill.

“The criticism has forced us to search harder,” Rosenberg told reporters during the tele-conference call. “We’ve answered our critics. We believe it’s the ivory-bill.”

“We believe it’s the ivory-bill,” echoed team leader Jon Andrew of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

They believe it’s the woodpecker because the video appears to show the top of the bird’s black-and-white wings and its undulating flight pattern as it took off from the trunk of a tupelo tree where it had been perched.

Several sound recordings have also captured the bird’s unique kent call and double taps. Some of the searchers think they heard the kent call and double taps, but those sounds are easy to confuse with other birds, or even trucks rumbling along nearby I-40.

But the bird has left the bayou, probably moving deeper into the woods on account of hundreds of people encroaching on its fragile territory.

Cornell University has spent $1 million, most of it donated, looking for the woodpecker. Federal agencies have also donated several hundred thousand dollars in grants and in-kind services.

“We’re disappointed,” Cornell’s Rosenberg said. “We put a lot of effort into it. We have a lot of hope there might be a pair in the White River area.”

Much work remains to be done, but only a skeleton-crew will return next fall. So the search could go on for decades and spread out into neighboring states, and even into the Caribbean.

“We’d love to go to Cuba,” said one of the ornithologists.

The rest of us are sticking to the Big Woods, with half-a-million acres to explore. That’s enough hiking for a lifetime.
See you there next fall.