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The great woodpecker hunt

Scientists in all-out search for bird that may be extinct

Email|Print| Text size + By Colin Nickerson
Globe Staff / February 10, 2008

SCRUBGRASS BAYOU, Ark. - Away down in the swampy bottomlands of Dixie, the most intensive search ever for a bird is gearing up for a make-or-break season. Big reputations are riding on the controversial quest for the ivory-billed woodpecker, the most magnificent and most elusive of America's tree-knockers.

Here in the vast White River National Wildlife Refuge, naturalists are trying to confirm hotly-debated sightings of a bird written off as extinct until four years ago. The terrain is tough and even treacherous. Catclaw briars snag boots, whip vines slash faces, and cruel honey-locust thorns stab through clothing and skin. Cold muddy water can rise to the armpits of researchers fording swamps in duct tape-patched waders.

"It's a labor-intensive slog, for the most part. Not an idyllic ramble," said Martjan Lammertink, project scientist for an ivory-billed research team from Cornell University. He lowered his binoculars after long scrutiny of a nesting cavity carved by a woodpecker beak into the upper trunk of a dead ash tree, finally pronouncing, "Too neat and only 3 1/4 inches - too small."

The camouflage-clad scientists, venturing into what one described as the "most woodpeckeriest" woods to be found from South Carolina to East Texas, are backed by an array of high-tech tools, from GPS coordinate monitors to satellite imagery. Automatic cameras catch digital images, their infrared flash strobes blinking near rotted trees and other likely roosting sites. Sensitive audio recorders strain "ivory-billed-like" sound from the constant clamor of other birds.

This month, for the first time, US Fish and Wildlife Service helicopters were enlisted in the chase, flying low-level "flush" missions meant to spook birds into breaking from the treetops. The idea is that airborne scientists might catch a glimpse of an ivory-billed and supply coordinates to help ground teams hone searches ongoing across hundreds of thousands of wilderness acres.

The last ivory-billed sighting claimed by a bird scientist occurred on Valentine's Day 2005, in Arkansas, when a researcher from Cornell's famed Laboratory of Ornithology, Casey Taylor, spied what she is convinced was one of the huge woodpeckers being harried by a mob of crows.

But skeptics scoff at that sighting almost as loudly as they jeer at a fuzzy 2004 videotape purporting to show an ivory-billed. Such critics say the woodpecker has almost certainly been extinct since the 1940s and that the search is a colossal waste of money and scientific energy. They maintain ivory-billed scientists, however expert, are simply fooled by glimpses of similar-looking - but commonplace - pileated woodpeckers.

The rancorous dispute has shaken the usually-collegial bird community, with mud-slinging between prominent biologists. Doubters last year used a professional journal to accuse the ivory-billed scientists of practicing "faith-based ornithology."

Meanwhile, in the real muck of the bottomlands, the search continues.

The best hope is that a few breeding pairs of ivory-billeds linger in isolated floodplain forests. These forests were cut down by loggers starting in the 19th century and continued until a few decades ago. Because the ivory-billed's big body needs more food than smaller woodpeckers, the birds require substantial tracts of "old growth" trees on which to forage. Older forests have a more dependable cycle of tree death, and decay - meaning they offer more food than younger forests rising from clearcuts.

Male ivory-billeds, measuring 20 inches tall with 2 1/2-foot wingspans, boast brilliant red crests. Both sexes possess jagged white stripes that resemble lightning bolts. Their tallow-colored beaks shred through bark, allowing them to impale beetle grubs with long, harpoon-like barbed tongues.

"The decline of the ivory-billed is an unspeakable American tragedy," said John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell lab. "This country was unable to save even a single square meter of pristine bottomland habitat. It all went under the ax and chainsaw. We may have lost this iconic bird - but, by God, we owe the ivory-billed this sort of exhaustive, scientific search. . . . If they are there, we also owe them a recovery program."

For a trio of scientists from Cornell, last Wednesday was a more or less typical day of field work - one that started before dawn with departure from the ramshackle duck-hunting lodge that is their temporary communal home and ended in the chilly darkness as they clambered, filthy, from the bayou. Lammertink, project biologist Martin Piorkowski, and camera specialist Abe Borker would spend 11 hours forging 16 miles through woods and swamp land, seeking signs of large woodpecker activity - eyes especially peeled for nesting cavities in dead "snag" trees.

The night before, tornadoes had torn through the mid-South. So the forest canopy was full of tenuously suspended tree limbs - loggers call them "widow-makers" - that would break loose without warning, smashing to the ground.

The scientists moved cautiously, making little noise even slipping through bramble thickets. At the barest hint of movement - a tiny flutter of feather, say, in a tangle of branches more than 50 yards away - the trio would freeze, three pairs of powerful binoculars snapping instantly to three keen pairs of eyes.

They made fast identifications sotto voce, in near unison.

"Red-breasted woodpecker."

"Yellow-rumped warbler."

"Rusty blackbird."

These weren't the quarry. Naming them was just professional reflex. The air was sharp, bearing the slightest whiff of rotted leaves. The screech of red-shouldered hawks was counterpointed by the machine gun mating thud of pileated woodpeckers.

Part of this day's job was locating some of the dozen Reconyx automatic cameras strapped to trees facing possible roosting holes. Each camera snaps an image every four seconds for two hours at sunrise and in late afternoon, times when nesting ivory-billeds should be lurking close to home. As he downloaded a week's worth of images - some 25,000 pictures - from one camera, and snapped in fresh batteries, Borker reflected on the uncertainty of pursuing a bird that might be ghost. "You've got to start every day with fresh optimism: This will be the day we prove this bird [is alive]. Fighting discouragement is the hardest part - day after day, dawn to dusk, seeking something that may not even be there."

Last week's long days all ended in unspoken disappointment: No ivory-billeds spotted, no fantastically encouraging signs. Just the grunt work of bird science. Winter is prime time to go looking for the ivory-billed, sometimes called the "Lord God Bird," because the first white settlers to spy the outsized creature supposedly declared, "Lord God, what a sight!"

The deciduous foliage is gone, allowing longer views. Seasonal flooding makes it possible to venture by canoe or kayak into the deepest swamp tangles. Most critically, midwinter is when ivory-billeds should be thinking about love, using powerful muscles and long beaks to send out their signature double-rap knock as a signal of yearning for the opposite sex.

"This is when the ivory-billed would be displaying and issuing kent calls," said Geoffrey Hill. "That's their distinct harmonic toot, like that of a reed instrument," said the biologist at Auburn University, which with Canada's Windsor University has a search team scouring the Choctawhatchee River in Florida's panhandle.

The South-wide search is partly bankrolled by an annual $1.2 million in grants from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. "We think a few breeding pairs may be out there. And we feel like Arkansas is the strongest bet," said Laurie Fenwood, coordinator of the service's ivory-billed woodpecker program. "If we keep coming up empty, though, big decisions will have to be made. The people [who authorize money] may say, 'OK, that's enough.' So this is an important year."

Support also comes from the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, and other environmental groups. Even NASA has played a role, using satellites to spot isolated stands of big cypress and old growth hardwoods, then relaying the coordinates to scientists on the ground. The ivory-billed became a household name across America following "rediscovery" of the species in an Arkansas wetland in 2004 (the mystery bird caught on video plus multiple "eyeball" sightings by Cornell scientists were officially announced in 2005).

The comeback of a creature thought extinct triggered jubilation among wildlife lovers and even excitement among nonbirders who normally wouldn't know a bobolink from a turkey buzzard. Headlines proclaimed an ecological miracle and celebrated the Cornell lab.

Fitzpatrick, one of the world's foremost ornithologists, put the university's Ivy League prestige behind the four-second video taken by M. David Luneau Jr., an engineer and amateur birder who had volunteered to help the Cornell search. The video became "Exhibit A" for those insisting the bird has survived more than a century of depredations by clear-cutting loggers and expansionist farmers.

The federal government swiftly pledged $27 million for an ivory-billed "recovery" program. Then came skeptics, arguing that the videotape showed a pileated woodpecker. Then came mockery from television talk show hosts, comparing the ivory-billed reports to "Elvis sightings."

Somewhat ignored in all the Sturm und Drang is that, aside from the hotly debated video, ornithologists made at least seven "hard" ivory-billed visual sightings near Arkansas' Cache River in 2004 and 2005, although they failed to capture photos. Such identifications by skilled scientists would usually be taken as conclusive evidence.

The rift has become so bitter that neutral biologists are hard to find. Harvard's E.O. Wilson comes close; he fears that the 2004-05 sightings might merely represent a single freak survivor, doomed without a mate. But Wilson is also adamant that a major search should continue so long as there is a glimmer of hope for "this extraordinary part of the fauna.

"Sadly, reports of the ivory-billed's extinction may be true - I don't see much more than a 10 percent chance we'll ever see a live one," Wilson said in an interview last month, shortly after a trip to the Choctawhatchee River. "But great science discoveries have come from longer odds."

Colin Nickerson can be reached at nickerson@globe.com.

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