Finding the Ivory Bill Woodpecker
Bobby & Tim in
Bayou de View, Arkansas
by Bobby R. Harrison
Assoc. Professor of Art and Photography
Oakwood College, Huntsville, AL
This article was first published:July / August, 2005 - Bird Watcher's Digest
"What do you think of this one?" That was the e-mail question I received from Tim Gallagher, Director of Publication and Editor of Living Bird magazine at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology. He had forwarded a message he had received from Mary Scott, a fellow ivory-billed woodpecker searcher. This was just one of many e-mails he had sent on the subject of ivorybills.
Tim and I have been friends for almost twenty years. We had known each other for about 15 years and serve on the board of the North America Nature Photography Association before we would discover that we both had a long time interest in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
We had been interested in the "ghost bird" for more than thirty years, and through those years we had been collecting material on its natural history, and of course, recent sightings. We had both obtained copies of James Tanner's research report on the Ivory-bill when we were in our late teens; I had begun to search in earnest by 1994. As a college professor I would use school breaks to get a block of time to tromp through southern swamps, in muck and mire up to my knees looking for the ivory-bill. It was my holy grail.
Tim and I had, unbeknownst to each other, spent countless hours in libraries digging through old journals and books to find even the most minuscule tidbit about the Ivory-bill. We had both begun to theorize why the Ivory-bill could still exist. We spoke of how forests have continued to improve since the 1940s and how habitat was getting better every year. We were both convinced that the Ivory-bill could have made it through, what Tim calls, "the bottle neck", a period of maximum degradation of southern forest. We believed that the bird's population could actually be growing, which would account for the increasing number of credible reports each year.
After we discovered that we had both been researching the bird and going into the field to search for it, we decided to join forces. We began to exchange ideas on the ivorybill's existence and on why the birds are occasionally seen, and then not found when groups of searchers went to the same location to investigate. We speculated on why no one who had claimed to see an Ivory-bill had taken a photo or captured a video. We also realized that the ivory-bill is far from being a well-studied species. Little is known of the bird's natural history outside of James Tanner's monumental work on the species between 1937 and 1939. His work is the only scientific study of the ivory-bill and, that study only included six pairs of birds in an area that had not been hunted for almost ten years.
We began to travel together and to interview people who had actually seen Ivory-bills. Tim interviewed Richard Pough, John Dennis, Nancy Tanner, Don Eckellbery, and Gene Laird, son of Louisiana game warden Jessie Larid. He also spoke with elderly Cajuns of south Louisiana and aged woodsmen who survived off the southern swamps, who had known the ghost bird in their youth. Together we interviewed Fielding Lewis, the dog trainer, who in 1971 took the disputed photos of an Ivory-bill in south Louisiana. We were documenting sightings less than a decade old, others twenty or thirty years old, some even older. The stories were always amazing; some no doubt had seen Ivory-bills, while other had undoubtedly misidentified the smaller pileated. The key was to let each person tell his or her story, whether it was about the Ivory-bill or pileated. The stories were flavored with antic and verbiage of the Old South and always fascinating to hear.
With Tim working at the Lab of ornithology the word got out that he was interested in Ivory-bill sightings, and it didn't take long for his phone to start ringing off the hook. Most reports were of pileated woodpeckers that the observer had misidentified. But one report was too good to be true. Gene Spariling, a kayaker from Hot Springs, Arkansas, was drifting down a bayou in eastern Arkansas when he saw what he described as a "super-big pileated with white on its back." I e-mailed Tim and said, "I've got to talk to this guy; I'm going to try and get a number for him." Within an hour and a half I received a call from Tim. "I found the guy and just got off the phone. I believe he actually saw an Ivory-bill. I told him you would be calling, here is his number."
As soon as I was off the phone with Tim, I gave Gene a call. I introduced myself, and he was surprised I had called so quickly. Trying to contain the excitement in my voice I said, "I understand you saw something interesting in the swamp." In a deep, long drawn out Arkansan voice he replies, "Well, I'm not sure what I saw," then he proceeds to tell his story. He told me how he was floating down the bayou when a large woodpecker passed overhead and landed about 10 feet up on the side of a cypress tree. The bird suddenly realized that he had landed near a human and began moving around the tree in a nervous, jerky motion.
"The back had a big white patch, but it was a dirty white - seemed to have a yellow tinge to it. The head was really strange, a big whitish beak and a pointed top knot that looked real cartoonish. After it saw me it moved around the tree in jerky movements, like it was really nervous. After moving around the trunk, it hitched up the tree and flew off. When it flew, I noticed that the white on the wings were in the wrong place and too much white for a pileated."
"It sounds to me like you saw an Ivory-bill" I said. "Well, he said, "I not sure, but I hope so."
After talking with Gene, I called Tim. "I believe this guy saw an Ivory-bill, or he did research and is down right lying, - but I don't believe he's lying. He's describing the bird perfectly but he's using his own words, not the textbook descriptions. When he told me the bird's head looked cartoonish, and it moved in a nervous manner, I knew he had seen an Ivory-bill."
I already had plans to leave for Louisiana where I had leads that there might be a pair of ivory-bills, but this sighting was too good, too fresh. Even if Gene wasn't sure about what he had seen, I knew. I believed. This sighting was only six days old when I interviewed Gene. I told Tim, "My plans have changed. I'm going to Arkansas." The next day I got an e-mail from Tim; it simply said, "I'm going with you. Can you pick me up in Memphis."
Incredible! We had a believable sighting that was only six days old. Nine days later Tim, Gene and I were floating down the bayou, hot on the trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
We put our canoe in at the bridge that crossed the bayou at Arkansas Highway 38, about 1:30 on a beautiful Thursday afternoon. That first day was a little shaky; every little move literally rocked the boat. Every time I steered the canoe in one direction, Tim tried to go in the opposite. Eventually we began working together and by the end of the day we were doing better as the paddling duo.
The water level was low and travel was arduous. At times the channel would disappear and we would find our selves in the swamp without a channel - shallow water with submerged cypress knees that can cause a canoe to capsize without notice. Often we would have to get out of the canoe and slog through the mud pulling and pushing the canoe as we went. The mud was boot-sucking muck. As we took a step forward, the muck would not release its grip of the engaged leg. If it were not for clinging onto the canoe we would have fallen face first into the mud many times. Then it was back to deeper water where we could paddle for a while before repeating the scenario.
The Cypress trees were magnificent, thrusting one hundred-fifty feet or more toward the heavens with a breast height diameter of more than three feet. The tupelo trees were smaller but some were more than two feet in diameter and reached 80 skyward. As I commented about the size of the trees, Gene says, "They get bigger as we go further south." These were not giant redwoods, but they were mighty impressive. We were in a beautiful, yet most inhospitable spot, a place where there just might be ivory-bills.
As afternoon turned into the evening we needed to find a campsite. Dry land is a real commodity in the swamp. At the end of a long lake which the bayou entered the ground level rose a few inches and we found a patch of dry dirt. Hardwoods came to the edge of the swamp here and it only took a slight rise in elevation for the ecosystem to transition from cypress/tupelo to oak, sweet gum, and hickory. There, on the edge of the swamp we pitched our tents and made camp.
I fell asleep almost immediately but woke up about midnight. A beaver approached the camp and decided that he did not like our presence. He began to slap his broad tail against the water. This seemed to go on forever. Later I heard a distant train, and it got closer and closer. I though it was going to come right through my tent. It was more than a mile away but seemed much closer. A train came down those tracks six times during the night. Needless to say, I did not get much sleep.
As I lay in the tent I wondered how an Ivory-bill could handle all this noise? The habitat was right, but what about all this disturbance? Then, I considered the wild turkeys and how many times I've seen them on the side of a road, with cars and semis passing by at 70 miles an hour, not even frightened of the vehicles or the sound. But when I would stop to take a photograph, they're gone in an instant. The turkeys have become accustomed to the man made noises and traffic; they have adjusted. Maybe the Ivory-bill had adjusted to these man made noises in the swamp as well.
I also concluded that if Ivory-bills had survived, they must be very wary of human movement within their range, and very skilled at avoiding detection. I could well understand how Gene may have seen an Ivory-bill. He is very stealthy in that kayak; he moves through the water with little effort. He sits low on the water and is practically invisible. On the other hand, Tim and I are too obvious in the canoe as we bang paddles against the sides. Flashing a wet paddle with each stroke as we moved across the water did not help either. If there were ivory-bills present, they would see us long before we would see them. The best we could hope for was to find feeding signs, hear a double rap, or if we were really lucky, a kent call. At minimum, we would check out the habitat. Finally in the wee morning hours I dozed off and got a little sleep.
As the darkness gave way to morning there was a brisk chill in the air. Frost covered everything and getting out of a warm sleeping bag was hard to do. For breakfast I filled a pot with swamp water and brought it to a boil, slipped a package of Dinty Moore beef stew into the boiling water and warmed my hands in the steam. Ten minutes later, we had hot beef stew, a real Ivory-bill hunter's breakfast.
Soon after breakfast, as the light of the rising sun touched the tree tops we broke camp and were on the water. As we drifted and paddled down the bayou we were amazed at all the woodpeckers. Tim and I both kept thinking about Jim Tanner's statement about the Ivory-bill sharing the forest with an abundance of other woodpecker species. Downy, hairy, and red-bellied were everywhere. There were also red-headed, flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and of course the pileated woodpeckers - more than I have ever seen in one place. We stopped many times that morning to check out woodpecker tapping, but each time we found a pileated going about its daily routine. As the morning drew on the day got warmer and I, of course, was looking forward to lunch. You know, paddling a canoe is hard work.
About 12:45 we had reached a lake, and Gene went ahead of us to scout for dry land so we could have lunch. He moved ahead effortlessly, he moved ahead leaving us behind discussing habitat and Ivory-bills.
While paddling through the lake I said, " You know we are making too much noise to find an Ivory-bill." Tim said, "Maybe one will find us," and we laughed. We were unaware than only minutes later our lives would change forever. The lake narrowed to an outlet channel at its south end and then made a sharp turn to the right. As we made the turn we paddled about 75 feet and began to drift. My eyes were drawn to the right about forty degrees off the starboard bow. Flying through the trees was a bird heading towards us. I did not say any thing to Tim - I could see with peripheral vision that his sight had been drawn to the same bird.
I have been a birder for more than 35 years now, and a bird photographer for more than 26 of them. Although I don't consider myself the ultimate birder, I do know birds and am confident in my identification skills. The bird Tim and I were looking at was something I had not quite seen before. It flew like a duck, fast with shallow rapid wing beats. It reminded me of a pintail in the way the primaries seem to be doing all the flying. But this bird looked black, really black.
As the bird came through the trees it broke over the bayou less than 70 feet in front of us. As it cleared the trees it tilted its body from right to left about 80 degrees, with its back toward us. It was illuminated perfectly. I saw the wing pattern immediately. The bird was black, the blackest black I had ever seen. The body and inner wings were a soft black, and the primaries appeared to have a slight gloss. The wings were black with white secondarys. The white secondaries were not just white, but snow white, and the white extended beyond the secondaries into the three inner most primaries at an angle of about 45 degrees. This caused the wings to appear long and narrow and a black back separated the secondaries. The image is indelibly marked in my mind. It is as fresh today, as I write this, as it was as it was the day I saw the ivory-bill. It was a pattern I knew well, a pattern that I had studied and hoped to see all my adult life.
We were so close to the bird that I could see the highlighted feather veins of the black outer primaries. I had waited more than 30 years to see this bird. My holy grail. I recognized the bird immediately, as did Tim, and we shouted out "IVORY-BILL" at the same time. We were both in shock. I have always believed, but never did I think I would ever see the ghost bird, but there it was before my very eyes.
The Ivory-bill looked like it was going to land. It swooped upward and flared its wings and tail. When Tim and I yelled "ivory-bill" it almost stalled in flight and then flew further into the tree line on the east side of the bayou and briefly landed on another tree, but only for a second.
After its brief landing it flew to another tree and stopped momentarily. In excitement I said to Tim, "Keep watching it; I'm getting the camera." As Tim watched the bird it landed on yet another tree for only a second and then it was gone. We hastily put the canoe ashore and began chasing the Ivory-bill on foot in the direction it flew. But the muck and mire made a land chase impossible. By the time we had penetrated two hundred feet into the forest the ghost bird had vanished. Both Tim and I were in shock. Tears were streaming down my face and I was weak in the knees. Tim rushing-up behind me moved nervously, his skin white as if the blood had been drained from his body. His eyes seemed larger than normal. Like the old saying, they really were the size of silver dollars. When he caught up with me he stopped. Standing there with a slight shake to his body he simply said, "I don't know about you, but that's a lifer for me." When we were laughing, I realized that we had just become the first two people since 1944 to see an ivory-billed woodpecker at the same time.
We walked back to the canoe. I sat down on a log, put my head in my hands and began to weep, "I saw an Ivory-bill, I saw an Ivory-bill".
Tim's voice brought me back to the moment, "We have to make field notes right now while everything is fresh in our minds, and before we talk to each other about what just happened," he said. Immediately we took out note pads and began to write. As we were writing I said, "We have to make a drawing as well." Tim promptly replied," I can't draw." "Neither can I," I replied, "but do the best you can."
We took copious notes, then a GPS reading. Tim looked across the bayou and said," "I believe the bird passed right across there". I remember it flying in front of that tree there," he pointed to a crooked tupelo. "Yeah, you're right, and it looked like it was going to land right here on this one before we yelled, ivory-bill!" We both laughed.
We busied ourselves, measuring the distance from where we first spotted the ivory-bill to the tree where it had nearly landed. We were about seventy feet from the ivory-bill when it flew across the slough.
After making notes and establishing where the bird had flown across the bayou we sat back down on the log. Still stunned I felt humbled by the experience. A great gift had been given to Tim and me, and perhaps the world as well.
I could not help but think of those who had come before us. Foremost in my thoughts was John Dennis, who along with Davis Crompton took the last universally accepted photographs of ivorybills in Cuba. Yet when he discovered ivorybills in the Big Thicket of Texas in 1968, professional ornithologists ignored his sightings.
Then there was George Lowery, curator of the Natural History Museum at Louisiana State University. Lowery presented photographs of a male ivory-bill taken by a Louisiana duck hunter at a meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1971. Most professional ornithologists thought the photographs were a hoax, but Lowery was a firm believer. Believing that those photographs were real took a great toll on his career.
My thoughts raced to James Tanner and Arthur Allen. What would they say if they were sitting here with me, if they had witnessed what I had just seen? I was secure in the knowledge that Tim and I had just seen the bird together. Perhaps all those who had come before us would now be vindicated. Emotion overwhelmed me - the "Lord God bird" had been rediscovered. Would anyone believe us?
Tim would return to the lab of ornithology at Cornell and tell the director of our experience, and I would return to Oakwood College and inform the dean of our success. "As of 1:15 p.m., February 27, 2004, the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct," I told him. "Do you have any proof?" he asked. I didn't - so I spent that semester driving back and forth from Huntsville, Alabama, to Arkansas. I told the dean that if we could get photos or a video, the news would go all around the world. After the existence of the ivorybill was made public on April 18, 2005, I was able to show him an article from a newspaper in Calcuta, India, that mentioned me, and Oakwood College, by name.
Our sighting launched the Big Woods Conservation Partnership, and the largest, most extensive search for the Ivory-billed woodpecker ever undertaken. The search that ensued resulted in 15 more sightings and a videotape that would prove conclusively that the Ivory-bill had been re-discovered. I spent the next 14 months in the bayous of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge searching for and trying to get documentation of the ivory-bill. I saw the Lord God bird four more times.
Of all the highlights for me, however, none could outshine the moment, about an hour after Tim and I had seen the ivory-bill woodpecker, when I called my wife. Over the years I believe that she has dreamed of me seeing an Ivory-bill as much as I had. With shaky hands I punched in the number. "Norma," I said softly "I found it - I saw an Ivory-bill."