On the trail of a most elusive quarry

A bird expert and a photographer, father and son, seek a possibly extinct woodpecker

November 27, 2005|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

The announcement earlier this year that the ivory-billed woodpecker was found living in a swamp in Arkansas was probably the greatest event in the history of ornithology, bringing back from the dead a spectacular bird long thought extinct.

But there were skeptics about the announcement, which was based on a few fleeting sightings - and a quick bit of videotape - of the 20-inch bird that very much resembles the common, but still spectacular, pileated woodpecker.

These sightings are not like scientific experiments that can be repeated, the results analyzed and re-examined. Seeing a bird is a matter of skill and knowledge and just plain good luck. Professionals can come up empty-handed. Amateurs can make extraordinary finds.

Did those who spotted the Arkansas ivory bills have the right combination? Or did they just see something that they desperately wanted to see?

Sun photographer Jerry Jackson recently visited the Big Woods area of Arkansas, where the sightings were recorded. He was accompanied by one of the world's leading experts on woodpeckers, Jerome Jackson, who happens to be Jerry's father. He is also one of the skeptics about the ivory bill sightings.

The senior Jackson is a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. He wrote the 2004 book In Search of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, which documents the bird's history and demise and his own 40-year search for a survivor.

Before an academic conference on the ivory bill in Arkansas, Jacksons junior and senior put a canoe into the swampy waters of Bayou DeView, where the sightings had been reported. The water was low, so they spent much of their time hauling the canoe over shallow spots.

"The whole area has become like the mountain in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the younger Jackson says, as the swampy expanse has the same irresistible draw on birders that the movie's mountain did on those called by the extraterrestrials.

They have spawned a local industry to service their needs. And, during the Jacksons' canoe trip, the transient birders lurked on bridges, binoculars in hand, hoping against hope that an ivory bill would fly within view. As any birder knows, it could happen. You never know what you will see when you lift the binoculars to your eyes and peer at a fleeting image.

The swamp, although never that far from civilization, was still dark and deep and full of the types of critters that do not exist out in the open. It would be just the type of place for the ivory bill to survive.

"One time, a bird flew right at us," the younger Jackson reports. "We could feel the whoosh as it went by. I'm still not sure what it was. Dad thinks it was a kingfisher."

Then there was that big woodpecker high in the tree that got Jerry to steady his 600 mm lens on a monopod and snap off a few images. It turned out to be a pileated.

"But I think we might have heard an ivory bill," he says. The woodpecker has a distinctive kent, kent call, said to resemble a child's toy horn. "But I'm not sure. It could have been a white-breasted nuthatch."

Did the kent, kent calls convince Jerry's skeptical father that the ivory bill was back?

"I don't know," the son says. "His hearing isn't as good as mine."

Michael Hill

To hear Cornell University's audio clips of the ivory bill, go to baltimoresun.com/ivorybill.

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