Have You Seen Him?

University of Maryland and NASA researchers have teamed up to join in the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, thought long-extinct until a possible sighting two years ago.

August 11, 2006|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN REPORTER

The bird may not exist - but a team of Maryland scientists has joined the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, whose alleged reappearance two years ago has spawned an avian controversy and millions of dollars in federal spending.

Researchers from the University of Maryland and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center jumped into the fray in June when they leased a turbo-prop plane, equipped it with laser imaging sensors and spent seven nights flying over a 1 million-acre patch of Arkansas to aid in the search for the elusive bird.

Now they are creating a map pinpointing regions of the Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges with the dense forest canopy that America's largest woodpecker once preferred. The $200,000 project is funded by NASA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"This is the kind of information we'd have no other way of getting," said Ralph Dubayah, a UM geography professor who is part of the research team.

For skeptics, all this may be jumping the gun. Despite a 2004 sighting reported in the journal Science - and an intense bird centscm+RDlschubert:hunt search since then - ornithologists still aren't sure whether the bird survives. Some argue that the first question to ask is not where the bird lives - but whether it lives at all.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't be putting money into wildlife conservation, but at the moment there's no proof the ivory-billed [woodpecker] still exists," said Kenn Kaufman, author of Birds of North America.

The ivory-billed woodpecker mystery is rooted in the 1940s, when the old-growth forests of the Southeast where the bird lived were rapidly disappearing. The last universally accepted sighting was in April 1944 in an area of Louisiana known as the Singer Tract.

But in February 2004, a kayaker named Gene Sparling spotted a bird he identified as an ivory-billed woodpecker while paddling through the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas.

He reported the sighting to a canoe club on the Internet and six days later, to Timothy Gallagher, a bird enthusiast who edits a magazine published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the nation's most respected centers for avian studies.

Gallagher, who happened to be in Arkansas at the time, had been periodically traveling the country, interviewing people who had reported sightings of the bird. He and Bobby Harrison, a longtime friend and wildlife photographer, began searching the area the kayaker had described.

The two had long been fascinated by the regal bird - with its 3-foot wingspan and distinctive black-and-white markings. Its demise was long considered an object lesson in the impact of destruction of wildlife habitat. "There's been such a sense of tragedy and mystery about it," Gallagher said.

In an emotional moment, the friends simultaneously spotted what appeared to be their quarry as it fluttered past their canoe, Gallagher said. "We both simultaneously yelled, `Ivory-billed!' which spooked the bird," he recalled.

The Cornell lab dispatched a team to the refuge, conducted an extensive search and announced the bird's rediscovery at an April 2005 news conference - the same day the scientists published findings in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Science.

The findings included a frame-by-frame analysis of a blurry, four-second video clip of the bird taken from their canoe.

The report made national news and turned the ivory-billed woodpecker into a symbol of hope among bird enthusiasts and the general public. "It's been a holy grail of bird watching, but I had no idea it would catch on with the general public the way it has," Gallagher said.

But others have challenged the evidence of the bird's existence. A year after the findings were published, a group of experts that included David A. Sibley, author of a well-known series of birding guides, argued in the same journal that the tape showed another bird, known as a pileated woodpecker.

"We were completely convinced that the video does not show an ivory-billed woodpecker, and nothing since then has changed our minds," said Chris Elphick, a co-author of the article and a University of Connecticut ornithologist.

Other skeptics wonder why there have been no confirmed sightings or photographs of the bird, considering the extensive searches conducted since its apparent rediscovery in 2004. "The idea that the ivory-billed is so elusive that they have evaded these search parties sort of stretches beyond belief," Kaufman said.

Gallagher is convinced that he saw an ivory-billed. "I'm actually a very conservative bird watcher," he said. "This to me was unmistakable."

Last fall, the Cornell lab began a followup search that lasted six months and involved 20 biologists and more than 100 volunteers. It produced four possible sightings, but none was definitive, said Ken Rosenberg, the lab's director of conservation science.

(The aerial map being produced by the Maryland researchers will be used in another search planned for fall.)

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