The Best-Kept Secret
For 14 months our writer lived with shocking news that she and a small, select group didn't dare reveal: An ivory-billed woodpecker had been found. Here is her insider's account of how it all happened and what it was like to be sitting on the conservation story of the century.
By Rachel Dickinson
Last January 1 found myself paddling up a swampy bayou in eastern Arkansas with Tim Gallagher, who is my husband and the editor of Living Bird at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, and his friend Bobby Harrison. Bobby, who supports himself by teaching art history and photography at Oakwood College in Alabama, is such an ivory-billed woodpecker fanatic that his den is filled with paintings and knickknacks, like whiskey decanters, depicting the species. Sobbing Bobby, I call him, because he broke down and wept after, almost a year earlier, an ivory-bill flew in front of a canoe he and Tim were paddling. Now they wanted to show me the exact spot where it all happened. Although it was about 45 degrees out, in the canoe it felt much colder, even though I was dressed head to toe in layers of insulated camouflage clothing.
As we paddled around the massive 1,000-year-old cypress trees and younger tupelos, I was amazed at the magnificence of this remnant of bottomland swamp forest in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, 65 miles east of Little Rock. Surrounded by vast fields of cotton and soybeans, this island of wilderness is teeming with beavers, otters, wood ducks, barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, and scores of woodpeckers: red-bellied, pileated, downy, hairy, and red-headed. And now, of course, the ivory-bill, which, at 20 inches tall, is the largest woodpecker in the United States and third largest in the world. It has loomed even larger as a symbol of extinction for more than half a century.
Long fascinated with this iconic bird, Tim had spent a couple of years writing a book about ivory-bills, The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (see “Reviews”), and talking to everyone he could find who claimed to have seen one in this country. He traipsed around with Bobby—he called him his southern-dialogue coach and interpreter—and the two of them worked hard to connect the dots between sightings.
Then one day Tim called me from the swamp on his cell phone and, in a strangled-sounding voice, said, “Rachel?” Before he could utter another word, I interrupted: “You saw the bird.” When he said yes I almost dropped the phone. Had I known then that I was going to have to keep the biggest conservation secret of the past century to myself for almost 14 months, I might have asked him not to divulge any of the details. Instead, I became the silent partner to a man possessed.
On April 25, when rumors began leaking out, flying around the world
on birding list-serves (coincidentally it was the first anniversary
of the day when a video captured four seconds of an ivory-bill in flight),
those in the know realized they had no choice but to confirm the rumor.
On April 28, after a hastily convened press conference at the U.S. Department
of the Interior, the ivory-bill instantly became a headline story. The
blurry video by David Luneau, a University of Arkansas professor, and
the description of Bobby sobbing after seeing the ivory-bill made the
evening news and newspaper accounts across the country and around world.
“This is no ordinary bird to the 70 million Americans who are birdwatchers,”
John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, declared
at the press conference. “This Holy Grail is really the most spectacular
creature we could imagine rediscovering.”
In the mid-19th century millions of acres of swamp forests blanketed the South's major river drainages and deltas. There the ivory-billed woodpecker had thrived for millennia, foraging on the numerous dead and dying trees ever-present in an old-growth forest, peeling off tight strips of bark to get at the cerambycid beetle larvae and other protein-rich grubs underneath. But after the Civil War lumber companies bought up huge tracts of virgin bottomland forest across the South for pennies, and the great trees fell. By 1930 most of the southern swamp forests had been clear-cut, forcing the ivory-bill into smaller and more fragmented pieces of forest and certainly pushing this magnificent bird toward extinction.
One remarkable remnant was an 80,000-acre piece of primeval forest near Tallulah, Louisiana, owned by the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Most of what we know about the ivory-bill comes from research conducted there in the 1930s. Cornell professor Arthur A. Allen went to the so-called Singer Tract in 1935 and produced the first motion pictures and sound recordings of ivory-bills.
Two years later Cornell graduate student James T. Tanner, who had accompanied Allen, received a fellowship from Audubon to study the Singer Tract's ivory-bills from 1937 to 1939. He came to know the place and the bird like no one else. “All the animals that had ever lived there in the memory of man, excepting the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, still lived there,” he wrote. “The hand of man had been laid so lightly on the deeper woods and its inhabitants that it took an experienced eye to see the trace that had been made.” His book, The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, published in 1942 by National Audubon, became the bible for those who have sought this bird ever since.
The Chicago Mill and Lumber Company had leased the logging rights to the Singer Tract, and although Audubon fought to preserve the area as a national park or refuge, it was not to be. After a meeting with various company and government officials, Audubon president John Baker wrote: “The Chairman [of Chicago Mills and Lumber] said, among other things, ‘We are just money-grubbers. We are not concerned, as are you folks, with ethical considerations.'”
The last universally accepted sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker in America took place in April 1944, when Audubon dispatched artist Don Eckelberry to the Singer Tract to draw what was thought to be the last living bird. Eckelberry made one final sketch as the logging crew moved closer to the roost tree of the female ivory-bill. Later he wrote, “I watched as one tree came screaming down and cared to see no more.”
It seems that at least once a decade since then rumors of an ivory-bill sighting would surface. Tim, for his part, always kept an open mind about reported sightings. He could eliminate many in five minutes, since in most cases people had misidentified a pileated woodpecker—it's three inches smaller than the ivory-bill and doesn't have the big white patches on the backs of its wings—as an ivory-bill. But when Tim believed a report fit the description of an ivory-bill, he would follow up on it, usually traveling with Bobby.
One of most compelling tips came from Mary Scott, a lawyer who had quit her day job to look for species that were presumed extinct, including Bachman's warblers, Eskimo curlews, and, of course, ivory-billed woodpeckers. Mary's sighting in March 2003 is what initially prompted Tim and Bobby to start searching in northeast Arkansas. Tim called me excitedly after visiting Mary's sighting area in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. “This place looks really great,” he declared. “For the first time I actually feel like there's a chance we might find an ivory-bill.”
In mid-February 2004 an Arkansas kayaker named Gene Sparling posted a trip log on a canoe-club list-serve about a trip he took down Bayou de View in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. He mentioned seeing an unusually marked pileated woodpecker. Someone who read the description advised him to report the news to Mary Scott, whose birding website had become a kind of clearinghouse for ivory-bill sightings. She passed the report along to Tim. He checked a map and realized the place Gene had seen the bird was less than 50 miles from Mary's sighting area and that it was connected by a more or less continuous strip of forest.
Tim moved instantly, calling Gene and grilling him about his sighting for nearly an hour. Then he asked Bobby to do the same, so they could compare notes. At the end, the two of them believed Gene had probably seen an ivory-bill.
When Tim told me about his conversation, I could see he was struggling with something. Since he had just returned from a monthlong trip through the South with Bobby, I wanted him to stay put for a while. We have four children—three of them still young—and live in upstate New York's snowbelt. I'd had it with his daily phone calls from the South; all I could think about was shoveling the driveway and getting the kids bundled up and out the door for school. But as he stood there and said Bobby was going to meet Gene in the swamp, I looked him in the eye and said, “You'll hate yourself if Bobby sees the bird and you're not there.” He offered a weak protest but within minutes was making plane reservations. A few days later he and Bobby were in a canoe following Gene's kayak down Bayou de View.
They had planned to spend a week canoeing through the bayou and camping out at night. It was still winter and bitterly cold; the second day, February 27, broke crisp and clear. Tim and Bobby were having a tough time paddling—Tim would head in one direction and Bobby would try to head in the other, and they would find themselves zigzagging through the swamp.
By early afternoon, after all that paddling, Bobby was starving, he'd run out of Snickers bars and Mountain Dew, and wanted to pull over to eat. About 1 p.m. Gene paddled ahead, looking for a dry spot to have lunch. Suddenly a huge black-and-white woodpecker came flying up a side slough to the right and then crossed the open bayou in front of them, less than 70 feet away. As it swung up, apparently to land on the trunk of a tupelo, Bobby and Tim shared a stunning view of the back of its wings, with vivid white going all the way down to the trailing edge of its secondaries and inner primaries. Tim cried out, “Look at all the white on its wings!” They then exclaimed in unison, “Ivory-bill!” The bird banked sharply and disappeared into the forest.
Tim and Bobby paddled to the side, jumped out of their canoe, and headed after the bird, wading through knee-deep mud and tripping over submerged branches in the murky brown water. After 15 desperate minutes they decided to stop and write up their field notes, before they'd had time to speak with each other, perhaps tainting their observations. When the enormity of what they had witnessed sunk in, Bobby put his head in his hands and sobbed, repeating: “I saw an ivory-bill. . . . I saw an ivory-bill.”
Tim, Bobby, and Gene decided they wouldn't reveal their discovery until they could figure out what to do. Tim knew he had to tell John Fitzpatrick at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. By the time he got home several days later, Tim had barely slept since seeing the bird. He pulled into the driveway at 2 a.m. and then had to go to work just hours later. The next morning he was ashen-colored, with huge bags and dark circles under his eyes. “Either Fitz will believe me or he'll put me in the Bigfoot-seeker category and I'll lose my job,” he said. “What are the odds he'll believe you?” I asked. “Fifty-fifty,” he replied.
“When Tim came into my office that Monday morning and closed the door, he looked terrible,” Fitzpatrick says. “He told me about the sighting; I stopped him and ran and got a tape recorder. Then I grilled him for about an hour and at the end said, ‘There's just one more question I have to ask: How certain are you that you saw an ivory-billed woodpecker?' Tim answered, ‘Absolutely certain,' and then I said, ‘Our lives will never be the same from this day on.' ”
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Arkansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy (TNC), which had a history of buying land in the area, decided to form a partnership and develop a plan of action—they called it the Big Woods Conservation Partnership. TNC resolved to acquire more land in the area to add to the already protected wildlife refuges, and the lab set out to conduct a scientific search for the bird. Both organizations knew they would need to maintain complete secrecy. Instead of calling the bird ivory-bill, people began referring to it as Elvis. By April 2005, although almost 200 people were in on the secret, they had all remained tight-lipped. “Here we were, sitting on this incredible story, and you felt so guilty because you couldn't tell,” says Ken Rosenberg, the Cornell Lab's director of conservation science. “Around the lab people had an inkling something was happening, and they didn't push it. But there were times when we had to lie outright.”
All of those who knew, including me, signed a nondisclosure agreement, which we honored for the simple reason that none of us wanted to be responsible for putting this bird in jeopardy before protection could be put in place. As a journalist, I felt particularly frustrated, because Tim would come home and give me details about what was happening in Arkansas. I knew I had the scoop of my life, but more than once Tim saw a look in my eye and would say, “Don't do it—remember the bird.”
The search was code-named the Arkansas Inventory Project. The deep-cover story was that Cornell people had come there to help the Arkansas TNC conduct a survey of all the birdlife in the swamp. There were up to 30 full-time and as many part-time searchers in the swamp during the most recent December-to-April field season. Many came from the lab, but its scientists also had to reach outside their group, enlisting graduate students and friends to help. A number of them signed on to the project not even knowing that they were really looking for an ivory-bill until they got to Arkansas, where they were briefed and handed the nondisclosure agreement to sign. The people of the nearby towns of Brinkley and Cotton Plant grew accustomed to seeing strangers—dressed in camouflage, their binoculars slung around their necks—breeze through town with canoes strapped to the tops of their trucks.
During the past 14 months there have been at least seven solid sightings of an ivory-bill—always a solitary bird. Three searchers saw red on the bird's head, indicating a male, while the others, including Tim and Bobby, saw only black. The problem is that just because someone does not see red, it doesn't mean it wasn't there, so no one can say with certainty that more than one bird is present in the bayou.
In April 2004 Mindy LaBranche, at the time an ornithologist from the Cornell Lab, had one of the better looks at an ivory-bill. She says, “You don't even notice the head because you are concentrating on the wing areas and the diagnostic features. I kept saying ‘white to the trailing edge, white to the trailing edge' as I watched several wing beats of the ivory-bill through my binoculars. Then I sat back in my chair, which was stuck in the mud next to a cypress knee, and I shook uncontrollably.”
All of the sightings took place in a small area within 550,000 acres known as the Big Woods of Arkansas, the largest corridor of bottomland hardwood forest left in the Mississippi Delta north of the Atchafalaya River. Since March 2004 the search crew has spent a total of more than 20,000 hours in the swamps of the Cache River and White River refuges, yet has covered only 45,000 acres—less than 8 percent—of the area. Tanner estimated that the ivory-bills in the Singer Tract had territories of six square miles. But this was in optimal habitat. Who knows how large the territories might be in the Cache River? Some searchers speculate the bird could be using the bayou as a corridor to move from one area to another, which might explain why no one has found a roost or a nest hole, despite the effort. The hope is that a small remnant population exists in the vast wilderness of the White River refuge, which likens the job of an ivory-bill searcher in a canoe to looking for a moving needle in a haystack.
Tim Spahr, a Harvard astronomer, longtime ivory-bill enthusiast, and part-time searcher big on probability studies, did some calculations on the likelihood of there being only one bird. “He might be the only one using the Cache River area,” says Spahr. “But I think the odds he's the last ivory-bill are very low because of the vastness of the area and the small amount that has been surveyed.”
“Bottom line, this bird had parents,” says Rosenberg. “And if they live about 15 years, this bird was born in the 1990s or even in the 21st century. That's amazing: There were breeding ivory-bills in Arkansas in the 1990s, half a century after they were supposedly extinct!”
The Departments of Agriculture and Interior pledged more than $10 million to the recovery of the species. The money would be earmarked toward partnerships for bottomland hardwood forest tree planting on refuge lands by private industry and toward the purchase of development easements on older forests. The agencies are also funding enhanced law enforcement and public education.
Effective immediately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has established a managed access area of about 5,000 acres within the Bayou de View drainage area of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Only researchers with permits will be allowed access. Still, the USFWS is respectful of local traditional uses of the bayou.
People looking for a hopeful sign that we haven't completely wrecked this southern ecosystem tend to view the ivory-bill's survival as a miracle. We destroyed its habitat and, as ivory-bills dwindled to a precious few, collectors wiped out some of the last remaining populations. And yet this wary and secretive bird has risen, as Tim says, “like Lazarus from the grave, and has given us a second chance.” John Fitzpatrick talks, perhaps wistfully, about the need for a 200-year plan to ensure this bird's survival, which would give time for bottomland hardwood forests to regenerate to the point where they will be able to sustain healthy populations of ivory-bills. “It provides a spectacular ray of hope,” he says.
What began as an interesting book project about an obsession veered 180 degrees when Tim and Bobby actually saw the bird. Since that day in February 2004, more than 18,000 acres have been quietly acquired, and $10 million has been raised for additional acquisition and to support a search team for two field seasons.
What's next? The search for the ivory-billed woodpecker will continue under the auspices of Cornell, and because the bird now falls under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, the USFWS will be in charge of the species' recovery plan. The areas searched by the Cornell team in the Cache River and White River refuges are already recognized as Important Bird Areas by Arkansas Audubon, which is attempting to reverse the loss and fragmentation of critical bird habitat in the state. The USFWS will provide viewing towers, boardwalks, and limited access to the thousands of birders who are bound to descend on rural Arkansas for a chance to add the ivory-bill to their life lists. “Birders shouldn't flock to Arkansas with the hope of getting killer looks at an ivory-billed woodpecker,” cautions Cornell's Ron Rohrbaugh, the leader of the search team. “But the old-growth cypress and tupelo swamps of the Cache River are awe-inspiring places to visit, with good birding to boot.”
While the Bush administration's immediate response would appear to help the bird in the short term, it continues to work at cross-purposes on other fronts. Just days after the press conference to proclaim the good news about the ivory-bill, the administration announced a new rule that would strip protection from nearly 60 million acres of some of America's most pristine national forests, which will likely determine the fate of the ivory-bill and other imperiled birds. Nor do the administration's or Congress's other actions bode well (see “What You Can Do”).
Now that the whole world knows about the rediscovery of the ivory-bill, things can return to some semblance of normalcy at home. No more Tuesday night phone conferences between the “core” group of Cornell and TNC people. No more lying to friends and family about why Tim was so fixated on venturing to a swamp in Arkansas, even in the dead of winter. When I say, “Honey, let's take a vacation,” I know we probably won't be going to eastern Arkansas. However, as Tim reminded me the other day, there are other supposedly extinct species out there, like the Eskimo curlew, the imperial woodpecker . . .
Rachel Dickinson writes for numerous publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, Islands, USA Weekend, National Geographic Traveler, Arizona Highways, and Yankee.