Q&A: Bobby Harrison
Of the seven people in the world who insist on having seen the ivory-billed woodpecker since its controversial rediscovery in eastern Arkansas in 2004, only one earned the nickname “Sobbing Bobby” for breaking down and weeping during his hallelujah moment. Since then Bobby Harrison (above) has spoken all over the country, refined a website, and written a children’s book, To Find an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He has also taken two spring sabbaticals from his job teaching art history and photography at Oakwood College in Alabama so that he could continue to work alongside the Cornell search teams probing the deepest, darkest sloughs of Arkansas’s Cache River. Audubon recently checked in with him for a progress report.
Audubon: How many times have you seen the ivory bill in these past two years?
Harrison: Five times. The last sighting was September 4, 2004, the same day I shot the video.
Q: Why, in your opinion, does that video offer the evidence needed to confirm the ivory bill’s identity?
A: You can see that the wing beat is consistent with the ivory bill’s. It’s a little over 10 beats per second, a frequency that does not allow the human eye to see the deep flap of the wing. Instead it appears the primaries are quivering back and forth. I’m 100 hundred percent positive: I saw an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Q: How do you rebut the critics who say you saw a pileated woodpecker, not an ivory bill?
A: These people aren’t only questioning me, they’re questioning Cornell, the world-leading scientific authority on birds.
Q: With about three dozen people searching from early November until late April, why haven’t there been more reports?
A: If [critics went] back to the old literature, they’d see that these birds are very wary. They avoid people. The last two years the water levels have been extremely low. Arkansas has been in a drought. There was only one week when you could actually crisscross the swamp in a canoe. The rest of the time you had to walk, which is difficult to do, and it makes noise. This bird already knows that we’re in the swamp, and for all we know it just may be avoiding the areas that we’re in. This bird does like its solitude.
Q: If the bird has always been in Arkansas, why has it taken so long to find it?
A: Many ornithologists, in particular Herbert Stoddard, have said the ivory bill is a disaster species. If you go back in history, there was usually an outbreak—if you could use that word with the ivory bill—after a disaster (a hurricane, fire, ice storm), which might be tied with a population eruption of certain beetles that the birds eat. There was a big ice storm in 2000, and we saw the woodpecker in Bayou de View up until last winter. Now in the search season of 2006 we’re hearing an occasional double wrap, getting a glimpse of the bird off in the distance, but we’re not having good sightings anymore. So perhaps there’s a link with the beetles. But nothing I’m telling you has been proven. We haven’t had many entomologists exploring this, which I don’t understand.
Q: How many people are currently searching Cache River and White River national wildlife refuges?
A: A lot during the search season (early November until the trees leaf out in late April). Roughly, there have been about a dozen people in Bayou de View, and another 20 to 22 people a day in the White River refuge.
Q: With that many people searching, why haven’t there been more reports?
A: This is one of the things that the critics don’t understand. If they’d go back to the old literature they’d see that these birds are very wary. They avoid people. The last two years the water levels have been extremely low. Arkansas has been in a drought. There was only one week when you could actually crisscross the swamp in a canoe. The rest of the time you had to walk, which is difficult to do, and it makes noise. This bird already knows that we’re in the swamp, and for all we know it just may be avoiding the areas that we’re in. This bird does like its solitude.
Q: Do you think there are other places that still harbor ivory bills?
A: I believe there could be birds in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, South Carolina’s Congaree National Park and Santee Swamp, Florida’s Panhandle, and Texas’s Big Thicket National Preserve. There have been constant reports pouring out of these places for decades.
Q: You carve the decoys that have reportedly lured the birds in Arkansas. Are you planning on making any improvements to them?
A: An ornithologist from Washington recently pointed out that my decoys should be smaller. As is, they’re macho ivory bills. He thought a bird passing by might be more likely to stop and run off a smaller bird. So now I’m making smaller decoys. I thought that was a very good idea.
Q: Do you think an ivory bill breeding population still remains?
A: Yes. These forests have done nothing but get better since the 1950s. The second growth is approaching huge sizes—large enough to sustain ivory bills, even in areas that we know have not had birds. All these areas that could provide habitat for ivory bills are connected, like a string of pearls, as Jerry Jackson says so well. And these birds are powerful fliers. They can cover great distances over short time periods.
Q: You go to great lengths to be inconspicuous in the swamp, dressing in camouflage and traveling in a boat with a quiet trolling motor. Why aren’t the other searchers doing the same? Or would you prefer to keep it this way, to maintain an edge?
A: I have not seen Cornell use a trolling motor on a regular basis, and I don’t know why. I would be happy for anybody to get good documentation of this bird. Of course I would like to be the one. But I would be happy for anyone to do it. I wish someone would walk in with a good image today.
Q: Then what?
A: Well, I haven’t gotten a good image yet. And there’s that Eskimo curlew that people keep claiming to have seen. I’d like to look at that. Or what about that Bachman’s warbler? Maybe it could still be around. I’ve just lived and breathed ivory bill for so long. Who knows what could be out there?