The Chance of a Lifetime
A team of ornithologists slogs through swamps across the South, hoping to see a ghost.
When the sun first hit the green of the forest canopy, it was still dark far below, where a bayou meandered among tall cypress roots. As light and bird calls moved down through the trees, three men and one woman, dressed in camouflage, were already scanning the trunks of cypress, loblolly pines, nuttall oak, tupelo, and sweetgum as another day of birding began. The four are Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s mobile team. Just as they had done, from before dawn until after dusk, seven days a week for five months, they moved patiently but persistently through the old-growth bottomland hardwood forest, looking and listening.
Starting and ending in the Congaree National Park in South Carolina, the mobile team crisscrossed the Southeast, hiking or canoeing through some of the region’s largest swamps and forests: the Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee River basins in Florida, the Atchafalaya and Pearl rivers of Louisiana, the Pascagoula in Mississippi, and the Big Thicket in east Texas. Though they record every bird they see, they are hoping for a flash of white on a black wing, a sharp double-tap on a dead tree, or a bleatlike kent—an ivory-billed woodpecker.
Martjan Lammertink, a Dutch woodpecker expert who has studied the great slaty woodpecker in Indonesia and surveyed old-growth habitats in Mexico for imperial woodpeckers, was selected to launch the mobile team. His team was added to the 2006–2007 search season as an adjunct to the focused effort in Arkansas that has been running since the ivory-bill was believed rediscovered there in 2004. The small group set out to assess the most promising habitat across the ivory-bill’s historical range. Covering more than 18,000 miles with two vehicles carrying three canoes, Lammertink may have felt like the ringmaster of a tiny traveling circus, but the quality of the habitat the team found lifted his hopes. “These forests, they are coming back. They are past the bottleneck of the worst cutting,” he said. “It is very positive and inspiring. I just hope there are [ivory-bills] out there.”
The team’s search season ran from December through April. During that time they took four days off, which were not so much rests as blurs of laundry, phone calls home, and catch-up work on logging data gathered on field days. This sort of birding marathon might not be for everyone, but Nathan Banfield, one of the team’s field technicians, called the time a dream. “There is no place I’d rather be. It’s a chance of a lifetime,” he said. “When waking up to a dark mysterious foggy morning, walking through chest deep water, crossing 10-foot-high log bridges, or navigating through an old cypress forest by canoe, it leaves me with the feeling that these few areas we have left have something important hidden deep in the heart of it.” Team member Utami Setiorini echoed the sentiment saying, “Every moment was amazing,” though she added that during the five months with men, “I would miss woman-to-woman talk.”
Typically, the researchers would split up each morning to head for a new 500-acre plot where they looked for pieces of bark that might have been pulled off dead or dying trees by ivory-bills searching for grubs. They also used wooden sound boxes to imitate a tapping ivory-bill, hoping to attract a bird. Possible ivory-bill roosts were marked on a GPS and revisited at dusk to watch for a woodpecker settling in for the night.
The team regrouped after dark at their tents for dinner and sleep. They were ready to start again before sunrise tallying woodpeckers and warblers, kinglets and kites. Their lists were added to the eBird database launched by the Cornell Lab and the National Audubon Society and used by a number of organizations to track bird distribution and abundance. While things with wings held most of their attention, it was also necessary to keep an eye out for cottonmouths, alligators, and even snapping turtles.
Despite the commitment, more than 6,000 hours of searching, and countless pileated woodpecker sightings, no one on the mobile team glimpsed an ivory-billed woodpecker. Lammertink is still cautiously hopeful, though he acknowledged, “With each visit that doesn’t turn up anything, it become a little less likely that the bird is there.” The first season for the mobile team ended when the foliage filled in and the swamps’ snakes grew active in the early summer heat. Lammertink won’t be in the field again next season. He will continue to support the team but is shifting to assessing the data the ivory-bill search has gathered to date. Though the players on next season’s team will change, the roving, range-wide search will pick up again in December.
The mobile team’s travel log and photo album are available online.
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Feature story link to "Giving Up the Ghost"