December 13, 2005

On the lookout in Arkansas for elusive woodpecker

By Deborah Zabarenko

BAYOU de VIEW, Arkansas (Reuters) - Among ancient cypress and tupelo trees, bird experts and wildlife officials searched high and low on Tuesday for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, peering first into big messy holes in the ground and up at towering limbs.

"These would be C holes," said Ron Rohrbaugh, an ornithologist at Cornell University as he led a team in Arkansas in search of the bird previously presumed extinct.

Rohrbaugh noted that possible ivory-billed nesting cavities are classified A, B or C, with A the best.

"Here we look for A holes," he said. "An A hole in a swamp is a good thing, not a bad thing."

To track down the rare ivory bill -- jet black and bright white with a red crest on the male -- Rohrbaugh and a team of experts and volunteers are fanning out through parts of the Big Woods section of Arkansas.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was believed extinct for the last 60 years until a positive sighting in April in a remote Arkansas swamp.

Until then, various reports of sightings of the big bird had been dismissed by professional ornithologists.

Their skepticism was warranted because of the destruction of the big old trees over much of the American southeast that began after the U.S. Civil War. The ivory bill's large size, with a body perhaps 20 inches long means it needs large trees to nest in. It is known to scale the bark off old, dying and dead trees to get at the cigar-sized grubs that live there.

So it was skyward that the searchers looked as well, peering into the limbs of ancient trees in the state's sprawling refuges.


The ivory bill's public rediscovery last April energized the massive search in eastern Arkansas. Starting in November, teams of paid experts and volunteers have been scouring the Big Woods for signs of the bird.

Good observers are essential to catching a glimpse of the camera-shy ivory bill. So far, some 20,000 hours of searching by dozens of trained observers have failed to spot the bird. But that is understandable, given each woodpecker's presumed 12 mile foraging range. Experts do not know how many ivory-billed woodpeckers might exist in this area.

The total search area in Arkansas takes in 550,000 acres

of forest and swamp. Since last year, searchers have covered about 160 square km (62 square miles).

The effort was prompted by an amateur naturalist in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in February 2004. When he brought two bird experts to the same spot, they saw it too. And when a professor captured the bird in flight in fuzzy but authentic video, an analysis pointed to the startling fact that the ivory bill was back.