December 14, 2005

Swamp Thing? No, a Woodpecker Researcher

By Deborah Zabarenko

HICKSON LAKE, Arkansas -- Nathan Banfield knew he looked like some swamp creature, in head-to-toe forest camouflage with all-over feathery fringe and a camo-mask that revealed nothing but his eyes.

This is what you wear when your job is to search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, perhaps the only species in U.S. history to come back from presumed extinction. The ivory bill woodpecker was believed extinct for 60 years until a positive sighting in February 2004 in an Arkansas swamp.

"If I'm sitting out in the woods, I can stay camouflaged a little longer and can get that extra video," Banfield, a member of the professional field crew looking for the elusive bird, said on Tuesday. "I may be able to see it foraging somewhere."

Banfield's camouflage was the most flamboyant among the searchers at Hickson Lake, but most conservation and bird experts wear something similar, usually including hip-wader boots so they can easily maneuver through boggy terrain.

In this area, much of the searching is done by canoe, as observers equipped with global positioning system devices paddle across the lake, looking always for the big woodpecker, whose white-backed wings distinguish it from the more common pileated woodpecker.

Eventually, global positioning data from each canoe crossing is fed into computers, mapping where observers have been and where they still need to go in the total search area of 550,000 acres.

Other observers station themselves on wooden platforms, disguised to blend into the gray and brown forest. The work day runs from sunup to sundown, in the cold months when trees are bare and it might be easier to see and hear an ivory bill.

"All of us see it as an opportunity, and that overshadows any frustration," said Benjamin Wardwell, another member of the field crew, coordinated through Cornell University.

Besides human observations, experts have set up sophisticated video and still photo cameras and audio recorders on trees in remote locations to aid in the search.

James Hill, also of Cornell, called himself a "special operations biologist in charge of video surveillance."

In practice, that means tending four videocameras with good views of possible nest or roost holes of the ivory-billed woodpecker, as well as six cameras that take still pictures.

These images are only meant to find the bird. If one is seen, more sophisticated cameras will be trained on the spot.

To try to capture the ivory bill's distinctive call and characteristic double-knock beak taps, researchers have 30 audio recorders sampling sounds over a 200-yard (meter) range.

So far, experts have identified 375 cavities that would be likely homes for an ivory-billed woodpecker. By the end of this observing season in April 2006, they may have identified some 600 potential homes for the rare bird.