April 29, 2005

Arkansas Man Recalls Finding Rare Woodpecker

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Gene Sparling was kayaking when he spotted a large black-and-white bird. It looked like an ivory-billed woodpecker, last spotted in North America 60 years ago. His eyes must be playing tricks, he thought. Maybe it was a common pileated woodpecker.

"As a young birder, I used to dream of finding a lost colony of ivory-billed woodpeckers. It was just too miraculous to imagine," Sparling said Thursday after a news conference in Washington where he joined federal officials in announcing his sighting.

Sparling spotted the ivory-billed woodpecker on Feb. 11, 2004, along the Cache River in eastern Arkansas, but wasn't sure how to let others know about his find. He recognized the bird from his readings as an amateur bird watcher and bird photographer.

"I was very familiar with the legend of the ivory-billed," said Sparling, who lives in Hot Springs.

The species is one of six North American bird species thought to have become extinct since 1880. Indians believed the bird's bill had magical powers. Its habitat was largely eliminated between 1880 and the 1940s because of logging. The last official ivory-bill sighting was in 1944 in northern Louisiana.

"My first thought was 'My God. It's the largest pileated woodpecker I've seen in my life,'" said Sparling, 49. Ivory-billed woodpeckers are a little larger than an average crow, with a wing span of about 19 inches.

He later decided to mention the sighting in a "cryptic note" on The Arkansas Canoe Club Web site and continued to research his find. He then posted a report on the Web. Researchers from Cornell University saw the report and contacted Sparling.

"I arranged for them to meet me out there (on the Cache River)," he said. "The second day out, the bird flew right in front of them."

The sightings prompted the university and conservation groups to coordinate a yearlong project to gather information about the bird. More than 50 researchers spent thousands of hours in the Cache River and White River national wild refuges gathering information. So far, they have only spotted one male bird at a time.

Keeping the project under wraps wasn't easy, said Jay Harrod, spokesman for the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas.

"Several people didn't think it would be kept secret for two months, let alone 14 months plus. Brinkley is a small town and we had all of these people with out-of-state license plates going in and out of the swamps," he said.

Now that word is out, the conservation groups plan to protect the area by limiting access and eventually creating a visitors' area for visitors near the ivory-billed's habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already closed access to the area where the bird was sighted, Harrod said.

Sparling said he was overwhelmed to be the person responsible for the discovery.

"I get all choked up thinking about it," he said. "I view it as a marvelous miraculous gift not just for me but for all of mankind."