May 18, 2006

Rare woodpecker elusive as search season ends

By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The search for the elusive
ivory-billed woodpecker in the swamps of Arkansas has ended for
the season with no confirmed sighting, wildlife experts said on
Thursday, but they plan to start looking again in late autumn.

The "Lord God bird" -- so-called because of the exclamation
it prompted from those who saw it -- was last officially seen
in 1944, but eyewitness reports and a four-second video of the
ivory-bill in flight in 2004 convinced many scientists the
crow-sized woodpecker has come back from presumed extinction.

An intensive six-month search in the Big Woods area of
Arkansas failed to turn up any renewed sightings, bird experts
and wildlife officials said in a telephone news conference.

"Certainly we're somewhat disappointed," said Ron
Rohrbaugh, director of Cornell University's search for the
bird. "But we have had enough of these kind of tantalizing
sounds and possible encounters with birds ... that we still
have a lot of hope that there might be a pair."

Twenty-two full-time field biologists and 112 volunteers
have monitored the birds' probable habitat in eastern Arkansas
since December, but the effort ended for the season this month
after tree leaves emerged, cutting visibility.

The search will resume in late autumn, when the trees are
again bare. "We're still in high gear, we're still going to
keep searching," Rohrbaugh said.

Four people reported seeing birds this season that might
have been ivory-billed woodpeckers, but the sightings were so
fleeting they could not be confirmed, the wildlife experts

In all four cases, those who saw them reported a
characteristic band of white at the trailing edge of the wings,
a pattern seen only on ivory-billed woodpeckers.

The more common pileated woodpecker, found over much of the
United States, is about the same size as the ivory-bill but
lacks the white swath at the edge of its wings.

Aside from human observation, searchers installed remote
microphones and cameras in the Big Woods. Scientists at
Cornell's Lab of Ornithology will review the thousands of hours
of these recordings for possible signs of the rare bird.

In addition, some searchers heard what sounded like typical
ivory bill calls, called kent calls, and a double-knocking tap
that is also characteristic of an ivory-billed woodpecker.

This season's search cost Cornell about $1 million, and
Rohrbaugh said its spending would be trimmed for next season.

Jon Andrew of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is
overseeing the search, said future searches for the woodpecker
would focus on a broad area including Texas, Louisiana,
Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas.