May 19, 2006

Birders Find No New Evidence of Woodpecker

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- With news Thursday that search teams had found no new confirmation of the ivory-billed woodpecker's existence in the swamps of eastern Arkansas, wildlife managers said there was no longer a reason to limit public access to the region.

"Based on the information coming from the search and research that we have done, I feel there is no need any longer to limit public use within this area," said Dennis Widner, manager of the Cache River Wildlife Management Area where the bird was first spotted in 2004.

While the searchers are disappointed with the lack of evidence of the bird's presence, it "doesn't mean the bird's not there," said Ron Rohrbaugh of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y.

"Certainly we're somewhat disappointed," Rohrbaugh said. "We've had enough of these tantalizing sounds and we still have a lot of hope that there might be a pair, especially in the White River area."

Cornell researchers supported the decision to reopen the wildlife refuge to general use. If new evidence is discovered, however, state and federal agencies can reimpose restrictions on access, Widner said.

But reopening the area to the public won't dissuade birders from trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive bird, Widner said. Instead, he said, birders will continue searching with the hope they will be able to provide proof that the bird lives.

"For several years there will be a scurry of activity as they try to get that photo," Widner said.

And birders won't have to worry about more hunters and fishermen crowding the refuge either, said Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The area is too dense for most hunters and too shallow for fishermen, he said.

More than 100 volunteers and full-time researchers went through the area over the winter but failed to find additional strong evidence of the bird's existence in their primary search area.

The National Audubon Society said they would continue to support search efforts for at least one more year. "The big woods was recognized as an important bird area many years before the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker," said Dan Scheiman of Audubon Arkansas.

Jon Andrew, the recovery team leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the search will continue next year across the Southeast. Paid and unpaid searchers would look for evidence of the bird in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas as well as Arkansas, Andrew said.

Researchers believe they have captured audio recordings of the rare bird - accompanying a brief, grainy videotape of what is believed to be an ivory-billed woodpecker.

One volunteer searcher and three members of the public have reported seeing the bird, but none of the full-time researchers has sighted it, said Martjan Lammertink, also of Cornell. Lammertink said in all four cases, the birds sighted had large amounts of white feathers on the lower halves of the wings - consistent with an ivory-bill.

However, Lammertink said members of the team "have heard knocks, calls. We don't have an existing recording of an ivory-billed so we have to make extrapolations from other recordings," he said. "It's a complicated process."

Until Sparling's reported sighting Feb. 11, 2004, the last known sighting of the bird was in north Louisiana in 1944.

For residents of Brinkley, the town that became a hub for birders because it sits near the Cache and White rivers halfway between Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn., how the news will effect their home remains to be seen.

Sandra Kemmer, the executive director of the Brinkley Chamber of Commerce, said residents haven't been affected by skeptics before, and the lack of evidence hasn't shaken the town's confidence that the bird lives in their woods.

"We're still excited," Kemmer said. "There are people that are still coming because word got out because of how awesome it is down here. People are coming to see what we have already - the other species of woodpeckers and the thousand-year-old cypress trees."