Scott Weidensaul's Involvement

This showed up on BirdChat from Scott Weidensaul:

I was going to wait until after noon today (when a press conference
is going to be held in D.C. on the subject) to post anything about
this, but with the NPR broadcast following several days of email
chatter on the Web, I guess the cat is out of the bag: The
ivory-billed woodpecker has indeed been rediscovered in the vast
bottomland forests of eastern Arkansas, an area known as the Big
Woods that includes Cache River and White River NWRs.

Unlike the 1999 report from the Pearl River in Louisiana, which was
never confirmed despite several attempts, this time the search team,
a cooperative effort of the Nature Conservancy and Cornell's Lab of
Ornithology, has documented the presence of at least one male
ivorybill, thanks to multiple sightings, videos and audio recordings.
The Lord God bird lives.

I was incredibly privileged to have been quietly invited last
winter to join the search team for a week in order to write an
article announcing the find for TNC's magazine. More than 60 people
were in the field for 15 months, operating under such strict secrecy
that in many cases, their own families didn't know what they were
doing. The secrecy was in part to protect the bird while
documentation was gathered and management plans were being crafted,
and in part to give TNC time to buy up land to further safeguard the
ivorybill. In that short time, the conservancy spent more than $10
million on land acquisition in the Big Woods.

The area in question is in the Mississippi delta, forming a
corridor of swamp forest 15 miles wide and 130 miles long -- big,
deep, and difficult to penetrate except by canoe (and even then,
you'd better know how to use a GPS). Over the past 20 years, TNC and
others have protected more than 120,000 acres there, bringing to more
than half a million acres land that's in conservation protection,
largely within the two national wildlife refuges and state wildlife
land. It's been a largely unknown conservation success story, and
this news is an incredible validation of that work. TNC has plans to
buy and restore an additional 200,000 acres of bottomland hardwood
forest there, including land that was cleared for soybeans in the
'70s and '80s and will be reforested. Things should only get better
for the ivorybill. In fact, things have probably been getting
steadily better for decades, as the once-cut forests of the South
have recovered.

Later today, there will be a lot of information about the events in
Arkansas posted at two web sites:, and on the web
site of the journal Science, which is publishing an article
documenting the sighting, including a frame-by-frame analysis of the

In a nutshell, the initial sighting came in February 2004, when a
Hot Springs kayaker named Gene Sparling was exploring a remote part
of the Big Woods, and had a close, unmistakable encounter with a male
ivorybill. Gene, a birder and experienced outdoorsman, understood the
significance of what he'd seen. Two weeks late, Gene escorted Tim
Gallagher, editor of Cornell's Living Bird magazine, and Alabama
photography professor (and longtime ivorybill hunter) Bobby Harrison
to the same area, where Gallagher and Harrison both saw the bird.
Cornell and the Arkansas chapter of TNC were informed, and
immediately launched one of the most intensive wildlife searches I've
ever encountered, all while keeping it almost completely secret. The
plan was to announce the findings next month, coinciding with the
publication of the magazine article, but someone blabbed over the
weekend, and as the ripples started spreading, the decision was made
to announce today at the Department of the Interior.

The sightings were all of a single bird, always a male (though
there was one undocumented sighting of a possible female). It appears
the search team was not operating near the bird's normal home range,
since the sightings averaged only about one per month; this is a huge
area, and there's lots of room for even a duck-sized woodpecker to
disappear. No one thinks it likely that this bird is the very last of
its kind, so it's likely there are more out there in the huge Big
Woods region, or in other bottomland forests along the Mississippi

Interestingly, in contrast to the noisy, fairly tame behavior Jim
Tanner recorded for the species in Louisiana in the 1930s, this bird
has proven incredibly shy and wary, always vanishing at the first
hint of a human. Many people -- and I include myself in this -- had
long assumed that if ivorybills survived in the U.S., someone would
have found and documented them decades ago. The fact that so many
people, backed up with technology like automated recording devices
and cameras, had such a hard time getting documentation in the Big
Woods, suggests we've been underestimating the difficulty of finding
this species. The "intensive" Pearl River search, for example,
involved six people for 30 days; most times that a sighting has been
followed up, it's been someone in a canoe poking around for a day or
two at most. One lesson from the Big Woods is that we cannot easily
dismiss any of the reports elsewhere in the species' historic range,
especially those in South Carolina and Florida which have been
persistent for many years. I know scientists are following up on some
of those reports even as the news is trumpeted from Arkansas. Let's
all keep our fingers crossed.

This is one of the most hopeful stories I've ever had the privilege
to report on, and it comes at a time when conservationists need some
good news. It shows how incredibly resilient nature can be if we give
it a chance. And it's a second chance that, frankly, America probably
doesn't deserve, given our treatment of Southern forests.

My part in this was very small and very secondary, as much as I
treasure the opportunity. I want to close this by expressing my
gratitude and admiration for the folks who pulled this off in an
incredibly professional, collegial manner, including Arkansas TNC
director Scott Simon; John Fitzpatrick and Ron Rohrbaugh at Cornell;
and Gene Sparling and Prof. David Luneau.

The ivorybill lives. It makes the sunshine just a little sweeter,

Scott Weidensaul
Schuylkill Haven, Pa.