Look Who's in the Swamp

February 2007
by Pat Leonard

After 38 years, John Dennis is doing something his father wanted him to do for a lifetime. He’s contracted a bit of Ivory-billed Woodpecker fever and is helping search for the bird in what’s left of the great southern swamps. From January 14 to 28, John joined volunteers with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology search team to look for the ivory-bill in eastern Arkansas.

John V. Dennis, photo courtesy of John Dennis Jr.

But what makes this volunteer different is that his father was John V. Dennis—ornithologist, botanist, biologist, and author of books about birds and nature. John's father took photos of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Cuba in 1948 and roiled the ornithological world by claiming to have seen and recorded the woodpecker in the Big Thicket area of Texas in 1966 and 1968.

The Arkansas experience

All these years later, a man named John Dennis is still searching for the ivory-bill. John Jr. says of his volunteering in the White River and Cache River areas, “It was really a stimulating experience. The quality of the other birders, the other volunteers on the team, was really impressive. In many ways it was very humbling, but I love steep learning curves.”

John spent days searching by canoe or hiking in assigned “patches” in areas thought to be prime ivory-bill habitat.  At dawn, dusk, and several other times during the day, he conducted “watches”—staying still and letting birdlife come to him. Flooding is an issue this season, and it’s been harder for the team to get into some areas. John got a cold bath his first day out while testing chest-waders.

“Unfortunately I stepped off a ledge into about four feet of pretty cold water in Wolf Bayou,” he says. “The video camera got a good dousing, so that was non-functional for the rest of my two weeks.” He did have a working digital camera and tape recorder at hand. “We saw a lot of scaling and quite a few large cavities in trees, some of which could qualify as ivory-bill sized holes. We didn’t get a response to any playbacks or doubleknocks,” he says.

John Dennis Jr. in Arkansas, January 2007

Threats to habitat remain. John says, “We were shocked to see recent logging of cypress along the Cache River on privately-held land within the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area. The fresh stumps were two to three feet in diameter and right up to the bank of the river. Cypress trees are amazing citadels of fortitude—they’ve been there for hundreds of years in some instances and they’re rugged, craggy things—they’re just a beautiful tree to look at. Apparently demand for cypress timber is not high so these amazing trees are sometimes simply ground up to become garden mulch.”

Reflections of an ivory-bill searcher

Father and son on the Pearl River in Louisiana, 1986,  photo courtesy of John Dennis Jr.

Although John was with his father on ivory-bill searches decades ago, that interest took a back seat in college and during a globe-trotting career in environmental conservation planning. John recalls his father wanted him to be an ornithologist too, so they could work together.

“I think I’ve always felt a little bit guilty about not teaming up with my dad and not thinking to be more of an advocate for him. He was a shy person, not very good at arguing his case,” says John. “It was always a disappointment that the ivory-bill sighting in the Big Thicket and the tape recording were not recognized by fellow ornithologists.”

John speculates that if ivory-bills can be found and recorded today, it will give scientists more data to compare. “Then, hopefully with my dad’s tape people can say unequivocally, ‘yes, that’s an ivory-bill,’ so I think it’s just a matter of time.”

The Big Thicket, Texas 1966, where John V. Dennis reported an ivory-bill. Photo courtesy of John Dennis Jr.

John Dennis, Senior, kept going back to the Big Thicket in search of the ivory-bill. Last May his son returned and trained as a volunteer for the search team in what is now the Big Thicket National Preserve. John visited the locale in the Turkey Creek Unit of the preserve where his father reported recording an ivory-bill. This woodpecker thing has gotten under his skin once again. “I like the discipline in being on a team and working together with others,” he says. “It’s very exciting; I’d like to do it again!”