Arkansas Search Team Log
See more images from Arkansas in the photo gallery
April 29: Arkansas ExodusFrom: Justin Bredlau
We come to the end of the 2007-08 search season at last. We put forth our best effort and worked hard to cover as much habitat as possible. It was an exciting season, filled with danger, deadly snakes, crazy adventures, treacherous waters, and even a blizzard. We came across many interesting things in the swamp—scientists will be going through all the data over the next few weeks and write a final report that will be posted on this web site when it’s ready.
Tears were nearly shed as we said goodbye to each other. Our crew is now scattering across the country, heading for new jobs and new adventures. Marty is going to spend the summer surveying Golden-winged Warblers in Pennsylvania. Leighton plans to travel to Peru, Alaska, and Costa Rica during the summer, and then he is off to the University of California at Santa Cruz for graduate school. Abe is returning to New York City for a bird-banding job. Tonya is already back in Ohio starting work at a zoo as a conservation biologist. Ehren just started his new job working with Kirtland’s Warbler in Michigan. Chris is returning to Arizona to do more work with Willow Flycatchers. After a brief road trip out west, I shall return to Washington, D.C. to start work on a West Nile Virus research project. Thanks to all our readers who shared the adventure with us!
April 27–28: Inventory and PackingFrom: Justin Bredlau
Inventory and packing are all we did today.
April 21–26: South UnitFrom: Justin Bredlau
There is a little patch in the southwestern-most corner of the White River National Wildlife Refuge that has been lightly searched in past years, so we went there for a few days to check it out. The area was so flooded that only the forest canopy showed above water. It was difficult just getting the johnboat into the river because the water was up on the road and the top of ramp was 10 feet under water. On the bright side, all of the new migrants were stuck in the top of the trees where we could easily see them, including a Golden-winged Warbler.
|Flood waters make the cypress look much shorter than they really are. Photo by Marty Piorkowski
Marty and I spent a day paddling through the lower canopy to get deeper into the area, which was not fun at all without a detectable channel to follow and thick growth. On our last day we were able to find channels leading back into a lake near Jack’s Bay which made our last day out in the field much more enjoyable.
April 20: Blue HoleFrom: Justin Bredlau
Today we paddled down Bayou de View from the Route 38 bridge to Route 17 passing through the area known as Blue Hole. This area is usually difficult to reach because the channel disappears into the swamp and it is often too shallow for easy canoeing, with abundant cypress knees always threatening to tip or trap our passing canoes. Earlier in the season, we paddled up to the southern edge of Blue Hole, but never got any farther in. However, the unusually high water now allowed us to paddle through this hard-to-reach area filled with giant trees.
This afternoon Marty decided we’d search the far southern end of the South Unit, where the current was supposed to be nearly non-existent. We packed up and headed back down to the Canvasback Lodge for the rest of the season.
April 19: An Epic GameFrom: Justin Bredlau and Martin Piorkowski
Today we floated the upper part of Bayou de View from the Route 306 bridge to the Route 38 bridge. It was an easy trip with nice weather. Leighton thought he heard a Hooded Warbler but we could not make visual confirmation. During the cooler morning hours the buffalo gnats were not quite as bad as last week but they started becoming active by late morning.
When we returned to the house, Marty went out and got us gear to play wiffleball! We gathered up the team and recruited two members of the Pileated Woodpecker research crew staying at the house, along with Leighton’s friend Kelly, who was in for a visit. With four people on each team, we were able to play a great game until sunset. It was nice to run around after spending so much time confined to canoes.
April 18: Return to WattensawFrom: Justin Bredlau
We knew it was going to rain. We left the house at 5:00 A.M. anyway to search Wattensaw Bayou, an area that only Abe has visited since the helicopter surveys in early February. Many of the roads leading to Wattensaw were closed by flooding, so we had to take the long route to get there and had some difficulty finding the boat launch (wherever the road ends from the flooding) since we had to take an unfamiliar path. Shortly after we got the canoes in the water, it started to drizzle and it was not long before we had a downpour. We returned to the van soaked to the skin. We expected to be able to search a little longer, but once again the weather got the better of us.
April 17: Raining Wood DucksFrom: Justin Bredlau
We moved back north to our house in Cotton Plant for the next several days. This morning Chris, Ehren, and I returned to Bayou de View for the first time since the beginning of the season in early December. It was just as amazing as we remembered, except that now the water was much higher and there was much more green foliage.
While Chris and I were paddling around we suddenly spotted two small objects falling from a tree and splashing into the water. Then another one dropped out the tall cypress. We got a little closer and realized the tiny things were swimming around. They were baby Wood Ducks leaving their nest for the first time! We paddled over to where they landed and watched as, one by one, the little ducklings leaped from their cavity 30 feet up in the tree. They plummeted toward the water, their wings spread, bouncing off branches, and made a small splash upon hitting the water. They surfaced, start chirping, and followed their mother who kept her distance from us, but still never far from the tree. Altogether, 15 to 20 ducklings made the leap from the tree and followed their mother off into the woods.
On a side note, Marty came back to join us for the rest of the season.
April 10 – 14: Return to Cook’s LakeFrom: Justin Bredlau
|Loading up boats and gear. Photo by Marty Piorkowski|
Since historic flooding conditions continue to prevent us from searching where we want to on the White River, we decided to return to Cook’s Lake along the western side of the North Unit. Our team was there early in March when the water was lower, but it was still difficult to reach some areas. With the flooding, we could now canoe into some of those hard-to-reach places. We stayed at a nice lodge on the lake, conveniently close to our search area. The weather was mostly agreeable, though a bit chilly and windy later on.
We had a new nemesis this week: the notorious buffalo gnat. There were millions of them. Every time we moved they would swarm around us. Even with a bug suit on they got under my clothes and into my boots. By the end of the day, my socks were coated with dead flies. Ehren braved the noxious swarms without a bug suit, but there were just too many of them. I could hear him coughing up the insects after dozens flew into his mouth, and later he had them oozing out of his nose and ears. The biting flies even got into our eyes causing momentarily blindness and distracting us so much that we paddled the canoe into trees.
On the bright side, there were many new migrants. Ehren spotted Blue-winged Warblers, Black-throated Green warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstarts, Indigo Buntings, Acadian Flycatchers, Great-crested Flycatchers, Yellow-throated Vireos, White-eyed Vireos, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. He also found a rattlesnake.
April 9: Everything is Flooded ForeverFrom: Justin Bredlau
The rising floodwaters are making it increasingly difficult to know where we can get the boats into the refuge. Chris, Ehren, and I went out to determine if there was a usable boat ramp anywhere and to document the rising waters to show others the conditions we faced. The situation was not good. The water was at or above all the ramps, many roads were flooded or closed, and entire neighborhoods were under water. The roads leading towards Wattensaw, Indian Bay, and Maddox Bay were all flooded. We were able give the van a nice cleaning as we splashed through some of the flooded roads, but some were just too deep to risk driving through. We even drove into the White River at one point because the water was over the road. We discovered that the only easily accessible area left in the North Unit was at Cook’s Lake, so we may move our search effort there for several days. With the currents on the White moving so fast and cutting through the forests, it seems like we may have to stop traveling on the river with canoes. That makes it nearly impossible to reach some of the remote areas in the refuge.
|High water on the White River. Photo by Marty Piorkowski|
March 31 – April 6:
From: Justin Bredlau
We have temporarily left the flooded White River National Wildlife Refuge to follow up on reports of possible ivory-bill encounters in southwest
After replacing a flat tire on the boat trailer, we met up with Dick Broach in McNab and he was generous enough to allow us to stay at his cabin. Dick’s cabin was very comfortable with modern amenities, but some of the other cabins were outright magnificent. We were introduced to some very nice doctors and retirees who were more than happy to invite us over to their cabins, show us around, or take us out to dinner. On our first day we toured the property, learned the best locations to search, and were shown a recently caught wild boar!
On April 1, Chris and I were excited to explore an entirely new area. First we decided to check out some scaling discovered in a patch of tall pines. We went to the area on an ATV and found some of the best scaling that either of us has ever seen. Tight bark was peeled from several trees and scattered across the ground. Next to one scaled pine there was a fallen tree with a cavity of decent size and irregular shape. Although Pileated Woodpeckers are also capable of scaling trees and creating irregular cavities, we both had felt this could be the type of place an Ivory-billed Woodpecker might like.
And then it happened. Shortly after starting our watch, we spotted a large black woodpecker flying down the trail toward us. It turned and there was no black trailing edge on the wings as there would be on a pileated, only white. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” Chris exclaimed. This was our moment of triumph. We had it. We found our bird. Our cameras were aimed. The bird landed on top of one of the trees with scaling—and let out the laughing call of a Pileated Woodpecker. Nature had played a cruel April Fools joke on us. Even before it called, something did not look quite right about it. Upon closer inspection with our binoculars, we discovered that it was missing all of its secondary feathers. Flying against the overcast sky, the lack of the black secondaries made it appear that it had a white trailing edge when all we were seeing was sky where feathers should have been. Even if it had not landed and called, our brief sighting would not have fully convinced either of us. It looked too much like a pileated, and we did not have enough time to clearly pick out any other field marks. Although initially disappointed, we laughed off our little scare and jotted down some notes.
On April 2, we canoed down the creek through the center of the hunt clubs to reach an area where a possible encounter had been reported. A mid-day thunderstorm forced us to return to the cabin but we were able to head back out later after the storm passed.
On the morning of April 3, we headed over to Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge on the other side of
It rained nearly all day on April 4, but things cleared up enough late in the day for us to return to the patch of tall pines with the scaling for a late watch.
Although we were supposed to return to
We continued down the levee, avoiding the many cottonmouths and swatting at thick swarms of biting insects. The Thrash Tract was under a foot of water but we still ventured into the middle of it, flooding our knee-high boots. There were trees of every size and age, from giant oaks to small saplings, and the ground was covered in grass and palmettos. It was a remarkable, wild place but we did not find our bird during our short time in the area.
On the sixth, we returned to the Canvasback Lodge and the
Sunday, March 23: Some Good EggsFrom: Marty Piorkowski
Easter Sunday! The volunteers left yesterday. Today was a slow, relaxing morning—I made pancakes for everyone and we colored some Easter eggs. For some of the eggs, we used a variation of traditional Polish technique called “pisanki.” Tonya loved the shinny, glittery option and made a wonderful version of the Earth.
|L-R, Abe Borker, Justin Bredlau, and Tonya Kieffer. This was Abe's first attempt at egg-coloring! Photo by Marty Piorkowski
||The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Easter egg! Egg and photo by Marty Piorkowski|
Tuesday, March 18: Water, Water EverywhereFrom: Marty Piorkowski
|There's a road under there--note the guardrail. Photo by David Pereksta|
Today we headed out to Essex Bayou and the Big Chute area. We didn’t need to drive in too far since the roads could be navigated by johnboat. The water was still rising and we were prepared for a short day with the forecasts calling for another three to five inches of rain. But we got nothing more than a brief sprinkle. To the north, however, more than five inches fell (and as much as 13 inches was recorded in one place). High water will continue to be a problem for our full-time crew and camping is out of the question with almost no dry land to be found anywhere.
Monday, March 17: Soggy SearchFrom: Marty Piorkowski
St. Patrick’s Day! We left at about 6:00 A.M. for the levee road to put in around Tupelo and one of the many horseshoe lake areas. We didn’t get to cover the area as we would have liked to because the water was visibly rising and the currents were getting stronger. During the afternoon the water came up six to eight inches in just a few hours. You could actually watch the water creep up your boots and nearby tree trunks.
March 11-14: Living in WadersFrom: Marty Piorkowski
|High water and spring buds popping out on the trees. Photo by Marty Piorkowski|
This week we covered areas in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, including Dagmar and Wattensaw Wildlife Management Areas. Rising water meant we needed a canoe to get anywhere. We spent two days in the Bayou de View area, as well as some time in the southern part of the Cache near Paw-Paw Lake and Dagmar WMA. However, it was tough-going for those of us not in a canoe but everyone managed to stay dry today.
Monday, March 10: Getting OrientedFrom: Marty Piorkowski
Today was orientation day for the volunteers. Ron gave a presentation on the history of the ivory-bill and a general description of bottomland hardwood forest ecology. I followed up with protocols, logistics, and gear. The volunteers spent most of the day getting familiar with the equipment.
Sunday, March 9: Volunteers ArriveFrom: Marty Piorkowski
Roger and Elaine Sanderson were the first of the volunteers to arrive today and set up their camper in the driveway at the Robinson House in Cotton Plant. The others soon rolled in, bringing some fantastic Memphis barbeque for everyone.
|L-R, Marty Piorkowski, Rich Merritt, Roger Sanderson, Elaine Sanderson, Richard Guthrie, Ron Rohrbaugh, Mel Boring, David Pereksta (rear).|
We had just a few experienced volunteers join us for a two-week stint in March so we could re-visit some areas of the Cache River where we'd not been able to spend much time this season.
Friday, March 7: Highway NightmareFrom: Marty Piorkowski
|It was mayhem on I-40 in Arkansas when the snowstorm hit. Photo by Ron Rohrbaugh|
Since it didn't snow at all last night, Ron and I decided to head for Cotton Plant so we could meet a group of volunteers due to arrive on Sunday. A drive that usually takes two hours took ten!
We’d reached the interchange of I-55 North and I-40 West when the snow hit. Did it ever! The snow was coming down fast, whipped by 30-mile-an-hour winds from the north, creating whiteout conditions—nerve-racking to say the least.
We were parked for about 3.5 hours on I-40. I lost count of how many tow trucks went by. There were cars on top of one another, piled in ditches. Luckily, I saw no injuries or ambulances, just a lot of banged-up cars. I wonder how our crew is doing with all of this white stuff?
Thursday, March 6: An Ominous ForecastFrom: Marty Piorkowski
Today, Ron Rohrbaugh and I flew into Memphis, Tennessee, to meet up with Scott Somershoe from Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency. We talked about the use of Reconyx cameras and autonomous recording units (ARUs) to monitor some areas not far from the Mississippi River. Weather reports were calling for some serious snowfall—probably more than this area of the country gets in two or three years, combined. Some of the estimates were for up to a foot of snow in 24 hours. That’s a lot of snow for Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri! We’ll have to wait to see what the morning brings.
Sunday, March 9: Out of the SnowFrom: Justin Bredlau
|Watching The Life of Birds. Photo by Justin Bredlau|
We came out of the field early because the snow soaked all of our clothes and equipment, so we spent today cleaning the house, organizing data, drying out our equipment, writing up our camping adventure for the log, and doing various other things around the house. Marty came down later in the day, and after dinner we had a fun night making ice cream and watching The Life of Birds.
March 5 – 8: White White RiverFrom: Justin Bredlau
This will forever be known as the camping trip that almost finished the ivory-bill search crew. We traveled from DeValls Bluff to the area around Slaughter Lake in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge, despite weather reports calling for a chance of snow flurries. The 21 km river trip out to the campsites was pleasant, but took longer than expected so the sun was setting by time we got close to our area. We split up into two groups to cover our search area more easily. Tonya and Ehren found a suitable spot along the river while Leighton, Chris, and I continued downriver for another few kilometers. The difficulty of finding a suitable campsite in the dark forced us to settle for a narrow strip of dry land between the river and the flooded forest beyond. We decided that if the river were to rise any higher we could easily find a new spot later when the sun was up. The weather the next day started out nice, but that soon changed. The sky darkened, the temperature fell, and the wind picked up. Paddling alone back up the White River a mere 500 meters against the strong current and wind that evening was difficult, but after much effort I finally made it back to a warm fire and a good meal at camp.
Leighton stokes a warm and welcoming fire. Photo by Justin Bredlau
It was still overcast and extremely windy when we awoke the next morning, but we headed out nevertheless, unaware of the approaching blizzard. My simple solo trip across the river, a task that on most days should have been easy, proved almost impossible as the strong winds kept pushing my canoe back to shore every time I got into open water. Eventually, after several attempts, I waited for a pause in the wind to get as far as I could into the river and then paddled with the current the rest of the way across, hoping that the canoe would not tip and that the strong current wound not carry me far downstream. Once on the other side, it was easier to paddle upstream to my search plot. I wandered north away from my canoe as the snow flurries started, unconcerned about a few falling snowflakes. I crossed a maze of sloughs to reach the north end of my plot and did a final watch as the storm intensified. As the forest turned white around me, I decided to start the hour-long walk back to my canoe, making my way across the slough maze, narrowly avoiding the deep spots where I could sink in above my chest waders. It became increasingly difficult to navigate through the white forest, but I eventually made my way back to the snow-covered canoe. Leighton and Chris, who had already made it back after a difficult trip up stream, became worried, as I had not yet returned to camp. By the time I made it back across the river, they had fixed the collapsing tents and crawled into their sleeping bags. I quickly did the same. We discussed whether it would be best to leave now or wait out the storm, but decided it would be much safer to wait than to attempt to make the 13 km paddle during the blizzard.
|Snowstorm aftermath. Photo by Justin Bredlau
||Another set of eyes to help look for the ivory-bill. Photo by Justin Bredlau|
We spent most of the next 17 hours in our tents, knocking the snow off the top and sides to prevent them from collapsing and hoping that the river would not rise the eight inches that would flood our tents and force us to evacuate in the middle of the night. Final calls were made to worried family and friends in case we didn’t make it out of there. Chris ventured forth into the storm and cooked himself dinner after being cooped up in the tent for several hours and unable to resist the lure of warm food. While he was out there, he built a snowman, a final monument to the potentially-doomed search crew. He eventually returned, cold and covered in snow. We waited and tried to sleep.
|Chris and the team get a snowy wakeup call. Photo by Leighton Reid|
Morning came and we were still alive. The swamp was covered with a six-inch blanket of snow. The sun was rising into a clear blue sky, the rays glistening off the white trees. That sight alone made it worth camping out in the blizzard. We packed up camp and made the two-hour paddle down the river to Clarendon. Tonya and Ehren took the johnboat upstream back to DeValls Bluff and took the van across treacherous icy roads to pick us up. When they got there, we had a brief snowball fight and went home, glad to have another exciting adventure to talk about.
Feb. 26 – 27: Brownies and Ice CreamFrom: Justin Bredlau
|Chris takes a turn tossing the ice cream ball. Photo by Justin Bredlau|
We got some much-needed time off after our camping trips. Some members of our crew scattered across the state while others spent time relaxing or doing work at our lodge. Abe, of course, kept busy with camera work while I looked through 175,000 images from Reconyx cameras in the hope of spotting an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The most interesting thing I watched was a fight between two raccoons. The highlight of the break, however, was definitely on the night of the 27th. Ehren made brownies for the group and I broke out my ice cream making ball. We sat patiently with hungry eyes as we rolled the ice-filled ball, waiting for the cream to freeze. Once it was done, we each dumped some on a brownie. It was delicious! Abe described it as manna from the heavens.
Feb. 21 – 25: North Unit, White River NWRFrom: Justin Bredlau
We traveled into the far north of the White River National Wildlife Refuge on this camping expedition, where no ivory-bill searcher has ever gone before. We motored up East Bayou for an hour in the late afternoon on the 21st to reach our isolated camping site. A second trip was needed to tow the canoes up to camp. Knowing how the water has been rising recently, we made sure to set up camp on the highest ground we could find – a smart move since the low-lying areas were flooded by time we left four days later. It began to rain as we set up our tents in the dark, and continued through the night. Dinner was quickly prepared and we crawled into our tents early to be ready for another day of intense searching.
|An interesting salamander. Photo by Ehrin Banfield|
Each morning at sunrise we radiated out from our campsite, some on foot, others by canoe, and did not return until dusk. Because much of the forest was flooded from all the recent rain, we were forced to search in our uncomfortable chest waders nearly every day. The sun barely showed itself for the entire trip, and it often rained at night, but at least the temperature was tolerable. Some of us felt isolated from the rest of the world as we waded through the swamps, but the occasional rusty can or abandoned boat reminded us that we are never far from some form of civilization. In addition to looking for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and counting every bird that we saw, some of us also kept an eye out for interesting salamanders in an attempt to find new county records. Chris managed to find 11 salamanders by flipping over logs.
We were glad to head back to our lodge on the 25th and tried to pack up early for the 10 km trip back to the boat ramp. The johnboat was low on gas and we could only make one trip, so Leighton and Ehren each spent an extra hour paddling the canoes back.
Later that day, while most of the crew was cleaning up or resting, Abe and I took one of the boats north of Clarendon to retrieve a Reconyx camera. Abe’s first solo attempt to get the camera failed because of flooding in the once-dry forest. On this attempt we towed a canoe up the White River to the edge of the forest and paddled through thorns and twigs, occasionally bouncing off trees, and getting covered in spiders through the whole journey. We successfully got to the camera this time and quickly headed out so we could be back in time for dinner.
Feb. 15 – 19: Burnt Cypress Lake, White River NWRFrom: Justin Bredlau
|Burnt Cypress Lake, White River National Wildlife Refuge|
Once again we find ourselves on another camping adventure deep into the heart of the White River NWR. We headed out onto the White River from Preston Ferry in a light rain, found a nice area along a bayou off the river, and set up our camp. The next morning we spread out for our usual search, most of us canoeing up and around the many waterways to reach each targeted search area. However, our day was cut short a little after noon due to rain and we were all forced to return to camp. During a break in the rain, we managed to get a fire going using damp wood and what little dry wood we saved from the previous day. There were severe thunderstorms that night which prevented some of us from getting much sleep because of the constant cracks of thunder and the fear of falling branches from the high winds. The weather was more cooperative the next few days, so we were still able to cover all of our targeted areas, although rapid currents often made paddling difficult. Some bayous even started to flow backwards as the White River rose faster than the surrounding areas. We noticed a significant increase in the water level near our camp.
Thursday, Feb. 14: Pizza and Pileated Woodpeckers
From: Abe Borker
|Justin Bredlau setting off flares as part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service boat safety training. Photo by Abe Borker|
I'm happy to say that after three days of grueling training and rigorous examination, our entire crew passed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service boating course with flying colors. Whether it was running the high speed slalom or firing flares and smoke grenades, our team, along with two White River staff and two Pileated Woodpecker researchers, mastered the tasks thrown at us. In short, and minus the grandeur of the colorful diploma, it takes three days to learn how to operate small motor boats to Department of Interior standards. Now that we are certified, we have access to some more resources to help us move around the swamp and search more effectively.
|Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Photo by Martjan Lammertink|
Thursday night we were invited to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Gene Sparling's initial sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Bayou de View, Arkansas, with Scott Simon, state director of The Nature Conservancy. We had a great evening with Scott and his family, David Luneau, and Gene Sparling. We talked a bit about strategy and perceptions regarding the search effort, but mostly relaxed in each other's company. As pizza was being picked up, we collectively realized that we hadn't eaten pizza in more than a month and it didn't disappoint, particularly when coupled with David's homemade wine. For dessert we enjoyed some "Scrumptious Chocolates," locally made and richer than any other food we’ve had in awhile. Unfortunately we had to make our goodbyes at the end of the night to our new friends and to the Lammertink family who have been with us since the helicopter surveys. Utami and Martjan's baby son Palung has been a critical source of down-time entertainment. We all have high hopes that his first word will be "IBWO!" We will miss having all three of them down here in Arkansas.
Tomorrow the crew sets out for another camping excursion, tackling some new areas with promising habitat. Marty and I will set out for some camera retrieval in Wattensaw and on Saturday, I'll be delivering Marty back to Memphis so he can return to Ithaca.
Wednesday, Feb. 13: Shore Leave
From: Abe Borker
Of course spending so much time consumed in our work in the swamps (especially with the camping trips), time "ashore" is reserved for only the most important and pressing social engagements. This past week we finally made it to Little Rock for some sushi and drinks. We nearly fainted at the bright lights of Best Buy and went to the Wal-Mart Supercenter. The real fun was reserved for Wednesday. After relentless campaigning by Tonya, our resident diva, some of us were roped into attending Karaoke Night at the Wildlife, our favorite watering hole.
Sunday, Feb. 10: A Brush with Greatness
From: Abe Borker
|Chris Rea and Justin Bredlau on the White River. Photo by Martjan Lammertink|
On Sunday, February 10, the team returned from its latest camping trip in the north unit of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. After a delightful afternoon of entering data and unpacking gear, we went off into the swamp. There was one interesting cavity found nearby, so Marty and I returned in the afternoon to deploy a Reconyx camera. Of course, there are no simple, quick trips into the swamp.
After deploying the camera we had to get a couple of new tires for the trailer. At the shop, Marty and I both noticed a large man across the work-yard who seemed slightly out of place, but he received warm welcomes from everyone at the shop. He introduced himself as Tank, #52 for the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants football team! (Linebacker Tank Daniels) Marty and I were a bit star-struck and enjoyed chatting with him for a few minutes. Tank was particularly impressed by our work in the search and our ability to identify birds. I was thinking to myself that here was a championship winning professional athlete telling US our job was tough! Of course we also talked about the magical game, the experience of a victory parade through downtown Manhattan, and how Tank had worked and grown up in Clarendon, Arkansas.
Thursday, Feb. 7: Off to Camp
From: Marty Piorkowski
Today started with an 8:00 A.M. team meeting so that Leighton and Martjan could explain the upcoming three-day, four-night camping trips. There will be back-to-back camping trips for the next six weeks at least and this will be the first of the series. The Arkansas team has taken two trips before, but they were not back-to-back. While the crew prepared for the camping trip, Leighton, Martjan, and I dealt with several logistical and administrative things before departing because we would be out of contact for the next several days.
Wednesday, Feb. 6: The Long March
From: Marty Piorkowski
Today Martjan, Abe, and I took a reporter and a photographer from the Boston Globe out in the field. Our primary goal was to retrieve six Reconyx cameras and deploy up to six more, but we were only able to scope out four of the six cavities where we wanted to deploy the cameras. Our usual access roads were blocked by fallen trees, taken down during last night’s incredible wind and ferocious storm. As best as we can estimate, we covered 25 km (maybe more) on foot through slough and shallowly-flooded forest. This certainly made for a long and arduous day for everyone except, perhaps, Abe. Abe is notorious for his long marches to set up and retrieve cameras (had I but known). I guess we’ll see how the Boston Globe team felt about it when the article comes out!
We split into two teams because it’s easier to travel and camp with two smaller groups than one large one. The first team left around 1:30 P.M. for their base camp location. The second team was held up for a few hours until we were able to deal with a threadbare tire on our boat trailer. With the last-minute help from Dennis Sharp at White River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, we were able to get on the road. However, this meant a very late start getting to our camp site and we had to set up in the dark.
Tuesday, Feb. 5: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
From: Marty Piorkowski
Today we were trying to catch up on data. After a week of ground searches, the crew moved right into another seven days of searching from the air, so we needed some time to get through the backlog of data. Not too much excitement for the day except for data entry, cleaning, and laundry. However, as night approached, things changed.
It must have been roughly 7:30 P.M. Tonya and I were checking email at the Community Store. The Weather Channel was on and we couldn’t help but notice the line of severe thunderstorms coming our way. Several tornadoes had touched down already and many more areas of circulating wind were showing up. At 7:45 P.M. we left the store and headed down the road to join a few other storm chasers. With the radio on, we watched the incredible lighting show coming towards us. By 8:20 P.M. hail up to two inches big was falling just west of DeWitt. We decided to head for cover back at the lodge so Tonya’s car wouldn’t get damaged. We were standing outside the lodge with Abe when the tornado sirens went off. There was consensus that the lodge was probably not the best place for us to be since it is roughly the size of a warehouse with metal siding. So the entire crew, along with Martjan, Utami, and baby Palung, all went to the little cabin next door to wait out the storm. By the end of the night we’d had quarter-inch hail and heavy rain—but no tornadoes.
Monday, Feb. 4: Back to Earth
From: Marty Piorkowski
Aerial surveys finished today. The weather cooperated with us, so we were able to get in a few more flights and cover some areas over the White River National Wildlife Refuge that we didn’t originally plan to survey. From these last flights, we’ll have plenty of photos to review and reports to write. We were able to capture some great photographs of many different species. Abe Borker photographed a Great Horned Owl nest with one of the adults sitting on it. Both Martjan and Abe were able to document two new Bald Eagle nests within the refuge.
Thursday, January 31: Eye in the Sky
From: Abe Borker & Martin Piorkowski
|Bayou de View from above. Photo by Abe Borker|
Since the helicopter is grounded again today by rain, it’s a great chance to tell you a little bit more about the helicopter surveys. Flying over the Big Woods at such low altitudes has given us a great perspective on habitat and lots of looks at large woodpeckers. By now, Martjan Lammertink and I have acclimated to photographing woodpeckers from a shaky helicopter at 40 mph, which, as a bird photographer for the last 10 years, I can say is no small feat. We’ve seen lots of other wildlife, including deer, coyotes, river otter, and a black bear with a couple of young bears.
The birdlife from the air is incredible: thousands of ducks are easily spotted and identified; swarms of blackbirds seem to float magically out of the swamps, and some species, such as flickers, are ubiquitous. Some species that you see every day on foot in the Big Woods appear entirely different from above: the striking back of a Red-shouldered Hawk, or the methodical and graceful flight of a Great Blue Heron, slowly cruising over green water and cypress knees. I’ve been lucky to fly with Jeff Denman, a White River forester who has been able to provide a lot of ecological insight into the areas we fly over, such as forest treatments and natural history.
|The majestic Great Blue Heron. Photo by Martjan Lammertink
||Red-shouldered Hawk, Photo by Martjan Lammertink|
We can’t stress enough that, even though there are only four people in the helicopter at any time, it’s a large effort involving many people from all different agencies (including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service, and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission). It takes a massive amount of organization to conduct the surveys. Steve Osborne and Jason Phillips have both been key figures in putting this tightly organized operation together. Jason has spent nearly every night during these flights fine-tuning the details of the next day’s survey. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s role is to provide personnel and expertise, gained from our searches here over the past few years. As one of those flying in the helicopter, I can say we all feel much safer knowing we have such a highly trained and experienced ground team and pilot.
Wednesday, January 30: A great day to fly
From: Abe Borker
We were able to get up in the air today. Winds were calm, but the temperature was chilling. Trey Reid, of Arkansas Game & Fish, and I braved the coldest flight yet. Two hours later our fingers were nearly frozen solid, but we did observe a lot of birds and it made for some beautiful flying weather. We also decided against using video, as we were in favor of high mega-pixel digital SLRs with telephoto lenses. We concluded that higher resolution pictures were optimal, and the shaking picked up with video made it difficult to extract sharp freeze-frames. This was also Chris Rea’s first flight in the helicopter and he was excited to be hanging out the side, taking pictures of the wildlife 250 feet below.
|L-R, Catherine Rideout, Chris Rea, Abe Borker. Photo by Martjan Lammertink|
Tuesday, January 29: Grounded
From: Justin Bredlau
Because of heavy rain, the helicopter could not get off the ground this morning and the ground crew could not get out to search for our elusive target. We spent the day cooped up indoors cleaning, organizing equipment, and typing IBWO log entries.
Monday, January 28: South Unit, White River
From: Tonya Kieffer & Justin Bredlau
|A Bald Eagle on its nest. Photo by Abe Borker|
Monday morning arrived and the excitement for the upcoming adventure was obvious; one group was heading an hour and a half away to be positioned throughout the South Unit of the White River Refuge, one group was sent to the western side of the river, some were in charge of media relations (led by Matt Connor of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and then there was the helicopter crew.
The field crew members assumed their positions and patiently awaited the big metal bird. While some of us were fascinated by the local wildlife, including nutria, pintails, raccoons, and numerous Bald Eagles, others were busy observing a small red bat. Hours seemed to pass slowly, unlike our usual search days. We each observed the helicopter flying over, hoping that an Ivory-billed Woodpecker would appear in its wake, and some of us even waved to the crew—but they were oblivious to our existence 250 feet below. We eventually arrived back at the house at 7:30 P.M., exhausted and ready for bed, but still able to fit a movie into our busy schedule.
|Bayou de View, Arkansas. Photo by Abe Borker|
From: Abe Borker
Up in the air, our first day went well. We didn’t know exactly what to expect, so we were glad to discover that we could see many large woodpeckers and we were able to capture readily-identifiable images from our two backseat photographers. A tremendous amount of cooperation helped the mission stay safe and successful. U.S. Fish and Wildlife has been responsible for getting this done, and we are happy to be lending our skills and eyes to the project. Other partners and volunteers played critical roles, briefing us on helicopter safety, flight following via radio, and other innumerable jobs.
|Black trailing edges on its wings make it easy to identify a Pileated Woodpecker from the helicopter. Photo by Abe Borker
||The helicopter crew gets a closer look at a Pileated Woodpecker on the wing. Photo by Martjan Lammertink|
Sunday, January 27: Kansas Lake
From: Justin Bredlau & Tonya Kieffer
Today we went back to Kansas Lake in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, where Justin was nearly struck by lightning during a severe storm earlier this month. We spread out to cover as much good habitat as possible, but we came back to St. Charles early to prepare for the upcoming helicopter surveys.
|A bend in the river. Photo by Abe Borker|
There was plenty of interesting bird activity and Chris spotted his first red-phase screech- owl. While most of the team was at Kansas Lake, Abe and Ehren were off setting up cameras and, unfortunately, locked the keys inside the van. This problem was eventually solved with some ingenuity and other creative travel arrangements.
That evening, we were greeted by a dozen new arrivals for the helicopter surveys. Who knew one could feed off an atmosphere full of chaos, mystery, determination, and youthful innocence? This describes the current living situation at Canvasback Lodge. As members of the crew stumbled into the living room, they were welcomed by the smell of homemade Louisiana gumbo, Tonya’s freshly-cooked duck, and friendly, familiar faces. Oh, and we must not forget the smiling faces of Utami, Martjan, and Palung, the four-month-old addition to the team. What a way to get geared up for the helicopter surveys.
From: Martin Piorkowski
Today I paired up with Leighton and the rest of the team split off. It was a wonderful day of birding with plenty of woodpecker activity in the area. The habitat was spotty with some large trees mixed with lots of smaller, less enticing trees, not to mention the briar in the area. After a day of teal, cormorants, Great Blue Herons, and lots of woodpeckers, we prepared to meet up with the rest of the team. On the way we heard some sounds like double knocks. There was lots of woodpecker activity in the area (and by my count more than a half-dozen Northern Flickers, four Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and at least three Pileated Woodpeckers). Anyway, we waited for about an hour and looked around the area slowly. We will plan on revisiting this area in the very near future.
Saturday, January 26: Cavity Check
From: Justin Bredlau & Tonya Kieffer
Abe and Ehren traveled to the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area to set up cameras focused on the numerous cavities we found the previous week during our inventory of the area. The rest of the crew spent the day cleaning the Robinson House and preparing to head down to the Canvasback Lodge in St. Charles. We are excited to have Marty back with us for the upcoming helicopter surveys.
As Tonya awaited Marty’s expected 1:14 P.M. arrival, she began to worry. He was late because of how long it took to de-ice the plane in Detroit. We’re thankful it is not as cold in Arkansas as it is up north. As Marty glided down the escalator, he smiled and was greeted with Tonya’s happy face. As they proceeded through Memphis, they decided to overcome Marty’s bad coffee incident by enjoying Gus’s #1 world-famous fried chicken. It definitely lived up to the hype. They then proceeded to St. Charles to meet up with the rest of the crew.
Friday, January 25: Dagmar
From: Justin Bredlau
We spent a chilly morning at Dagmar Wildlife Management Area, but we were forced to return to the house when the sleet and rain intensified and all of the birds went silent. All of our feet froze that day, and we were happy return to our warm house.
January 5-16, 2008
From: Abe Borker
|Preparing for a float down the White River. Photo by Chris Rea|
Recharged from the holiday break, the team has reassembled in Arkansas for the long haul. We've been focusing our efforts on previously unsearched areas, some of which have had only a single walk-through in the past three years. These new areas appear to have good quality habitat and we’re excited to be exploring unsearched ground. Bird activity should pick up in a few more weeks but we are still observing the more common birds of the wintertime hardwood forest. The culmination of last week was a three-day float trip down the White River. This coming week we're focusing on finding large cavities in the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area where there were some interesting reports last season.
|Cottonmouth: a common sight. Photo by Chris Rea|
To help local bird watchers, we assisted in the St. Charles Christmas Bird Count—a special treat for the search team too. We tallied a good number of species for our designated area, including some exciting, often-secretive birds like LeConte's Sparrow and Sedge Wren. A highlight of the count was a small cottonmouth who surely regretted being out on that cold and dreary day. We were very happy to bird in a new place and our help was greatly appreciated by the count's compiler and other participants.
This past week we've been glad to have Ron Rohrbaugh down in Arkansas with us, leader of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project. He treated us to stories of past search teams and shared his expertise and guidance in making this a successful search season. We also welcomed our partner Greg Marshall from National Geographic, who designed the “CritterCam.” National Geographic has generously loaned us some great camera equipment and will be bringing down some new automated cameras they've been developing.
|Dense trees make it difficult to see very far. Photo by Abe Borker|
The automated camera effort is also moving along. Recently, camera deployments have documented squirrels, raccoons, Pileated Woodpeckers, and other smaller woodpeckers. Because of some very rapid changes in water levels, one camera nearly came back with images of bass!
In the realm of exciting cultural sightings, I ate my first Fried Pie today, and I was pleasantly surprised. The sheer volume of grease and sugar results in a debilitating phenomenon Ron has dubbed “The Fried Pie High.” We've also become known at the St. Charles Saturday Night Crawfish Boil and are making friends around town. We have some new housemates in Cotton Plant, a couple of Rusty Blackbird researchers from the University of Arkansas. Chris is going to be bringing back dinner from his downtime fishing trips any day now and Tonya, our duck caller extraordinaire, will bring back a nice duck.
|A huge flock of Snow Geese, in both white and blue plumages. There are a few Ross's Geese in the bunch too. Photo by Chris Rea|
In the upcoming weeks we plan to continue getting into unsearched areas, spending some days camping in the field, and continue to deploy automated cameras focused on cavities found this year and in years past. The aerial surveys led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service begin in late January. We'll be doing some very low flyovers of what we believe to be the most promising parts of the search area. I'll be one of those going up in the helicopter and I'm excited to get a bird’s-eye view of our search area. With a bit of luck, we may observe and photograph that special bird.
December 21, 2007From: Martin Piorkowski
Today’s excitement includes data entry, entering our bird tallies into eBird, equipment upkeep, and general logistical maintenance. The day was spent catching up on the search database and making sure that every “i” was dotted and “t” crossed.
December 20, 2007From: Martin Piorkowski
The adventures in Arkansas continued in the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area. Last night it rained quite hard which made for some sloppy conditions in the field. We split up, with three of us heading north of the bayou and the other two going south. Part of the day’s duties included recovering Reconyx cameras and one of our field vehicles that got stuck in the fine, soft mud of Wattensaw just inches from the gravel road. A local hunter out scouting gave us a helping hand along with a tow strap hooked to an F-250 truck!
December 19, 2007From: Leighton Reid
|Leighton and Abe scoping things out. Count. Photo by Martin Piorkowski|
Before we left for Christmas break, we helped out with the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area Christmas Bird Count. We split up our crew and sent searchers out with teams of local birders. The day was foggy, making it more difficult to see raptors and waterfowl, but we still managed 93 species in all. When we return from break January 1, we will again hit the water in Dagmar.
December 16–18, 2007From: Martin Piorkowski
|Big trees in the White River. Photo by Tonya Kieffer|
We spent the next couple of days in an area that had not been searched before. The low water made it possible to get into the area just north of Highway 1 in the White River. As we searched, we also kept checklists of species that we’ll compile at the end of the season for the White River National Wildlife Refuge. There is good habitat in this section of the North Unit of the White River with some big trees including cypress, tupelo, overcup oak, and sycamore, though the distribution is spotty. More searching in this area throughout the season will give us a better idea of the distribution of this habitat.
December 13, 2007From: Martin Piorkowski
Today we joined a rather large contingent at Cook’s Lake to discuss some aerial surveys that will be done over the Big Woods this season. Jason Phillips (USFWS) along with Catherine Rideout (AGFC) put together a workshop for everyone that will be part of the effort. The main goals of the workshop were to give a general overview of the search, inform all parties of the search protocols, and some of the safety protocols. The afternoon included practicing with some of the camera equipment that will be used for the aerial searches and trying to photograph birds on the wing.
December 10–12, 2007From: Leighton Reid
Our first camping trip of the season was in the North Unit of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Because it’s so hard to get to, this area has not been searched as extensively as other parts of the Big Woods over the past few years. There are many good patches of habitat on islands and long peninsulas between bayous and the main channel of the White River. Since we have a small crew this year, we plan to spend a lot of time in there. Today we did some double knocks, hoping for a response.
|Low water, fog, and mud in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Martin Piorkowski|
On the White River, near St. Charles, the water level was significantly lower than on Bayou De View. The forests were dry and the bayous had obvious banks. The mossy, gray high-water marks on the trees created an artificial fog-line. We continued up a long finger or water in the Jon-boat until the motor hit some soft mud; then paddled our way to shore where we made camp. One benefit of low water is that potential campsites are flat and free of vegetation in areas usually covered by water. We spent three days hiking and floating through this area and found several nice cavities. Abe set up some of the remote, motion-sensing cameras to see what might fly in or out.
December 9, 2007From: Martin Piorkowski
Snow Geese. Photo by Martin Piorkowski
Since this was a day off for the team, Abe, Leighton, and I took this opportunity to go on an excursion for some new lifers. Doing much of our birding from the road, we totaled 61 species. We worked our way from Cotton Plant, west to Wattensaw WMA, then south to Stuggart. At that point we ran out of daylight. The day was filled with highs and lows. Some of the lows were no Brown-headed Nuthatches in the pine groves in Wattensaw and no Smith’s Longspurs at Stuggart airport. However, Leighton had some lifers, including Ross’s Goose and Lapland Longspurs. We also got to see some rather large flocks of Snow Geese that neither Leighton nor Abe had seen before.
December 7, 2007From: Martin Piorkowski
A second day of searching in the Wattensaw WMA allowed the crew to fine-tune electronic equipment, navigational skills, and general search methodologies.
December 6, 2007From: Martin Piorkowski
|Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Martin Piorkowski|
As part of our orientation week, we struck out to Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area to get more familiar with the area that had some interesting encounters last season. It was easy to maneuver because water levels were low over the summer and the main channels were only recently filled up by the rain. We had lots of bird activity including White-throated Sparrow, juncos, Pine Warblers, Gold-crowned and Ruby-crowned kinglets; Pileated, Red-bellied, Red-headed, Downy, and Hairy woodpeckers; Northern Flickers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Barred Owls to name just a few.
Abe Borker set out to place some Reconyx cameras on cavities and feeding sign along the bayou. He will continue working with David Luneau to maintain remote cameras throughout the Wattensaw WMA.
December 5, 2007From: Leighton Reid
Today we headed downstream from the Highway 17 bridge to the hot zone where David Luneau shot the now-famous video clip believed to be an ivory-bill. We pulled in the canoes around the same tree from which the bird in the video flew and conducted a stationary watch. That’s where we sat and waited, like jacamars with video cameras, for the bird to show up.
December 4, 2007From: Leighton Reid
|Row, row, row your boat. Photo by Martin Piorkowski|
This was our first day on the water. We loaded the camouflage canoes on the van and put in at Bayou De View, “ground zero” for some of the 2004 sightings. The water was high and brown as we paddled upstream through overcup oak and bald cypress. These are good conditions for searching. The water is high enough to turn the forest into a big lake so you can paddle wherever you want. When the water is lower, some areas are too shallow for the canoe while others spots are too deep to walk in without swamping your waders. On a long, thin lake about 15 meters above the water we saw a large, oval tree cavity whose size and shape caught the attention of the search team in the 2006-07 season.
December 3, 2007From: Leighton Reid
Members of the 2007-08 Arkansas search team met for the first time on December 3 at our field house outside of Cotton Plant, Arkansas. The six of us trickled in throughout the day from Missouri, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and New York—some a little cross-eyed from driving through the night. But after some enchiladas at a wonderful Mexican restaurant in Brinkley, everybody was basically normal.
|L-R, Catherine Rideout, Allan Mueller, Jason Phillips, Ehren Banfield, Leighton Reid, Tonya Kieffer, Justin Bredlau, Abe Borker, Chris Rea, and Marty Piorkowski. Photo by Ross Everett.|
We were all excited to get out in the swamp, but first there were some orientation meetings with local partners, such as Jason Phillips from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Catherine Rideout of Arkansas Game and Fish, and Allan Mueller of The Nature Conservancy. Marty Piorkowski, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s project biologist, came down for a couple of weeks to get the ball rolling and distribute equipment. The presentations can be boiled down to this: “Goal: Find and Document Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.”