Behind-the-Scenes Chronology

April 2005

The ivory-bill search as it unfolded

March 1, 2004

Tim Gallagher returned to Cornell and informed John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker he had seen with Bobby Harrison in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge on February 27. Harrison informed officials at Oakwood College, and Gene Sparling contacted John Simpson, a board member of The Nature Conservancy, and David Luneau, professor at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, who participated in a 2002 search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Pearl River Wildlife Management area, and Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy's Arkansas chapter. The conservationists began to work closely and quickly to organize and fund an extensive search.

March to May 2004

The partnership, later known as the Big Woods Conservation Partnership, launched an official search for the ivory-bill. At first, the search concentrated on the area of the Cache River where the initial sightings had been made. Tim Gallagher returned to Arkansas within a week of telling John Fitzpatrick about the ivory-bill sighting. He was accompanied by Andy Farnsworth, a Cornell graduate student and one of the best birders in the country. Gallagher, Farnsworth, Bobby Harrison, and Gene Sparling continued the search and camped at Camp Ephilus II (named after the Camp Ephilus, the camp site in Louisiana where Laboratory of Ornithology founder Arthur A. Allen led a successful expedition to find the ivory-bill in 1935. The name is a play on words with Campephilus, the genus name for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker). They scoured the area for days but didn't come up with anything.

Then it was the Sapsuckers' turn. The Sapsuckers are the Lab of Ornithology's crack team of birders who compete in the World Series of Birding in New Jersey each May. Team members Steve Kelling, Kevin McGowan (and his 17-year-old son, Jay), Ken Rosenberg, John Fitzpatrick, and Jeff Wells spent the next part of a week in the swamp. They devised a method of searching that involved looking at the area as if a giant grid had been laid over the top and then having each team member be responsible for counting all the birds, every half hour, within a particular square. This meant sitting in one place for up to 12 hours at a time in order to create an effective census. This also yielded nothing.

By this time Scott Simon and the Arkansas chapter of The Nature Conservancy had been busy securing canoes for the searchers and doing what they do best--quietly acquiring land in the area to add to the protected acreage within the existing wildlife refuge.

Members of the core team of the Big Woods Conservation Partnership set up weekly phone conferences to discuss all aspects of the search and habitat preservation. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology decided to keep a steady stream of searchers coming to the bayou throughout the remainder of the search season. (It is largely futile to search after late April when the leaves fill out on the trees and obscure much of what is flying through the forest).

Ron Rohrbaugh, director of natural resources and visitor services at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology became the search crew leader for the first season of the search, leading 15 to 20 volunteers at a time in the search efforts in the Cache River area. They made several significant sightings during this time. Like everyone else involved in the project, Rohrbaugh expected someone to capture an image of an ivory-bill on film at any moment.

However, the search for proof--absolute incontrovertible proof--of the ivory-bill's existence proved as difficult as looking for a needle in a haystack, or in this case, of looking for perhaps only one bird in miles and miles of bayou.

"In the initial days of the search, we were all crammed into motel rooms, sleeping two to three to a room, eating out every night because we didn't have any kitchen facilities," said Ron Rohrbaugh, search crew leader in 2004. "We'd be out in the field from dawn until dusk every day, then come home and strip out of the wet clothes, throw on some dry ones, go grab a bite to eat, and then have a nighttime meeting. I'd bring the entire crew into my motel room and we'd go over the plans for the next day."

"We were making up strategy as we went along in an effort to cover as much area as we could in a very systematic way," said Rohrbaugh. "We were just really trying to pull it together to make it work given the huge area we wanted to search and the limited number of boats. We all parked in a central location and put in our canoes and spread out both north and south on the bayou and worked the same several miles day after day."

Rohrbaugh said, "It was an absolutely electric time. To think that around every bend, behind every big cypress, there could be an ivory-bill."

The team decided to keep news of the rediscovery of the ivory-bill quiet until they had an entire field season completed and incontrovertible photographic and possibly bioacoustic evidence of the ivory-bill's existence.

December 2004 to April 2005

After the first search season ended, the core team spent the summer developing a more comprehensive search plan for the next phase. This involved adding the White River National Wildlife Refuge to the search area --a 160,000-acre wilderness area south of the Cache River that many believed could serve as home to a source population of ivory-bills. This required leasing and setting up another search station--a duck hunting lodge--in the St. Charles, Arkansas, area.

Working in the White River

The search protocol for the White River region was that searchers would be sent out to conduct transects 50 meters apart in a pre-determined area. The searchers were each equipped with a global positioning system (GPS) unit that could keep track of their trajectories, as well as having the unit track their actual movements. When they returned from the field in the evening, their GPS movements were downloaded and plotted on a map.

What were the searchers looking for? Anything that might indicate the presence of ivory-bills including scaling and peeling of bark from trees and the presence of possible roost or nest cavities. And of course any kent calls or double-knocks. Lammertink coordinated an inventory of possible roost or nest cavities and checked on any holes that were the correct size and shape.

Most of the searchers came from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or from Cornell connections, and people traveled from as far away as Wales, the Netherlands, Hawaii, and Indonesia to participate in the opportunity to hunt for the elusive ivory-bill. This was a chance of a lifetime and the field team knew it. They were participating in groundbreaking work and everyone wanted desperately to find the bird.

Martjan Lammertink, the world's foremost expert on large woodpeckers, was hired by the Lab to join the search efforts and develop protocols for looking for and creating an inventory of potential ivory-bill roost and nest cavities.

Peter Wrege, a Senior Research Associate in Cornell's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was brought into the project to be the field coordinator in charge of the 160,000-acre White River National Wildlife Refuge search area, which many believed to be the best chance for long term survival of Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas, as it contains some of the best and most extensive habitat in the Cache-White-Arkansas river system.

Wrege, who brought years of field research experience to the project, found directing survey work in the White River quite challenging because access was often very difficult, the largely featureless bottomland forest was easy to get lost in, and the rapidly changing water levels could be a logistical and safety nightmare. He said, "In December and January we were tooling up refuge access roads and ATV trails in motorboats to access study sites. A month later, in February, the water was down more than 25 feet and we could walk where before we floated far above the forest floor in canoes."

The Cache River Search Area

Elliot Swarthout, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was tapped to supervise the field crew at the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Elliot and his crew set up base camp in the Robinson House, a farmhouse near Cotton Plant bought for this purpose by The Nature Conservancy. The field season lasted from December 3, 2004 to April 30, 2005, with eight full-time searchers on the crew and about 30 part-timers who stayed anywhere from one to four weeks. At one point there were 16 people staying in Robinson House.

Swarthout and Ron Rohrbaugh developed four different search strategies for the Cache River search area. First, they walked or paddled transects 50 meters apart searching for and marking nest or roost cavities and signs of woodpeckers feeding. Then a group rated the cavities--A through D (with A being the best)--based on a number of characteristics and sat and watched the best-looking holes for the last couple of hours each day, hoping to see a bird fly in. Another group paddled or walked to promising looking spots and waited and watched throughout the day. Finally, a group engaged in active searching and quietly moved through the bayou in canoes hoping to catch a glimpse of an ivory-bill or hear a kent call or double-knock.

One addition to the equipment for the second search season was an 80-foot high boom, or cherry-picker, that sat in a field at the edge of the forest. Someone would be up in the boom from dawn to dusk every day, scanning the canopy, looking at whatever might be flying above the treetops.

The biacoustics crew was also stationed at the Robinson House. They were deploying autonomous recording units, which were invented at the Lab of Ornithology's Bioacoustics Research Program and have been used to record everything from right whales in the North Atlantic to Africa's forest elephants. Up to 16 ARUs would be placed out at any one time in the Cache River and White River search areas trying to pick up either the kent call or double-knocks.

As the searchers leave at the end of the second field season, only about seven percent of the 860 square miles of bottomland forest known as The Big Woods has been searched.


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The Big Woods Conservation Partnership includes the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The Nature Conservancy, Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., Louisiana State University, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Birdman Productions, LLC, and Civic Enterprises, LLC.