Migrant Ornithologist

February 8, 2006

By Pat Leonard

As the old saw goes, Beth Wright is outstanding in her field—and she can usually be found out standing in a field somewhere—or a forest, or a swamp. Dubbing herself an “itinerant ornithologist,” she migrates across the land doing the work that speaks to her heart in the bottomland forests she loves.

Beth works for Audubon Arkansas and is the volunteer coordinator for the ivory-bill search in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge near Brinkley, Arkansas. This is familiar terrain. She has worked in similar habitats in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia. Beth wanted so much to work on the ivory-bill project that she applied for a couple of different positions and would have been happy in either of them. It was a case of “bayou or bust.”

Beth says, “I’m really thrilled that we have good evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has made it through a bottleneck that we created by cutting the southern forests. I’m thrilled that the attention of the nation and the world has been focused on this bird and this system. I’m also impressed with the way this project is going in terms of the partnerships. We have a lot of different stakeholders, the various federal and state agencies, nonprofit sector, and then the local community. The way this is being handled is a model for dealing with rare and endangered species. To have everybody on board and working together, I’m very impressed with that.”

While the habitat may be familiar, Beth says this project is larger and more complex than anything she’s worked on before. She says, “I’ve worked with volunteers doing citizen science, doing research, but in most cases they haven’t been using quite as much electronic equipment. And one of the big hurdles in training is how to get people up to speed on the GPS and the video cameras, our computer database, and even cell phones…we rely on the cell phones heavily for communication in the field.”

Beth says she is “awed and impressed” by the caliber of the people who give up two weeks of their time to volunteer in the search for the ivory-bill. “They’re incredible,” she says. “They have a lot of knowledge and they’re also really motivated.”

Though everyone acknowledges the odds of seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker are slim at best, Beth says she remains encouraged by what she’s seen so far and feels the odds may be improving with the arrival of the breeding season. “In my experience, when birds have young in the nest they’ve got to feed them. The nestlings eat a lot and so the parents are back and forth to that nest all the time.” Beth also notes that there’s a lot of communication between adult birds and nestlings, so the likelihood of hearing them also increases at this time of year.

Beth says she derives great satisfaction from being able to combine field work with education on a project with such potential for impacting conservation. She is taking her ivory-bill duties beyond the bayou by presenting educational programs in the community. She’s already given one presentation at a local preschool and has been asked to help children learn to identify birds in preparation for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society during the third weekend in February. That’s a win-win-win situation: good for the ivory-bill, good for conservation, and good for the future of all species who will rely on today’s young people to be faithful guardians of the natural world.