Big Woods, Big Woodpeckers and Big Fun

March 15, 2006

Heading South
February 19-20, 2006

It's my second trip to the Big Woods. My boss thinks I am here to report on the search but I know better. I'm going to be the one to the get the video clip of the bird that everyone wants. I missed on the last trip so it's time to develop a better plan.

February 19, 2006 - The Plan

4:45 a.m.    Awaken and head for airport - √
6:00 a.m.    Board flight for Memphis - √
10:45 a.m.  Arrive Memphis - √
1:20 p.m.    Arrive Bayou de View
3:30 p.m.    Locate Ivory-billed Woodpecker
6:00 p.m.    Celebrate at Gene's Barbeque

The observant reader will notice the check marks ended after arrival in Memphis. An ice storm had moved through the area the day before. Ice on I-40 between Memphis and Brinkley was still causing major problems. I arrived at Bayou de View after 4:00 p.m., already behind schedule.

February 20--Training Day
The new volunteer crew fought the same icy challenge of reaching the Robinson House. All made it, however, and were excited about the first day of training. It was a treat for me too, as well-known birders such as Harry Armistead and Bob Ake were a part of the team.   

Volunteer teams spend the first half of their first day indoors as volunteer coordinator Beth Wright welcomes them to the Big Woods of Arkansas and the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Beth's presentation includes an introduction to the local community as well as the search areas, search protocols, general procedures, and a review of the equipment that will be used by the volunteers. (Meeting at the Robinson House--Cotton Plant, Arkansas. From left to right: Gordon, Marty, Harry, Bonnie and Terry)

Field supervisor Elliott Swarthout (2nd from right) also attends the meetings, answering questions and providing input on the big picture. (Left to right: Terry, Joe, Elliott and Beth)

Map-reading skills are an important part of the training. Volunteers must be able to navigate the Bayou de View to reach observation blinds, cavities, and scrapes.

The volunteer team gets ready to head down the trail at Apple Lake for their afternoon field training session. (From left to right: Joe Eades, Beth Wright, Harry Armistead, Marty Daniels, Robert Ake, Bonnie Gall, Terry Doyle)

Apple Lake is at the southern end of Bayou de View. Cypress, tupelo, persimmon and several hardwood species are found in the area.

More training with the maps. Beth wants to make sure the volunteers can find their way home after their forays into the Big Woods. It's of no benefit to the search if a volunteer finds a roost hole but cannot find their way out of the forest to tell someone about it.

Handheld GPS units are an important tool for search team members. The units provide precise information for important search locations, such as cavities of interest. The units are also used to track the movements of each searcher. That information is downloaded to a computer at the end of each day and imported into special mapping software. The software allows search team leaders to determine which search areas have been covered and which remain to be explored.

The hand-held GPS units are feature-rich and somewhat complex to use. Join the volunteers in the field as Beth reviews some of the features and uses of the GPS units.

Woodpecker cavities of many shapes and sizes are common throughout the Big Woods. Each volunteer is trained to recognize possible ivory-bill roost or nesting cavities. Those in the photograph are too small to be ivory-bill cavities.

Each volunteer also receives a handheld video camera. Most encounters or sightings in previous years were flybys. The challenge is to spot a fast-flying ivory-bill with enough time to locate it in the camera view-finder, then focus and shoot. All this has to happen in (typically) less than 10 seconds. Each camera is also equipped with a shotgun microphone to record potential kent calls and double knocks.

Water levels can rise and fall rapidly. The ice attached to the trees shown here is about 5 inches above the current water level. The ice probably formed about 48 hours before this photo, indicating the water level had fallen 5 inches in that time period.

Signs posted in the Apple Lake area of the Bayou de View designate certain areas set aside for older birds that need extra support during their long migratory journeys.

There is no escaping the paper work. Each day the volunteers must record their scouting locations, birds observed during point counts, and information on the number of Pileated Woodpeckers observed.

Graduation. Tomorrow I get to go out with the search team on the famous Bayou de View.

Photos © Sam Crowe/Cornell Lab of Ornithology