A Visit to Ivory-bill Country

September 2005
By Pat “Catfish” Leonard

Pat works in the Communications department at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She relished the opportunity to pay a visit to Brinkley, Arkansas, the “Home of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” These are her impressions of the trip, taken in September 2005.

My first trip to the South and into Ivory-billed Woodpecker territory was launched with catfish--Southern fried catfish to be precise--consumed at Gene’s Barbecue, the main gathering spot in Brinkley, Arkansas. It’s a one-room diner along Route 49 with a red, white, and blue metal roof, red-and-white plastic tablecloths, and an array of gut-busting hot sauces. A group of guys in full camouflage is sharing steaks, coffee, and booming laughter. There’s a “God Bless America” sign on the front and a parking lot jammed with pickup trucks most days. In addition to the catfish, there are frog legs on the menu, ribs, cobblers, grits, the ivory-bill burger, and the ivory-bill sundae. At the bottom of the menu is a serving of southern courtesy stating, “Thanks for eating with us. We are happy, grateful, and complimented that you selected our restaurant.”

When it comes to making the ivory-bill their own, the folks in Brinkley (pop. 3,940) are a determined and creative bunch. Inside Gene’s there’s an Ivory-billed Woodpecker banner on the wall next to paintings of the bird (for sale) by a local 80-year-old, self-taught artist. The restaurant sports a sign over the door that proudly proclaims Brinkley the home of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. There’s a wooden cut-out of the bird clinging to the flag pole out front. An ivory-bill made from the metal scoop of a shovel adorns the outside of the building. There are the inevitable T-shirts. The waitress wears one with a likeness of the ivory-bill and a “Most Wanted” caption. Occasionally you still hear the bird referred to by the old word for woodpecker: “peckerwood.” What used to be the Heritage Inn and RV Park is now the Ivory-billed Inn and RV Park. A gift shop called The Ivory-bill Nest is soon to be opened by Lisa Boyd. Over the weekend I snagged one of her pink baseball caps with the ivory-bill stitched on the front and the self-deprecating plea: “Where’s dat der peckerwood?”

Farther down the main drag there’s Penny’s Hair Salon. I spent some time cooling my heels and chatting with women waiting to get their hair done. Penny’s taken the ivory-bill to heart and creates key chains, cloth bags, clocks, and other doodads. “Peckerwood Penny” is embroidered on her smock. If you want to know what’s going on in town, stop by Penny’s for a chat. Penny says that the ivory-bill has become what cotton used to be to the town. Before there were cotton bolls painted on everything--now it’s woodpeckers.

At the Chamber of Commerce you’ll find more evidence of woodpecker mania. And the beaming face of Sandra Kemmer made me welcome. Her phone rang continuously and people were stopping in to buy the T-shirts made for the Lick Skillet Festival on Saturday—the reason for my being there.

Lick Skillet is the old name for the settlement that later became Brinkley. That settlement was made up primarily of Irish immigrants working on construction of the Little Rock and Memphis Railroad in 1862. The workers called the town Lick Skillet because when the day's work was done nobody went home until the railroad crew cooked their supper over an open fire and the last skillet was licked! Last year the event focused on the Delta Depot Museum in town. This year it’s all about the ivory-bill, which is plastered on the back of the shirt along with the festival’s sponsors. Just a few doors down from the Chamber I bought an umbrella with the head of the ivory-bill embroidered on each panel. There are more T-shirts, too.

I had to visit the bayou. Enter a true southern character. Chuck Volner strolled into the Chamber of Commerce dressed in boots and full camo, with “Chuck” etched into his leather belt and a woodpecker pin with a red tuft on its head attached to his hat. I followed him to his home, tucked back in the woods. Chuck tossed a canoe into the back of his pickup truck and we were off to Bayou deView in the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area, just a short hop away, the same bayou where the ivory-bill has been sighted. Chuck is hoping to pick up some guide work from birders, more as a hobby than a full-time business. He calls me babe, doll, or honey, but no offense intended, and none taken. If he doesn’t hear something I say, a quizzical “Ma’am?” is the prompt for me to repeat it—louder this time.

Chuck took the opportunity to tell me more about himself. He grew up right here, near the bayou. He claims he never wore a pair of shoes until he joined the Navy (as a cook). He fished, hunted, trapped, and learned to swim in the bayou. He was raised by his grandparents in a tar paper shack. He knows this bayou very well—even has names for certain trees that remind him of past events, some of them trips into the swamp with his twin sons Marvin and Arvin. (Marvin is now a corrections officer, Arvin a detective.) There’s a cottonmouth curled on a log in the water. And the most amazing trees. Huge cypress trees, tall and straight. Tupelo trees with jagged, tooth-like roots thrust up through the water. In bad weather they could look sinister, but not today. The trees all have enlarged bases to give them greater stability in the moist earth. And those bulbous bases are often hollow and twisted into fantastic shapes. You could fit several people inside some of them. I can’t really see any birds because of the thick foliage and closely-packed trunks, although some leaves are starting to fall and float on the surface of the water. The dappled light gives the place an otherworldly feel. The water is low right now but the mosquito count is high. It’s a humid 94-degree day, and even a good coating of bug spray, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt (borrowed from my guide) don’t keep them entirely at bay. (But the funny thing is, you don’t feel them bite. And the welts keep popping out in the days that follow.) We often get caught on snags and small beaver dams because the water is so low.

I could hear some birds: Pileated Woodpecker, nuthatch, chickadee, and a Downy or Hairy woodpecker. I see busy dragonflies darting around, yellow and black butterflies, mammoth horseflies, clouds of surface-skimming bugs, and wild hibiscus blooming. Wider pools of water are called “lakes.” The plop of jumping fish in the copper-colored water makes Chuck yearn for fishing gear and a chance to catch a few and cook them up for me. The bayou is home to bream, bluegill, bass, and crappie (pronounced “croppie”). We glide quietly beneath a hanging hornet’s nest—these are swamp natives you don’t want to disturb.

Chuck points out sawed-off stumps—the wood chunks taken for use as lamp stands or other homemade crafts with a bayou flavor. Back in the old days, loggers used to cut trees from canoes, one on each side of the trunk, linked by a chain. Once the tree was sawed down, it was floated out of the bayou.

We get out and walk around on a higher bit of ground Chuck calls “Whiskey Island,” one of his favorite places. He shows me a few bricks left from a moonshine still and the rusted metal ring of an old barrel. We see little mud chimneys made by female crawfish that dig into the earth to lay their eggs. There are bitter pecans and acorns strewn on the ground. Apparently there are whitish berries the squirrels love because it makes them drunk.

Heading back, Chuck sums up some of his philosophy: “Everything in nature is beautiful. God didn’t make nothin’ ugly. You look closely enough, you’ll see everything is beautiful.” Oh look, another beautiful cottonmouth. This one is swimming with its head above the water and glides right next to the canoe. You want to leave these guys alone, I’m told. They’re not afraid of people, and some claim they’re downright mean. And they’re poisonous. I never saw an Ivory-billed Woodpecker but learned a lot on this little adventure anyway--including the advice to just follow the flow of the water if I ever get lost in the bayou.

The Lick Skillet Festival is the next day—cloudy and warm, but the rain from the remnants of Hurricane Rita holds off. Some booths are set up outdoors; I have a display set up inside the Brinkley Convention Center offering information about the Lab, its projects and, of course, the ivory-bill search. Lots of curious folks wander by, and there’s more ivory-bill paraphernalia: a red, white, and black ivory-bill candle, somebody dressed in an ivory-bill suit from head to toe, ivory-bill jewelry, and more. Most people here are close to the land and know it well but they’re not “birders.” They admit they never paid much attention to the birds, except for ducks. Duck hunting is huge because this area has the largest concentration of migrating ducks in the entire country.

It rained all day Sunday, leftovers from Hurricane Rita. I did a fair amount of driving around just to see the countryside. The farms are big, the homes somewhat isolated. I saw a group of Snowy Egrets in a flooded farm field. About 20 miles from Brinkley is the Louisiana Purchase Monument, the spot from which all survey work was done for 12 of the 13 states carved from the purchase (which doubled the size of the country at the time). The monument is in an area of “headwater” swamp as opposed to “backwater” swamp like Bayou deView. The former doesn’t have such drastically changing water levels and the water stays fairly low. The latter has quite variable depths depending on whether water backs up from the rivers that feed it.

My final evening here I had dinner at a place called “Western Sizzlin” and ordered the Big Woods Bird Special—chicken breast smothered in melted cheese, sautéed mushrooms and onion, and bacon—quite tasty actually. I had a great time overall and learned a lot—the people were friendly, and the Big Woods spectacular—with or without the ivory-bill!