Top Honors for Conservation

April 4, 2006

By Pat Leonard

“Life is going to change.” That thought came quickly to mind soon after Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison simultaneously locked eyes on an Ivory-billed Woodpecker banking away from them in an Arkansas swamp two years ago. The rediscovery of a bird long thought to have vanished from the world was triggered by a sighting from outdoorsman Gene Sparling of Hot Springs, Arkansas. For these three men, the last couple years have been a life-altering whirlwind of interviews and speaking engagements. Perhaps the climax of their sudden fame came Saturday, March 18, in New York City where each received the President’s Award for Conservation from The Explorers Club.

(L-R) Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher with the President's Award for Conservation from the Explorers Club. Photo by Whitney Harrison

A club for the curious

If you’re among the vast majority of us safely ensconced in the recliner with a bag of corn chips, you may be unfamiliar with The Explorers Club. It was formed in 1904 and its members have accomplished some of the world’s most daring firsts, among them: first to scale Mount Everest and first to reach the deepest spot in the ocean. The Explorers Club flag is carried on expeditions everywhere, hoisted by explorers and scientists from a mind-boggling array of disciplines, belonging to 30 chapters around the world—distinguished company indeed.

Dig out the fancy duds

Enter the ivory-bill spotters, three men at home snake-wrangling through swamps dressed in camouflage and dining al fresco on cans of Dinty Moore beef stew. They are now in truly uncharted territory: the glitzy Waldorf Hotel Grand Ballroom. The camo has been traded for a black-tie at this formal (and sold out) awards dinner with the apt theme of “What’s Left to Explore?” Not surprisingly, the response from this group is: “Just about everything.” The rediscovery of the ivory-bill makes that point quite nicely. Most people thought they “knew” the bird was extinct—happily, an assumption proven to be premature.

Before they were stars

Who are these modern-day heroes of ornithology? Tim Gallagher is the editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the quarterly magazine issued by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He is also a falconer, a photographer, a writer (author of The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker), and an explorer. Bobby Harrison is an award-winning photographer and author of a children's book, To Find an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. His day job is teaching art and photography at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. Gene Sparling is a Renaissance man of the outdoors, an entrepreneur and naturalist. His wanderings in the bayou became the equivalent of the butterfly flapping its wings in the forest, launching a cascade of events that brings us to this gathering of world-class scientists and explorers in New York City.

Daring dining

This was no rubber-chicken dinner. Before the sit-down portion of the event, attendees grazed the length of a 60-foot table billed as the “exotics buffet,” testing their mettle and their digestion with USDA-approved delicacies from around the world. Cornell Lab of Ornithology board member John Foote describes them with delight but admits he stayed away from the lightly sautéed tarantula with endive leaves, having heard a rumor that traces of toxin remained and could turn his face numb. Other choices included mealworm sushi, fried hissing Madagascar cockroaches, sautéed rattlesnake cakes, barbecued feral pig on a bed of wild rice, and more that shall go unnamed in the interests of settled stomachs.

Party animals and perspectives

Some of the guests were as wild as the cuisine. There were live Jackass Penguins, a black leopard, a camel, a python, and a European Hawk Owl that swooped down from an upper balcony to the dais at center stage. That was part of the introduction to the award for conservation given to Tim, Bobby, and Gene.

(L-R) Astronaut Kathy Sullivan, Tim Gallagher, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon. Photo by Bobby Harrison

Honorees, speakers, and guests were as eclectic as the food and the fauna. Gene Sparling was seated next to Buzz Aldrin, only the second person ever to get moon-dust on his shoes. The significance of that juxtaposition was striking. John Foote notes, “One explored the moon and the other explored Bayou de View, both extraordinary and very important in their own ways.” He marvels at the “genius, energy, and enthusiasm” of the people gathered.

 Lab of  Ornithology director John Fitzpatrick agrees, “It was genuinely moving to see Gene, Tim, and Bobby sitting at the high table elbow to elbow with people like E. O. Wilson (father of biodiversity conservation), Michael Fay (the man who walked across the Congo rainforest), and Valentina Tereshkova (first woman in space). It spoke volumes about the importance and rarity of the discovery in Arkansas. It also shows that the theme ‘What's left to explore?’ applies perfectly to the world of birds. We are still making monumental discoveries right in our own country!”

In his acceptance speech, Tim echoed the theme. “People are always saying we live in an age of diminished challenges, where anyone with enough money can go to the top of Mount Everest or crack a bottle of champagne at the North Pole. But don’t believe it. There are still plenty of things to do in your own backyard and what we accomplished proves that.”  He also reflected upon the many great people he’s met through the entire ivory-bill saga, thanking Bobby and Gene for making it all possible and his colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, especially John Fitzpatrick, for “having the courage to believe in what we saw and to act on it.”

Back to the bayou

Life has indeed changed since that sighting in the Bayou de View, and not just for Gene Sparling, Tim Gallagher, and Bobby Harrison. It’s changed for the people of eastern Arkansas, banking on birders to boost their ailing economy. It’s changed for conservationists, getting welcome attention and financing for their efforts to preserve habitat. It’s changed for the ivory-bill, moving from romantic “has-been” to living icon of a species on the brink and one we desperately want to save. Perhaps most of all it’s changed for those of us in the recliner with corn chip crumbs in our laps—showing us there really is much left to explore in this world and much left to learn. Even if we never leave home, we can all be part of the excitement of discovery or, in the case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, an astonishing rediscovery.

Congratulations, Tim, Bobby, and Gene!