Ivory-bill Chronicles

May 2006

by David Nolin

Volunteer David Nolin is a native of Dayton, Ohio, and spent March 13-24, 2006 searching for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. The highlight of his time in Arkansas was hearing and recording some double-knocks. David is deputy director of a regional conservation organization in Dayton called Five Rivers MetroParks.

In the fall of 2005 Cornell University announced on its web site that it was accepting applications for two-week volunteer positions to assist in the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. Part of me thought it was crazy to spend that much time away from family and home and burn up two weeks of vacation. I sent in the online application and was excited to learn some time later that I was one of 100 people selected to help with the search for the ivory-bill.

Photo: Arthur A. Allen, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

For the past six years I have been an ivory-bill addict feverishly searching for any news of the elusive, maybe extinct woodpecker. I’ve taken three trips to look for them myself, one each to Louisiana, Florida, and Arkansas. The announcement in April 2005 that the ivory-bill had been rediscovered in Arkansas was greeted with joy across America. I really wanted to be part of this effort and make some kind of meaningful contribution.

   Map by Jim Besley, © USFWS

As the time approached to leave for Arkansas, I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on work. I found myself wondering whether I was tough enough for the supposed grueling long days in the field with some combination of freezing cold, broiling heat, swarms of mosquitoes, lurking poisonous snakes, and trackless swamps.

I followed the driving instructions to Cotton Plant, Arkansas, and then along a long narrow road to a ranch house near the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. The house, called “Robinson House,” was owned by The Nature Conservancy and had been converted to a barracks for volunteers searching for the ivory-bill. I was the first of my group of six to arrive and all was quiet. The house was full of huge maps of the nearby conservation areas on the walls, natural history books, and various gadgets neatly stored in cardboard boxes. My fellow volunteers trickled in and we got acquainted. The next day was to be our training day, starting first thing in the morning.

Robinson House, photo by David Nolin, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Our leader for the next two weeks was Beth Wright. Beth seemed to have boundless energy and enthusiasm for the project. She talked quickly and invariably followed every sentence with a laugh. She knew exactly what she was doing and was in touch with the smallest details of the equipment and procedures. We were given a crash course in the technology being used. That included running a fancy GPS unit, digital camcorder, battery chargers, cell phone, filling out numerous data sheets, packing equipment, and procedures for various scenarios. 

I worked in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge of  the “Big Woods,” an area of about 500,000 acres of swamp in southeast Arkansas. The Cache River NWR includes Bayou de View, a spectacular ribbon of forest containing 800-year-old cypress trees and abundant wildlife. It is also where a kayaker named Gene Sparling sighted what he thought was an ivory-bill in 2004.

Observation blind, photo by David Nolin,  © Cornell Lab of Ornithology
View from blind, photo by David Nolin,  © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

For the next two weeks I was paired with one of five other volunteers and sent out to one of several sections of Bayou DeView to find ivory-bills. A typical day went like this:

  • 5:00 A.M.--Get up and get ready.
  • 5:45 A.M.--Load up vehicle with equipment and head to assigned access point. Load canoe and paddle to assigned location.
  • 6:15 A.M.-12:00 P.M.--Quietly sit in one of many platforms/blinds with video camera ready. Take detailed counts of bird populations observed.
  • 12:00 P.M.-4:30 P.M.--Trade places with partner and quietly paddle a portion of the bayou looking for signs of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Photo by David Nolin, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • 5:00 P.M.-6:30 P.M.--Paddle to a specified tree that contained a cavity that could be a roost site for IBWO. Watch cavity until dark to see if and IBWO sleeps there.
  • 6:30 P.M.-8:00 P.M.--Paddle out of swamp in the twilight and drive back to the Robinson House.
  • 8:00 P.M.-8:30 P.M.--Get out of camo suit and waders and shovel down some food.
  • 9:00 P.M.-10:00 P.M.--Receive assignment for the next day, fill out and turn in data sheets and GPS data, pack lunch and gear for next day.

Raccoon, photo by David Nolin, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology
River otter, photo by Dave Parsons, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The first day was warm and pleasant but I was exhausted by dark. I did not see an ivory-bill but saw many of the smaller but similar Pileated Woodpeckers as well as other wildlife. On the third day the weather turned cold and despite wearing at least eight layers I was freezing in the blind while exposed to the north wind. Sitting there, I wondered if this was the best way to use vacation time.

Camo gear, photo by David Nolin, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The big day for me was Tuesday, March 21. I was assigned to go to a platform in the north end of Bayou DeView and conduct a “playback.” This is where two volunteers would go to a blind and play a recording of ivory-bill kent calls made in Louisiana in the 1930s in hopes of getting a live IBWO to respond. Although no ivory-bill double knocks have ever been recorded in the past, the playback tape included double knocks from woodpeckers similar to the ivory-bill. Exact protocols had to be followed to ensure that other searchers did not hear the playback and mistake it for a real bird.

My partner that day was a birder from Sacramento, California named Ed Pandolfino. Ed was very good with protocol and details and kept me on course. We arrived at our platform on time at dawn and started the playback. Unfortunately, the batteries were nearly dead in the speaker and the volume achieved was pathetic. Ed shook his head, pulled out replacement batteries and saved the day. We tried again with impressive volume.

After waiting five minutes, we heard nothing except a tree groaning in the distance. Then a minute later a loud double rap rang out slightly to our right, BA-BAM! We were stunned. Fortunately we both had our camcorders running and fitted with fancy shotgun microphones. Ed’s was pointed right at the sound and nailed it. We tried the playback again but heard nothing more that morning. We kept watch all that day hoping an ivory-bill would reveal itself, but no dice. Just before dusk we did the playback again and waited. After a few minutes a distant “bam” sound came from across the bayou. That was it so we headed home, anxious to see what the others thought of our recordings. Ed and I made detailed notes of our observations.

The recordings Ed and I each made were sent to Cornell for the sound experts there to analyze. It is possible that it could turn out to be something else, but Ed and I are thrilled at the possibility that we might have had an encounter with an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The sounds we heard and recorded made me want to stay longer, but the two weeks were up. We all headed in different directions by plane or car to California, New Mexico, Missouri, Ohio, and north Arkansas. I know I will never forget the experience and am grateful to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for allowing me to participate in the very well organized and led project. 

Editor's note: The Lab of Ornithology's bioacoustics team has analyzed the double knocks that Ed and David recorded on their cameras. Analysis was difficult in part because the degraded quality of the recordings after the sounds reached the microphone from a distance or at an angle. The researchers said the sounds were intriguing, though they could not conclude with certainty whether the knocks came from an ivory-bill or from some other source. After ranking all recordings for quality, the researchers will use this season's data to look for patterns in where and when such sounds were recorded in the Big Woods. Such patterns could help direct future search efforts.

Bark scaling, photo by David Nolin, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Interesting cavity, photo by David Nolin, © Cornell Lab of Ornithology