Bayou de View - Is this the day?

February 21, 2006

Strong note to self - Get the Bird!
Surely this is the day the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (IBWO) will reveal himself.

This is the first search day for the newest group of volunteers and everyone will be in the field. Beth has assigned me a platform watch station on Stab Lake. (There are several so-called lakes along the Bayou de View but they are basically just wide sections of the bayou.)

Terry Doyle (one of the volunteers) and I will paddle south to the platform.  Terry will drop me off and continue a slow paddle to a search area, and then back to the platform on which I will be standing watch.

A GPS representation of the Bayou de View near the Highway 17 bridge.  The areas both above and below the bridge are limited access.  Visitors to the area should check with the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters for permits.

Gordon and Harry head south from the Highway 17 bridge.  They are also headed to the Stab Lake area.

Several hundred meters south of the Highway 17 bridge the main channel of the Bayou de View narrows substantially.  I don't think Harry was about to swat his friend for not paddling hard enough.

After paddling for about an hour we reached the first observation blind. The ice was over an inch think in the area of our first approach. We had to paddle to the backside of the blind to find thin ice. Terry dropped me off and continued to paddle deeper into the Bayou de View. The photo above shows the view from the blind.  Five hours of observation yielded five species of woodpeckers, just not the one we wanted. Maybe I should have stayed one more hour?

Terry returned about 2:00 p.m. and we switched places. He took over the platform watch and I took the canoe and headed back up Bayou de View. I had to leave early to make an interview later that evening. The plan was for Beth to meet me at the Highway 17 bridge. She would then have a chance to search for the ivory-bill herself as she canoed back down to pick up Terry. Beth is a very nice person.

A view of a side channel as I paddle back toward the Highway 17 bridge.

Just past this location, and about 30 minutes after I left the platform, the plot began to thicken.

A double knock, just behind me and very close! Strong and powerful! This could be it! (Ivory-billed Woodpeckers rap twice on wood as long-distance communication signals, with the first strike usually louder than the second: “BAM bam!”)

The immediate challenge was to maneuver the canoe to a stable location. The current was not swift but was strong enough to quickly move the canoe out of range if I stopped paddling.

No problems at all at this point. All I had to do was turn on the video camera and aim it up and behind me, while at the same time maneuvering the canoe with my other hand, back up about 25 feet and into a stable location not affected by the current. Piece of cake.

About halfway through my contortions I heard another powerful double knock, probably less than 200 feet away. And finally a third powerful double knock, just as I was able to settle the canoe so it would not float down the river as I searched for the bird.  All right, now I am ready. Camera on, canoe stable, eyes focused closely in the direction of the sound. Nothing. Wait 10 more minutes.  Nothing. The bayou has gone silent.

Beth is waiting for me at the Highway 17 bridge so I head back upstream. Within 30 seconds I hear another double knock, not as strong as the first, but still a double knock, and it's close!  I whirl around and look up, in the direction of the sound, not far behind me but at about eleven o'clock high.  As I lean back to try to see higher in the trees I realize that I have gone too far. With no one else in the canoe to add a little balance, my sudden shift in weight, along with the canoe now being at an angle to the current, has created an unfortunate situation. The gunnel of the canoe is rapidly rushing to water level as the canoe tips to the right. I suddenly find myself looking straight down into the dark waters of the Bayou de View. My biggest concern is the camera gear in the boat--all lying out for quick access should the ivory-bill make an appearance. If the canoe goes over the cameras will be dumped into the river, probably never to be seen again.

There is only one thing to do. As the gunnel of the canoe just starts to break the surface of the water I make the decision that I must exit the canoe. With cat-like quickness and agility I pop out of the canoe and into the frigid waters of the Bayou de View. (Did I mention all the ice on the river?)  Fortunately the water was a little less than waist deep so there was no real danger.

However, just as I was standing up I heard another double knock, high in the trees and not too far away. I reached quickly for the canoe, pulled it toward me, and grabbed the video camera, trying not to get it soaked as the water dripped from my sleeves.  Just before the camera started recording I heard yet another double knock.  I tied the canoe to a tupelo tree and hid at its base, looking hard for the creature making the double knocks.

Fifteen frustrating minutes later I had not seen the bird or heard another sound from the drummer.  With the water seemingly getting colder by the minute I climbed back into the canoe and the final hour or so of my trip back to the take-out point.

Were the double knocks made by an Ivory-billed Woodpecker? I will, of course, never know but suspect they were not. In each case the first knock was stronger than the second, a good sign. However, the second set of double knocks was much sharper sounding and not nearly as loud as the first three, suggesting the almost booming resonance of the first set of double knocks was a result of the substrate, not the size and power of the woodpecker.

Also, while the double knocks were very close together they were not as closely spaced as recordings of double knocks made by other Campephilus species, woodpeckers in the same genus as the ivory-bill.   There are no known recordings of ivory-bill double knocks (not yet, at least) so no one knows for sure just how fast the double knocks of an ivory-bill might be.

Experience some of the sights and sounds of the Bayou de View. The video is jerky in places. All of it was shot handheld, often from a canoe and at high magnification. The Wood Ducks shown swimming rapidly downstream were recorded from a blind dubbed North Stab Platform / Home of the river otters. River otters, beavers, nutria and mink can be found in the area.  Although still some distance away, the roar of traffic on Interstate Highway I-40 can be heard in the background.

The final thirty seconds or so of the video was taped a couple of days later.  I had hiked from the Highway 17 bridge south along the edge of the swamp, in a distance of about 400 yards.  Immediately behind me was a 10-15 ft. embankment leading up to a farm field.  In front was the Bayou de View. It was late in the day, a time called the "magic hour" by the ivory-bill seekers, as it is the time of day birds are returning to their roosts for the evening.  I did not expect to see an ivory-bill but hoped (in vain) I might hear another double knock or kent call. 

The hour or so I sat on the edge of the swamp was not a loss. Sitting quietly on the bank of the Bayou de View in full camo gear I became part of the environment.   Wood Ducks swam by on several occasions and could often be heard calling.  White-breasted Nuthatches and Tufted Titmice were the most active this late in the day and in the distance Great-Horned and Barred Owls were calling repeatedly. Pileated Woodpeckers called twice. Overhead Red-winged Blackbirds and small flocks of geese were almost constant companions. It's impossible not to be touched by the enchanted kingdom of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

An interesting day, to say the least.  No ivory-bill but am I getting closer?  Tomorrow I'll join the full-time searchers in the White River Refuge. Maybe we'll be able to close the gap and finally get the money shot.

Photos ©Sam Crowe/Cornell Lab of Ornithology unless noted otherwise.