Meeting the Pros – A visit to Canvasback Lodge

March 2006


About an hour from the Cache River/Bayou de View is the White River National Wildlife Refuge and Canvasback Lodge, current home of the full-time Cornell search team. Arriving mid-afternoon, I was greeted by Ken Levenstein and Nemo, his well-behaved Amazonian parrot.

ivory-bill search team

Ken heads up a lively 14-member team focused on developing an inventory of possible ivory-bill roost/nest cavities and foraging scrapes. The team's dedication to finding the ivory-bill may be surpassed, however, by the evening dinner creations.  Team members rotate the chef position and the dinners are outstanding.  

The reputation of the team is exceptional, as witnessed by the visitors my first night at the lodge. Walking through the door about 8:00 P.M. was a veritable Who’s Who in the ivory-bill world, including Gene Sparling (who first saw the bird), David Luneau (of ivory-bill video fame), and Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas.

It was the first time I had met Gene. His enthusiasm for the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker appears to be only a small part of a tremendous drive and enthusiasm he has for the preservation and restoration of habitat in and around the Big Woods of Arkansas.  He was very focused on the big picture. Visit The Nature Conservancy web site for information on how you can assist in habitat conservation efforts.

Search Plan
The woods are so thick and the Big Woods so large that hiking noisily along a forest floor covered with leaves is unlikely to yield a positive sighting.  In recognition of this fact, the Lab has developed a systematic approach to finding the ivory-bill.   

Ivory-bill behavior
The size of the ivory-bill’s foraging range is not known, but may be about 20 kilometers, quite an extensive area to cover. As the bird moves throughout its range it will spend one or more nights in one of several roost holes it has established.   Although it probably does not have a fixed route–-cavity No. 3 every Thursday night, for example–-it probably does visit the same roost hole on a repeated basis.

One of the feeding techniques of the ivory-bill is to peal the bark off of dead sections of a tree in search of beetle larvae.  The search team refers to these feeding locations as scrapes.  In contrast, the similar Pileated Woodpecker tends to dig feeding holes into the tree. The peeling or stripping of the bark with shallow digs into the surface of the tree is believed to be signs of possible ivory-bill feeding activity. Researchers believe that ivory-bills may repeatedly return to productive feeding locations, as they do with roosting holes.

With these factors in mind, the search team leaders have developed a systematic search protocol.

Scout it out
Martjan Lammertink heads a small team that starts the search process. Obtaining information from a variety of sources, including satellite images and input from both the U.S. and state fish and wildlife services, the scout team combs the 550,000 acres to locate areas that appear to be especially suitable for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Much of the focus is on trying to find habitat with large numbers of older and larger trees.

Taking inventory
After a high-priority area has been located, the hard-working inventory team takes over.

Using maps and hand-held GPS units, teams of from two to six scour the area for potential ivory-bill roost holes or scrapes. Each searcher uses a GPS unit to follow a straight line to a pre-determined point into the search area. Then they make a 90-degree turn and proceed for 50 meters, followed by another 90-degree turn back toward the original starting location. The entire path is automatically recorded into the GPS unit and then transferred to a master database when they return to the search office.

In something akin to rubbing your stomach and patting your head, the searches must follow a more-or-less straight line while walking around trees and potholes, and through the abundant greenbrier. They do all this while carefully inspecting the larger trees (some over 100 feet tall) in a 360-degree survey for signs of cavities of interest (COI) or possible feeding scrapes.   

If they locate a COI or scrape (not a common event), they photograph or record it on videotape. Using the GPS unit, they record a waypoint so they can easily find the same location in the future. Upon return to the search office, they move the images and the waypoint to the master database. After review, if the team deems the cavity or scrape to be of significant interest, they will mount a camera or audio recorder nearby to monitor the location.

Collecting photographic evidence
Researchers use both still and video cameras are for data collection. Time-lapse photography is the preferred choice for monitoring cavities or scrapes. Set at 10-second intervals, the cameras are left in the field for a period of 3 days, then retrieved and reviewed for activity.  Squirrels, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Brown Creepers have been recorded, but no ivory-bills have been captured using this technique, at least not yet.

Collecting audio evidence
Another approach for remote monitoring is the deployment of autonomous recording units (ARUs). ARUs are placed in a variety of locations, including near cavities and scrapes. The systems record sounds twice a day, four hours in the morning and four hours in the evening. The recordings are returned to the Lab in Ithaca, New York for analysis and with luck, the detection of kent calls and double knocks.

This systematic approach to locating and monitoring areas of interest is allowing the Lab to search large areas in an organized and effective manner.
Finding a bird as rare as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, even with the concerted effort and well-executed plan the Lab has developed, is a tough job. Imagine trying to find a bird within 550,000 acres of forest, especially when that bird is a moving target. Ivory-bills may travel 10 to 20 kilometers per day in search of food. In the swampy forests, searchers are limited to going where they can by canoe or must walk slowly and laboriously through hip-deep water or thick mud that sucks at their boots and makes every step a struggle. Even if searchers happen to get within range of an ivory-bill, there is no guarantee that they will see it. The trees are dense, making it difficult to see birds even 50 yards away. And ivory-bills are notoriously elusive.

Several sightings so far have been glimpses of this magnificent bird as it travels in rapid flight above the treeline, appearing and disappearing so quickly that the viewer is lucky to get binoculars on it, much less a steady shot with camera. The best video footage so far was recorded by David Luneau on April 25, 2004, from a continuously running camera mounted in a canoe. Analysis of the videotape shows that an ivory-bill was perched on a tree trunk as the canoe passed, but Luneau and his companion, Robert Henderson, only saw the bird when they glanced up just as it flew off into the trees. Their view was so fleeting, they weren't even sure they had seen an ivory-bill until the videotape was later played back and analyzed.

The search team in Arkansas includes outstanding field biologists and woodpecker experts, as well as a network of talented volunteers. They're following protocols designed to maximize their changes of finding and documenting the bird, and are equipped with state-of-the-art technology to aid in the effort. The search team also hopes that birders will search on their own and report their findings, using tips and guidelines posted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The groundwork has been laid and the searchers are well prepared. Now they're waiting for their efforts to coincide with a much-needed stroke of luck.Back in the field
Jamie Hill is the official videographer for the search team. Jamie is the founder (now retired) of the Purple Martin Conservation Association and has moved on to searching for large woodpeckers. A fellow techno-geek, Jamie has a workstation that includes a high-powered dual-processor Macintosh with Apple’s 30-inch  flat-screen monitor. We are both lusting after Canon’s new HL X1 high definition video camera. I think I’ll let Jamie be the guinea pig before making the decision to acquire another video camera with a different format.  



The schedule for today is to place cameras near two previously identified cavities of interest (COIs) located in the Prairie Lakes region of the White River Wildlife Refuge. I am a little confused, however, as early morning temperatures are in the mid-teens.   Am I really in Arkansas or have I mysteriously been transferred back to Ithaca, New York? Fortunately for me, Jamie has to spend some time programming the cameras before we head into the field. It is sunny and will warm to the low 30s as the day advances. Since we will be monitoring potential roost cavities, the cameras are programmed to activate at 3:30 in the afternoon and to take photos at 10-second intervals.  

Jamie refers to the master database to acquire general location information for the COIs as well as specific GPS coordinates for each cavity. After loading all the gear into the back of my rental van, we drive for about an hour to the general location of the first COI.

Jamie uses his GPS unit to take us to the nearest road access for the first COI. It’s here that I learn that I am not just along for the ride.   My job…lug 30 pounds of camera and battery strapped to my back as we hike through the poison ivy and greenbrier, Jamie leading the way with the GPS unit.  Not sure, but I think I got the rookie treatment. Every time I checked, the report was that the GPS unit said the COI was only 100 meters or so ahead. We covered that 100 meters several times over as the 30 pounds of camera gear became heavier and heavier.

Finally we did reach our goal, however, and it turned out that lugging the gear and locating the hole was actually the easy part!  The camera in use required a somewhat convoluted set-up procedure that included two major components, the actual camera lens and a remote black control box containing batteries and a small computer-like device.

We began by mounting the camera lens on a tree that provided a clear view of the COI. We pointed the camera in the general direction of the cavity but did not yet have direct viewing capability. A small cable ran from the camera to the control box. We then connected a second port on the control box to Jamie’s hand-held digital video camera via another cable. This allowed Jamie to see what the monitoring camera was seeing, but on his hand-held video camera. Based on that image, he adjusted the focus and resolution on the monitoring camera.  In this case the COI was on a very light-colored limb and Jamie had to spend almost an hour adjusting camera variables before finally obtaining a satisfactory image.

It was afternoon by the time we had the first camera in place and we quickly headed to the next location.  We had planned on a quick trip to Brinkley and a date with an Ivory-billed Woodpecker Cheeseburger at Gene’s Bar-B-Que but the problems getting the first camera set up had us behind schedule.


Lining up and focusing the camera on a specific cavity can be a challenge.  Jamie Hill is shown here describing the use of one of the cameras.

The second COI was within easier walking distance (or I had graduated from rookie status) and we were able to mount the camera in near record time.

It was about 4:00 as we began to head back to the lodge. We were driving along a levee with sun at our back, enjoying the evening and the birds. Birding from the car was good…first a Barred Owl on the left, followed by a Bald Eagle on the right. Then, LOOK–-LOOK! Flying across the levee right in front was a large woodpecker. The sun was at our back so this could be the right time and the right place–-a large flash of white moved the blood-pressure up a notch–-then the bird morphed into the very common pileated. The shiny black feathers had reflected in the sun, and just for moment, there appeared to be white on the trailing edge of the wings. A slight change in the viewing angle and it was clear the white was not what it had seemed.  

We continued along the levee but had to be content with Red-shouldered Hawks and five duck species. The cell phone range along the way and the word was out that no one wanted to cook that evening so pizza would be waiting for the returning searchers. No ivory-bill today, but good birding otherwise, followed by beer and pizza, not a bad end to the day.