A Searcher's Journal

December 2005
Sarah Warner hails from Michigan and is one of the field technicians working in the field through the end of April. She has participated in a number of ornithology research projects and is keeping a journal of her experiences during the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
New Arrivals

We all seem amazed at how fast this first month passed since we set foot in Arkansas on October 31.  We arrived in the small town of Brinkley and made our way to the even smaller town of Cotton Plant. We meandered down county roads cut deep through the cotton and soybean fields, found our way over the famed Hwy 17 bridge, and arrived at our destination, a small house surrounded by cotton fields in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. One by one we trickled into the Robinson House over the course of a weekend and the White-throated and White-crowned sparrows welcomed our arrival.  Some of us drove from as far away as San Diego, California, others from as near as Little Rock, Arkansas. Somehow this search crew of 20, all from distant places, ended up together under the same roof and committed to a cause larger then we could comprehend.

A Woodpecker State-of-Mind

Week one started off with a symposium titled “The Ecology of Large Woodpeckers,” held at the Brinkley Convention Center. For three days the world’s experts on woodpecker ecology presented lectures. Elliott Swarthout, our supervisor, said “It was intended to get us all thinking like Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.” We spent the next three days socializing with biologists and learning about woodpecker ecology. Tim Gallagher, Bobby Harrison, Martjan Lammertink, David Luneau, Gene Sparling, and Jerry Jackson were among the ivory-bill seekers in the crowd whom we were fortunate to meet. After attending banquets each night, our appetite for food was satiated, but our craving to get into the field was growing. We had Ivory-billed Woodpeckers on our mind day and night, and felt anxious to start searching for this ghost of the bayou. 

Into the Field

After studying James Tanner’s dissertation, watching David Luneau’s famous video, and listening to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “kent” call and double-knock recordings, we felt ready to start searching. Our first steps into the bottomland hardwood forests brought with them the sweet melodies of Carolina Wrens and the high-pitched trills of camouflaged Brown Creepers. Much like the creepers, we too were decked out in camo, some of us from head to toe. We loaded our dry bags in the canoes and launched into Bayou de View. Field day one was intended for us to practice using our field equipment consisting of Canon video cameras, Garmin GPS units, compasses, and maps. We explored woodpecker scaling and cavities, and paddled around the historic areas where there had been IBWO sightings. It felt surreal to be in the exact location where Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher had seen the bird last year. In our naive state, many of us were certain the bird would fly over our heads and grace us with its presence. We soon learned it wouldn’t be that easy.  

An Early Start

On November 9 we woke up hazy-eyed and that first sip of coffee was much needed. Breaking into groups, we ventured into Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. I was fortunate to be in the first group starting work before sunrise at

5:45 A.M. Ken Levenstein, our field crew supervisor, led Jamie Hill, Nathan Banfield, John Puschok, and me into the dark forest. We decided to disperse a few hundred meters apart in order to cover more area. In solitude, we waited out the darkness by finding a tree to lean against. The leaves provided comfortable cushions as we waited for the first glimpse of light to shine through the bald cypress and tupelo canopy.

After what seemed like hours, light pierced its way across the horizon and I could see the faint outlines of my surroundings. Coyote-sounding calls from a flock of Snow Geese heading south were first to break the forest silence. A cacophony of other bird calls followed, welcoming the cold morning. The sounds of Winter Wrens, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers rang through the swamp.

A stationary watch from a suitable vantage point was protocol for the day. After observing the same area for many hours, it was time to change locations. With my camera in hand, I slowly walked through the hardwood forest and noticed how large the trees were, some approximating 6 feet in diameter. These bald cypress and tupelo trees were impressive and many showed foraging signs of woodpeckers and the entrance holes to their roost cavities. The crew searched for the rest of the day hoping to hear the sound of a double-knock or that nasal hornlike “kent” call, butthe forest was silent.

A Heart-felt Mission

Our nights were filled with stories from the field, conversations about the project, and dreams of finding Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. The amazement and obsession that surrounds this bird is astonishing, and the people who have dedicated their lives trying to save it are remarkable. We lucky few on this search team are honored to join them in their efforts for the next six months. Arthur Allen stated in 1935, “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is balanced on the rim of extinction.” It is our hope, 70 years later, that this field crew can play a significant role in restoring this species to solid ground.  

Look for more field updates from Sarah and other members of the search team in the weeks ahead.