Reporting From the Field

March 2006

Winter  1980--
My buddy Bob phones to see if I am free to go birding Saturday. “Sure,” I respond. “See you then.” 

7:00 A.M. Saturday morning, a horn honks, I grab my bins and a field guide (Peterson Texas or maybe Chan Robbins’ Golden Guide) and we head for a favorite birding location.

Winter 2005--
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has been kind enough to offer me the chance to visit Arkansas’ Big Woods to participate in, and report on, the 2005-2006 ivory-bill search season.

The plane from Ithaca, New York, leaves at 8:00 A.M.  I grab my bins, field guide and notepad… ready to go.
Well, not quite. Technology has infiltrated everything, including birding. Preparation starts by checking to see what the weather will be like in Arkansas. No need to check the Internet for rare-bird reports on this trip!

Then it’s time to pack. Documenting an ivory-bill sighting is serious business and requires serious technology.  My carry-on luggage becomes heavier and heavier as it fills with items such as my Gitzo composite tripod with Wimberly head, Canon 600 mm auto-everything lens and Canon 10D camera. The most essential tool, however, is my Canon GL2 digital video camera. Equipped with a 2x adaptor, the camera provides 40X optical zoom, enough to reach out and touch a certain woodpecker in all its glory. The attached Sennheiser microphone is all set to record a double-knock or kent call, just in case the bird is playing hard-to-get.

Then, of course, I must be able to edit the images that will surely come. An Apple Power Book with Adobe Premier will allow on-the-spot editing of movie clips and, as a finishing touch, a new video iPod for showing off images and video is tucked away in a corner of the bag.  The only holdover from 1980--the same pair of binoculars --although from a hierarchical standpoint even they have been replaced by the video camera, at least for this trip. 

Packed at last, I catch a plane for Detroit, then to Memphis and a 90-minute drive to the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas.

The Robinson House
Arriving shortly after dark, I am greeted by the Lab’s Elliott Swarthout, the Arkansas field supervisor for the Lab’s search teams. This is Elliott’s second search season and he seems to know everything about everything when it comes to the search for the ivory-bill.  He fills me in on some key issues as we await the return of volunteer search team from their first day in the field.

Volunteer search teams serve two-week tours and are split into two groups, the White River team and the Cache River team (headquarters at the Robinson House). The first volunteer teams for this year arrived the day before. They spent the morning with their training manuals, followed by an afternoon move to the field for their first search and area orientation.

Headed by volunteer team leader Beth Wright, this year’s first Cache River search team includes:

Bob  Kemp –- Ohio
Howard Higley -– California
Jason Horn –- Pennsylvania
Mia Revels –- Oklahoma
Millicent Phillips -– Arkansas
Sam Stuart –- Pennsylvania

Also joining the group for the first couple of days is Dr. Dan Scheiman, director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Arkansas.

As the team filters back in from a very cold evening their excitement at being a part of the search is evident. They peel off camouflage gear and extra layers of clothes and begin to relax, grab a bite to eat, and start woodpecker talk. Technology continues to have its place, at least for a while. A PC has replaced the traditional campfire and marshmallows as the temporary cultural center for the evening's wrap up. Gathered around are the searchers, intensively studying a DVD recording of a presentation on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker by the Lab of Ornithology's director, Dr. John Fitzpatrick, at this year's American Ornithologists' Union meeting. Upon completion of the presentation a couple of the birders start practicing their ivory-bent kent call.  This quickly escalates into the birding equivalent of a battle of the bands with imitations of Barred Owls, Screech-owls, towhees, and more joining the kent renditions.

The First Search Day - Dec. 6, 2005

Days start early for the search teams. By 5:00 A.M. Mia and Millicent have a grand slam breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee ready. Everyone is his or her own cook, however. The sounds from the kitchen bring in the guys, who break out their favorite cold cereal, oatmeal, and things from plastic bags. Millicent provides the morning’s education by demonstrating how a towhee hops when stirring leaves and searching for food.  

Snap, crackle, pop!
By 5:45 A.M. the search teams are arriving at Bayou de View, a tributary of the Cache River. The goal is to be in the designated search areas by daylight so some teams are climbing into canoes in the early morning darkness. This particular morning the slow moving Bayou de View is covered in ice and the canoes play icebreaker as they slice through the chilled morning air. Team members are dropped off in turn at observation blinds where they will spend 10 isolated hours watching and hoping for an ivory-bill flyby. As darkness falls their water-born taxi returns them to the waiting van and the trip home.

Others, one or two in a canoe, spend the day slowly floating the Cache, hoping for at least a glimpse of the bird.

I had the great fortune of spending the day canoeing with Dr. Dan Scheiman. Putting in at the famous Hwy 17 bridge, we were a couple of hours behind a group headed to observation blinds north of the bridge. Paddling softly, we passed three blinds and arrived at the northernmost canoeable point by lunchtime.  We then retraced our path and headed into the section of river where Gene Sparling first saw the ivory-bill in February of 2004. Common species observed included Eastern Phoebes, Carolina and Winter wrens, Brown Creepers, and woodpeckers everywhere! Pileateds were quite common and provided many opportunities for studying the underwing color pattern, which helps distinguish them from ivory-bills in quick flybys. Red-headed, downy, hairy, red-bellied, Northern Flicker, and Yellow-breasted Sapsucker were all recorded.

The Magic Hour
The day ended with special attention to the magic hour.  Beginning at about 3:30 in the afternoon birds will start to return to their roosting locations. Working under the assumption that this would be a prime time for spotting Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, searchers who are canoeing or walking transects will often select a location which offers a wide field of view and sit quietly until darkness falls, hoping to catch an Ivory-billed Woodpecker returning to a roost cavity.

As the first set of volunteers began to feel comfortable with everything they had learned in their training, I moved about 90 minutes south, to the home of the full-time searchers.