A Magical Place

January 27, 2006

By Pat Leonard

When Tom Snetsinger speaks, you hear his words, but also the unmistakable river of enthusiasm that flows beneath them. Tom is the volunteer coordinator and crew leader for the 2005-06 Ivory-billed Woodpecker search in Arkansas and his stomping grounds are in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. He is grateful to be in this place, at this time, doing this work.

Tom has impressed everyone on the team with his intelligence and depth of knowledge. Despite solid credentials doing research on endangered species in Hawaii and on the "Northern" Spotted Owl in Oregon, he's still pinching himself that he was chosen to be a full-time member of the crew searching for the ivory-bill. He calls it the chance of a lifetime—and a chance to recapture an elusive feeling. He says, “There’s just something about the magic of working with really endangered species. You feel like you’re doing something critically important. I’ve been feeling a little bit lately like I was missing that in my life.” Then Tom’s wife saw an ad for the ivory-bill search team. “She encouraged me to apply," Tom says, "I was just dumbstruck that I actually got accepted.” That wonderful feeling is back.

A love of the outdoors came naturally to Tom, growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, and canoeing in the Ozarks. But Tom says he’s never experienced habitat like the stunning bottomland forest he’s working in now. It’s drier than he expected, because of a continuing drought in the region. Still, he’s managed to get soaked, waders overflowing in a creek that was just a bit deeper than expected.

Tom saves his highest praise for the dedicated volunteers he leads, eight at a
time, with a new group arriving every couple of weeks. “I can’t tell you how  impressed I am with the drive and dedication of these people. They take two weeks of vacation to travel here at their own expense and spend every daylight hour in the habitat looking for this magnificent bird,” Tom says. “Their days are long and arduous—out the door at 5:30 A.M., back around 7:00 P.M., followed by a discussion of the day's events and data entry. Yet everyone is up, ready, and excited to go back out at 5:30 the next morning!”

It’s up to Tom as crew leader to make sure everybody is armed with the proper gear and knowledge before they strike out on their own searching for the ivory-bill. He emphasizes, “Safety is number one. I want everybody to feel comfortable navigating, so we go through some pretty intensive GPS training, with maps and compasses and just the lay of the land and the potential difficulties they might encounter out there. Everybody’s pretty much on their own for most of the day, so I want them to feel comfortable out there, both during the day and after dark, because we're out until 6:00 or 7:00 at night, hiking in the dark."  

Another trick is to make grabbing the video camera second-nature. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is notoriously fast and a split second may mean the difference between the shot everyone’s waiting for…or empty space.

The volunteers are also performing another service, Tom says: pumping in a new supply of adrenaline for the full-timers. Every two weeks a fresh wave of enthusiasm crests, each volunteer clinging to the hope that they will be the one to see this magnificent woodpecker. Yet they also know, Tom says, that the chances are slim: “So they may walk away a little disappointed, but a lot of them have told me they plan on coming back, either next year or later in the season and plan on kayaking through the area and trying to find the ivory-bill on their own.” That’s dedication.

Asked how he feels things are going overall, Tom replies, “I think they’re going great. I think it’s just a great experience for me—it’s a magical place and I’m really encouraged by the amount of habitat here. It’s daunting to try to find the woodpecker in an area this big but it’s encouraging that there’s this much wilderness and habitat here. When I originally heard about this project and about it being in Arkansas, I did a double-take. I had no idea that there was anything approaching this volume of habitat and area of woods that’s just untouched in a lot of ways. You walk through here for hours and don’t see or hear anybody. It’s a privilege to be here.”