BRINKLEY, Ark. | For the past three years, researchers in camouflage and waders have slogged through the east Arkansas woods hoping to spot a rare bird that so far seems unwilling to be seen.
Some scientists still believe the ivory-billed woodpecker exists in the Big Woods, but they haven’t been able to capture a sharp image of its remarkable 30-inch wing span and glossy black-and-white feathers on film or video camera.
To date, searchers have investigated about 83,000 of the 550,000-acre woods that swallow up the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is where kayaker Gene Sparling spotted the bird Feb. 11, 2004, and Cornell University experts said they made subsequent sightings.
Engineer David Luneau caught a blurry image of what some think is the “Lord God bird,” the third-largest woodpecker in the world, on video in 2004. Others challenge the claim that the ivory bill survived decades of clearing forests for farming, timber, roads and towns.
“Since early 2005, none of our group nor anyone from the public that we are aware of has made a definitive absolute sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker that we can document with a photograph or a sound recording,” said Ron Rohrbaugh, project director at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
According to researchers, it became known as the “Lord God bird” because people, upon seeing it, would exclaim, “Lord God, look at that bird!”
The Big Woods is a hot, humid place - tupelo, cypress and oak bottomland filled with mosquitoes, poisonous cottonmouths and thigh-high swamp water.
The swamp is so thick with vegetation that scientists concentrate their work on the months when leaves are off the trees - and the temperatures are bearable. They target areas where they have reports of credible sightings.
Wildlife biologist Allan Mueller said he saw an ivory-billed woodpecker during a search in May 2007. But it happened so quickly he missed getting the bird on camera.
“We were hearing calls, we were hearing the double-knocks, which is a distinctive way that the ivory-bill woodpeckers have of knocking on a tree,” he said. “It’s just two very quick knocks on a tree. Bam. Bam.”
To the untrained eye, the ivory bill can be mistaken for a pileated woodpecker. Past research suggests the ivory bill ranges as much as 6 miles from its roost while searching for succulent beetle larvae, its favorite food.
When then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced in 2005 the rediscovery of the bird, she and then-Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns pledged federal dollars from existing funds to research the woodpecker, restore its habitat and develop a recovery plan as required by the Endangered Species Act.
To date, about $9.6 million has been spent toward those goals, including nearly $2 million to search the woods in Arkansas and other states. Researchers say the bird also has been seen and heard in the swamps of northwestern Florida.
Despite challenges from fellow scientists, many searchers remain convinced the bird has cheated extinction.
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