- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2007

BIG THICKET NATIONAL PRESERVE, Texas — Corinne Campbell stuffs her gear into waterproofsacks and stuffs them and herself into a tiny circular cutoutthat marks the seat in her green kayak.

With a clear signal from the Global Positioning System unit clipped near her orange vest, she shoves off between large downed tree trunks. Then she propels her tiny needle-nose craft into a wide rain-swollen creek that wiggles through what has been called the biological crossroads of North America.

And so begins another daylong search for a giant bird that may not exist.

Miss Campbell and a pair of companions in similar kayaks have been on a tedious winterlong canvass of Texas’ famed Big Thicket, an often impenetrable jungle of swamps choked with thorny vines and prodigious pine and cedar trees, in pursuit of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The bird, at 20 inches tall with a nearly 3-foot wingspan, is the third-largest woodpecker in the world and the biggest woodpecker north of Mexico.

The first sighting in generations was made by Gene Sparling in Arkansas on Feb. 11, 2004, and has spawned interest across the South. Biologists converged on the Arkansas bayou area of the sighting and subsequently captured a four-second video of what they said was an ivory-billed. Just this month, however, a Scottish scientist, in a British biology journal article, said identification of the bird from the video couldn’t be certain.

The last East Texas sighting of an ivory-billed was more than a century ago — in 1904.

“There’s a lot of doubters out there that this bird does exist,” said Miss Campbell, from Emmaus, Pa. “I believe it exists.”

A more perplexing question is even if the bird lives here, will Miss Campbell, her fellow searchers or anyone else see it in the Big Thicket, which is almost 100,000 acres of swamps, bogs and forests in Southeast Texas about 100 miles northeast of Houston.

“It’s challenging, very challenging,” Miss Campbell said. “I’d describe it as trying to climb through a cement wall.”

The already difficult terrain was made even worse 18 months ago when Hurricane Rita knocked over thousands of trees that now litter the landscape. That may be good for the ivory-billed woodpecker, which feeds on beetle larvae that inhabit dying or recently dead trees.

The duck-sized bird, marked by black and white feathers and its namesake ivory-colored bill, has achieved a kind of exalted status among bird watchers and biologists.

Helped by a research grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the hunt began Nov. 1 in the Big Thicket. It continued through March even as new leaf growth on trees made looking for the elusive nomadic bird even more difficult.

“I’m hopeful, neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” said John Arvin, a research coordinator for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory in Lake Jackson, Texas. “I’m not 100 percent convinced. We may not have any [ivory-bills], even though they may be somewhere else, Florida or Arkansas.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service also is coordinating searches in South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana with assistance from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is supplying equipment to the efforts.

The last confirmed families of ivory-billed woodpeckers were in northeast Louisiana in 1944 in an area known as the Singer Tract, where wood from the Mississippi River bottomland forest was being used for shipping crates by the Singer sewing machine company. The World War II need for wooden ammunition boxes and coffins accelerated removal of trees and likely hastened the demise of the woodpecker colony, Mr. Arvin said.

No clear signs of the ivory-billed woodpeckers have surfaced after several months of searching the Big Thicket and monitoring by electronic devices. Shoe-box-size cameras belted to tree trunks are aimed at promising cavities carved out by woodpeckers or at areas where bark has been scaled off by birds in search of a beetle snack.

They have captured photos of squirrels and other birds, but no ivory-bills.

Audio devices are deployed in other promising spots, and Mr. Arvin every two weeks trudges for a mile, some of it in waist-deep water, to install new batteries and retrieve data to be shipped to the Cornell lab for review.

Jonathan Fredland is armed with a video camera and a small radiolike speaker that plays the sound of an ivory-billed woodpecker — recorded in 1935. It’s a distinctive double knock on wood, followed by the bird’s “kent” calls, so named because it sounds like the bird is saying, “kent, kent, kent.”

“You walk, wait a period, sit down, let everything quiet down because you’ve been making a lot of noise,” Mr. Fredland said. “Then you play it — double knock. … Wait five minutes or so. Then play kent calls.

“Then you listen for anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. I try to find a spot that’s open, maybe by a pipeline, sit in the middle so you can see.”

All the while he is holding a video camera, listening for a response or a rustling in the thick brush or tree canopy, and hoping not to lose a GPS unit or have the batteries expire. That could ensure getting lost in the wilderness.

Confirmation of the bird’s existence here would lure biologists from around the world.

“I imagine someone from Cornell or the federal government will come in and seal off the area,” Mr. Fredland said. “I don’t imagine I’d be allowed anywhere near. I hope to have that problem.”

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