Wednesday, December 3, 2008

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. | Allan Mueller thinks he saw the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker last year. The wildlife biologist wants to make sure of it this winter.

Mr. Mueller plans to head back into the swamps of eastern Arkansas with a scaled-back search team of 26 volunteers and three field biologists.

Searchers will begin their work in the Big Woods on Saturday. The campaign will run through the bird’s nesting season in March and April, when the ivory-bill is most active, Mr. Mueller said.

Although three previous searches involved more volunteers, more scientists and more time in the woods, Mr. Mueller feels confident he and his team will get results.

“We’re going to find a big black-and-white woodpecker,” he said.

The bird was thought to be extinct until a sighting four years ago stirred national experts and federal funding to launch a full-blown campaign to verify the bird’s existence and study its habitat.

For want of a clean photograph or audio recordings of the bird’s distinctive sounds, searchers have been unable to convince fellow scientists that the bird has survived years of land development and loss of habitat.

Over the past four years, the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, where Mr. Mueller is avian conservation manager, along with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Arkansas Audubon Society, have collaborated to study the ivory-bill in Arkansas and enlist other groups to scout potential habitats in other Southern states.

Besides Arkansas, researchers say the bird has been seen and heard in the swamps of northwestern Florida. A Cornell team will soon begin looking in Florida and travel to Arkansas and elsewhere in the Southeast in hopes of spotting the bird.

Mr. Mueller reminds fishermen, hunters and the general public that they can help by calling his office if they have a sighting. An anonymous donor has pledged a $50,000 reward to anyone who leads the team to a live ivory-bill, he said.

The Big Woods encompasses the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, where kayaker Gene Sparling said he spotted the bird Feb. 11, 2004, and Cornell University experts made subsequent sightings. Since then, searches have been made in about 83,000 of the 550,000-acre woods.

The latest volunteers will split up into five teams. A person from each team will search designated areas once a month so someone will be in that locale at least once a week, Mr. Mueller said.

Searchers will spend at least six hours a day in the woods, including sunrise or sunset, when the bird is most active. They will look for nest holes and for signs of a fresh feeding. Once those signs are identified, a remote camera will be fixed on them.

Each search team will use a double-knocker to attract the woodpecker. The wooden box is strapped to a tree and hit with hinged wooden dowels to replicate the sound the bird makes with its bill. A CD player will also be used to broadcast the bird’s distinctive call and attract the bird.

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