In the bayou, a flash of feathers long thought lost

Almost from the second it first flew down river into his field of vision, white feathers flashing on broad, jet-black-edged wings, Timothy Gallagher knew he was seeing a near-mythic bird many thought was extinct.

More elusive than the California condor, rarer than the whooping crane, the ecological miracle Mr. Gallagher was gawking at in broad daylight a few score feet from his canoe was an ivory-billed woodpecker.

Seconds later it was gone - but that flash of plumage escaping into the trees on a river in remote northeastern Arkansas was enough. The editor in chief of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Living Bird magazine knew exactly what he had seen. And so did veteran bird-watcher Bobby Harrison, who was in the canoe with him.

An ornithological Elvis had been sighted - and verified.

Standing 20 inches high and with a wingspan of 31 inches wide, the ivory-billed woodpecker is North America's largest woodpecker and widely considered to be the holy grail of its birders. As recently as 2002, teams of researchers using sophisticated listening equipment scoured Louisiana's bayous for the ivory-billed but came up empty.

President Teddy Roosevelt noted seeing the ivory-billed on his bear-hunting trips. But by 1940s, the species was virtually gone, its bottom-land hardwood habitat of ancient swamp cypress devastated by clear-cutting across the Southeastern United States during the 19th and early 20th century.

Gallagher's sighting Feb. 27, 2004, was all the more remarkable coming nearly 60 years after the last confirmed sighting of an ivory-billed, by two experienced professionals in April 1944. As recently as 1997, some groups had petitioned for the ivory billed to be removed from the Endangered Species list and declared extinct.

Still, sporadic reports of sightings in Texas and Louisiana kept hope alive. But many serious bird researchers felt a bird the size of the ivory-billed could not possibly be alive for so long in North America without a confirmed sighting.

The scientific search appeared at a dead end with the 2002 search of the Pearl River region of Louisiana, where audio recordings of hunters' gunshots were initially thought to be an ivory-bill's distinctive double-knock "display drums" as it pounded dead trees for insects. Closer analysis revealed the truth.

"After the Louisiana search, most of us would have been finally willing to erect a tombstone to the species," says David Wilcove, a professor of ecology at Princeton University, who notes that professional discredit often trailed such sightings.

But such doubts have been seemingly swept away. At a press conference Thursday, John Fitzpatrick, the Cornell lab's top scientist, detailed the discovery, calling it a "spectacular ray of hope." He also unveiled a four-second videotape of the ivory-billed in flight, taken by another researcher in the same area two months later. In addition, six more "convincing sightings" all within a few miles of the first sighting are cited in an article in Science magazine Friday.

Even hardened skeptics were gleeful at hearing the ivory-billed is alive and hammering.

"It's just like a miracle - I had given up on this bird," says Greg Butcher, a senior scientist with the Audubon Society in Washington and author of its "State of the Birds" report last year. "This discovery is just off the charts. There's just been nothing like this in my lifetime."

Lost species are regularly found, he says, but almost always in jungles of Asia or Brazil. For a bird of this size to be discovered hiding in the continental US after so long is "absolutely astounding," he says.

Joining the Cornell Lab researchers was the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group based in Washington, and Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, who announced a new bid to protect the ivory-billed's remaining habitat. Dubbed the "Big Woods Conservation Partnership" the joint effort by researchers, state and federal governments will purchase and set aside land to develop a forest preserve.

The Big Woods area includes the Cache River and White River Wildlife Refuges and adjacent bottom-land hardwood forest, a roughly 550,000-acre area that is a patchwork of old growth and younger trees.

Many questions remain: Is there more than one bird? If there is a male and female, or more, can the thin population find each other in this vast area?

As it was swiftly disappearing into the trees along the murky waters of the dense, jungle-like slough that wound through the area, Gallagher recalled, in an exclusive phone interview with the Monitor, watching his holy grail disappear. And searching fruitlessly for three days after that.

Immediately after their sighting, Gallagher and Mr. Harrison simultaneously shouted the identification and swung cameras to focus - but the ivory-billed was gone. After writing up field notes and sketching the bird, they talked quietly about the find.

Soon, Harrison fell silent. "I saw an ivory-billed," he said softly to himself, tears rolling down his cheeks, Gallagher recalls.

But to make doubly certain after so many unconfirmed reports, Gallagher and Harrison's sighting was kept a tight secret for the past year. Dozens of Cornell University researchers - all signing a confidentiality agreement - paddled and poked through the remote swamps looking for further confirmation. But in all, just 16 square miles of the vast area was thoroughly searched. No nests were found.

Two months after the first confirmation, came a major break - a four-second videotape clip of the ivory-billed in flight taken by M. David Luneau, an associate professor of electronics and computers at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and longtime birder. His video added a critical piece of evidence to seal Gallagher and Harrison's sighting.

It came almost by accident. As Dr. Luneau was trying to quietly lower a trolling motor on his canoe into the water, the metal latch clicked. A large bird shot out of a nearby tree, startled by the noise, Gallagher says. But the video camera was running on its own, sitting on the front of the canoe - and it miraculously captured the bird in flight, he says.

The whole mission was itself a long shot. Gallagher had gone to the swamps of northern Arkansas on the thin thread of an Internet note from a kayaker who described seeing a huge woodpecker on a river in Arkansas. If nothing else, Gallagher figured, it would provide more grist for his book on sightings of the ivory bill over the years.

Gallagher recalls how as he, Harrison and kayaker Gene Sparling paddled into ever more remote country, the group found themselves suddenly gliding beneath a highway bridge. Dismayed by this jarring evidence of civilization, the men let down their guard.

As Sparling paddled ahead looking for a dry spot to land and have lunch, Gallagher and Sparling dropped their whispers, speaking in normal voices until Harrison suggested that despite the road noise, they should be silent and listen. Gallagher joked that perhaps Sparling would chase one back down the river channel toward them. That may be what happened.

Off in a little side slough of the river to his right, Gallagher suddenly spotted a large black and white bird flying up the channel. The two researchers were in an open area - and the bird finally flew across in front of them at close range and in good light. Later measurements and GPS readings revealed the bird had been 68 feet away.

"It was more beautiful than we could even have anticipated," Gallagher says. "We had been looking at museum specimens dead for a century. And here was this one alive and landing on a tree ahead of us."

For the past year the Cornell team has been attempting, without success, to find a mating pair, or a nest. It is possible that the seven sightings were all the same bird.

Gallagher desperately hopes not. One day, he hopes the Big Woods Partnership will help to make this majestic, holy grail of birds a far more common sight.

"My dream is that my great, great-grandchildren will be able to see a place like the virgin cypress forests we once cut down - and with the ivory-billed flying through it."

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