Posted by: Craig Woolheater on December 31st, 2006
Birders hunt elusive wonder
Experts scour Congaree Swamp for ivory-billed woodpecker
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
BY BO PETERSEN
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
GADSDEN – The deeper into the swamp the birders go, the quieter they get.
They look tiny and elfin beneath the mammoth sweet gum and tupelo trees. Their prey is the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.
The woodpecker is the bird of dreams, red-crested with white-patched wings, a distinctive single or double rap when it pecks and a tiny, shrill, trumpeting call. It is one of the largest woodpeckers in the world – if it still is in the world. The bird supposedly became extinct in the 1940s. Rumors of sightings have haunted ornithologists ever since.
An ivory-billed woodpecker would be a birder’s Holy Grail. To find one at Christmas would be that golden chalice gift-wrapped.
The half-dozen birders mucking through the bottoms of the vast Congaree Swamp include four members of the Cornell University ornithology lab mobile search team – a select group of some of the foremost woodpecker experts in the world. They wear camouflage hip waders. They’re looking for "scaling," scratches on trees.
Field technician Nathan Banfield carries a global positioning satellite device, binoculars, a video camera, two still cameras, including one with video capability, and a scope that can make a bird at 70 meters look like it’s feeding out of your hand. That’s along with a full backpack carrying two large batteries to power listening devices that will be strapped to trees.
Banfield waded waist-deep in an Arkansas swamp trying to track down an ivory-billed woodpecker spotted in a disputed sighting in 2004. He lives to snap the shutter on an image that proves indisputably that the mythic bird is still alive.
"I’ve felt close a number of times. You get down here in these trees and you feel like, ‘any moment,’" he said.
‘Symbolic and iconic’
The ivory-billed woodpecker sighting in Arkansas in 2004 electrified the conservation community and set off an everybody-and-anybody search of bottomlands throughout the country where sightings of the birds have been reported over the years.
But despite intense searching, the Arkansas bird or birds have not been spotted again.
The Congaree Swamp is 26,000-acres of virgin-growth hardwood bottomland and bluffs that is a national park in the Midlands near Columbia, maybe the largest expanse of ivory-billed woodpecker country still intact in the United States. Nearly all of it is considered good habitat for the nomadic, loner birds. It is one of those places where the rumors persist.
The search for the bird in the Congaree is in its second year, paid for by about $100,000 in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Park Service grants. The Cornell team will be there a few weeks. The Nature Conservancy will carry on the work through most of the winter.
It might well be a chimera, a pursuit of something no more substantial than a mirage. The ivory-billed is so similar to the relatively common pileated woodpecker that even the Arkansas sighting leaves some experts skeptical.
But the possibility, like everything else about this bird, is tantalizing. A computer search of hours of on-site recordings made in the Congaree last year gleaned a few distinctive raps.
"I can guarantee you the service would not be going to the lengths we are if there were not enough confirmation, not credible reports," said Jennifer Koches, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency whose oversight is protecting endangered species.
Leading the birders through the dank, drizzly Congaree is Martjan Lammertink, acknowledged internationally to be "the man" when it comes to large woodpeckers. He is the expert that Cornell brought in to hunt for ivory-bills after the 2004 sighting set off a searching frenzy.
Even though the hikers have long since left any trail and are bushwhacking through limb debris and hog-rooted bottoms, Lammertink moves with a professorial air, a GPS (Global Positioning System) device held out in one hand and a map crooked like lecture notes in the other.
The other birders pause occasionally, gaping at a huge American holly, puzzling over another tree they can’t match the leaf to the bark to identify. Field technician Chris McCafferty gives a short, impromptu discourse on mushrooms, plucking a lethally poisonous fungus off a rotting trunk. "There is no reason to eat a small brown mushroom," he says. It is their second long trek of the day, at the end of a week of treks into the gloom.
Lammertink stays quiet and a little ahead of the group, watching the trees. He, too, searched the Arkansas swamp. He has been hunting for an ivory-billed in the United States and Cuba since the early 1990s. He has never seen one.
"I’ve been chasing this bird for so long, you just don’t realistically expect to see it any time soon," he says. But he has seen the video of the 2004 sighting and those unique shallow "scalings" on trees that may very well be the bird’s pecking. He’s heard the recordings of the rapping. The bird has enough intact habitat in places like the Congaree. The rumors persist.
Lammertink is fascinated by large woodpeckers, their beauty and behaviors. He talks about them as "vertical" creatures like man, staying always erect, even flying straight up and down tree trunks. He is asked why the ivory-billed woodpecker’s survival means so much.
"The ivory-billed is symbolic and iconic for these old, diverse, beautiful forests. When you are in this bird’s habitat you’re in a very special place," he says. "So long as there is a reason to keep trying, especially with this creature that means so much to so many people and is such a spectacular bird, you keep trying. If we don’t find it, that’s certainly disappointing. But then everyone can move on. We need to check it. This is what we are doing."
The deep bottoms of the Congaree have names like Muck Swamp, Stump Gut and Boggy Gut. They are black-water cypress pools and mesmerizing columns of trees, places where you can get turned around in a heartbeat and be lost for hours. They are so thickly forested that out of a bar in one slough rises a crown of four massive tupelos.
Beneath one of the grandfather sweet gums, Lammertink’s eye darkens to a deep pool. Something about the stillness of the place makes the spine tingle. The team edges into a bottom of swamp cottonwood with boles mud-stained the color of flesh. A red maple rises wizardly, gnarled up and down with galls. The only film of a nested ivory-billed woodpecker, from the 1930s, was in a red maple.
Working from the GPS, the team locates its site and sets the first listening device. As the unit is clamped to the tree, a pileated woodpecker begins rapping in the distance. The team records location, time and date, and then ends with a joke in what has become a regular aside: "What does one automatic recording unit say to the other? Sssh."
The team moves on and sets the second device along a bluff of newly deadfall trees said to be favored by the ivory-billed. "Knock knock," the joke goes. "Oh, don’t answer that. It’s just another ivory-billed woodpecker." As they work, a pileated lets out a call like
a raucous laugh. Lammertink smiles.
"There are just a lot of woodpecker(s) here, an incredible number," McCafferty says. "I’ve never worked anywhere with this abundance of woodpeckers."
A cold rain is moving in. The day is beginning to lose light. The team has three miles or more to trek to reach a large enough path to travel easily in the dark. They set off, and as light fades, their figures disappear into the gloam. The rubber pant legs on one of the waders rubs as they step, squeaking like a bird.