Search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
   Jan 09, 2003 09:34 PST 
Dear Bob and Fellow ENTS Members,

Just returning from an expedition to the White River National Wildlife Refuge
in Southeastern Arkansas with a group search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.

The team was led by David Luneau, a professor at Univ. Ark Little Rock, a man
dedicated to finding this so-called extinct species. This legend called the
"Flying dinosaur" was the largest woodpecker in N. America. It stood 20
inches tall and had the wingspan of a man's arm. It's last stronghold was in
the Singer Tract, an 81,000-acre virgin forest, 100 miles south of White
River. From 1936-41, Dr. James T. Tanner of Cornell studied this bird over a
large area of the bottomland hardwood forest of the Southeast. He pleaded
with government and lumber officials to not log this forest, but to no avail.
There were records of the last nest tree being felled by a lumberjack.
Although scientists claim this bird, extinct in 1942, there were verified
sightings in the 1950s and in 1972 a very good photo of one in a LA swamp. In
1999, a turkey hunter in full camo and in a duck blind witnessed a pair for
over ten minutes. He didn't want to reach for his camera in his pack because
of fear he would scare the birds off. This sighting sent the birding world
into a frenzy and a search team was assembled to study the Pearl River
Management Area in hopes of finding the bird they called "Lord God." Although
the 30-day search produced no ivory-billeds, they found some interesting
woodpecker scaling in partially dead trees, that matched the photos in Dr.
Tanner's book, The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, an incredible study including
awesome photos and the only record of this bird.

My arrival to the White River site was on Jan 2, 2003. I was picked up by
David Luneau at Little Rock airport and we headed SE to the rice fields of SE
Arkansas. We ended up going to DeWitt to meet refuge biologist Richard E.
Hines. We then followed his 4x4 in our supply-loaded van, including a canoe
and enough for our group, into St. Charles over the White River through some
very rural roads to a large levy with a road on top. We then headed south for
over 25 miles with the White River Forest to the east. This area is a major
wintering area for all kinds of birds. I witnessed hundreds of hawks, eagles
and pileated woodpeckers at mind-boggling populations. To the west, was a
65,000 acre agricultural farm that was once connected to the White River
bottomland forest. It was full of snow geese and thousands of ducks. We
finally came to a sub-station - our home for the next 5 days. We eneded up
getting a pretty good setup with a trailer, where we could all sleep, take
showers and eat. Included was a phone line that David hooked into the Net to
keep in touch with the rest of the world.

Other members of the team arrived, including Dr. Matthew Moran, ecology prof
from Hendricks College of AR, his student David Hayes and AR native Woody
Byrum, avid birder and opera singer graduate of Julliard School of Music in

We headed out farther south on the levy, toward the southern end of the
refuge - an off-limits area. I was the gatekeeper and had to open several
gates with cattle guards underneath. To our surprise there was a large
cottonwood tree down across the road. All my chainsaws were 1200 miles to the
north in Little Rhody. We ended up snapping off some limbs from the top of
the tree to get our vehicle by. From there we started our search. Amazingly,
we found woodpecker signs on a hackberry tree similar to those found on trees
in Pearl River. David was in awe. We headed back to base as it was getting

On Friday, we awoke at 5:30 and headed out by 6 back to the cottonwood in the
middle of the beautiful bottomland hardwood forest. Before breaking into
teams, we did small searches. Woody had a possible sighting of a female
ivory-billed, but was brief and not talked about much. I teamed with David
and headed off into the wet-floored forests. Within minutes a pair of
pileateds, with the their loud chatter, landed near us. The bird life at dawn
is hard to explain unless you could experience it. It is deafening. I ended
up on a bear trail soon after through this native bamboo the locals call cane
thicket and came across a recent bear den. I thought of Dr. Rogers and Alcott
Smith. This forest supposedly contains one bear per 300 acres and these bears
are a possible sub-species of the LA black bear and are being study in this
area. I soon came across an ancient American Sycamore. It had a huge 13-foot
circumference and I was in awe. LIttle did I know that by the end of this
day I would have measured the same species at 28 feet in circumference. Also
large red oad oaks at 16 feet and pin oaks at 17 feet. All these giants were
scattered and I was just on the edge of the 1000-acre sugarberry old-growth
site, one of the only confirmed in AR. We ended up going there this day by
canoe, across a bayou. It was a spiritual experience. The sugarberry is as
close to primeval as you could come. Massive cottonwoods, ancient sycamores
and giant oak species, including red, pin and overcup also were hundreds of
14-foot around pecan trees and large (up to) 12 foot elms. I recorded trees
each day and will post this list soon.

Saturday, I teamed up with David and we headed toward the White River on
another part of the refuge. David is a very technical computer and
electronics expert and he had a great video camera. As he was filming beaver
sign on a green ash, I was blocking the sun for him and noticed two river
otters within 5 yards of us. I whispered to Dave and he got some great shots
of these awesome creatures. We continued on and spotted some great sycamores
with huge cavities you could crawl into, look up into the bole of the tree
and see the sky. This tree measured 19.6' circumference. A little farther on,
I turned and spotted a bard owl in a cavity of a sycamore. David and I got
some great photos. We continued on deep into the forest and made it to the
edge of the White River. This drainage is the end of the White River and
feeds into the Mississippi and the Arkansas Rivers. This is the largest
continuance bottomland hardwood forest in the lower Miss Delta and would take
years to explore. Heading back, I got photos of a dead bald cypress, more
than 20 feet around. They have an primeval look similar to the Western Red
Cedars of the Olympic Peninsula. On the way back we say many white-tailed
deer and more bear sign and many pileated woodpeckers, but no flying

Sunday the team shrunk to David, Woody and myself. I decided to go it alone
and ended up seeing more birds and game that day and thought a lot of Paul
Rezendes and his lessons of silence. I got within 10 yards of a bear who
dashed off once he got my scent. I went further back into the sugarberry
old-growth site and found a lot of dead standing and downed ancient trees -
great habitat for giant woodpeckers.

Monday it was down to David Luneau and myself to find the lost legend. We
decided to split up, sit and wait. On the way in, a bear flashed in front of
our van. Excitement flowed through my veins. The previous day I had spotted
some great woodpecker holes high in sweet gum trees: the host plant to the
ivory-billed To my amazement a woodpecker bill poked out of one of the holes.
I had a GPS unit with radio included and tried to reach David right away. The
bird didn't move. I raised my camera and starting shooting. A pair came out
and were pileated woodpeckers. For a moment I thought Lord God was back, the
icon of the old-growth forests of the SE. David and I teamed up and went back
by canoe for my last visit to the sugarberry site. He has some great video of
these giant trees. This area is extremely hard to hike in in the summer
because of huge populations of cottonmouths, and both pygmie and timber
rattlesnakes, our kind of place. Leaving was emotionally hard. Loading the
canoe on the van and immature bald eagle circled over us with his blessing.
We headed to the levy and on toward civilization. On the way, we stoppd at
St. Charles and walked a 30-acre old-growth remnant called the Strickland
Tract. It reminded me so much of the MacArthur Tract in NJ it was uncanny.
Giant oak trees, although I will leave the heights to BOb and Will, but I
predict they will be record-breaking for hardwoods.   

I hope all of us can study this forest again. And it was a great way to start
my New Year.

Love to you all,

Matthew "Twig" Largess