Hunt And Peck

Looking for Ivory Billed Woodpecker
Scott Simon, right, director of the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, hopes for a rare sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker on the Cache River. Gene Sparling, left, had one in the Bayou de View woods on Feb. 11, 2004. "It was just a wonderful sublime moment of contentment, just in awe," he says. (Kat Wilson For The Washington Post)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005


The air smells like a bowl of pet turtles, funky and ripe. It is a lovely spot, if you're a venomous serpent. They own the place. The water moccasins are as fat and sassy as house cats, as thick around as a toddler's thigh, lounging around like throw pillows. Locals call this primordial ooze the Big Woods, but the flooded forest feels more like Big Swamp, covered with greasy brown water that flows through the tupelo and cypress trees. The beavers, bullfrogs and mosquitoes are loving it.

For 216 days, Tim Barksdale, a world-class nature photographer and pursuer of birds, sat quietly here in his canoe, watching, waiting. Sometimes, he'd get out and stand in the muddy waist-deep water, dressed head to toe in camouflage, peering into the forest with his binoculars or high-definition video camera. In 2,600 hours in the swamp, he never saw the ivory-billed woodpecker, though he is pretty sure he heard the bird -- its staccato double-knock ( POP-pop) -- once.

Barksdale is a rugged, bearded mountain man type from the wilds of Montana, no stranger to discomfort, happy to spend his nights sleeping in his truck, his days up to his armpits in mire. But hearing those milliseconds of woodpecker drumming, just that one taste, he says, "was electric." A hit of pure delight. It brought him, literally, to tears, and afterward? He says, "I felt weak."

It is for Barksdale, and his tribe of woodpecker hunters, a kind of beautiful obsession.

The announcement in late April of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas -- the first confirmed sighting in the United States since 1944 -- made headlines around the globe. "It is the most exciting news of my lifetime," said Steve Runnels, president of the American Birding Association.

But even for those who wouldn't know a house sparrow from a painted bunting, there was something amazing about it.

Lost species of obscure slugs and drab lichen get rediscovered all the time. But this was different. The ivory-billed woodpecker was living, very, very on the q.t., in our own back yard.

What's weird: It is a hulking, big bird, larger than a raven, dressed in a flashy black-and-white tuxedo and sporting a pointed red hat like Jacques Cousteau, a bird that defends its territory by screaming kent-kent-kent! a call compared to blasts from a child's toy trumpet.

And this bird has been hiding out in a national wildlife refuge, unseen for 60 years? It's crazy.

Perhaps that's why the code name chosen by the search team for the woodpecker was Elvis.

"This species just has this nasty habit of disappearing," says Phillip Hoose, author of "The Race to Save the Lord God Bird." Lord God Bird is one of the dozen common names for the ivory-billed woodpecker because those who saw one in the late 19th century were often supposed to exclaim, "Lord God, what a bird!"

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