on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
Alabama Coastal BirdFest 2005
For Immediate Release – July 21, 2005
Contacts: Fran Morley/ 251-928-0987 - John Borom/251-990-0423
Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
By D. Fran Morley
One of the biggest stories in birding – and a story that even many non-birders are aware of – was the announcement this past spring that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, considered extinct for more than 60 years, was discovered in the Big Woods of Eastern Arkansas. The discovery, hailed by ornithologists, backyard birders, conservation organizations, and the media, has been seen as a victory for nature and has highlighted the need to preserve critical natural habitats. Visitors to this year’s Alabama Coastal BirdFest will have an opportunity to hear a first-hand report about how this rare ‘ghost bird’ was discovered. Bobby Harrison, part of the two-man team that first confirmed the bird’s existence, will be a guest speaker at this year’s event.
Harrison, a respected wildlife photographer, a master bird bander, and a dedicated bird watcher from Gurley, Alabama, has been interested in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker since he was a teen and has been following up on leads and searching for the bird for more than 10 years, often working in conjunction with Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird magazine at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Over the decades, many people have suspected that they spotted an Ivory-billed, and Harrison and Gallagher have followed on many leads that turned into dead ends, but early last year, they got a tip that was too good to pass up.
“Gene Sparling, a kayaker, was drifting down a bayou in Eastern Arkansas when he saw what he described as a ‘super-big pileated woodpecker with white on its back.’ I called him and his description was incredible. He wasn’t sure just what he had seen, but he perfectly described this bird that I’d been looking for all these years.” Barely two weeks later, Harrison, Gallagher, and Sparling were deep in the nearly impenetrable woods and swamps along the Cache River in Arkansas.
Two days into their trip, Harrison saw something he had only seen before in his dreams. An Ivory-billed Woodpecker swooped through the trees over the bayou less than 70 feet in front of them. It stalled in its flight, briefly landed on a tree, and then moved to another. Harrison and Gallagher put the canoe on shore and tried to chase the bird through the trees, but it vanished. “It was such a shock,” he recalls. “We were hoping to see it, of course, but not really expecting it. Then, the bird that I’ve studied and looked for all these years came flying right at us. We were both stunned. We realized that we had just become the first two people since 1944 to see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker at the same time.”
Harrison and Gallagher’s sighting launched the largest and most extensive organized search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker ever undertaken. Teams of searchers combed the woods and swamps for the next year, making another 15 confirmed sightings and even recording a brief video of the bird in flight. On April 18, 2005, the Ivory-bill’s official return from extinction was announced to worldwide acclaim.
“Professionals had all but given up on this bird and it was mainly amateurs like myself looking for it,” Harrison said. “There have been good reports out of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and the Pearl River area of Mississippi and Louisiana, just not confirmed reports. It’s a very elusive bird; not many bird watchers want to go into swamps to look for it. I believe that many hunters and fisherman have seen this bird over the years but thought it was just another big woodpecker. Personally, I believe there are ivory-bills in other areas of the country; we just have to find them.”
John Borom, president of the Mobile Bay Audubon Society and one of the organizers of the Alabama Coastal BirdFest, says he is thrilled that Harrison has agreed to be a part of BirdFest. “I want to thank The Nature Conservancy of Alabama for helping us arrange his visit. Personally, I can’t wait to hear Bobby Harrison’s stories about the Ivory-bill. This bird’s rediscovery is more than just good news for birders. It underscores the importance of preserving natural habitats for all wildlife. Who knows what other presumed-extinct creatures might still be out there just waiting to be found?” Borom noted that proceeds from the Alabama Coastal BirdFest go toward preserving and protecting bird habitats.
Harrison is an associate professor of art and photography at Oakwood College in Huntsville. He will be giving a series of talks on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and his part in its rediscovery during the Bird and Conservation Expo on Saturday, Oct. 22, held on the grounds of Faulkner State Community College in Fairhope. Harrison’s presentation times will be announced closer to the date. Admission to the Expo is free. For more information on the Alabama Coastal BirdFest, visit www.alabamacoastalbirdfest.com or call 251-929-0922.
Proceeds from the Alabama Coastal BirdFest will be used to help protect and preserve migratory bird habitats along the Alabama Gulf Coast. All BirdFest events and dinners require advance registration. Register here or by calling 251-990-0423.