The zoo gig dovetailed with a
senior independent study that further refined her flamingo study. And
after Colby, Barker hit the ground running.
She landed an
internship studying the palila, an endangered finch species in Hawaii.
Barker captured birds with nets, affixed transmitters to them, did
radio tracking. She lived in a tent camp at 7,200 feet with a bunch of
other budding scientists. With Colby and Wilson as her foundation, she
was on her way.
Studying sexual selection in northern
cardinals and working with a Cornell graduate student; monitoring tree
swallows and other cavity nesters in upstate New York; examining
territory demography of ovenbirds; working on a boat in Maryland
studying sora rails, capturing more than 1,000 of the shorebirds and
banding them. Barker was in heaven.
Even the skeptics are converts.
A trio of scientists who planned to publish a rebuttal of the claim that the ivory-billed woodpecker had been rediscovered said in August that they had been convinced.
Initially the ornithologists‰ announcement, that they did not believe that the Cornell University team had proven that the bird was alive, dampened the celebration of the ivory-billed woodpecker‰s return. But before the rebuttal appeared in print, the skeptics said their minds were changed, not by a video purported to be of the ivory bill, but by new recordings of its characteristic call.
When they wrote their rebuttal, the three scientists,Richard O. Prum of Yale University, Mark B. Robbins of the University of Kansas, and Jerome A. Jackson of Florida Gulf Coast University,had not heard the digital recordings made in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in 2004.
Those recordings prove that not one, but two, ivory-billed woodpeckers exist, the scientists said. In a statement, Prum said the rebuttal paper was moot. ,The thrilling new sound recordings provide clear and convincing evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not extinct,Š Prum said, in a story published by The New York Times.
Sara Barker ‰94, Cornell‰s project leader for the Arkansas search, pointed out that during the debate both sides declared their willingness to be proven wrong. In the end, she wrote in an e-mail from the Cornell lab, ,the scientific process prevailed.Š
45%#Eight years ago she
returned to Cornell, where she is now project leader at the
ornithological lab. Barker runs outreach projects relating to
conservation science, such as providing land managers guidance for
improving habitat for songbirds like the scarlet tanager, the cerulean
warbler, and forest thrushes.
And then, early in the spring of 2004, the ivory-billed woodpecker winged its way into her life.
After the report of the sightings came into the lab, word spread, but
not like wildfire. "Everything was very secretive,— Barker said.
"People were not talking about it. We were not allowed to tell anybody,
even within the lab. They wanted it completely hush-hush. If you were
brought into the fold, then you had to sign a confidentiality
agreement. You were essentially not allowed to speak to anybody about
it. What made it a lot easier for me is that my husband [fellow Cornell
Ornithological Lab scientist Elliott Swarthout] was involved in it as
well, which was really nice.—
But she couldn't tell her
family. She couldn't tell her friends, for whom the biological
inventory cover story smelled fishy. "My friends all thought I was
nuts,— she said. "'Why are you going to Arkansas? What are you doing
What Barker was doing was assembling a
highly skilled search team, carefully selected from all over the
country. "It's pretty remote in some of those areas and you need some
tough and hardened folks who can actually hack it in the field,— she
Actually they needed to hack it in trackless cypress
and tupelo swamps, in this case in eastern Arkansas's Cache River
National Wildlife Refuge. Among the last of the bottomland hardwood
forests, the primeval-seeming delta swamps are dark and deep, home not
only to birds but also to mosquitoes and poisonous cottonmouth snakes.
Barker said she teamed with another searcher who stepped out to check a
small stretch of walkable woods. "He said, 'I saw eleven cottonmouths
in a hundred feet. I'm getting back in the boat,'— she recounted.
searchers were prepped with an orientation session that included
everything from reminders of confidentiality to comparisons of
ivory-billed and common pileated woodpeckers. A full-time crew lived in
tiny Cotton Plant, Ark., outside of not-much-bigger Brinkley, Ark., for
five months, supplemented by reinforcements who joined the search in
In the swamp, the searchers ran transects
through the disorienting terrain, dividing the area into sectors that
all had to be carefully observed. Dressed in commando-quality
camouflage, the scientists and birders floated slowly through the
swamps in flat-bottomed boats and canoes. They sat in blinds, placed
specially made computerized listening devices on some 150 trees. Some
even scanned the forest canopy from a bucket atop an 80-foot boom.
they did all this while trying to remain anonymous—no small task in
Brinkley, population 3,600. "You can't bring twenty people into a
community and just disappear,— Barker said. "And all this equipment.
The UPS man was driving by an access to the bayou and Bobby [Harrison]
was down there unloading his boat. The guy drove by, stopped, backed up
and said, 'Hey! You with Cornell?' Bobby said, 'No. Why? Do you have a
The reasons for all the secrecy were two-fold.
For one, there was concern that premature news that the ivory-billed
woodpecker had been sighted would bring throngs of enthusiastic birders
who would drive the woodpecker deeper into the swamps. For another, The
Nature Conservancy—joining with Cornell in something called The Big
Woods Conservation Partnership—was quietly buying up land in the area,
a process that would have been immensely more complicated had word
leaked out. Ultimately the group acquired 18,000 acres of prime
ivory-bill territory in the 14 months leading up to the announcement.