Searching for the Ivory Bill

Searching for the Ivory Bill

Sara Barker and a team of researchers find conclusive evidence that brings the ivory-billed woodpecker back from 'extinction'.

By Gerry Boyle ‰78

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.

Eating Crow

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 down there?'—

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 said.

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.

The 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 week-long stints.

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.

And 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 package?'—

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.