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For Arkansas birders, spring 2005 was the best of times and the worst of times.

It was the best because on April 28, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Nature Conservancy announced that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted the year before in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas.

A bird that had been presumed extinct since 1944 now seemed resurrected. Fifteen sightings -- seven with enough credibility to be included in a report in the association's journal Science -- had occurred in 2004 and 2005 during verification efforts by more than 50 searchers including experts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Evidence included a 4.5-second video of the bird in Arkansas.

There was an international wave of optimism, and interest in the species flourished. Researchers including trained ornithologists reported sightings in 2005 and 2006 in Florida. Philanthropic and university research dollars as well as federal monies were cast about for habitat preservation.

But it was the worst of times because the coming years saw little new evidence and much divisiveness and ridicule among environmentalists. Birders divided into believers and scoffers. One woodpecker specialist in Florida dismissed the science behind the verification efforts as "faith-based ornithology."

In April 2010, after five years of looking in Arkansas and to a lesser extent in other states, Cornell suspended its systematic search. "The preliminary conclusion we've come up with at this point is that it's unlikely that there are recoverable populations of ivory-billed woodpeckers in those places that have received significant search efforts over the past five years," Ron Rohrbaugh, director of the lab's Ivory-billed Woodpecker Research Project, told Discovery News.

When the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative published its 2014 "State of the Birds Report" in September, its "Watch List," a scientific assessment of the status of species nationwide, included 233 species considered at serious risk. Among them was the ivory-billed woodpecker -- along with two notations:

• "Listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act."

• "Probably extinct."

In preparation for the 10-year anniversary of the first announcement, this writer talked to two of the principal actors in the 2005 ivory-billed drama. I wondered if they still hold on to hope for the woodpecker called the Holy Grail of birds.


Gene Sparling sparked all the fuss by posting on a chat board that he had sighted a large woodpecker with white markings while he was kayaking through the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. Sparling sat down with me in his home in a wooded rural setting south of Hot Springs.

"I was completely alone," Sparling said, recalling the February 2004 float trip during which he saw the woodpecker clinging to the side of a tree. "I had started my trip at High-

way 305 and had already been in the kayak headed south for a day and a half. I was planning to paddle all the way to Clarendon on the White River where my vehicle was parked. I had imagined that it would be a five-day adventure, but it was less than that."

Paddling solo "was not unusual for me. I liked being there when the leaves were off the trees and you can see things well. I had put a lot of thought into how a person should pack a canoe, kayak or horse for such solitary excursions, and I was well prepared for cold weather. Besides, winter was the only time for me. I operated a riding stable at the time, and winter was my off season."

Of the moment he first saw the crow-size woodpecker, he said, "just a few seconds before the bird appeared I had set my paddle down and was relishing a sublime moment of stillness and was admiring the beauty of cypress and the swamp. I was not really a serious birder back then, nor am I today, but as a boy I had been interested in birds, and I knew the differences between the ivory-billed and a pileated woodpeckers."

The bird impressed him so much that once he got home, he mentioned it on a chat board, but vaguely. "I suspected it might be an ivory-billed, but I was reluctant to say so." But his post was noticed by Cornell researchers who happened to be actively tracking down all possible sightings; within a week he was leading a secret expedition.

more sightings

He later became a true-believer in the survival of the ivory-billed, Sparling said. "Yes, I did, after it was sighted again by two other more experienced birdwatchers, and then a collection of other sightings. Then David Luneau's video was shot. Even as blurry as it was, it seemed to confirm that conclusion."

Some have suggested he might have seen a leucistic pileated woodpecker -- having albino traits. "I don't think it was a pileated woodpecker," Sparling said. "Its top point on the head was too sharp. It was too big and it was too white. If it was a leucistic bird, it would have remained in the same area where it grew to maturity. The bird I saw did not remain where I saw it, else it would have been seen over and over.

"It was there for a while and then moved on."

After all this time without more solid evidence of the bird, what does he think?

"I think we'll never know, and I've had to become content with that.

"I have grown impatient with those people whose magazine or newspaper stories and speeches have been to argue existence or non-existence of the woodpecker. We don't need the ivory-billed woodpecker to know what to do. If it exists, we need to save the habitat; if it doesn't exist, we still need to save the habitat. Habitat protection may rescue other species that need the Big Woods to escape extinction."

He wants to hope.

"To think that I saw the last such bird on the planet breaks my heart. ... If it was the last ivory-billed, it would almost surely have died by now, even if it was a young bird when I saw it. The average life expectancy in the wild is generally thought to be 8 1/2 years," but exactly how long these birds lived in the wild is unknown.

The sighting changed his life.

"I closed my riding stables and worked for two years as co-director of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Project. I spent a lot of time in the field, organizing search efforts and traveled about the nation giving programs with Scott Simon of the Arkansas Nature Conservancy."

He's pleased with the work they did.

"Everywhere we went, we received standing ovations and we were eventually able to add thousands of acres of land for conservation. I can show you a place today where there was once a faceless soybean field; it now holds the beginnings of a hardwood forest. Where once there was a straight ditch carrying silt into the White River, there is now a winding stream holding moisture for rebuilding wetlands."

When the recovery project ended, "it had become a personal financial hardship for me, and I had become a single parent during that time, so I decided not to go back into the horse business."

Today he's an artist.

"I carve and shape wooden sculptures, bowls, urns and decorative items from native hardwoods. I use only wood from sustainable sources and from chunks that people give me from their firewood piles. I call my business Forest Path Gallery, and sell some things on the Internet, but most of my sales come from those who visit my gallery, to see and touch my work and feel the smooth finishes.

"It has been a struggle, but it is what I prefer to do."


After Sparling's sighting, David Luneau went motoring in the swampy area of Bayou De View in eastern Arkansas in April 2004 with a video camera attached to a milk-carton pedestal in his boat. The brief video he captured April 25, 2004, shows Luneau's brother-in-law sitting in the boat in the foreground and a bird flying away from the boat and then disappearing into foliage.

Ten years after that video became public, it remains the key evidence that excited birders around the world. Like the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, that footage has been analyzed and debated.

I interviewed Luneau in his home in the Otter Creek neighborhood in southwest Little Rock. The walls of his den and office are adorned with paintings of ivory-billed woodpeckers, books on birding and memorabilia of trips to Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana to look for the ivory-bill. He teaches electronics engineering technology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, as he did in 2004.

"I learned of the Sparling sighting when I got a call from Bill Shepherd, a longtime friend who I had worked the Christmas Bird Count with since 1987," Luneau said. "He knew I had been on expeditions targeting the ivory-billed woodpecker in the past. Bill had learned of Gene's sighting from Scott Simon of the Nature Conservancy, but at that time Bill did not know any particulars other than it was seen in the Cache River refuge.

"A few days later, he and I drove toward Brinkley to look around. As luck would have it, we stopped first at the Highway 17 Bridge which later became the epicenter of subsequent sightings, and we called it the 'Hot Zone.' It was very near where I would eventually get the video. On that first trip, however, we simply learned that you could not bird the area except in a boat, so we walked around with our binoculars in the woods at the water's edge."

Luneau kept the secret of his video and the search during the year between Sparling's sighting and the announcement.

"Early on, we realized the importance of keeping it a secret. To protect the bird if we could find it, preserve the area from mobs of onlookers -- and the potential for ridicule was great. At that point only about 15 people knew what was going on, and we all consented to nondisclosure. Others were brought in on a need-to-know basis, but we held it together pretty well until it leaked out in emails about a year later."

strong case?

Luneau remains confident he taped an ivory-billed woodpecker.

"My brother-in-law and I both saw it with our own eyes, but it was just a glimpse, and I do not base my convictions on what I saw that day, but on the closely analyzed video. We looked at it carefully on the video screen on the camera, but that was tiny. We looked at it later on the computer and thought we had captured the ivory-billed, but it was several months later after closer examination that I was convinced that it was the bird in the film."

I asked Luneau if he thought the case for the woodpecker was a strong one when the announcement was made.

"It was convincing," he said, "but as Carl Sagan has said, 'Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.'

"We did considerable planning during the summer that followed when there were too many leaves on the trees to do much else. During the next year we continued taping in the area. We slowed the action on the video. We taped pileated woodpeckers and crows flying away from the camera for comparison and invented lines of analysis that we could test.

"We attempted to confirm or reject our null hypothesis that the bird seen was not an ivory-billed. Of course, the video did not allow for infinite resolution that would be required to convince critics. There is a mindset among some people that the ivory-billed is extinct, and they do not approach the topic without prejudice. They deny our claim and some arrogantly claim to know that people could not have seen what they claimed to see. ...

"There was a series of published scientific articles that debated whether the video validated our claim," Luneau said, "but the debate became arcane and bewildering and has since been dropped. The positions of the disagreeing camps are polarized."

He doesn't think the search was a waste of time or money.

"There was good that came from it, many acres of bottomland property added for habitat protection," he said. "The entire conservation effort received a boost in the public mind, and there became an increased awareness in the local area of the value of their land, and people have come to see east Arkansas as an interesting place to go birding.

"People are now reminded that there are species of endangered birds everywhere that need to be rescued."

Luneau revisits the Big Woods "maybe once or twice a year. It took a lot of personal sacrifice to spend so much time in the Big Woods as I did in 2004 through 2007, but I still enjoy being there with the hope of seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker."

More information on the history of the search and archival videos of ivory-billed woodpeckers is at

Jerry Butler is a freelance writer who regularly writes about Arkansas birds. He welcomes stories and comments at

ActiveStyle on 04/27/2015

Print Headline: True believers/Failure to find more ivory-billed woodpeckers doesn’t mean the search was fruitless, spotters say

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