On Feb. 11, 2004, Gene Sparling, an amateur naturalist from Hot Springs, Arkansas, single-handedly began raising the lid on a coffin of speculated extinction. While kayaking on Bayou DeView in the swampy Big Woods of eastern Arkansas, he had encountered an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a species last confirmed to have been seen alive in 1944 in Louisiana and last believed heard in Cuba in the 1980's.
Led by the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology of Ithaca, New York, a secretive and intensive research effort was conducted over the next 14 months. It yielded Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings, four seconds of Ivory-billed Woodpecker video, and audio recordings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The rediscovery was announced to the world in a Washington D.C. press conference on April 28, 2005 and documented in an article in the respected journal Science. The ongoing search to determine the extent of the species' presence was resumed on November 1, 2005.
Conserving the Bird, Preserving Its Home
To comply with the federal Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formed a species recovery team to prepare a comprehensive recovery plan for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
The continuing presence of the species in Arkansas has been attributed to decades of habitat preservation efforts by state and federal agencies and by private groups and individuals. Those efforts gained new impetus from the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and on April 7, 2004, The Nature Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other partners formed The Big Woods Conservation Partnership with the aim of conserving 200,000 acres of Big Woods forest habitat and rivers over the next 10 years.
Lands within The Big Woods currently under public ownership include the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, where Sparling encountered the bird; White River National Wildlife Refuge; Dagmar Wildlife Management Area; Rex Hancock/Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area; Trusten Holder Wildlife Management Area; Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area; and Benson Creek Natural Area.
Visiting the Big Woods
The reason the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was kept secret for more than a year was concern that a large influx of birder and the simply curious would interfere with the bird's activities, possibly driving it into extinction, and disrupt the scientific research effort. The delay in announcing the find also allowed for the development of plans to accommodate visitors and for the creation of websites and other means for providing information to those coming to Arkansas in hopes of seeing the bird.
Big Woods visitors should bring with them realistic expectations. First, the odds of seeing an Ivory-billed Woodpecker are extremely minimal and no one can guarantee Ivory-Billed Woodpecker sightings. Second, experiencing the woodpecker's remarkable habitat in the forested backwaters of the nation's largest alluvial plain is in itself worth the trip. You can also watch the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker video from the Cornell Lab of Orinthology to see this rare bird in action without leaving home.
The Big Woods are also home to the more common and widespread Pileated Woodpecker, a bird often confused with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A review of the differences between the two species is recommended prior to visiting The Big Woods.
The Big Woods Birding Opportunities website, developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, includes maps and information on trails and canoe access points; search safety tips; and links to lodging and camping information. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission also provides maps and information on opportunities for Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings.
Arkansas's other birding opportunities include the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Bald Eagles, and waterfowl. Elk and American black bear are two of the state's most sought-after species among wildlife observers and photographers.