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Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Focuses Birders on State

December 23, 2005

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Focuses Birders on State

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

On Feb. 11, 2004, Gene Sparling, an amateur naturalist from Hot Springs, 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 the 1980s in Cuba.

Led by the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology of Ithaca, N.Y., a secretive and intensive research effort was conducted over the next 14 months and it yielded additional sightings, four seconds of video and audio recordings of the ivory-billed. 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.

As the ongoing search to determine the extent of the species' presence resumed last Nov. 1, the attention of birders across the nation was focused on the Big Woods.

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 with the assignment to prepare a comprehensive recovery plan for the 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 and on April 7, 2004, the Nature Conservancy, the Cornell Lab and other partners formed the Big Woods Conservation Partnership with the aim of conserving over the next decade 200,000 acres of Big Woods forest and rivers.

Lands within the Big Woods currently under public ownership include the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, where Sparling encountered the bird; the White River National Wildlife Refuge; the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area; the Rex Hancock/Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area; the Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area; the Benson Creek Natural Area; and the Cache River Natural Area.

Visiting the Big Woods

The rediscovery of the ivory-billed was kept secret for more than a year in part because of concern that a large influx of birders and the simply curious would interfere with the bird's activities, possibly driving it into extinction. It was also feared that such an influx would disrupt the scientific research effort.

The delay in announcing the find allowed for the development of plans to accommodate visitors and for the creation of Web sites and other means for providing information to those coming to Arkansas in hopes of seeing the bird.

Big Woods visitors are being encouraged to bring with them realistic expectations. The odds of seeing one of the birds are extremely minimal and no one can guarantee a sighting. The good news, however, is this: experiencing the woodpecker's remarkable habitat in the forested backwaters of the nation's largest alluvial plain is, in itself, worth the trip. Moreover, the Big Woods hold significant potential rewards for birders in addition to the ivory-billed, as evidenced by the almost 260 species listed on the bird checklist for the White River refuge.

Visitors should be aware that the Big Woods are also home to the more common and widespread pileated woodpecker, a bird of similar coloration and size that is often confused with the ivory-billed. A review of the differences between the two species is recommended prior to visiting the Big Woods.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has developed a Web site titled "Big Woods Birding Opportunities" ( that 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 on its Web site ( maps and information on opportunities to see the ivory-billed.

The announcement of the rediscovery began a flurry of activity that included accommodating visiting birders seeking to add the species to their life list.

Little Rock Tours and Mallard Pointe Lodge near Brinkley have teamed up to offer from Feb. 1 through March 31, 2006 extended guided tours on private lands adjacent to the rediscovery area. Participants are invited to "paddle by thousand-year-old trees" as they search for the ivory-billed and other birds in an "organized, guided and respectful way."

Also offering Big Woods birding tours related to the ivory-billed are the Paradise Wings Lodge and Arkansas Wildlife Tours, both located near Brinkley, and the Big Woods Birder's Lodge at Holly Grove.

Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Resources Online

Information for Birding the Ivory-Billed
Big Woods Birding Opportunities
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Description of Ivory-Billed Woodpecker
Differences Between Ivory-Billed and Pileated Woodpeckers

Other Organizations and Information
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Nature Conservancy
Big Woods Conservation Partnership
2004-2005 Research Effort
On-going Research
Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Species Recovery Team
Species Recovery Plan

Big Woods Tours and Lodging
Little Rock Tours
Mallard Pointe Lodge
Paradise Wings Lodge
Arkansas Wildlife Tours
Big Woods Birder's Lodge

Public Lands Within the Big Woods
Cache River National Wildlife Refuge
White River National Wildlife Refuge
White River Refuge Bird Checklist
Dagmar Wildlife Management Area
Rex Hancock/Black Swamp Wildlife Management Area
Wattensaw Wildlife Management Area
Benson Creek Natural Area
Cache River Natural Area


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"
1 Capitol Mall, 4A-900 - Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 | 1-800-872-1259 or (501) 682-7777 (V/TT)
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