Vermonters search for ivory-billed woodpecker

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(Host) Last year scientists at Cornell University announced they had found evidence of the existence of Ivory Billed Woodpeckers in the swamps of Arkansas. The large black and white bird was long thought extinct.

Since the news, though, there have been no further sightings. Now scientists have launched an intensive effort to find more proof of the bird’s existence, and a group of Vermonters will leave Saturday to take part in the search.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) For birders, the news last April that an Ivory Billed Woodpecker had been spotted was one of those “I remember what I was doing when ” moments.

The evidence includes multiple reported sightings and recordings that sound like the bird’s distinctive double knock on a tree. The most intriguing evidence was a fleeting glimpse of what appears to be an Ivory Billed Woodpecker captured in a two-second piece of video tape.

But in spite of a continuing effort to document the bird’s existence, there’s been nothing. That’s only served to heighten the debate among experts about whether the bird seen was actually an Ivory Bill.

In spite of the debate, Steve Faccio is a believer.

(Faccio) “I’m pretty convinced that what was seen was an Ivory Billed Woodpecker. The video that I’ve seen, I mean I’ts fuzzy, but it sure looks like an Ivory Billed to me.”

(Zind) Faccio is a conservation biologist with VINS, The Vermont Institute of Natural Science. He’s one of five Vermonters from VINS who’ll help search the remote swamps of Arkansas for signs of the Ivory Bill.

The Vermonters are part of a group of experienced volunteer birders and biologists from around the country recruited by Cornell University and the Nature Conservancy in an all out effort to prove once and for all whether or not the bird still exists.

Never before has a bird been the subject of a more intensive and high tech search.

Each volunteer will carry a global positioning system to precisely map the area searched and record the location of any possible Ivory Bill sightings or nest sites.

The swamp is also wired with cameras with motion sensors and recorders used to feed sound into a computer programmed to recognized the distinctive “knock knock” of the Ivory Bill.

VINS Biologist Kent McFarland is part of the Vermont team. McFarland says the effort is worth it.

(McFarland) “What would we go through to save the Mona Lisa if it were in danger? We’d probably go through a heck of a lot to save one painting. A lot of these species I consider to be amazing works of art.”

(Zind) McFarland says he’s not completely convinced there is an Ivory Billed Woodpecker still out there. He says whether or not the reported sighting was true won’t matter if others can’t be found.

(McFarland) “Because if we don’t have a population to work with as biologists to conserve them and do things like creating feeding trees for them and nesting holes to bring the population back, we might as well not have seen it, because its gone.”

(Zind) McFarland says if searchers don’t find a sign of the Ivory Bill in the vast areas being searched, then the bird is probably not there.

Until the reported sighting ornithologists were fond of joking that the chances of seeing an Ivory Billed Woodpecker were about the same as the odds of spotting Elvis.

McFarland and Faccio still think there’s a parallel. For that reason, they’ll make a stop on their way to Arkansas.

(Faccio) “We’re going to stop at Graceland on the way down. We’re going right through Memphis, so I think we’ll do that.” (laughter)

(Zind) The Vermonters will be gone for two weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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