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In pursuit of the ivory-billed woodpecker

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As the debate over the ivory-billed woodpecker continues, David Luneau is still looking for the bird in the woods of Arkansas. (Terri Luneau)

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Biologist Martjan Lammertink was part of the original Arkansas search team for the ivory-billed woodpecker. (David Luneau)

On Fridays, he collects the pictures. One week last month, he brought home 125,000 from the dozen cameras scattered throughout the woods of eastern Arkansas. During the week, he looks through every one of them in his spare time, scanning the images for a glimpse of the bird some say has been extinct for nearly half a century.

Three years ago, David Luneau took the only photographic evidence that the ivory-billed woodpecker may still be alive--a grainy four-second video of a large black-and-white bird that has caused heated controversy in the bird-watching world. The premier ornithology lab in the country says it is the ivory-billed woodpecker, but others say it is the far more common pileated woodpecker.

After years of searching and several reported sightings, the lab has no more conclusive evidence than that fleeting video. Many of the birdwatchers who flocked to rural Arkansas for a chance to see the woodpecker have moved on, but the search continues. Luneau is still rounding up cameras.

Luneau was part of a secret yearlong study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that announced its discovery of the bird in eastern Arkansas in a paper in Science magazine in 2005. Since then, the magazine has published a volley of responses that continued this month with two letters from opposing sides of the debate. At the same time, a Scottish scientist published an article refuting Cornell’s claim that it had captured the bird on film. Critics say the bird in the video is the pileated woodpecker, which resembles the ivory bill but is smaller and has different wing markings. Believers say it couldn’t have been anything but the ivory bill.

“We know that the bird was there in 2004 and early 2005,” said Ron Rohrbaugh, director of the Cornell research project. Luneau said researchers had already had at least six good sightings when he caught the bird on video while rounding up cameras with his brother-in-law in April 2004.

When Cornell announced the following year that the ivory-billed woodpecker was alive and in Arkansas, birders celebrated. Known as the "Lord God bird"--because anyone who sees it will drop to his knees and utter, “Lord God, what a bird,” one story goes--the ivory bill was last officially sighted in 1944 and was thought to be extinct. Though no confirmed accounts could prove the bird had not disappeared completely, occasional sightings reported throughout the southeast United States were enough to keep hope alive for many birdwatchers. Birders know it as the “holy grail of bird watching.”

David Sibley, author of a popular bird guide, said he was overjoyed at the bird’s rediscovery. He rearranged his schedule and went to Arkansas as soon as possible; but after a week wandering through the swamps looking and listening for evidence of the bird to no avail, he returned home and took a closer look at the bird in the video, he said. He concluded it was a pileated woodpecker.

“That was right in the height of the euphoria,” he said. “It was days before I could even bring myself to mention it to anyone. I kept checking and double-checking the video.”

Sibley contested the Cornell identification in Science magazine, and he and his co-authors have stood by their argument. A Scottish scientist, Martin Collinson, published an article in BMC Biology this month supporting their conclusion that the bird in the video is a pileated woodpecker.

The Cornell researchers have stood by their claim, but the flurry of sightings have ended. Rohrbaugh said he thought the bird had moved southward to Arkansas' White River National Wildlife Refuge. Searching that area is difficult because it is vast and remote, he said.

In the latest contribution to the search, two high-resolution robotic cameras sift through images as they take them in a narrow strip of woods around Bayou DeView in northeast Arkansas, looking for birdlike figures crossing the screen. The software recognizes motion and discards all but one in 10,000 images so the hard drive does not fill in a day or two, said Ken Goldberg of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the lead developers of the camera.

In its first few months, the system has kept images of a great blue heron, a flock of Canada geese, a red-tailed hawk and misfires like falling leaves and flashes of sunlight. Still no ivory bill. Goldberg said he was prepared to leave the system up for years.

For now, the only way to get the images from the robotic cameras is to take a small boat out and retrieve the hard drive by hand. Every two to three weeks, Luneau takes his canoe on the hourlong ride past bald eagles, ducks and other wildlife to the swamp where researchers hope to find the elusive bird. Standing, he opens the box on an electric pole--marked with a radioactive sticker to keep hunters away--and shuts the system down, he said. He takes the hard drive out, puts a new one in, and starts the camera rolling. The process takes a minute or two, he added. Then he starts the canoe's trolling motor and makes the hour trip back.

Luneau said he became fascinated with the bird in the early 1990s, when field guides listed it as possibly extinct. He went on his first expedition in 2000 after a report of a sighting came out in 1999. Looking for it was “sort of like the birding version of a treasure hunt,” he said. The Cornell search began in 2004 after a kayaker reported seeing what looked like an ivory bill in the area, but Luneau had already done a search of his own in 2003. Cornell came and brought Luneau and the kayaker, Gene Sparling, on board.

Sparling had owned a horse riding stable for tourists in Hot Springs, Ark., but after seeing the bird while kayaking, he spent the next two and a half years searching the woods for the woodpecker.

“I closed my business and began to get up at four o’clock in the morning so I could be at the swamp by six and work on the search all day,” he said. Now that he is no longer searching, he says he is catching up on three years’ worth of chores and trying to figure out what to do next.

While a small group of researchers still searches the woods for the ivory bill, the tourists that first rushed in to Brinkley, Ark., hoping to see the bird have left. If the bird never reappears, Rohrbaugh says the lab will have at least have observed a part of the wild that has been studied very little. But Sibley says the search may have undermined the credibility of future sightings of rare birds. Still, the search goes on.

“It’s impossible to prove that the ivory-billed woodpecker is not there," Sibley said, "so there will always be some shred of hope.”

E-mail: ssb2130@columbia.edu