'Extinct' birds that are still around

America's ivory-billed woodpecker is long extinct. Or is it? Michael Park meets the British ornithologist whose grainy video footage has created a twitching frenzy in the remote swamps of Arkansas
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Long before the sun has risen over the Big Woods in Arkansas, Sheffield native and life-long ornithologist, Tim Gallagher wanders quietly into his hotel's lobby ready to begin searching for a bird that some people believe is no more than a ghost. Dressed in full camouflage, Gallagher stares out into the stubborn darkness as he waits for his friend and fellow birdwatcher, Bobby Harrison.

"Today could be the day," Harrison says as he strolls into the lobby moments later. A jovial American from Alabama, he, too, is dressed in camouflage clothing. "You could bring us luck," he whispers in his gentle southern accent; but, dressed in jeans and a bright-blue waterproof jacket, I doubt I am any kind of talisman.

Gallagher has invited me to this previously anonymous part of America to take part in the search for a woodpecker, but not just any woodpecker.

Campephilus principalis, or, as it is more commonly known, the ivory-billed woodpecker, is either one of the world's rarest birds or a species as dead as the dodo. For the past 60 years, common wisdom suggested there were no more ivory-bills left alive anywhere; anyone who claimed to have seen one was thought to be either a liar or a fool. But in April 2005 all that changed when Gallagher and Harrison led a group that announced to the world that in February 2004 they had seen an ivory-bill deep in the swamps of Arkansas.

Yet they couldn't produce a photograph to back up their claim, nor anything more than a blurry video that "experts" had to analyse before proclaiming that the black-and-white speck seen flying quickly away in the background was indeed a mythical ivory-bill.

So now, nearly a year after the announcement of the bird's "rediscovery" and nearly two years since they claim to have seen it, Gallagher and Harrison are back to renew their search for this flying Big Foot, hoping to capture it cleanly on film. This time, they are not alone.

Until that cold day in February 2004 when they saw the bird - not far from where we're now heading - they were used to searching for their elusive prey quietly and without fanfare. But as soon as they shared their sighting with other people, this quickly became the exception rather than the norm. Indeed, in the woods today we could easily find as many as 30 other people looking specifically for this elusive bird.

The fact that this part of Arkansas and the nearby town of Brinkley are now being flooded with a mix of professional, amateur and truly amateurish bird watchers is due entirely to fact that pretty much everyone Gallagher and Harrison told about their sighting believed them, and with good reason. Both are life-long birders (in fact Harrison had been searching for ivory-bills for 19 years before he saw one) and have impeccable credentials.

Harrison, 50, a big, bearded, bear of a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, is a school teacher who has spent a lot of his adult life crossing America in search of rare and beautiful birds. Last year he was the first person to deploy life-sized ivory-bill decoys in the hope of attracting a curious real one.

Gallagher, 55, is the son of a former Royal Navy officer. The family moved to the US when he was still a child, but he has never relinquished his British passport and he has the manners of a country gentleman and the brain of an Oxford don. For the past 15 years he has been the editor of one of the most respected birding magazines in America, Living Bird, published by the prestigious Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University in New York State.

Until Gallagher and Harrison's sighting, the ivory-billed woodpecker was believed to have become extinct in the 1940s due to decades of logging and the destruction of the type of trees and habitat the bird needed to survive.

"If you said you'd seen an ivory-bill the first thing anyone would say is you're mistaken or you're a liar," Gallagher tells me as we head for a location where he believes we might spot one.

Yet for a small group of bird lovers, the story of this large, graceful woodpecker proved too romantic to ignore and, without ever telling anyone about it, people such as Gallagher and Harrison kept searching in places they believed the bird could survive. "I was always of the idea that the bird just wouldn't roll over and die when the last big tree was cut," says Harrison.

After a long drive down dirt roads with open fields on either side, and through cotton fields stripped of their precious harvest, we park by the side of what should be a water-filled swamp. Yet there has been so little rain in this part of the state recently that we are going to walk deep into parts that are normally only accessible by canoe.

Massive, moss-covered cypress and tupelo trees stretch infinitely into the distance and only bird calls occasionally pierce the otherwise eerie silence.

"There used to be hundreds of ivory-bills living in swamps just like this across the south and south-eastern parts of the United States," Gallagher says as we trudge through muddy swamp, crunching fallen leaves as we travel. "But with unregulated logging and the unchecked hunting of the birds by collectors, they disappeared."

Given the ivory-bill's close resemblance to another species of bird, the pileated woodpecker, which thrives in a wider variety of habitats, any sightings after 1944 were presumed to be pileated woodpeckers rather than ivory-bills.

"The naysayers got so powerful," sighs Gallagher. "And what is so disappointing is the ornithologists who had contact with people who claimed to have seen ivory-bills just didn't follow up because they were afraid it would taint their careers."

Gallagher didn't have a career to taint but even when he did end up editing birding magazines, he remained fascinated enough by the story of the ivory-bill and whispered tales of occasional sightings that he decided to write a book about the species and some people's relentless quest to prove it was not yet extinct.

Then, in February 2004, one of the individuals he had contacted about a sighting emailed him a dairy entry which had been posted on a kayaking website by Gene Sparling, an avid naturalist. Sparling, who had just completed a three-day trip deep into the Arkansas swamp, reported seeing tree stumps large enough to sleep on and numerous varieties of instantly recognisable animals and birds.

"Also, and I hesitate to say this, saw a pilated [sic] woodpecker that was way too big," wrote Sparling. "The white and black colours seemed to be reversed on the wings, and the white was yellowish off-white. You birders know what is inferred, but I don't have the conviction to say."

After reading this report, Gallagher called Sparling and after speaking to him for nearly an hour believed that Sparling had indeed seen an ivory-bill.

"You can tell in five minutes if someone is a good enough observer to be reliable and then it takes a little longer to work out if they are really truthful," explains Gallagher. "The way he described it, it could only have been an ivory-bill."

A trip to where Sparling had seen the bird was hurriedly arranged and less than a week later Gallagher, Harrison and Sparling were paddling deep into an area called Bayou de View.

On the second day of their trip the now legendary sighting occurred. I ask Harrison to recall the event for what must be the thousandth time.

"Oh, it's the first time every time I tell it," he says to me as his voice begins to crack and tears fill his eyes. "Tim and I were right down this lake right here. Right here. We got down to the end of it. We look off to the right and here comes this bird flying through the trees and... I don't know what I'm looking at. It is a black bird heading towards me at an angle. And then it turned, left wing down, right wing up and it revealed that white pattern on the back of the bird and we both pointed and said 'ivory-bill!'

"All of a sudden I'm in shock. I've got tears coming out of my eyes and we're trying to get the canoe ashore and I'm trying to chase the bird through the woods and it's gone and I know I'm not going to catch up with it."

Harrison presumed that later that day or the next they would see it again and be able to photograph it. But despite another few days of searching and one more possible fleeting glimpse of the bird, they left the swamp without the proof they craved.

Standing here surrounded by thousands of wildly growing tupelos, it becomes easy to see just how hard it would be to follow any bird, let alone be able to train a camera on it should one happen to fly by.

Yet, without any photographic proof, Gallagher still thought he had to tell his boss at Cornell that he was "100 per cent certain" he had seen one.

"It was the first time two qualified observers had seen the bird simultaneously since 1944," Gallagher. explains "That made a difference. And I'm a conservative birder. I've never made a bogus call."

Gallagher's boss, John Fitzpatrick, was stunned, but accepted what Gallagher told him and realising how important a "rediscovery" this was for not only the birding world, but also for the whole environmental community, he immediately wanted to focus some of Cornell's considerable resources on commencing an organised search for the bird.

Yet Fitzpatrick also knew the potentially damaging consequences of making claims of an ivory-bill's existence without any hard evidence, so he dispatched a clandestine team of researchers to Arkansas, swore everyone to secrecy and code-named the bird "Elvis".

For 12 months they scoured the woods and while there were some further "credible" sightings, only Harrison and one other team member were able to capture on video what are believed to be ivory-billed woodpeckers (it is impossible to ascertain whether it is the same bird on both videos).

As the field season drew to a close in spring 2005, Cornell, environmental group The Nature Conservancy, several local and federal Fish and Wildlife agencies as well as the US Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, announced to the world that the ivory-billed woodpecker had been rediscovered and that funds were being made available to help preserve the area in Arkansas in which the bird was believed to be living.

Since then more than £5m of federal money has been channelled into the project; three million trees are being planted; 20,000 acres of private land have been bought and added to the relevant conservation area; signs telling people how to recognise an ivory-bill have been posted at every location where people can enter the swamp; tourists have arrived from all over the world to try to catch a glimpse of the bird; and local entrepreneurs are offering "ivory-bill tours" for up to £100 a day.

Yet still no one has been able to produce a solid, clear, cleanly framed photograph or video that would make the front page of any newspaper or the "And finally... " section of the evening's television news, despite more than 20,000 search hours being logged by authorised, organised, qualified ornithologists armed with digital cameras, GPS systems and powerful binoculars. Some experts believe it may be because the species is indeed extinct.

"There are a lot of reasons to believe the ivory-bill woodpecker is an extinct species," says Richard Prum, who is the curator of ornithology at Yale University's Peabody museum.

"All of the proffered evidence, and there is not a lot, is incomplete and inconclusive," Prum tells me when I speak to him by telephone. "All of the people who have seen it fleetingly are true believers and magical things happen to true believers."

Prum claims there is no scientific reason why the bird should not be able to be found, if it is alive, and that with so many people searching the area, it could not avoid detection indefinitely. "If these people haven't produced irrefutable evidence by the end of the field season in April, then they will have a lot of explaining to do," he says.

Harrison has his own theories as to why the bird is proving so elusive: "I think there are too many people searching at this point," he says. "This is a very wary bird and so going from the hotel to the swamp every day and visiting doesn't work. I think you have to live out there for a while. Also the area is so huge."

An ivory-bill can reportedly cover more than 12 miles a day in search of food and the Big Woods in Arkansas spread over 750 square miles - an area slightly larger than the whole of Greater London. "There may be no more than two or three ivory-bills living here," Harrison adds, making the search the equivalent of looking for "a flying needle in a haystack."

Searchers have so far identified 375 possible nesting sites but have only observed 200 of those with remote cameras (none were found to be ivory-bill nests).

As we reach a hidden lake deep in the swamp where several sightings have been reported, we come across a rather surreal sight. Halfway up a tree on the other side of the still lake we can see a man's head. He appears to be sitting in a large basket attached to the tree.

"That's one of the volunteers," explains Gallagher. This year, funding from Cornell of more than £400,000 is available for 21 full-time staff to search full time for ivory-bills as well as for the recruitment and deployment of over 100 volunteers, a dozen hi-tech remote cameras and 30 autonomous recording devices. John Kemp, the man in the tree, is one of those volunteers and he is spending all day, every day for the next two weeks watching from his tree basket for any sign of an ivory-bill. Harrison shouts across and asks if he has seen anything. "No," he shouts back.

We stand quietly in the swamp for a while and watch and wait. We see otters and beavers and turtles and three other species of woodpecker, but no sign of Elvis.

I don't doubt that Gallagher, Harrison and Sparling believe they saw an ivory-bill - they have too much integrity to lie and should have too much experience to be mistaken - but its whereabouts in the Big Woods and why a nesting site can't be found remain a mystery.

We decide to call it a day. As we wander back through the ash-grey trees I ask Gallagher what he hopes will happen in the coming months.

"I hope we get the most solid evidence imaginable," says Gallagher. "But that's what we wanted to happen last year and it didn't." Until it does, the swamps of Arkansas will continue to be filled with confederates or dunces, depending on who you believe.

'The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker' by Tim Gallagher (Houghton Mifflin, $25), is available from www.amazon.co.uk

Flying miracles

More supposedly extinct birds that have startled ornithologists

Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise (Parotia berlepschi) This species, previously only known from a few examples collected in the 19th century, made a dramatic reappearance in Papua New Guinea late last year.

Edward's pheasant (Lophura edwardsi) After last being seen in central Vietnam in 1928, it survived several wars and the scrutiny of half a dozen French expeditions before reappearing in 1998.

Indian forest owlet (Athene blewitti) If there was a prize for hiding from biologists, twitchers, collectors and tourists, this diminutive bird would surely win. In 1996, it was rediscovered after 113 years in hiding.

Chinese crested tern (Thalasseus bernsteini) Thought to have become extinct when specimen hunters killed 21 of them in 1938, four pairs popped up in 2001 on Taiwan's Matsu Island. It's hoped the presence of 18,000 troops and a missile base at its breeding ground will deter collectors this time around.

Aleutian Canada Goose (Branta canadensis leucopareia) In 1967, numbering fewer than 500, these birds were declared to be endangered. They then disappeared completely for 25 years but subsequently made a dramatic comeback, and now number some 40,000 animals. Alistair Crighton