The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Wingin’ It
“Ghost-chasing in Southeastern Arkansas”
by June Osborne, Mexia Daily News

In late April 2005 when the man came running toward me, waving a sheet of paper and yelling something about an Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting, I thought he was mad. I was still in Concan, and every day people reported their bird findings to me, some credible, others preposterous. I thought he was just another crackpot trying to put one over on me.

But when I read the NPR report he handed me straight off the internet, I realized with sudden clarity that this was for real. An Ivory-billed Woodpecker, long thought to be extinct, had been seen and confirmed in The Big Woods of eastern Arkansas where I grew up.

Before this spring’s announcement, the bird’s last confirmed sighting came from Louisiana in 1944. Sixty years later, along came Gene Sparling, an Arkansas farmer and kayaker from Hot Springs. On February 11, 2004, Sparling was drifting silently through the water, enjoying a contemplative moment in those hallowed halls of tupelo-cypress swamps along the Cache River where my father, uncles and brother often fished in the 1920s and ’30s.

Suddenly, a large black and white bird flew across in front of Sparling.

He was quite familiar with the similar Pileated Woodpecker, but he knew he had never seen this bird before. He had a hard time convincing himself that he had indeed seen an Ivory-bill.

Gene was so incredulous that he didn’t tell anyone until a few days later in a “trip report” to the Arkansas Canoe Club web site. In the last sentence he casually mentioned that he might have seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Someone suggested that Gene send his report to Mary Scott, a long-time ghost-bird chaser. She forwarded the message to Tim Gallagher, editor-in-chief of Living Bird, the flagship publication of the world-famous Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Since Mary herself had reported seeing an Ivory-bill not fifty miles from Gene’s sighting a few months earlier, Tim sat up and took notice. He telephoned Bobby Harrison, his friend and fellow Ivory-bill enthusiast from Huntsville, Alabama. Each had an hour-long phone interview with Gene and believed his story. They decided to meet him in Arkansas and have a look for themselves.

On February 27, 2004, the second day of their search on Bayou De View in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, Gene had paddled ahead of Tim and Bobby in his kayak, when a large black and white bird flew toward the stragglers. Both shouted, “Ivory-bill!” at which time the bird did an about-face and flew out of sight. There was no doubt in their minds that they had seen the ghost-bird of the swamps. This was the first time in decades that two reliable searchers had seen the species at the same time.

The day after Tim returned to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, he went into the director’s office and related the amazing story. John Fitzpatrick closed his office door and gave Tim the third-degree. After a few minutes, John was convinced that the sighting was legitimate.

In the director’s words: “That was the end of life as we knew it at the lab.” They quickly mobilized a team of researchers and expert birders and headed for the remote swamps and bayous of eastern Arkansas. They’ve had a major research presence there ever since.

After reading Tim Gallagher’s captivating book, The Grail Bird, the true story of the rediscovery, I became fascinated with revisiting the area where I spent my early childhood. Harold and I had already planned a visit to Lonoke to see my sister and her husband, so one day we drove the 40 miles to the Dagmar Unit of the Cache River NWR.

We followed the map to Bayou De View where Gene, Tim, and Bobby had seen he bird. We found a ROAD CLOSED sign. We didn’t really expect to see the bird. I just wanted to be in the area where it had been seen, to get a feel for the haunts of this legendary bird.

My imagination went wild as we drove the remote roads of the refuge and caught glimpses of the swamp at almost every turn. I imagined my father and uncle in their fishing boat, paddling among those ancient, towering cypress trees. I wondered if, on any of their fishing forays in the 1920s, they had been mystified by the huge bird that was dubbed “The Lord God Bird.” Did they hear its distinctive BAM-bam! as it hammered away at the bark? Did they hear its tin horn “Kent-kent” calls blasting through the eerie swamp? Did they observe its steady, duck-like flight on powerful, three-foot wings? They could have. I wish I could ask them.

While we were “in the neighborhood”, we decided to do a little more ghost-chasing and drove to Holly Grove where my dad grew up. I looked in vain for the spreading chestnut tree under which my grandfather’s blacksmith shop once stood.

We found Indian Bay, another favorite fishing spot of my dad’s. My brother still remembers summer trips to that special place.

A few miles from Holly Grove we drove into Marvell and found that the house where I was born 74 years ago is still there. The present owner has done a remarkable job of restoring and preserving it.

The lot where my grandmother’s house once stood is vacant, but the original sidewalk is there and the concrete garage foundation is intact. Downtown Marvell is a ghost town. All the store fronts are still there but have the appearance of a movie set. Not a single store is occupied; but I
found the one that once was my dad’s “Williams Cash Grocery”. The train station is gone and so is the railroad track, but the haunting sounds of the train rolling into town still ring in my memory.

Our Arkansas trip turned out to be not only a visit to a ghost-bird’s home but also a visit to my childhood home with all its attending ghostly memories.

At this stage in the game, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the rarest bird in the world. I hope and pray that the efforts to restore its home will be as successful as was the restoration of my own natal site and that my great-grandchildren and their great-grandchildren will get to experience a primeval cypress swamp ringing with the haunting sounds of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers rolling through The Big Woods of eastern Arkansas.

(Copyright © 2005 June Osborne)

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