Originally created 03/10/02

There's hope for ivorybills

Walking in a remote swamp at daybreak, it is easy to imagine ghosts of long ago wandering among the cypress trees and dark pools.

But what David Kulivan saw one April morning as he hunted in Louisiana's rugged Pearl River Wildlife Management Area might have been much more than a ghost.

It might have been a sliver of hope that one of mankind's most unforgivable blunders - the eradication of the majestic ivory-billed woodpecker - might be reversible.

The saga began, ironically, on April Fool's Day 1999, when Kulivan - a graduate student in wildlife studies - sat quietly against an oak tree listening for the sounds of a mature gobbler.

What he saw instead shocked him - and raised goosebumps on the arms of ornithologists across the continent.

The vision: a pair of mature ivorybills, thought to have vanished decades ago as the last old-growth forests were felled for timber. They cavorted in the treetops just yards away - and then disappeared.

"I knew as soon as I saw them it was something I had never seen before," the Louisiana State University student later told the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger.

His flawless description was deemed credible.

Scientists have since mounted multiple forays into the swamp, hoping to find the creature once called "Lord God Bird."

Closer to home, Fort Gordon wildlife biologist Ken Boyd has been keeping tabs on the search - with a vested interest of his own.

Boyd's father, Haywood Boyd, did his postgraduate studies under James Tanner, the Cornell-educated ornithologist who photographed and studied the last known ivorybills in the 1940s.

"I even met him," Boyd said. "He was a neat person, even stayed with us on one of their trips through south Georgia."

Boyd, like many others, hopes against the odds that ivorybills are still live within the remote swamps.

"We have seen other species, down through time, that have very specific habitat requirements, but have been able to sustain themselves by making adjustments," he said.

From the swamps of Louisiana, there is both good news and bad news. Last month, Zeiss Optics underwrote a monthlong search by six experts who combed the wilderness for any sign of the lost birds.

On the 11th day, team members recorded a series of loud signal taps and double raps - characteristic of ivorybills. The sounds were unlike those of the common Pileated Woodpecker, often mistaken for the larger-beaked ivorybill.

So the search team's conclusion was that the search was - inconclusive. "We did not see an ivorybill, but we found potential evidence of its presence," the Zeiss search team said in a joint statement.

John Fitzpatrick, director of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology, remains in the Louisiana swamp with a separate expedition - and plans to release a report on his findings next month.

Boyd, meanwhile, hopes evidence will be found to prove the big birds still flutter among the ancient treetops. And his exposure to the ivorybill continues to influence his work today.

One of his primary interests is making sure another endangered bird - the red cockaded woodpecker - doesn't follow the path of its larger cousin into extinction.

The red-cockaded woodpecker is vanishing because of the decline of longleaf pines; the birds require trees in the 125-year age class to nest.

Boyd and his colleagues at Fort Gordon manage 400 acres of habitat for the benefit of these birds, and have met with great success: a total of nine birds now call the area home.

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119, or rpavey@augustachronicle.com.


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