The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

by Tim Gallagher

What is it about the ivory-billed woodpecker? Why does this ghost of the southern swamps arouse such an obsessive level of passion in its devotees, who range from respected researchers to the flakiest Loch Ness monster fanatics and Elvis chasers?
Since the early twentieth century, scientists have been trying their best to prove that the ivory-bill is extinct. But every time they think they've finally closed the door, the bird makes an unexpected appearance. It happened in the 1920s, and it’s happened in almost every subsequent decade.
For more than 60 years, each sighting has been met with ridicule and scorn. Respected researchers and naturalists have been branded as quacks just for having the temerity to say that the ivory-bill still exists. Yet the reports still trickle in. Is there any truth to these sightings, or are they just a case of wishful thinking, misidentification, or outright fabrication?
To unravel the mystery, author Tim Gallagher heads south, deep into the eerie swamps and bayous of the vast Mississippi Delta, searching for people who claim to have seen this rarest of birds and following up—sometimes more than 30 years after the fact—on their sightings. He meets a colorful array of characters: a cigar-chomping ex-boxer who took two controversial pictures of an alleged ivory-bill in 1971; a former corporate lawyer who abandoned her career to search for ivory-bills full time; two men who grew up in the ivory-bill’s last known stronghold in a final remnant of primeval forest in Louisiana.
With his buddy Bobby Harrison, a true son of the South from Alabama, Gallagher hits the swamps, wading through hip-deep, boot-sucking mud and canoeing through turgid, mud brown bayous where deadly cottonmouth water moccasins abound. In most cases, they are clearly decades too late. But when the two speak to an Arkansas backwoods kayaker who saw a mystery woodpecker the week before and has a description of the bird that is too good to be a fantasy, the hunt is on.
Their Eureka moment comes a few days later as a huge woodpecker flies in front of their canoe, and they both cry out, “Ivory-bill!” This sighting—the first time since 1944 that two qualified observers positively identify an ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States—quickly leads to the largest search ever launched to find a rare bird, as researchers fan out across the bayou, hoping to document the existence of this most iconic of birds.

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  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9781328859112

  • ISBN-10: 1328859118

  • Pages: 288

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 04/25/2017

  • Carton Quantity: 1

Tim Gallagher
Author

Tim Gallagher

As TIM GALLAGHER was working on his book The Grail Bird, he was among the first to sight the long-thought-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, which led to a multi-million-dollar effort to confirm the sighting and protect the bird's dwindling habitat. The sighting changed the direction of the book, for which Gallagher won the Outdoor Writers Association of America's Best Book award for 2005. Gallagher is editor-in-chief of Living Bird magazine and of the Journal of the North American Falconers' Association.
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  • reviews

    "The GRAIL BIRD is an enjoyable read …a powerful call for conservation, and an exciting bird adventure" Boston Globe

    “The GRAIL BIRD is less an ecological study than a portrait of human obsession.” The New York Times

    "[The GRAIL BIRD is] also, unqualifiedly, a fine book…Gallagher honors the Lord God Bird." Charlotte Observer

    "A fascinating account…the reader never feels talked down to or left out of the adventure." Orlando Sentinel

    "Gallagher's text is straight from the swamp: anything but dry." Dallas Morning News

    "...An edge-of-your-seat ride into the hardwood swamps of the South that drips flavor like syrup on a mess of grits." Cleveland Plain Dealer

    "Gallagher is not only a careful scientist and researcher, but a thoughtful and sensitive writer who clearly loves his subject." Tampa Tribune

    "An engaging story and a triumph of conservation, highly recommended for most collections." Library Journal

  • excerpts

    10 A BAYOU WITH A VIEW You never know when you get up in the morning what earth-shaking event might take place and change your life forever. For me, a chain of such events began when I checked my e-mail one day in February 2004. Just a few days earlier, a kayaker named Gene Sparling—the same man Larry Mallard had told me about a few weeks earlier—had spotted an unusual woodpecker foraging on a huge cypress tree in a long, narrow bayou in eastern Arkansas. When he saw the bird’s unique color pattern—brilliant white on the lower half of its back, with two white lines extending up the back to its crested head— he knew immediately that he had never seen this kind of bird before. Inconspicuous in his kayak, he pulled into a secluded spot and sat watching it for almost a full minute. The woodpecker was so close he could see the minute details of the feathers and even some greenish staining on the lower part of its back, perhaps from going in and out of a roost hole or nest.

    When he got home a few days later, Gene posted a long description of his trip on a canoe club listserver, and he included a couple of sentences about the woodpecker, buried toward the end of the piece. His e- mail report was forwarded to me, and I immediately called him up. I grilled him for about an hour. His sighting sounded better than a lot of the thirty-year- old reports I had been investigating, and it was less than a week old.

    Gene has pileated woodpeckers nesting on his farm in Hot Springs, in the western part of Arkansas, so he is thoroughly familiar with that species. It seemed unlikely that a pileated was what he had seen. What struck me most about his description was that he said the bird seemed almost cartoonlike because of its quick, jerky movements and general nervousness. Its neck looked thinner than a pileated’s, and its crest seemed to come to a point in the back.

    I telephoned Bobby and told him about the sighting. Then I asked if he would mind calling Gene and talking to him. I was interested in getting his impression, to see if it was the same as mine.

    After a long talk with Gene, Bobby told him, “It sounds to me like you’ve seen an ivory-billed woodpecker.” “You think so?” said Gene. “I don’t have enough confidence to make that call, but I’m glad to hear you say that.” Before they got off the phone, Bobby was already planning a trip to the sighting area, at Bayou de View in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, and Gene was going to go with him. I mentioned this to my wife about an hour later, and she told me, “You should go along with him. You’ll never forgive yourself if he sees an ivory-bill and you’re not there.” I didn’t need much encouragement. I did a quick search on the Internet to find a good airline ticket price and then called up Bobby. “Say, you think you could pick me up in Memphis on the way down?” “No problem,” he said. “I go right through there.” And that was it: the start of our adventure. A week later I was on my way south again, for the second time in a month.

    Gene Sparling told us to meet him on a small country road near Clarendon, Arkansas. He wanted to look at a place where we could haul out at the end of our several-day-long float down the bayou. He had arranged with a local man called Frank to drop us off at a bridge crossing several miles north of where Gene had seen the strange woodpecker and to pick us up at the haul- out point.

    We spotted Gene’s red Toyota pickup, unmistakable with the canoe and kayak strapped to the top, a few minutes after turning off the main road. Gene greeted us enthusiastically, and we stood on the side of the road discussing the bird he had seen and our plans for the next few days.

    Gene is an affable man with a deep, resonant voice and a slow delivery that reminds me a little of Eeyore’s. Grizzled and bearded, with receding red hair and crow’s feet etched deeply into his weathered face, he looks older than his forty-eight years.

    When we finished talking, Gene told us to follow him into Clarendon to pick up Frank.

    As we drove along behind him, I said to Bobby, “You know, he either saw an ivory-bill or he’s lying.

    And I really don’t think he’s a liar.” Bobby nodded. “I don’t either,” he said. “His story is completely believable.” Gene got confused on the way to Frank’s house, and we went driving around and around in a residential area where everything looked the same. He finally found the correct house. Gene leaves his car at Frank’s house every time he goes kayaking in this area. On this trip, Bobby parked his oold van in front of Frank’s house and left him with the keys.

    Frank is a large, jovial man of about sixty-five who wears cowboy boots and a leather belt with a huge silver buckle. He teased Gene mercilessly as he drove us to our drop-off point, claiming that Gene must have a she-bear stashed somewhere in the bayou that he was always visiting. “No one would come out here just to look at a damn bird,” he said. “I know you got a she-bear.”

    It was bad when Bobby and I first started canoeing along Bayou de View— real bad. Without any preparation, we clambered down below the overpass, loaded up the canoe—which Gene had borrowed from his parents—and pushed off into the latte-brown river flowing into the swamp. I sat in front and Bobby in the stern, with all our equipment piled high between us. I had had some fairly recent experience canoeing in the Adirondacks with my kids, and I had floated to falcon nests in Canada and other far northern places in the past, but I was rusty. Bobby hadn’t touched a canoe since he was twelve, and it showed. It was a real grind hauling ourselves through that morass, at times practically clawing our way through the bayou, scrambling up and over logs and cypress knees and blasting through little chutes where the water pushed together to form a swift-moving stream. This is where you’re in danger of flipping over. You bump into a submerged log or root, then overreact to compensate, and there you go—your canoe has turned over and all your gear and supplies are bobbing downstream as you lie submerged, with brown swamp water rushing into your mouth. Blech!

    On that first day, it seemed that whenever we found ourselves rushing into a treacherous area, Bobby and I couldn’t coordinate our movements to avoid the hazards. I would point the canoe toward the one open passage I could see ahead, but Bobby would inevitably steer in the other direction, and we would wind up blasting sideways into the teeth of disaster. It was the wildest roller coaster ride I’ve ever been on. Somehow we managed not to swamp the canoe, but a couple of times I had to jump overboard and horse the canoe in a different direction. Luckily, I was wearing chest waders. Unluckily, the water was sometimes deeper than the top of my waders and came flooding inside.

    Bayou de View is a magical place where wildlife abounds. As we canoed through the swamp, wood ducks and flocks of mallards burst from the water around us. Herds of white-tailed deer, snorting a loud warning, splashed off across the shallow water at the edge of the woods. We saw beavers swimming past and otters playing. The loud calls of barred owls and great horned owls echoed through the dim recesses of the swamp, even at mid- day. But most impressive were the woodpeckers. Everywhere we turned, we saw pileated, red-bellied, red-headed, and downy woodpeckers, plus a few yellow-bellied sapsuckers. It excited us to remember that Jim Tanner had wr...

Available Resources

Related Categories

  • Format: eBook

  • ISBN-13/EAN: 9781328859112

  • ISBN-10: 1328859118

  • Pages: 288

  • Price: $9.99

  • Publication Date: 04/25/2017

  • Carton Quantity: 1

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