COLUMBIA, S.C. – Biologists and amateurs toting some of the fanciest gear in Congaree National Park are trying to find the rarest of woodpeckers among some of the nation's tallest and oldest trees.
No one has seen an ivory-billed woodpecker around here since the 1930s, but avid birders aren't about to stop looking.
In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's South Carolina office got $75,000 to perform the first scientific search for the ivory bill outside Arkansas, where a Cache River sighting ignited interest in a bird thought by some to be extinct.
The two-month effort, which started last week, focuses on the park's old-growth forest, just north of the Santee Swamp area, where the 1930s sightings occurred. Tantalizing signs have been found that fuel interest in this search.
In December, for instance, Gary Peters, wildlife program coordinator in South Carolina for the U.S. Forestry Service, was walking with a co-worker and his family in the park and says he heard the distinctive double-knock of the ivory-billed.
No other woodpecker in South Carolina makes that knock, with a second "tock" that sounds like an echo of the first.
"Did you hear what I just heard?" Peters said to his friend. They agreed it was a double-knock, and they heard it twice more.
For this search, four two-person teams of professional and amateur bird enthusiasts carry binoculars, Global Positioning System units and high-end camcorders as they work in the eastern end of the 24,600-acre park to try to locate and document the existence of the bird.
The park's former visitor center has become a bunkhouse for many of the researchers, all picked for their knowledge of the birds. When they return at the end of the day, each crew downloads GPS information and tells the others what they saw.
There's been excitement from the beginning.
On the first day, Colette DaGarady, a biologist with The Nature Conservancy, set out at 7 a.m. — an hour earlier than other teams — with Laura Fogo, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
DaGarady couldn't believe her eyes as she spotted a big bird, its head bobbing in and out from behind a tree. It was too far away and the glimpses too brief for a good observation.
"I was thinking, 'No way! This can't be happening just 10 minutes in,'" DaGarady said.
With their hearts racing, the pair moved closer to the bird and, with a better view, found the bird was the more common pileated woodpecker.
"It was a good test," DaGarady said.
John Cely, a retired South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologist, and John Rich, who worked as a ranger at the park for three years, were on a second team searching high in the trees for the irregularly shaped cavities ivory bills make and low for the scratch marks the birds make when looking for bugs.
The Congaree National Park has just the type of bottomland the ivory bill used as habitat, the 11,000 acres of old growth forest is the largest remaining tract in the country.
If an ivory-billed "did survive and found its way here, it would say, 'So this is what granddaddy used to talk about.' And it would want to spend some time here," Cely said.
The pair spotted wild pigs, a couple of big snakes and a pileated woodpecker, but no ivory-billed woodpecker.
Still, "it was a great day to be out there," Rich said as he took off his muddy boots.
Some of the amateurs on this project are pros by most standards. They've burned the image of the bird's white feathers on the trailing edge of the wings, the whitish beak and the red head with a black crest and forehead into their memories.
John Tripp, an amateur birder from Newton, N.C., has been looking since the 1960s. He and a small group of birding friends spent several weeks in Big Thicket Swamp in Texas and the Old River area of Louisiana back then but found nothing.
"Even if you found one, you didn't tell anybody," Tripp said. "They'd think you were nuts."