Biologists Search Georgia Swamp for Ivory-Billed Woodpecker

Wildlife biologists are searching one of the nation's most primitive swamps for the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was believed extinct since 1944 until one was reported in an Arkansas swamp last year.

A handful of biologists from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service launched the search last week in the Okefenokee Swamp, where the last confirmed sighting was reported in 1942. The search will continue for the rest of the month.

Using vehicles, canoes and helicopters they'll cover 80,000 acres in the northwestern portion of the 402,000-acre Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, a home for snakes, alligators and black bears.

"While we believe it is unlikely ivory-bills have survived in Georgia, we do expect to identify locations with habitat that could support an ivory bill," DNR spokesman Ben Johnson said Monday. "We hope that years from now we might be able to reintroduce ivory bills into Georgia."

Besides studying the habitat, the biologists will look for signs of ivory-bill activity, such as tree cavities, foraging marks on trees and audible signs, such as the distinctive sounds of its call or tree tapping.

Ornithologists stunned the conservation world last spring when they announced that an ivory-billed woodpecker was living in a swamp in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas, 60 years after it was believed to have gone into extinction.

Last month, however, other experts expressed doubts about the bird's existence in the journal Science.

They believe the bird sighted in Arkansas was a pileated woodpecker, another large woodpecker that is making a comeback in the Southeast. The pileated woodpecker is smaller, with a two-and-a-half foot wing span, about a half-foot shorter than the ivory bill's wingspan.

The ivory bill, the largest woodpecker in the United States and the third largest in the world, lived for centuries in the swamps and dense forests of the Southeast, but began to decline because of a loss of habitat, mainly from the clear-cutting of Southern forests.

Its original range extended from eastern Texas into parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina.

The Georgia search got under way after the reported discovery in Arkansas. The Fish & Wildlife Service asked states to recommend sites for additional searches. Biologists have continued to look for the ivory bill in Arkansas and searched in South Carolina as well. Other searches are planned or under way in Texas, Alabama and Louisiana.

Jim Burkhart, a ranger at the Okefenokee refuge, said biologists will check an almost inaccessible area north of the Okefenokee sill, where water flows out of the swamp to form the headwaters of the Suwannee River.

"They are primarily looking at habitat," he said. "I don't think they're going to find ivory bills here. With the lumbering activity we had here from about 1900 to 1927, I'd say it's pretty slim pickings. There are some old trees in our northwest corner, but whether they'd be enough to sustain birds, it's anybody's guess."

More than 90 percent of the swamp had been logged by the time it became a wildlife refuge in 1936, and a refuge biologist concluded in 1963 that ivory bills had disappeared from the Okefenokee.

The biologists will visit areas where logging has not occurred in 80 years and where ivory bills have been spotted in the past. They include Minnies Island, Cravens Hammock, Hickory Hammock and Pine Island.

Burkhart said the search team will use an established canoe trail and spend at least one night on a raised platform built for canoeists who paddle across the swamp. Canoe trails extend from the Stephen C. Foster State Park, which is near the swamp's western edge, to the headquarters of the refuge on the east side near Folkston.

Johnson said the Okefenokee is within the ivory bill's historic range, but he added that the chances of finding one are "fairly low."