Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The Search for the Ivory-billed – My Story

Col. Matthew W. Nahorn

The New Indian Ridge Museum

In the summer of 2008, my family and I traveled to the Big Woods region of Arkansas to search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)  – this is our story.

I have been an avid birder for many years.  When my family and I moved to our present place of dwelling, I became not only deeply immersed in the history of our house and land, leading to the founding of my New Indian Ridge Museum, but also my lifelong interest in ornithology, commenced.  In 1993, my mother and I began to list the birds that we observed at our bird feeders.  The lists were simple and contained birds such as Mourning Doves, American Cardinals, various finches, and numerous others.  As time progressed, our lists began to include precise dates, times, weather conditions, and the like.

In 1997, we had our first nesting pair of Eastern Bluebirds at our preserve.  We continue to have nesting pairs, usually with two brudes per year.  My father and I have constructed Bluebird boxes for my school (Lake Ridge Academy) and have actually presented a few educational programs on Bluebirds and their nesting habitats and needs to the community.  Our property has allowed my interest in nature and ornithology to grow.  I have done many studies on the Beaver Creek, which flows through part of our preserve.  The Beaver Creek comprises the largest watershed that is located entirely within Lorain County, Ohio.  My family and I have also studied the Great Horned Owl and its presence at our preserve.

I have been following the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker story ever since the “rediscovery” in 2004 and 2005.  Ever since reading about this, and even before reading about the supposed extinction, I had dreamed of traveling south and trekking to Arkansas to get a glimpse of this elusive bird.  During the summer of 2007, I had extensively researched the subject, including the bird, its habitat, and a possible trip itinerary.  I read three books including, The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Philip Hoose, and of course The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (1942) by Dr. James T. Tanner, the authority on this woodpecker.  All of the publications I found most interesting and would recommend all of them without a doubt.  The latter, by Dr. Tanner, is somewhat technical, but I learned important information about the Ivory-billed, its habitat, and its ultimate demise.

While digesting Mr. Gallagher’s book, I found of interest the information concerning Mrs. Nancy Tanner, the wife of the famed Dr. James T. Tanner.  I immediately wanted to meet her.  She was actually there, in the 1930s and 1940s studying and watching the woodpecker with her husband, in the ever shrinking Ivory-billed country in Louisiana and Arkansas.  The habitat, old growth, bottomland, hardwood forests, were being logged at an alarming rate.  The Ivory-billed, already a rarer bird, was becoming rarer and rarer as its limited habitat was being lost to the drone of chainsaws and other destructive machinery.

So, I scoured to find any tidbit of information that I could on Mrs. Tanner.  After a few hours, I finally found a lead.  I was quite excited at this point.  I composed a message and sent it along.  The next day, when I checked the mail, there was a note from her!  She actually responded later that night that I had sent the message.  She said that we could meet at a nature center in Knoxville, Tennessee.  I was very excited.  I responded and thanked her very much.  I gave her the exact date and projected time we would meet her.  She responded and said that would be fine.  She also said that we needed to make sure to take a photo of an Ivory-billed since the last confirmed sighting of one was back in 1944.  Accounts of the most recent sighting appeared in the journal Science, described in the article entitled Ivory-billed Woodpecker Persists in Continental North America.

Within the next few days, my mother and I traveled to the American Automobile Association (AAA) to book our hotels and plan the travel route.  Mrs. Myra Mitchell, our travel agent, efficiently booked our rooms and so forth.  We would be leaving on July 12, 2008 and coming home on July 18, 2008.  The first leg of our trip would be in Kentucky – that is another story in itself.  Then, after staying in Hopkinsville, Kentucky visiting with our friend Agnes Mae (Glover) Jones and doing some research at the her fascinating and beautiful Glover’s Cave, we would drive to Blytheville, Arkansas where we would make a stop for the night.  For the past five years we have traveled to and studied the cave, documenting it all through photographs.  The cave was inhabited for a long period of time by prehistoric Americans – about 10,000 -12,000 years ago to about 1,000 years ago.

The next morning we would make the last leg of the trip to St. Charles, Arkansas where the White River National Wildlife Refuge was located.  We would stay in Stuttgart, Arkansas because that was the closest town with a hotel.  The area is good for duck hunting, so the hotel commemorates this.  There we would look for the Ivory-billed and then travel to Knoxville and meet Mrs. Tanner.  From there, we would travel north, home.

When I would mention that my family and I were going search for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, different reactions would follow.  Individuals to whom I would excitedly tell our plans, would respond with various responses.  Some were elated that we were going, and some even envied us and wished that they could come as well.  Then others would look oddly with a look something like, ‘why in the world would travel from Northern Ohio to Arkansas, in the summer, with all of the mosquitoes and critters, to a wildlife refuge containing thousands of acres to search for a bird that could be extinct?’  Some people showed basically no reaction and either did not understand or did not care.  For several years I had wanted to go – therefore, this was a dream come true.

On July 12, 2008, my parents and I started off for the south at 5:40 am.  We arrived about seven hours later in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.  We checked into or hotel and soon after went a little further south to visit Mrs. Jones.  We visited Glover’s Cave, where local archaeologist and museum owner, Col. Raymond C. Vietzen had performed extensive archaeological explorations in and around the cave, with the owner’s permission from the 1930s to 1980s.  In 1957 he acquired the honorary title of ‘colonel’ from the governor of Kentucky because of his extensive archaeological work and subsequent book that he published.  In 2002, we were able to contact the owner.  We have visited every year since, one time twice in one summer.  The owner who formerly lived on the homestead, Mrs. A. M. Jones, has become a dear friend. During our visits we take her to church, spend time visiting, and have a few fine meals with her.  It is interesting to note that the church that she attends was founded in the early 1800s.  The first pastor was Isaac Boone, Daniel Boone’s brother.  The place is immersed in history.  It is a beautiful part of the country.

There is so much to write about on this subject, this is just not the proper place.  However, I will outline some parts of this leg of our trip, as it did take place on the way to go down and search for the Ivory-billed.

At the entrance to Glover’s Cave on July 12, 2008.  The cave is a limestone cave and was inhabited by prehistoric Native Americans from about 10,000 years ago to about 1,000 years ago.  Unfortunately, vandals and artifact robbers have destroyed this important archaeological site.  The top photo shows the inside looking out.  Thanks to Mrs. Jones for allowing us to make these photographs and study the geology of this unique area. 

Mrs. Jones knows about her family from about the very beginning.  I will not attempt to record this history here, but I will provide some points of interest for history preservation.  She was born in the old plantation house referred to often as the “big house” that was on the property when the Glovers purchased the farm from the Bells.  She was actually born in the little office next door.  The building is still standing, though in disrepair.  The house is still utilized as a residence.  The old house was built by the Montgomery and Davis families (from Pennsylvania) who owned the land before the Bells.  They sold the land to the Bells, then the Bells sold it to the Glovers.  The Bells were related to the people who reportedly were apart of the Bell Witch Story, which all unfolded near Adams, Tennessee.

A. M. (Glover) Jones was born in 1916.  In 1918, her grandfather and father built the house where she would live for many years.  Agnes’ parents were George Armstead Glover and Elizabeth Kennedy.  Armstead Glover’s brother was Robert Glover.  They were the previous owners of the cave.  The house that was built in 1918 consisted of four large rooms, which were divided a little more later on.  It was a beautiful house.  One year, Mrs. Jones invited us to stay one night.  It was a great historical experience.  Unfortunately, after Mrs. Jones had to move out, and the house has been remodeled by another family member.

After going to church at the Mount Zion Baptist Church and listening to a meaningful sermon, we headed off to the Catfish House in Clarksville, Tennessee, near the Austin Peay State Univseristy.  We had a delicious meal, complete with hush puppies, white beans, and of course catfish.

The Mount Zion Baptist Church is located in Trenton, Kentucky.

Matt Nahorn in front of the one the oldest sassafrass trees around.  In the northern part of their range, in northern Ohio, these types of trees do not make even half of this size.  It is the oldest the author has seen to date.  It and two others of comparable size are located on the grounds of the Mount Zion Baptist Church, just across the street from the church.

That evening, we started our trek south again, with a destination of Blytheville, Arkansas.  We made the trip just fine and stayed at the Best Western hotel.  It was a fine place of lodging.  We got up the next morning and moved south again, with a destination of St. Charles, Arkansas.

In Saint Charles, the town center is all run down and many of the businesses have been long shut down.  It is an interesting place to see.  We again had a fine trip into the area.  Entering, there was a signs stating “St. Charles  Population 261.”  Stopping at the Community Store, we met Mr. Ken Christian, proprietor of the store.  He was very kind in finding us lodging near the White River National Wildlife Refuge. There are no hotels around.  Stuttgart has the closest hotels, however we were advised against staying in the Stuttgart hotels.  After speaking with Ken at the store and Leann, at the Welcome Center to the White River National Wildlife Refuge, we decided that we needed to stay in a cabin in the St. Charles area.  So we did.  We met a man named Philip who recently purchased some cabins.  He lives in the double wide and has two other cabins.  We decided to rent one of these.  He quickly cleaned up the area and prepared it for us.  He was very helpful and hospitable.  The cabin next to ours was being taken up by students studying the Kites in this area, specifically the Mississippi Kites, I believe.  They were from the Jonesboro area.  The twelve acres that were recently purchased by Philip will be probably used for lodging sites, especially for Duck Hunters, he told us.  If the Ivory-billed is found by lots of people, more will come and make the area a profitable venture.  But, the increase in visitors would negatively effect the woodpecker– too much ruckus.

Below: In Saint Charles, the town center is seen, where the businesses have been long shut been down.  The post office is still operating.

Above: Part of the town center, near the corner of Broadway & North Main Street, St. Charles, AR.

In Tim Gallagher’s publication about his experiences looking for the Ivory-billed, he notes the Community Store in Saint Charles.  So, we were able to make our way there, on highway one.  We had a nice burger and other meals.  The store offers meals, meats, movies for rent, beverages, and numerous other things that a country store should offer.  The photo above shows an old storefront located in the old town of St. Charles.  It was J. Deane and Son Hardware store from 1890 – 1976.  St. Charles was a thriving riverboat community during the steamboat era.  This was the largest building outlet.  Joe Deane came from Canada, originally from England.  [Information from a nearby historic marker.]

We finally made it to the White River National Wildlife Refuge.  At the visitor’s center, we met a woman by the name of Leann.  She was quite nice and very helpful.  We went over maps of the refuge and talked about areas that were open and closed.  The areas that were closed, were closed to motorized vehicles but could be accessed by plain old walking.  That is what we did.  In the center, we purchased postcards, maps, and an Ivory-billed Woodpecker pin stating that, “I believe.  The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Lives!”  We also collected brochures of interest and noted the $10,000 reward for the sighting and documentation of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.

The White River National Wildlife Refuge welcome center sign at the corner of South C C Camp Road and Arkansas Highway 1.

Later on July 14, we did a brief walk around the top part of the north section of the Refuge.  We heard a few Pileated Woodpeckers, which are smaller, but somewhat similar to the Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers.  Sometimes, novice birders mistake these for Ivory-Bills. However, Ivory-Bills are much larger and have more white on the tips of the wings, just to mention a few differences.

(Left) On part of the upland trail, a reforesting area is being taken over by native sweet gum trees.  It was interesting to see this many of this type of tree.  Their leaves are star-shaped.  The tree is slower growing, especially in the north. 

On July 15, 2008, in the morning, while searching on the extreme northern portion of the South Unit of the White River National Wildlife Refuge, St. Charles, Arkansas, on the gravel road, south of the Welcome Center off of S. CC Camp Road, I believe that I heard the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  The call was very distant, and seemed to be to the north.  Having listened to the old recordings of the Ivory-billed numerous times, I am confident to tell you that I did hear the Ivory-billed woodpecker.  My sound recording equipment is not capable of picking sounds up that far away.

On July 17, 2008, later in the day, while searching in the extreme southern portion of the North Unit, at the White River National Wildlife Refuge, on a trail off of the gravel road marked as the Brown Shanty Road Entrance off of Arkansas Route 1, we believed that we experienced a sighting of an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.  We had parked our Jeep on the gravel road and went on foot, taking what I believe was the first path that traversed back into land between two large flooded bottomland swamp areas, containing very large cypress trees, oaks, and other hard woods.  While standing and looking into the swamp flooded area to the right, myself and another individual in our search party (consisting of a total of three) saw a very large bird flying about twenty-five feet above the tea-brown colored water, no further than fifty feet away.  The sun was shining down on the bird’s quite distinguishable white trailings on the end of its wings with black to the front portion of the wings.  It was flying away from us.  [The other individual and I quickly sketched what we saw.]  The sighting was for no more than three seconds.  This is why I do not have video or photographic documentation.  As I said before, I have seen the Pileated before, and this bird was much larger and had the white on the edge of its wings.  It was flying straight, not undulating as a duck would.  I can safely state that the bird we saw was not a Pileated woodpecker, was not a Wood Duck, and was certainly not a Red-headed woodpecker.  It was flying at approximately the same height and had the same flight pattern that the Ivory-billed had in the Lunneau video.  It was traveling up, like the one in the video as well.

The area near where we believe that we made the sighting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  Notice the large cypress tree and its “knees,” all surrounded with bottomland swamp water.

Besides possibly seeing the very, very rare Ivory-billed, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of meeting Mrs. Nancy Tanner.  We were very fortunate to be able to contact her, and she graciously gave us a guided tour of the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.  We told her about the sighting.  She was interested to hear this but wanted a photo.  I wish that I had a photo, too.  She was very interesting to speak with.  Getting a private tour by her was very special.  I hope to see her again.

I also met Mr. Stephen Lyn Bales (Tennessee naturalist, natural historian, and artist at the Ijams Nature Center) the author of Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley.  He just finished a book about Dr. James Tanner and the Ivory-bills entitled Ghost Birds.  He said that he was reading through Dr. James T. Tanner’s notes that were used to write The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (the published book that Dr. Tanner used for his doctoral thesis).  I am excited about seeing this new publication.

For more information on the Ivory-billed, please visit Mr. David Luneau’s very informative website: http://www.ibwo.org/index.php

Your author at Essex Bayou, White River National Wildlife Refuge (above).  The water was flowing quickly here through the bayou.  The water was all the way up to the bridge.

LEFT: Mrs. Nancy B. Tanner with Col. Nahorn in front of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker exhibit at the Ijams Nature Center, Knoxville, Tennessee.  She has helped immensely with the construction of this exhibit.  It was a great pleasure to meet Mrs. Tanner.  She very graciously gave us a private tour of the center.  RIGHT: Mr. Stephen Lyn Bales and your author at the same exhibit.  Mr. Bales (Tennessee naturalist, natural historian, and artist at the Ijams Nature Center),  was very kind and interesting to speak with, as well.  It was a great pleasure to meet both individuals.

Other views from the Wildlife Refuge: