Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Ghosts of woodpeckers past

I have always has a special place in my heart for woodpeckers, as they are possibly my favorite birds. These are the first birds I took a liking to as a youngster.

Mom and Dad still tell the story about me as a little kid bewildering my babysitter who was quizzing me on the different woodpeckers in our bird book (I was too young to read, but I still aced the test!). I also recall waiting for a school bus as a Kindergartner when a pretty yellow-bellied sapsucker was busy pecking on a signpost near my pickup point. I walked to within feet of the bird, and it was not until I reached up and tried to touch him that he moved.

To this day, it is still fun when I see a big ‘ol pileated during run or a hike, hear the chortle of a red-bellied, or when I am simply watching the extremely common, but highly social and oh-so adorable, downy woodpecker working over a tree. What can I say? I just think these are great birds.

A few years ago I gave my Mom a book called “The Grail Bird”. This is a true story about the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker deep in the swamps of eastern Arkansas. The ivory-bill is America’s largest woodpecker, presumed to have been extinct for decades. At the time of the book’s writing, the last truly accepted sighting was in 1944. The book was written by Tim Gallagher from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, who serves as the editor of “Living Bird” magazine.

A side note and full confession; when I was in junior high I had aspirations to attend Cornell and become an ornithologist (I also wanted to be a cartoonist, but maybe I will save that for another time!). However, as I progressed through school and learned that I couldn’t hack the most basic of classes like 9th grade algebra and chemistry, I realized science might not be my thing. And when I did get to college...not Cornell...I barely made it through "biology 101," which I found exceedingly difficult as it seemed like a class designed specifically to weed out the aspiring pre-med students. Now birds are just a hobby, and that is cool. I think I chose wisely.

So I am kind of surprised it took me as long as it did to read “The Grail Bird” for myself. But I finally did so this week.

It should come as no surprise that I loved it, and the book was right up my alley. The story offers an interesting history of the ivory-bill dating back to the days of pioneering ornithologists like John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, chronicled the reckless destruction of the mature southern forests in the 1930’s and 40’s by lumber companies (strange as this may sound, the Singer Sewing Machine Company played a huge role in destroying habitat as well). The book contains interviews with several people who had claimed to have seen an ivory-bill (some stories believable, others not so much), and documents a fascinating search through some of the murkiest, snake-infested swampland you could imagine.

For me, the story almost flows like a great mystery/action movie; unearthing clues, following up on obscure leads, road trips across half of the country, and even some covert operations, all in a search for lost treasure. It is kind of like the movie “National Treasure” but with bird geeks, and without the gunfire! :) If you have even a passing interest in birds, I think you would find it an interesting read. Hopefully we can even learn some lessons about the importance of preservation.

Since this is a running blog, I did go running this afternoon. A beautiful, warm, 73 degree day, with some darker clouds moving in from the west (it is raining now as I type). The leaves on the trees are busting out all over the place, and the trails look gorgeous.

A view from the trail this afternoon

No woodpeckers on my run, but I did see my first Baltimore oriole of the season. And, the eagle was hanging out on the osprey platform!

The resident eagle, taking a break

Until next time,

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