Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ten Years After

February 27, 2004; Bayou de View, Arkansas—It is shortly after one o'clock on a clear afternoon in late winter as we paddle our canoe down the bayou, me in the bow and Bobby Harrison in the stern. Gene Sparling is up ahead somewhere in his kayak, looking for the place where, less than two weeks earlier, he'd seen a huge black-and-white woodpecker that fit the description of an Ivory-bill.

From left to right, Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher at Bayou de View on February 27, 2004, shortly after the Ivory-bill sighting.

As we move slowly with the current, transfixed by the movement of the murky brown swamp water, we both catch sight of a large bird flying up a side slough toward us. It's one of those things you pick up in your peripheral vision and without even thinking about it your mind runs through the possibilities—large, swift flying, black and white. 

Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Larry Chandler.

And then it bursts into full view right in front of you, exposing the
deepest, darkest black coloration, but what really catches your eye are the snow-white trailing edges of its wings, the unmistakeable field marks of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And just as it pulls up to land on the trunk of a tupelo less than 100 feet away, you both shout simultaneously, "Ivory-bill!" And the bird veers away into the woods, landing a couple of times on the backs of tupelo trunks and then continuing on as you ram your canoe into the side of the bayou, jumping out and abandoning it while you struggle to move as fast as you can through the muck and mire, scrambling over huge fallen logs, tearing your clothes on broken branches and shrubbery. And fifteen minutes later, practically in cardiac arrest from the excitement and sheer exertion of the chase, you collapse against a massive fallen tree as Bobby sobs, "I saw an Ivory-bill...I saw an Ivory-bill."

And all these years later, on the 10th anniversary of this sighting, the moment is still so vivid, so amazing, so unlike anything you've ever experienced, your heart still races whenever you think about it.

At the very spot we saw the Ivory-bill, 10 years to the minute later,   I drink a toast with Bobby—unfortunately it's Mountain Dew, not Champagne. (Photo by Clara Gallagher)

Bobby Harrison discusses the February 27, 2004, Ivory-bill sighting in George Butler's documentary, The Lord God Bird. Here's a link to an 8-minute clip from the film that has interviews with Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison, and Tim Gallagher.

Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" interviews Tim Gallagher and Bobby Harrison for a segment that aired in 2005. Here's a link to the archived program. (Photo by Ron Rohrbaugh)


  1. Ten Years After. What a thrill that was. Thank You!
    -Birdman in MN

  2. The whole event was a real testament to our primal need for conservation.
    --Still Watching

  3. I finished reading "The Grail Bird" a few days ago, and it gives me great hope that the great woodpecker is still alive. Tomorrow I drive down to the confluence of the Chickasawhay and Leaf rivers, where they form the mighty Pascagoula. I will be on the lookout for flashes of white among the trees.

  4. Hi Tim, I'm in the middle of The Grail Bird and I am savouring every page. What a magnificent adventure story. I also bought Imperial Dreams and can't wait to read that. How I'd love to be part of the search for the Ivory Bill one day, is there some way a volunteer can assist?

    1. Hi Trevor: Thank you for the kind words about The Grail Bird. I'm glad you're enjoying it. I don't know of any groups that are looking for volunteer searchers right now, but if that changes, I'll post it on this blog.

  5. We saw a pair in our backyard Monday morning March 28th, about 8am. My husband and I did not know what they were. My husband said look at these Woodpeckers! They are as big as a crow! I did not get a picture for fear we would scare them off. We have a dead tree stump that they were feeding on. We watched them through the deck windows for about 15 minutes. We live in Lebanon, TN. After looking in my bird book for the identification, we feel SO fortunate to have be able to witness a sighting! We feed the birds and have several woodpeckers that live here, so we knew these 2 were definitely different!!