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Hunting Ivory-billed Woodpeckers Along the Cache River (fifteen years too late)

The only hint of the ivorybill frenzy that swept through the Brinkley region of Arkansas in 2005 that I could find in 2020 was a sign in one unit of the Dagmar Wildlife Management Unit.

On my way out of the southeast, as I headed toward the Great Plains, the high plains, and then the Nevada mountains, I made a side trip to a place I always wanted to see: the Cache River near Brinkley Arkansas. Heck, I wanted to see the town of Brinkely almost as much as I wanted to see the forests where ivorybills had been spotted in 2004. I’m sure most people sufficiently interested in birds to read a blog about birding written by an ornithologist will have at least some knowledge of the searches for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the early 21st century. The great ivorybill hunt of the 21st century actually began at the very end of the 20th century when a wildlife student at LSU had a male and female ivorybill land very close to him while he was in full camo hunting turkeys in the forests along the Pearl River. This sighting drew the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell into the hunt for ivorybills for the first time since the 1930s. It set the stage for the biggest birding news ever: the rediscovery of at least one Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the swamp forest along the Cache River not far from the town of Brinkley. That rediscovery in Arkansas drew my research team from Auburn into an ivorybill hunt in the Florida panhandle. That’s a much as I need to write about that very thoroughly documented chapter in birding history. For more about the searches for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Arkansas and Florida, I refer interested readers to a book about the Arkansas discovery:

Grail Bird, by Tim Gallaghar (2005 from Houghton Mifflin Press)

And my own book about the search in the Florida panhandle.

Ivorybill Hunters by Geoffrey Hill (2006 from Oxford University Press).

There are several other books about ivorybill rediscoveries but the books I name above are a good places to start if you are interested.

Despite having led an ivorybill search for three years in the Florida panhandle and interacting extensively with the Cornell University ivorybill researchers around 2006 to 2008, I had never visited the famous Cache River Ivory-billed Woodpecker sites. I also wanted to visit the town of Brinkley because I had seen documentaries about how Brinkley had been somewhat transformed by the national ivorybill focus, with restaurants, hotels, and other businesses adopting ivorybill themes. And so, it was with considerable curiosity and a bit of anticipation that I exited I-40 into Brinkley.

I’m disappointed to report that Brinkley is stripped of anything relating to birding or Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. It is, once again, a boring and not particularly attractive little town. The $25 woodpecker haircuts are long gone. I couldn’t find The Ivory-Bill Nest, a gift shop often featured in Ivory-billed Woodpecker news stories from 2005. An alas, Gene’s Bareque, where, back in the day, ivorybill searches were planned and tales of ivorybills were spun, is closed down and dilapidated. My drive through Brinkley was really quite depressing.

From Brinkley, I made the short drive north and then due west to bridge where Highway 17 crosses Bayou DeView on the Cache River. It is very near this spot that Gene Sparling first spotted the bird that would becoming a birding sensation. The small boat landing at the west end of this bridge was the launch point for many ivorybill searches over the next couple of years and an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, presumably that the same male the Sparling first spotted, was seen several times very close to this landing. I pulled into the small parking area, which was completely empty at 2pm on this weekday. It was like a thousand other boat landings along a hundred other southern rivers. But that's the thing about Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. They are not mythical animals living in enchanted forests. They are a big native woodpecker that live in bottomland hardwood forests, and other has argued and I would agree--not exclusively pristine virgin timber. The bit of forest I could see from the landing, with sweetgum and tupelo, looked a lot like the forests one would glimpse from a landing along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida.

I was only at the landing at Bayou DeView for about 30 minutes. I looked around a bit, made my cup of afternoon coffee on my portable stove, shrugged, and drove on.

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