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Finding The 'Lord God Bird'

The ivory-billed woodpecker is one of the most celebrated birds in U.S. history, a bird that has been an American superstar since pre-colonial times.

Even though it has been presumed extinct for 60 years, thousands of birdwatchers never gave up searching for what they call the "Lord God bird."

Earlier this year when it was disclosed that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted in Arkansas, the reaction was extraordinary.

Correspondent Ed Bradley reports.

The ivory-billed woodpecker's resurrection is an amazing story — not just about the bird but the people who are obsessed with it. It's also a story involving extraordinary luck, secrecy, millions of dollars and months of searching a forest in eastern Arkansas looking for a flying needle in a haystack.

All that's left of the "Big Woods" — a forest that once covered 24 million acres and stretched from Memphis, Tenn., to Little Rock — is some 500,000 acres in Arkansas. The spectacular swamps and hardwood forests of the South were once home to the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Stories about the woodpecker go back to the days when only native Americans were in the region. Some saw its skull as a symbol of power, the feathers as objects of beauty. In Victorian times, women prized the feathers for their hats.

By the beginning of the last century, the bird had been nearly hunted to extinction. It was said to be so beautiful that when people saw it, they said, "Lord God! What a bird!" The name stuck.

The "Lord God bird" was the largest woodpecker in America. But for more than half a century, the only way you could see one was in stuffed form.

"It's a huge, black woodpecker, basically, with lightning bolts of white down the back and a huge patch of white on the wings," explains John Fitzpatrick, head of the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University and a leading authority on birds.

Fitzpatrick says the bird has a distinctive sound that has been likened to a tin horn.

The first recording of that sound was made in 1935 in Louisiana by a team of scientists from Cornell. They also took the first pictures of the bird.

At the time, the "Lord God bird" was already on the verge of extinction. In the following decade, logging reduced its last known habitat to thousands of stumps.

"This has been the symbol of what we did wrong. The complete annihilation of one of America's most treasured and spectacular pieces of land. We cut it all," says Fitzpatrick.

By the 1940s the ivory-billed woodpecker was presumed extinct.

Gene Sparling, an outdoorsman from Hot Springs, Ark., also thought the bird had been extinct during his entire lifetime.

In February 2004, Sparling was kayaking in the Big Woods when he saw something he will never forget. "A large woodpecker flew into the channel from above the canopy. He was headed straight towards me."

Sparling considered that it might be the smaller woodpecker that's common around the region called "the pilleated," but ruled it out. "I realized that if it was not a pilleated, the only other alternative was for it to be an ivory bill," he says.

Sparling made a veiled reference to his sighting on the Internet, and got a response right away.

"We came down, you know, just a few days later. As quick as we could get out of town," says Tim Gallagher, a wildlife photographer and author from Cornell.

He was joined by Bobby Harrison, a college professor from Alabama, and both are "ivory-billed hunters" — bird watchers who have been looking for the bird for years believing it's still alive.

When they heard about his sighting, they immediately contacted Sparling, who took them near the spot where he saw the bird.

"And then this bird just burst across in front of us at close range," Gallagher says. "About 65 feet away. And right in the sunlight. … And it was just, I mean, I dropped my paddle and almost fell out of the canoe. I mean it was like getting slapped in the face."

Both men say they knew immediately that they were looking at an ivory bill.

As soon as Fitzpatrick was told of the sighting, he mapped out a search and strictly limited information about it.

Why did he keep the find so quiet? "As I put it to the small group of people who had heard about the story, 'If we just let this out right now, it's going to be Coney Island down there,' " Fitzpatrick says.

He feared that announcing the discovery would attract bird watchers from all over. That is what happened last year, when birders flocked to Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, to see a rare Red Footed Falcon, never before seen in America.

Bird watching has become an American phenomenon and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is the fastest growing recreational activity in the country.

According to the government, 50 million Americans are bird watchers. Thousands of people pack conventions and attend lectures on "birding."

Sales of bird watching paraphernalia are up — from cameras and binoculars to high tech digital field guides and books — making bird watching a multi-billion dollar industry, in part because of this bird.

The ivory-billed woodpecker was reportedly sighted in a federal wildlife refuge, 120 miles long in eastern Arkansas.

It's one of the most exotic and the most inhospitable environments in America, a vast primordial ooze, a place so wild, that the Big Woods have been called this country's Amazon.

The refuge is home to 265 different species of birds, nearly a third of all the species that live in the United States, and to a fantastic potpourri of wildlife, including cottonmouths, one of the deadliest snakes in America.

A few weeks after the initial sighting, field biologists were recruited to spend five months in the Big Woods searching for something. They weren't told it was the ivory-billed woodpecker until they agreed to keep it secret.

Scott Simon heads the Arkansas branch of The Nature Conservancy, which has helped preserve the forest where the ivory-billed was sighted. The Conservancy's job was to raise the money for the search without telling prospective donors what they were giving it for unless they also agreed to keep it secret.

"And that's the amazing part about this," Simon says. "I mean, a few people provided millions of dollars in private support for this, without even confirmation of the bird. Because, you know, they so much were enamored by the story of hope."

A systematic search of the swamp began in March 2004. Some of the biologists were assigned to deploy listening devices on two dozen trees throughout the forest, which would record for weeks at a time and were then sent to Cornell for analysis.

Other searchers played the 1935 recording of the ivory-bill's call and then listened for an answer. They even put out decoys, trying to draw the bird out.

For months, searchers spent long hours in the swamp, waiting, watching and listening.

Last winter a crane was brought in to get a bird's eye view from above the treetops. Every day up to 20 people went out, spending up to 14 hours in the swamp. Since they began a year and a half ago, searchers have spent 15,000 hours looking for the bird.

"I was right up the lake in an enclosed area, about a hundred, less than a hundred yards from right here, right by that one horizontal tree around the bend there," says Tim Barksdale, one of the premier bird photographers in America.

He was hired to capture what would be the first pictures of an ivory-billed since 1935. Barksdale spent 241 days in the swamp without seeing the bird.

The only picture of the ivory-billed woodpecker researchers say they got was a lucky shot taken from a canoe, from a video camera that Arkansas University at Little Rock professor, David Luneau, and his brother-in-law, Robert Henderson, had rigged to run continuously. The bird's flight was visible for only four seconds.

"Well, there are people who looked at the video and they're basically scoffing at us saying, 'Come on, it's a blurry video. What are you talking about?' But the fact is, there's information in that video. And, as you know, you can actually learn a ton from just a few frames of video," says Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick says the video proves the sighting can only be the elusive bird. "We see a black wing-tipped bird that is largely white-winged from underneath. So a big woodpecker with a lot of white at the back edge of its wings, and some white in the back, can only be an ivory-bill woodpecker."

Last April, 14 months after the search began, and just before the news was about to leak, the searchers announced that the ivory-billed woodpecker had been rediscovered.

It made the front-page of newspapers all across the country. Virtually overnight, the bird became America's latest sensation. But some scientists weren't convinced that the video evidence is scientifically conclusive.

Cornell released audio evidence, culled from some 18,000 hours of recordings from the Big Woods, that may not be conclusive but it believes is compelling.

Russ Charif, a researcher at the lab, played a tape recorded Jan. 29, 2005 in Arkansas, which he says "bears a striking resemblance" to two ivory-billed woodpeckers talking to each other.

That sound has been music to the ears in Clarendon, Ark., the town closest to the sighting, which isn't waiting for the outcome of the scientific debate to cash in on the woodpecker's return.

Clarendon now calls itself the home of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

This year's annual birding festival was all about the bird. There were even ivory-bill haircuts at $25 a clip.

But all that hoopla is not what matters to Fitzpatrick. "The fact that we've gotten politicians and local people in Arkansas and people in Alaska and people in Florida talking about it, it's because all those people know that this is big. The reason they know it's big, is they've been paying attention to birds."

Since February 2004, the ivory-billed woodpecker's existence has been confirmed. But the bird has remained illusive, somewhere in the Big Woods.

So far, only a handful of searchers have seen it and Fitzpatrick isn't one of them.

"I don't really get frustrated at that. Right now I would love to see this bird. I can't lie at all. I'm so glad that other people have," says Fitzpatrick. "I mean, I've wept at stories of people describing it. It's an extremely emotional thing, this bird. I could happily go to my grave and not see it if we could find out what's going on and save it."

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