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Wednesday, Oct, 1, 2014
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Date of Issue: May 05, 2005

Sandscript

Extinct woodpecker discovered in the wilds of Arkansas

"What once was lost, now is found …"

Researchers have found a male ivory-billed woodpecker in eastern Arkansas. The bird, the largest in the woodpecker family, had been thought to be extinct for the past 60 years. It looks a lot like our pilleated woodpecker, but is bigger and has some distinctive white wing markings.

"It is a landmark rediscovery," Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Arkansas chapter, reported in the journal Science last week. "Finding the ivory-bill in Arkansas validates decades of great conservation work and represents an incredible story of hope for the future."

According to the experts, the ivory-billed woodpecker is known through lore as a "bird of beauty and indomitable spirit. The species vanished after extensive clearing destroyed millions of acres of virgin forest throughout the U.S. South between the 1880s and mid-1940s. Although the majestic bird has been sought for decades, until now there was no firm evidence that it still existed."

Besides the excitement of finding the thought-to-be-lost bird, there is now an ancillary move afoot to preserve its habitat, a huge series of wetlands - 550,000 total acres - which is mostly bayous, bottomland forests and oxbow lakes and is called, appropriately, The Big Woods.

They’re original and blunt about what they name things in Arkansas, I guess.

According to Simon, The Nature Conservancy has conserved 18,000 acres of critical habitat in the Big Woods, at the request of the partnership, since the search began. "It’s a very wild and beautiful place," Simon said. Other property now may also be sought.

The process started about 14 months ago when this big, red-crested woodpecker showed up along a river and was spotted by a kayaker. He thought it was the extinct bird and started working the phone to noted national birders. As the feathers flew among the birding community, more and more people started hot-winging it to Arkansas, and at the end a flock of more than 50 people from research institutes throughout the United States were at one point or another tramping through the swamps in search of confirmation of the ivory-bill.

To call the event anything less than emotional is to put it mildly.

"When we finished our notes," one researchers wrote in Science, "my colleague sat down on a log, put his face in his hands and began to sob, saying, ‘I saw an ivory-bill. I saw an ivory-bill.’ His associate concurred: "Just to think this bird made it into the 21st century gives me chills. It’s like a funeral shroud has been pulled back, giving us a glimpse of a living bird, rising Lazarus-like from the grave."

There were lots of video taken of the bird, and one expert was able to record a peculiar "display drumming" as it beats its beak into a tree trunk. All the sightings, and all the noise, caused a consensus that the extinct bird was indeed still with us.

There is some bad news about the bird, though.

There’s only been one ivory-bill sighted, and it’s a male.

Plans are in place to expand the search area in The Big Woods and hunt for at least one female. Because only a single bird was observed at a time, researchers say they don’t yet know whether more than one inhabits the area.

The good news is that the discovery of the ivory-bill will give environmentalists a boost in acquiring more public land for land acquisition and preservation. There is a 10-year goal to restore 200,000 more acres of forest in The Big Woods.

"The effort will include conserving forest habitat, improving river water quality, and restoring the physical structure of the river channels, focusing in locations with maximum benefit in reconnecting forest patches and protecting river health," according to the experts, one of whom added, "The ivory-bill tells us that we could actually bring this system back to that primeval forest here in the heartland of North America."

A pretty neat Web site is out there on the bird, by the way, at www.ivorybill.org.

Sandscript factoid

Perhaps the Florida Legislature should consider a new motto: "Florida, the invasive species state."

"In a prime example of how Florida is becoming a haven for exotic pests, a South American moth is attacking valuable ornamental cactus plants used in landscaping and could be a threat to the nation's $70 million cactus industry," according to scientists with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The moths were first spotted about 15 years ago in the Florida Keys, and have since spread to South Carolina. The fear is the little bugs could work their way to the U.S. Southwest and Mexico, where natural and cultivated prickly pear cacti - the favorite food of the moths - flourish and are a prime cash crop for both cattle food and ornamental plants.

And as with many things of late, the UF researchers are blaming Florida’s four hurricanes last year with exacerbating the moth spread.

"The moth can fly short distances, but it is believed to spread primarily via transportation of infested plants," according to a UF scientist. "Female moths deposit stacks of tiny eggs on the sides of the fleshy cactus pads, and the stacks resemble inch-long cactus spines. When caterpillars hatch from the eggs, they burrow into cactus pads to feed, leaving tiny holes that ooze a green, slimy fluid.

"The caterpillars, which are tan or orange with distinctive black traverse bands, can be found by cutting open infested cactus pads. Adult moths are gray and white with a wingspan of about 1 inch."

If you see any of the above, call (850) 656-9870.

 

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