IF YOU WERE THE LAST BIRD OF YOUR SPECIES, looking for a comfortable place to evade extinction, the view flying over northern Monroe County, Arkansas, would probably not tempt you to touch down. You'd see abandoned trailer homes with saplings growing through their windows; asbestos-shingle shacks with discarded cars and appliances sinking into their lawns; rice fields sectioned into rectangular ponds like the plastic lagoons in a TV-dinner tray; and huge, insectile central-pivot irrigators patrolling oceans of soil where thousand-year-old cypress trees once stood.
Yet Bayou de View—a spit of hardwood jungle here at the uppermost tip of Arkansas's 550,000-acre Big Woods, smack-dab between Little Rock and Memphis—is where the world's rarest avis, the ivory-billed woodpecker, has reemerged more than half a century after ornithological authorities pronounced it dead. Seen from above, Bayou de View looks about as primeval as a planter of ficus trees at a shopping mall. Below the treetops, though, the terrain looks less like eastern Arkansas and more like rural Mordor. The water, which is the color of beef au jus, flows in labyrinthine meanders boiling with toothy gar and cottonmouths as stout as a man's wrist. The forest is an endless gray weft of cypress and tupelo trunks that reduces the vista to nil. In the warmer months, when the trees haven't yet molted, trying to spot an ivorybill back here is roughly as rewarding as tracking a dust mite through the world's largest shag carpet.
"Damn close to pointless," said Gene Sparling, gently adrift in a kayak south of Bayou de View late last May, when I first met him. It was the 50-year-old Sparling—an amused, stoic Arkansan with blunt, sun-cured features—who first sighted one of the supposedly long-gone ivorybills, a red-crested male with lustrous black wings trailing a signature fringe of white, while on a solo pleasure cruise through the Big Woods in February 2004. (The embattled beauty of the place, a well-known birding destination, regularly drew him from his home in Hot Springs.) By mid-March, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Nature Conservancy, along with Sparling and other key players, had launched the top-secret Inventory Project. Sparling, a lifelong amateur naturalist who never attended college, was tapped to co-direct the subsequent quest for the bird, a 14-month, 100-person sub-rosa stakeout in the swamp.
"Here I am, a dumb, son-of-a-bitch hick from rural Arkansas, helping manage one of the most phenomenal conservation stories of the last 200 years, working with the most outstanding ornithologists on Planet Earth," said Sparling, whose name, with 16 others, appeared on the April 28, 2005, ivorybill announcement, which appeared on the journal Science's Web site prior to publication in the June 3 issue—a distinction most ornithologists would trade a finger for. "It's pretty cool."
Within four weeks of identifying the unextinct bird, Sparling had shuttered his stable, where he'd been running a horseback-riding business, and turned his attention to ivorybill stalking full-time. But the first long spate of concerted searching didn't exactly yield jaw-dropping results. Twenty-three thousand hours in the swamp turned up a mere six solid sightings, a few recordings of birdcalls and trees being bludgeoned, and a video: four blurry seconds of piebald wings flapping through the gloom, the hardest evidence going of the bird's revival. "Evidence means a photograph or, in this case, a crappy video with extensive analysis," says the video's author, David Luneau, a birder and technology professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. To certify that the footage shows an ivory-billed and not a pileated woodpecker, its closest look-alike, a battery of experts at Cornell subjected the footage to pixel-by-pixel scrutiny, concluding that, based on the bird's inordinate size and the broad trailing band of white on its wings—a pileated bears a lean white swoosh in the center of its otherwise black wings—Luneau's camera had indeed captured the genuine article.
Two dozen autonomous audio recorders, strapped to trees throughout the woods, logged a little over two years' worth of tape. Back at the Cornell Lab, in Ithaca, New York, a group of luckless people used pattern-recognition software to audition the recordings eight hours a day, ears pricked for the ivorybill's nasal, warbling tin-trumpet call ("kent, kent, kent") and the distinctive report of the bird tearing a tree trunk a new one. The mind-numbing work ultimately paid off, though. In July 2005, when a trio of rival scientists threatened to mount a challenge to the findings, the audio captures convinced the skeptics. Two months later, the Arkansas Audubon Society's Bird Records Committee amended the ivorybill's official status from "extirpated" to "present."
But two years after the rediscovery, the searching has yet to turn up signs of a breeding population or video evidence that doesn't require a team of Ph.D.'s to decipher. In the continuing quest to locate a remnant population of a bird that once flourished in the ancient forests that spanned the southern lowlands from North Carolina down to Florida and across to Texas, Ivorybill Search Team Two took to the Big Woods this winter. But it's an errand less reminiscent of the freewheeling adventures of John James Audubon than the nihilism of Samuel Beckett.
"Waiting for the Ivorybill," says Tim Gallagher, editor of Cornell's Living Bird magazine and author of 2005's woodpecker-quest narrative The Grail Bird. "It gets old pretty quick."