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The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-Billed Woodpeckerby Tim Gallagher
Synopses & Reviews
The ivory-billed woodpecker — ghost bird of the swamp. Big, beautiful, iconic, and mysterious, the bird is a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with our relationship to the environment. First plundered by nineteenth-century collectors and then a victim of massive habitat destruction, the bird has been sought for decades by those trying to determine whether this remarkable species still exists. Their findings have been met with ridicule and scorn; since the early twentieth century, most of the scientific world has believed that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct.
But when author Tim Gallagher set out to write The Grail Bird, he mounted his own quest for the elusive bird and discovered the amazing truth: the ivory-billed woodpecker lives!
The Grail Bird goes behind recent headlines to tell the story of Tim Gallagher's pursuit and discovery of the bird. Editor in chief of Living Bird, the flagship publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Gallagher couldn't (and wouldn't) accept the idea that the ivory-bill was gone forever. He set out to learn everything he could about the bird, tracking down and interviewing dozens of people who claimed to have seen it, reading everything he could find, and finally hitting the swamps himself to explore potential ivory-bill habitats across the South. An irrefutable sighting by Gallagher and a colleague in February 2004 quickly led to the largest search ever mounted to find a rare bird, as researchers fanned out across the bayou to document this most iconic of birds.
"You never know when you get up in the morning what earth-shaking event might take place and change your life forever," Gallagher writes. For Tim Gallagher, it was reading a posting on a canoe club listserv about a strange woodpecker a kayaker named Gene Sparling had seen on a float trip down a remote bayou in eastern Arkansas. Less than two weeks after this sighting, Gallagher and his buddy Bobby Ray Harrison — art history professor, photographer, southerner, and dyed-in-the-wool ivory-bill chaser — hit the swamp with Sparling, canoeing through the bayou in search of the mystery bird. Tim and Bobby had their first ivory-bill sighting there.
In this unparalleled birding adventure story, Tim Gallagher takes us across the country, from the renowned Cornell Lab in Ithaca, New York, to the Big Thicket country of east Texas, the Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana, and the wild bayous of Arkansas. He brings to life figures from history, such as John James Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and Arthur A. Allen, and introduces characters like Mary Scott, a corporate lawyer turned ghost-bird chaser, and Fielding Lewis, the chairman of the Louisiana Boxing Commission, whose anonymous snapshots of the ivory-bill were met with skepticism in the 1970s. Readers join the expedition team along with celebrated naturalists, researchers, and the Cornell Lab's birding team, the Sapsuckers.
We have lost most of the vast old-growth forests of the South, and nothing symbolizes that loss more than the ivory-billed woodpecker. But the rediscovery of the bird symbolizes hope for these neglected and abused habitats, which with time and effort can be partially restored. We have been given one final chance to get it right, to save this bird and the bottomland swamp forests it needs in order to survive.
History comes alive in The Grail Bird, in which the expeditions of yesteryear take on present-day relevance in light of the ongoing quest. The dedication of the obsessed bunch of searchers is tangible, and Tim Gallagher's passion for the bird led not only to this book but to the rediscovery of a species. Readers of The Grail Bird will cheer for the ivory-billed woodpecker's miraculous survival, and they will hear the bird's distinctive kent calls in their imagination long after they finish the book.
"Gallagher's firsthand account...has an immediacy that sweeps the reader into the thrill of his first sighting. This is popular science writing at its best, and deserves a place in all libraries." Booklist
"An engaging story of the triumph of conservation, this book is highly recommended..." Library Journal
"[A]n enjoyable and easy read, a good introduction to the ecology of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a powerful call for conservation, and an exciting birding adventure." Boston Globe
"Gallagher...does a wonderful job documenting the natural history and tracking the lore of the ivory-billed woodpecker..." San Antonio Express-News
"A fascinating account..." Orlando Sentinel
"What could have been an ornithological paean to a lost species is instead an edge-of-your-seat ride into the hardwood swamps of the South that drips flavor like syrup on a mess of grits." Cleveland Plain Dealer
The author takes up the chase of an extinct — or at least elusive — bird heading deep into the trackless Southern swamps and bayous to determine once and for all if the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still lives.
In April 2005, a startling announcement made national and international news: the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird thought to be extinct for nearly sixty years, had been sighted. The story behind this incredible discovery began more than a year earlier when, after a lengthy search, Tim Gallagher was one of the first people to see this iconic bird, the holy grail of birdwatchers. He persuaded the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology to mount a massive search for evidence of the bird's existence. The news was kept secret while field teams went to work and land was bought to conserve the ivory-bill's habitat. Gallagher's story reads like a mystery novel, and the subsequent conservation efforts provide hope and a lesson for our times.
What is it about the ivory-billed woodpecker? Why does this ghost of the southern swamps arouse such an obsessive level of passion in its devotees, who range from respected researchers to the flakiest Loch Ness monster fanatics and Elvis chasers?
Since the early twentieth century, scientists have been trying their best to prove that the ivory-bill is extinct. But every time they think they've finally closed the door, the bird makes an unexpected appearance. It happened in the 1920s, and its happened in almost every subsequent decade.
For more than 60 years, each sighting has been met with ridicule and scorn. Respected researchers and naturalists have been branded as quacks just for having the temerity to say that the ivory-bill still exists. Yet the reports still trickle in. Is there any truth to these sightings, or are they just a case of wishful thinking, misidentification, or outright fabrication?
To unravel the mystery, author Tim Gallagher heads south, deep into the eerie swamps and bayous of the vast Mississippi Delta, searching for people who claim to have seen this rarest of birds and following up — sometimes more than 30 years after the fact — on their sightings. He meets a colorful array of characters: a cigar-chomping ex-boxer who took two controversial pictures of an alleged ivory-bill in 1971; a former corporate lawyer who abandoned her career to search for ivory-bills full time; two men who grew up in the ivory-bills last known stronghold in a final remnant of primeval forest in Louisiana.
With his buddy Bobby Harrison, a true son of the South from Alabama, Gallagher hits the swamps, wading through hip-deep, boot-sucking mud and canoeing through turgid, mudbrown bayous where deadly cottonmouth water moccasins abound. In most cases, they are clearly decades too late. But when the two speak to an Arkansas backwoods kayaker who saw a mystery woodpecker the week before and has a description of the bird that is too good to be a fantasy, the hunt is on.
Their Eureka moment comes a few days later as a huge woodpecker flies in front of their canoe, and they both cry out, Ivory-bill! This sighting — the first time since 1944 that two qualified observers positively identify an ivory-billed woodpecker in the United States — quickly leads to the largest search ever launched to find a rare bird, as researchers fan out across the bayou, hoping to document the existence of this most iconic of birds.
What is it about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker? Why does this supposedly long-extinct bird arouse such an amazing level of interest and dedication in its devotees, who range from respected researchers and naturalists to Loch Ness monster fanatics and Elvis chasers? Since the early twentieth century, scientists have been trying their best to prove that the Ivory-bill is extinct. But every time they think they"ve finally closed the door, the bird makes an unexpected appearance. It happened in the 1920s, it happened in the 1930s, and it has happened almost every decade since. For at least the past sixty years, every sighting has been met with ridicule and scorn. Friendships have ended. Careers have been ruined. And yet the reports still trickle in. Now author Tim Gallagher takes up the chase, heading deep into the trackless southern swamps and bayous to determine once and for all if the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still lives.
About the Author
Tim Gallagher is a lifelong bird fanatic. An award-winning writer and photographer, he is editor in chief of Living Bird, the flagship publication of the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For many years Tim has traveled to faraway places, from the high Arctic to the tropics, to study and photograph birds and report on research.
He is the author of Wild Bird Photography, Birdwatching, Where the Birds Are: The 100 Best Birding Spots in North America, Parts Unknown: A Naturalist's Journey in Search of Birds and Wild Places, and most recently The Grail Bird.
Table of Contents
CONTENTS Preface xiii 1. Of People and Peckerwoods 1 2. Me and Bobby Ray 28 3. Jim and Nancy 37 4. Mary, Mary 54 5. White River Revisited 66 6. A Paradise on Earth 85 7. The Boxer 100 8. The LSU Connection 115 9. The Land of Dead Giants 134 10. A Bayou with a View 145 11. The Third Degree 161 12. Back to the Bayou 168 13. Where Sapsuckers Dare 188 14. Trying to Prove the Existence of a Ghost 205 15. Swamp Rats 219 16. The Lazarus Bird 235 Epilogue 241 Acknowledgments and Sources 251 Index 259
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