From 2005: In search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

When word spread in Arkansas of a sighting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker – a bird thought extinct – "Sunday Morning" correspondent Steve Hartman took up the challenge to capture it on video, if he could find one. In this report, which originally aired October 2, 2005, Hartman traveled to Clarendon, Arkansas, and braved snake-infested swamps, only to discover that a rare bird does not give up its location easily.

Video Transcript

- Have you seen this bird? It's the elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker, once thought extinct. The dream of spotting one in the wild is proving irresistible to a determined if as yet small number of people, including our own Steve Hartman.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): In the dead of summer, in the fading town of Clarendon, Arkansas, a truly rare bird has just been sighted, a real, honest to goodness, tourist.

Hello.

STEVE HARTMAN: I'm the first one today?

- Yes.

STEVE HARTMAN: Pretty late in the day.

- Yes.

STEVE HARTMAN: So I'll be the only one today.

- OK.

STEVE HARTMAN: Right?

- I hope not.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): I'd come to Clarendon to investigate another rare bird that once lived in these parts, the infamous Ivory-billed Woodpecker. You're looking at the only film ever shot of the bird. It was 1935. And not long after these pictures were taken, the bird disappeared. For more than 60 years, it was classified extinct, until this past April when Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton stood up at a podium and turned back time.

GALE NORTON: I cannot think of a single time we have ever found a species once thought extinct and now found to be in existence. This is such an exciting opportunity.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): The news made headlines around the world.

- [NON-ENGLISH] Arkansas, Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): And ever since the story broke, visitors have been flocking to Clarendon by the ones.

STEVE HARTMAN: Like Miriam Williams. Do you remember her?

- No.

STEVE HARTMAN: She was the only one that came in yesterday. You don't remember her?

- I remember her, yeah.

STEVE HARTMAN: Yeah, yeah.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): But soon, that guestbook may be brimming, and here's why. You see, despite 16 credible sightings of the bird, so far, the only picture is grainy, wide, and horribly out of focus. I mean, look again. To the untrained eye, it could just as easily be a baby Bigfoot with wings. But pretty soon, someone's going to get a good, clear picture. And you can bet every birder worth his binoculars will be trying for it.

DON BOSHERS: To birders, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the same as the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, and the Holy Grail all--

STEVE HARTMAN: Really?

DON BOSHERS: --mixed together, yes.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Don Boshers is the town's mayor.

DON BOSHERS: We're hoping this will bring more people to town, more tourists to town, and help our economy.

STEVE HARTMAN: This one bird?

DON BOSHERS: Yes, this one bird.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Clarendon, and the nearby town of Brinkley, are gearing up for what everyone hopes will be a huge winter bird-watching season. The Super 8 is now the Ivory-bill Inn. Soon there will be an Ivory-bill Gift Shop. At the local diner, you can already order the Ivory-bill Sandwich. If you eat one, as I did--

- There you go, sir.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): --you also get an Ivory-billed Sandwich certificate.

STEVE HARTMAN: I'll put it with my Emmys.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): By the way, if you're wondering what's in an Ivory-billed Sandwich--

STEVE HARTMAN: It tastes a lot like chicken.

- No, I'd say it's beef.

STEVE HARTMAN: Oh, it's beef.

- Yeah.

STEVE HARTMAN: It's beef?

- Mm-hmm.

STEVE HARTMAN: It was good.

- You know, you just can't believe the ideas we've come up with.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Really, I can't tell you how woodpecker crazy people are around here.

STEVE HARTMAN: I'm having second thoughts.

- Too late. You have a red crest. Isn't he pretty? Didn't he--

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): But I think you're at least starting to get a pretty good idea.

- You match you shirt. It's red.

STEVE HARTMAN: While I shower, why don't you take a listen to birdwatcher Gene Sparling, from the Nature Conservancy? In February of 2004, Gene started the whole Ivory-billed craze by seeing it first.

GENE SPARLING: I had set my paddle down. And the bird dropped in from above the canopy, into the channel, headed straight towards me.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Gene's only regret is that he was sitting on his camera at the time.

STEVE HARTMAN: So now the last thing is to get that good, crisp picture.

GENE SPARLING: Yes, sir.

STEVE HARTMAN: Right?

GENE SPARLING: Yes, sir.

STEVE HARTMAN: What's going to happen for the person who gets that picture? Fame and fortune? Girls? Could be the first time a birder got girls.

GENE SPARLING: I can attest to that actually.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): I knew it was a big deal. But I really didn't know how big.

GENE SPARLING: Bring on the groupies.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Until right at that moment, when a strange noise echoed through the woods.

[STRANGE CALL PLAYING]

The distinct call--

GENE SPARLING: Hello?

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): --of the cell phone in Gene's pocket.

GENE SPARLING: Oh, that's Tim Barksdale.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Most people thought if anyone was going to get the shot, it would be professional bird photographer Tim Barksdale. But he's been at it for quite a while.

STEVE HARTMAN: For how long?

TIM BARKSDALE: I spent 241 days out here in the swamp.

STEVE HARTMAN: And you didn't get a picture?

TIM BARKSDALE: No.

STEVE HARTMAN: So this is a little harder than I thought, maybe.

TIM BARKSDALE: This is quite a bit harder than what we all thought.

STEVE HARTMAN: What do you think the odds of me going out here for a couple hours and getting a picture?

TIM BARKSDALE: Well, I'd say about a million to one.

STEVE HARTMAN: A million to one?

TIM BARKSDALE: Yeah, maybe two million to one.

STEVE HARTMAN: Really?

TIM BARKSDALE: Yeah, maybe 10 million to one. I don't know.

STEVE HARTMAN: If I went out there and got a picture--

TIM BARKSDALE: I'd slap you. [LAUGHS]

STEVE HARTMAN: Yeah, I was wondering about that. Yeah, yeah.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): How could I resist the challenge?

DENNIS WIDENER: That bird could be here. That bird could be here. He could be over here.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Finding the right guide is crucial.

DENNIS WIDENER: I can't for sure tell you where that bird is.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): US Fish and Wildlife manager Dennis Widener is in charge of the refuge where the bird was found. And over the next four hours, he would lead me deep into one of America's wildest places.

DENNIS WIDENER: The Amazon of North America.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): They really are frighteningly similar.

DENNIS WIDENER: That is a cottonmouth, folks. I can tell you right now. That is big cottonmouth.

STEVE HARTMAN: I'll look for snakes. You look for the bird, OK?

DENNIS WIDENER: All right.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Unfortunately, we had far more snake sightings than bird ones, and for good reason. Because of all the leaves and the stinking heat, Dennis says most serious bird watchers won't even consider looking 'til November. He says, really, only an idiot would try now.

STEVE HARTMAN: What's that noise?

DENNIS WIDENER: That's a cicada.

STEVE HARTMAN: Is that a nest there?

DENNIS WIDENER: Yes, it is.

STEVE HARTMAN: And that's for what kind of bird?

DENNIS WIDENER: That's a squirrel nest.

STEVE HARTMAN: Oh. [LAUGHING] I was an Eagle Scout too.

DENNIS WIDENER: (SKEPTICAL) OK.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Nevertheless, we forged on.

STEVE HARTMAN: Where's the damn bird?

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): Over land and sea--

[SQUELCHING SOUND]

--and one disgusting combination of the two.

[ANOTHER SQUELCH]

STEVE HARTMAN: I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed in you as a tour guide.

DENNIS WIDENER: [LAUGHS] Look at it on the bright side. I haven't turned you over in the canoe or put you in the bushes yet, so.

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): I was about to give up when suddenly--

STEVE HARTMAN: Where?

STEVE HARTMAN (NARRATING): --a giant something flew right through the trees in front of me, with my camera rolling. Here it is again. We'll slow it down for you. See it? Right there.

Dennis quickly dismissed my sighting as just a Blue Heron, but I still wonder. Look very closely. I'm not saying it's an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I'm just saying, it sure looks an awful lot like a baby Bigfoot with wings.