Each morning, Sara Barker wakes before dawn, covers herself with camouflage and makes sure she has her compass before heading into the eastern Arkansas swamps. Her quest: the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.
Dozens of birders have flocked to the wildlife refuges of the Arkansas Delta to follow up on a kayaker's 2004 sighting of a bird so rare it was thought to have become extinct. They hope to obtain a clear video or picture of the bird and then study its behavior.
Barker and fellow scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology plan to comb thousands of acres this winter, while leafless trees allow good viewing, looking for a roost, a nesting hole or any other evidence of the woodpecker's existence. Their days stretch from before dawn to the "magic hour," just before dusk, when the birds are believed to be most active.
"We'll sit in a canoe, quietly, and we'll watch that hole until just after dark," Barker said. "Hoping, hoping that just maybe it's the ivory bill."
And what if, one day, it is?
"I'd probably fall out of the boat," Barker says with a laugh.
The searchers — equipped with Global Positioning System locators, binoculars, digital video cameras and cell phones — call the bird a flying needle in a haystack. This haystack covers 550,000 acres — about 75 percent of the size of Rhode Island.
Their quest was sparked Feb. 11, 2004, when one of the woodpeckers flew over amateur birder Gene Sparling while he was kayaking in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge. It was confirmed in April as the first known sighting of the bird since 1944.
Now, dozens of searchers are sharing one house, while others promise to camp in the swamps for the entire winter. Cornell birder Nathan Banfield, 26, from Montgomery City, Mo., refuses to even go into nearby Little Rock to grab a beer.
"It would be nice to go out and stuff," he said. "But it nags on you if you're taking a weekend off knowing the bird could be there. If I could spend that extra time that maybe would give me that extra chance. You don't know when your three seconds are going to come."
Many of the birders hike or canoe through the bayous and swamps, scanning each tree for possible nesting sites. Each night, they download information from their GPS units to map out which areas have been scanned.
Others sit in blinds with digital video cameras — powered by motorcycle or car batteries so they can run all day.
"We've been trained, first thing you grab is your video camera," Barker said.
The people are supplemented by automatic video and audio recording equipment placed strategically in the swamps. A $4,000 camera strapped high on a tupelo tree can snap digital photos every 12 seconds with all the latest features — time lapse, motion detection, infrared, high-definition.
"These are just a tool to find where the ivory bill might be, its center of activity," said Jaime Hill, Cornell's technology surveillance scientist. "I think I've got the best job because when I take these down, I would see we've got an ivory bill and I'd be the first to know."
The audio units record sounds up to about 200 meters away in any direction. A computer program at Cornell labs in Ithaca, N.Y., will scan recordings for the bird's signature double-rap sound: "BAM-Bam!"
There's a chance that all this effort could be directed at the wrong place at the wrong times. Any ivory bills in Arkansas might not behave the same as the birds in the only study of the species, done in the 1930s by biologist James Tanner in Louisiana's Singer Tract.
"They may have adapted to using different types of habitats," Barker said.
Search crews have enlisted help from volunteer ornithologists and the public, including hunters and fishermen. At the fork of two gravel roads in the middle of the Cache refuge is a metal road sign. "Be on the Lookout!" it proclaims, along with a description of the bird.
"Now all we need is a little luck," said Ken Levenstein, a Cornell search crew leader. "We need one of those (birds) and these people to be in the same place."