Perspectives Online

College alumna shares her chronicles of becoming one of bird-watching's elite

LaBranche (above) sited the ivory-bill here in this Arkansas wetland.
Courtesy Melinda LaBranche

Dr. Melinda LaBranche, until recently an extension associate in urban bird studies at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology, is not just another student, teacher, observer.

The ornithologist, a graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with a 1988 master's degree and a 1992 Ph.D. in zoology, wears an ornithologist's badge of distinction: She is one of the elite who have gazed upon a species described by another ornithologist as the "Grail Bird"- the ivory-billed woodpecker.

LaBranche and only six others have spotted the woodpecker, which officially had been believed extinct. That was before reports from a secretive Nature Conservancy/Cornell University search crew that diligently slogged southeastern Arkansas' swampy bottomlands for a year to prove doubting ornithologists wrong.

The swamp-stomping paid off: Between February 2004 and February 2005, the team, including LaBranche, reported at least 15 ivory-billed sightings, seven sufficiently detailed to be included in an April Science magazine online article. One of those sightings was LaBranche's.

Ornithologists formally announced the bird's rediscovery in Science magazine's June 3 print issue. But except for a brief, blurry video included by Science, no one has clearly imaged the sighted ivory-bill(s). Nevertheless, the search crew successfully defended their discovery against a group of skeptics, playing recordings of the bird's double-rap noise, according to a CNN report.

The Cornell lab's Web site logs in LaBranche's verification like this:

"April 10, 2004: At the same location as the April 5 sighting, Melinda LaBranche of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology watched as an ivory-bill flew above the treetops 100 meters away. Through binoculars, she noticed the broad white trailing edges of the wings and a narrow red crescent on the bird's folded crest."

But LaBranche, whose sighting confirmed three earlier 2004 sightings by others, is more than capable of telling her own story.

Here's an edited excerpt of her eyewitness account:

LaBranche (above) has not revealed the exact spot in the swamp (top) where she saw the bird.
Courtesy Melinda LaBranche
"Our mission was dubbed the 'Arkansas Inventory Project' and we were given cover stories to use if we were questioned," she says. "We were forbidden from mentioning it for more than a year. We had to distract, deceive and, when forced, lie outright to family, friends and colleagues. We were advised to avoid discussing it with people in-the-know, particularly over radio, cell phone, email and in public, so it was variously referred to it as a 'snipe' and 'Elvis' (being near Memphis furthered the Elvis illusion)."

On 10 April, 2004, LaBranche and company were paddled into the bayou, where she was dropped at the "octopus," what she describes as "an enormous cephalopod-shaped cypress knee at the end of the point of land centered along the eastern edge of the lake.

"I set up a folding chair on land next to the octopus. The chair's legs sunk a couple of inches in the muck so were at least half submerged in mud and water. Light, steady rain started sometime after 11 a.m., so I returned the video camera to its waterproof case . zipped up my phone and notes in their plastic bags and closed up my packs to keep things from getting more soaked than usual. I was left with my binoculars.

"At about 12:24 p.m. I glanced . south and saw a woodpecker come over the canopy, between emergent trees, heading east, about 100 meters from where I sat. Immediately, I knew it was too big to be a pileated woodpecker and it didn't fly like one; I put up the binoculars. [Looking] on each wing flap I thought, 'White on top to the trailing edge, white on top to the trailing edge,' and I knew I was seeing a bird I thought was extinct.

"I've watched many woodpeckers over the years and their distinctive undulating flight make them easy to spot. My bird flew with no undulation. The bird I saw had white that extended to the rear edge of the wing, and it was clearly visible on both the upper and lower surfaces of the wing . . A pileated's measurements are only slightly smaller than this bird species, but somehow the black-and-white pattern or flight gives the impression of a much larger bird. No pileated has ever looked to me as large as the bird I saw.

"And, picture, if you will, that you have just seen a bird that you had believed was extinct. It was, after all, your mission but what were the chances? Slim to none."

She then called in her sighting to (project co-manager) Ron Rohrbaugh. "By his account, I was a blubbering mess and made just enough sense for him to understand my narrative," she says. "What I remember is telling him that despite getting binoculars on the bird, I had put away the video camera so it wouldn't get wet.

"Of course, I hadn't fully charged my cell phone so got cut off and was unable to contact my canoe companions. So, there I sat, cold, wet and dazed, not knowing that since the rain had stopped, no one would come to get me until after 5."

Later, while detailing the day's events during a grilling from a boisterous crowd in a hotel room, LaBranche told the group she was 99 percent sure of the sighting. Asked by a colleague what the one percent of doubt could be attributed to, LaBranche replied it was because the bird was "extinct."

LaBranche will not reveal the exact location of the bird, to protect it from possible harassment, even though she says the chances of seeing it are probably lower than having a winning a $1 million lottery ticket.

"But," she says, "I can confidently say ivory-billed woodpeckers are alive and well and living in Arkansas. I've seen one myself!' "

- Art Latham