Gene Sparling, the amateur naturalist who made the sighting that got the experts convinced the birds had survived, was canoeing in a remote, bug- and snake-infested area. "It was a spiritual experience," he said.
He posted his sighting on the Internet and caught the interest of Tim Gallagher, of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology and his friend Bobby Harrison, a college professor and keen bird-watcher .
Sparling took them to where he saw the bird and one almost immediately flew toward them. "We almost fell out of the canoe," Gallagher said.
I was going to say, "Try to imagine...", but it doesn't do. There is nothing to imagine for this, a thing itself more or less beyond imagination - and then he goes back to where he saw it and "one almost immediately flew toward them"!!!
Birders are an odd lot, to be sure, but central to the identity of every birder is this great love, this overwhelming passion and humility and awe at the natural world, at these wonderful, beautiful, impossible flying things. Birders were the first environmentalists, and remain the front-line chroniclers of the direct effects of climate change, deforestation, habitat destruction: they see, or rather don't see, the ever-decreasing populations of songbirds, and it breaks their (and yes, my) big ol' hearts.
Grand Old Man Roger Tory Peterson was one of the last to see what was thought to be the last Ivory-Billed, in 1942; he'd written it off as extinct a decade earlier in his first "Birds of North America," but he did get the chance to see the grand bird:
"Hardly had we gone a hundred yards when a startling new sound came from our right--an indescribable tooting note, musical in a staccato sort of way. For a moment it did not click, but then I knew--it was the ivory bill! ... Breathlessly we stalked the insistent toots, stepping carefully, stealthily, so that no twig would crack. With our hearts pounding we tried to keep cool, hardly daring to believe that this was it--that this was what we had come fifteen hundred miles to see. ... Straining our eyes, we discovered the first bird, half hidden by the leafage, and in a moment it leaped upward into the full sunlight. This was no puny Pileated [woodpecker]; this was a whacking big bird, with great white patches on its wings and a gleaming white bill."The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker was thought to be one of the early casualties of habitat destruction, and birders were around to see it disappear in real time, a grand impossibility of a bird, dwarfing even the Jurassic-inspired Pileated, flying as no other woodpecker does, a huge white beak, shyly thwomp-ing away at rotted old hardwoods in Southern forests, till there were none more to thwomp. A beautiful, grand bird, rumored to still live in tiny numbers in Cuba, but one that all birders living today could safely assume would never enter their life list. A reminder of things lost, and a signal of what's to come - would our grandchildren never hear a Hermit Thrush?
But no! Hope survives! There are more Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers - for surely, since the last was sighted in 1947, there are plural woodpeckers - and perhaps not all is lost, and perhaps there is the chance for good in this world.
A man went out into the world and saw something that could not be believed. He returned, and the thing that could not be believed flew right towards him. It did not do so to announce its presence; did not do so to prove wrong all who said it was no longer. It flew right towards him because it is a bird, and flying is the thing birds do, bless them. And bless us, too - we get to watch them.
Will I go to see it, make a pilgrimage? No, I don't think I will. Perhaps some years from now, if I find myself in a swamp in Texarkana, I'll point my car towards this particular swamp, but I don't see that happening. I wouldn't want to mob the creatures; wouldn't want to be a thousand paparazzi outside their old rotting oak. Merely knowing they're there is enough, and it fills my heart with joy.