Chasing the Ivory-Bill

Day 4: Following in the Footsteps of Earlier Searchers

Will a mine-scarred valley yield any Ivory-bills?

January 26, 2016, Bahia de Taco, Cuba — We arrived at Baracoa well after dark last night, and the official we needed to see had already gone home. After sleeping at a local casa particular, we found the man, and he wrote a note giving us permission to stay in one of the thatch-roofed cabanas at Bahia de Taco. From there we made arrangements to spend all day tomorrow hiking into the mountains in this part of Humboldt Park with a man nicknamed El Indio (The Indian). There we will attempt our first double-knock sessions.

Yesterday afternoon, during the long, dusty drive from Farallones to the main coast road en route to Baracoa, we parked across a valley from the hills where John Dennis and Davis Crompton had seen Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in 1948. It was not a great-looking place. The remaining pines were small and scrubby, and the landscape was scarred from decades of mining, which had exposed broad swathes of red clay, easily visible without binoculars.

I’ve always loved the story of the road trip the two men took to Cuba. Davis Crompton always drove a red Cadillac convertible with the top down—all times of year, even in the harshest weather—so he could hear birds calling, which is no mean feat if you live in Massachusetts. He would often wear a raccoon-skin coat in the coldest months. He and John Dennis both worked for Massachusetts Audubon, which gave them paid leave to make the trip, and they drove all the way to Key West to catch a plane for the short hop to Cuba.

Gallagher rests in the back of the car while on the road to Taco Bay. Photo: Greg Kahn

They were only there a few days and had checked a couple of potential Ivory-bill areas without success. But a local lumberman kept encouraging them to go to this spot—across the valley from where we stood—where he said he always saw the birds. The two agreed to go, but it was such a hot, steamy day, and the trail up the steep hillside was so rugged, they eventually set down all of their gear, leaving it with the Cuban who was guiding them, and trekked the rest of the way to the ridgetop unencumbered. They were so exhausted they had to lie down under some pine trees and take a nap. Dennis was aroused from his slumbers a short time later by a loud thumping noise, and he awoke to see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, barely 30 feet away, foraging on a tree. He called to Crompton, trying to get his attention, but it turned out he had already been awakened by another Ivory-bill and had followed it to its nest cavity. (Why can’t all Ivory-bill searchers be so lucky?)

As they watched the birds, Dennis suddenly realized with horror that he’d left his camera down the mountain with the rest of his gear. (Who would ever believe them if they didn’t come back with pictures?) So he ran back, retrieved the camera, and came panting back up the hill more than an hour later to get the shots. Martjan and I have much better camera equipment than Dennis and Crompton had ever dreamed of. Now we just need to find some Ivory-bills.

Follow my daily blog as the search for the Ivory-Bill unfolds.

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