The Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Heads to Cuba

Can two determined birders track down the most elusive—and possibly extinct—bird out there? Follow our daily blog to find out.

Tim Gallagher, author of The Grail Bird, The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Imperial Dreams: Searching For the Imperial Woodpecker in the Wild Sierra Madre, was one of two people who gave the initial first-hand reports of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a muddy bayou in Arkansas in 2004. (The other was nature photographer and Oakland University professor Bobby Harrison, nicknamed Sobbing Bobby because when he saw the bird he wept.)

The report kicked off a multi-million-dollar search for the lost woodpecker, spearheaded by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which led to several follow-up sightings, a blurry video, and a firestorm of media announcing that the Ivory-bill had been rediscovered. But when the team failed to find indisputable evidence, the throngs of searchers recoiled and the Ivory-bill was tucked back into the drawer with all the other museum specimens of bygone birds.

While many have given up hope on the prospect of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker surviving extinction, Gallagher hasn’t. He still believes the phantom bird is out there, hiding in an Arkansas bayou or some faraway forest. One targeted location is Cuba, where excellent Ivory-bill habitat and people who’ve seen the bird still exist.

In January, Gallagher—joined by Dutch ornithologist Martjan Lammertink, journalist Mac McClelland (on assignment for Audubon), and photographer Greg Kahn—launched an expedition to Cuba to search for the grail bird. “Cuba is the one Ivory-bill area I’ve never explored, and I’m excited about going there,” Gallagher said. “I want to check the areas where this bird was last seen and also to track down people who knew the Ivory-bill well.”

Some might say it’s a fool’s errand; that the believers have built up this whole mythology about the species being incredibly elusive, a phantom bird that evades all attempts at photography.

Audubon field editor Kenn Kaufman understands the allure. “Maybe it’s like buying a lottery ticket when you have only a one-in-a-million chance,” he says “It’s highly unlikely, but if it does happen to hit, the payoff is huge. I used to dream about seeing an Ivory-bill, and I still do, sometimes.”

Gallagher never stops dreaming. On January 23, 2016, he and his team—loaded with two weeks’ worth of camping supplies, sunscreen, and bug spray—boarded a plane to Cuba to begin their quest. 

Read Gallagher's daily journal here, or below:

Day 1: The Journey Begins
Day 2: On the Road to the Ivory-bill's Hideaway
Day 3: Bureaucratic Snags and a Real Lead (Finally)
Day 4: Following in the Footsteps of Earlier Searchers
Day 5: Travels with El Indio in the Mountains above Bahia de Tac
Day 6: Guantanamo Bound
Day 7: The End of the Good Times
Day 8: On to Ojito de Agua
Day 9: Thirty Years Since The Last Report
Day 10: And Then The Mule Died
Day 11: On the Highest Ridgetop 
Day 12: A Screaming Absence
Day 13: The Trek to Farallones
Day 14: One Last Lead