Big Bird in the Big Woods of Arkansas

September 9, 2010
Filed under Feature Stories

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Before 2004 hardly anyone had heard of “the Big Woods,” at least not the Big Woods of Arkansas. And hardly anyone had heard much of the ivory-billed woodpecker for some 60 years. That’s how long it had been since the last reported sighting of the big fellow. But in February of 2004, more than 60 years after the woodpecker was thought to be extinct in the United States, a camper saw what he believed was one in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, a portion of the Big Woods.

This sighting led to an extensive search for the big bird, which had lost its habitat to logging. Whether or not there are still ivory-billed woodpeckers in the Big Woods is yet unproven, but what you can be sure of is that it’s a great place for bird watching, as well as a host of other outdoor activities.

The Big Woods of Arkansas covers 550,000 acres and is the largest section of bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the Mississippi Delta north of the Atchafalaya River. It includes private and public lands such as the Cache River and White River National Wildlife Refuges, the Dagmar, Rex Hancock/Black Swamp, and Wattensaw Wildlife Management Areas, and Benson Creek Natural Area. It also includes land along the lower White River and its tributaries — the Cache River and the Bayou de View, the lower Arkansas River, and the Mississippi River near the mouths of the Arkansas and White.

Due to activities such as logging, farming, urbanization and river reclamation projects, what’s left is just 10 percent of Arkansas’ original forested wetlands. Before the “rediscovery” of the ivory-bill, mainly sportsmen and a few conservationists actively pursued saving the wetlands. Now organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and the Big Woods Conservation Partnership are getting involved and excursions into the Big Woods by ornithologists and other scientists and experts from a variety of universities have taken place since 2004.

Begin at Brinkley

Brinkley is a good starting point for your exploration of Arkansas’ Big Woods, as this is “headquarters” for the ivory-billed woodpecker search. The ivory-bill was “rediscovered” near Brinkley in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge on the Bayou de View. Video of what many experts believe to be the big bird was taken in the White River National Wildlife Refuge and in the Brinkley area. Sightings in the Benson Creek Natural Area have also been reported. This is a managed access area and you must obtain daily permits to enter the bayou.

Another area of reported ivory-bill sightings is the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area along Bayou de View. This is an excellent area for bird-watching and wildlife viewing. Improved trails offer hiking through cypress and tupelo forests.

The Apple Club Lake Waterfowl Rest Area is a part of Dagmar, and is off limits during the fall and winter months, but is great for bird-watching during spring and summer. More information is available on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website. Apple Club Lake has a parking area and provides access to three trails — a walking trail, a boat trail, and a canoe trail. Watch for snakes, as it is easy to miss them while looking up for the ivory-bill, or any other bird for that matter.

What to Look For

The ivory-billed woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) is among the world’s largest woodpeckers and averages 18 to 20 inches in length with a wingspan of 30 to 31 inches. It weighs 16 to 20 ounces. The pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is smaller in all categories and is about the size of a crow. The pileated is fairly common in Arkansas and can inhabit similar areas as the ivory-bill.

Both woodpeckers are mostly black and similarly marked, but with these distinctions. A red crest is present on the male and female pileated, but only on the male ivory-bill. The face of the pileated has alternating bands of black and white, whereas the face of the ivory-bill is black behind its bill with white markings extending down the back, and white feathers on the lower half of its wings.

The flight of the pileated is “woodpecker-like,” it swoops as it flies, while the ivory-bill is swifter in flight and does not swoop.

For those joining the search for the ivory-billed woodpecker, here are a few tips from an expert, Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick, the Director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, given during an interview in January 2006.

“We are searching for a bird that as far back as the 1890s was famous for being wary and difficult to locate. The area we are searching includes 550,000 acres of forest, and the bird or birds could be anywhere within it.

“In these swamp forests, searchers are limited to going where they can by canoe or by foot.

“Even if searchers happen to get within range of an ivory-bill, there is no guarantee they will see it. The trees are dense, making it difficult to see birds even 50 yards away.

“Ivory-bills are notoriously elusive. Several sightings so far have been glimpses of this magnificent bird as it travels in rapid flight above the tree line, appearing and disappearing so quickly that the viewer is lucky to get binoculars on it, much less a steady shot with a camera.”

The ivory-bill likes its privacy. Have your binoculars and photographic or video equipment ready. Bring lots of bug spray, and be very, very patient.

More Than Just Birds

There are also a few vertebrates that can survive in this unique habitat, such as reptiles and amphibians. Cottonmouths and other snakes, lizards like the skink, some alligators, and many types of frogs are present. Other mammals that do well in swamps include beaver, otter, muskrat and nutria.

The two dominant trees are bald cypress and water tupelo. Cypress and tupelo trees are specifically adapted to wetland habitats and have swollen bases, which add stability to the tree’s footing in the muddy soil, and according to some scientists, may assist in getting oxygen to the trunk tissue. Cypress “knees” also help maintain stability and help keep the cypress tree upright.

The Main Refuges

The Cache River National Wildlife Refuge surrounds Brinkley and extends north and south from Clarendon to Grubbs. The relatively narrow Cache River National Wildlife Refuge is broken up and segmented, stretching more than 70 miles (as the crow, or ivory-bill, flies), but within its 54,000 total acres, there are abundant opportunities for canoeing or kayaking, wildlife watching and birding.

The White River National Wildlife Refuge is larger and less segmented than the Cache. Its 160,000 acres contains 90 of the 100 miles of the White River. In winter it has the largest concentration of migrating mallards in the Mississippi Flyway along with large numbers of Canada and snow geese. The Cache and White River refuges have many wading and shore birds. Waterfowl, deer, and turkey hunting are permitted in all refuges and management areas in certain seasons.

There are more than 300 lakes and ponds located throughout the White River refuge’s bottomland hardwood forests. More kinds of flowering plants, trees, birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians live here than anywhere else in the South because of the variety of habitat. Visitors may see deer, black bear, bald eagles, beavers, and waterfowl of all types.

The 10,000-square-foot White River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is located off SR 1 in St. Charles and it houses an auditorium, exhibit hall and a bookstore. The foyer contains a 28-foot-tall replica of a cypress tree complete with birds and other swamp life.

There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the refuge. A 1.2-mile (one way) trail to the Champion Cypress Tree (the largest in the state) is rated as easy. The tree’s circumference is 516 inches, or 43 feet. Its height is 120 feet but its age is unknown.

Primitive camping is allowed in certain areas of all the wildlife refuges. Other camping opportunities in and around the Big Woods are varied, ranging from primitive sites with no facilities to developed sites with hookups for water and electricity.

Campers Refuge is one of the only developed campgrounds nearby. It’s located next to the White River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center and has sites with full hookups and areas for tenting. Reservations are suggested.

When visitors come to Arkansas’ Big Woods, they should bring binoculars, a camera, a canoe or kayak and lots of enthusiasm. Who knows, while they’re being thrilled by the abundance of wildlife and natural beauty, they just might have an encounter with the ivory-billed woodpecker.


Before You Go

Cache River NWR Headquarters

26320 Highway 33 South Augusta, AR 72006



White River National

Wildlife Refuge Headquarters

57 South CC Camp Road,

P.O. Box 205

St Charles, AR 72140



Camper’s Refuge Campground

2910 Highway 1


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