Surrounded by farmland, crossed by an interstate highway, and located less than 75 miles from Arkansas’ capital and largest city, the 55,000-acre Cache River National Wildlife Refuge hardly seems wilderness enough to be harboring any secrets. But between 2004 and 2005, this small refuge within Arkansas’ “Big Woods” revealed just how valuable a treasure it hides in its secret cache: the ivory-billed woodpecker, which had been presumed extinct for 60 years.
In this image from NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite, acquired on December 23, 2001, the dense vegetation of swampy bottomland forests, sloughs, oxbow river bends, and bayous in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge makes a dramatic contrast to the geometric checkerboard of farmlands. Ground that is bare or sparsely vegetated appears pinkish tan. The dense (but leafless in winter) vegetation of the refuge’s tupelo and cypress forests appears dark gray. When you look carefully (particularly in the high-resolution image), the forests are interwoven with swampy areas that appear lighter gray. A large swath of this gray swampy area runs through the narrow strip of the refuge that follows the Deview Bayou northeast of the large protected area near image center. Interstate 40 cuts diagonally across the southern part of this large tract of land.
Although there had been no confirmed sightings of the woodpecker that earned the colloquial nickname “The Lord God Bird”—supposedly because of people’s exclamations when encountering the strikingly colored bird with its three-foot wingspan—several unconfirmed reports since the last documented sighting in the 1940s kept sufficient hope alive for the bird to still be listed in most field guides as ‘probably extinct.’
Scientists do not yet know whether the ivory bill observed in the half a dozen or sightings since February 2004 is one bird among a small breeding population or if the bird is one of a few lone survivors who will be the last of their kind. To read more about the near total eradication of the ivory-billed woodpecker and its habitat in the U.S. Southeast, the rediscovery of the species, and plans to protect and expand its habitat, visit the Website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab, which co-led the verification study with scientists from the Nature Conservancy and other federal, state, and local agencies and organizations.