York graduate student investigates the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker

Chris Saker, a master’s student in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, is hot on the trail of an environmental mystery.

A passionate advocate of biodiversity, Saker’s research involves tracking the ivory-billed woodpecker. Thought to be extinct for the last 50 years, recent sightings of the bird have Saker excited about the possibility that it has survived. Why is this important? "If confirmed, it would make the ivory-billed woodpecker a Lazarus species, one that is rediscovered alive after being considered extinct for some time," said Saker.

Right: Chris Saker

In fact, reports of at least one male bird sighted in Arkansas in 2004 and 2005 were enough to send a team of research scientists from Cornell University to several parks and nature reserves in the area to conduct a sophisticated grid search. "For scientists and environmentalists concerned with biodiversity, the sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker was a hopeful sign. It is not often you get a second chance like that," said Saker.

A magnificent creature, the ivory-billed woodpecker has a wingspan just under a metre. "It is absolutely huge," chuckled Saker, "I guess you could say it resembles the comic book Woody Woodpecker climbing up a tree and it is really the stuff of imagination. It is all the more amazing that this bird has stayed under the radar for so long and the mystery surrounding it is absolutely mind-boggling."

The ivory-billed woodpecker (left) has brilliant blue-black plumage with striking white markings. One of the largest members of the woodpecker family, the ivory-billed woodpecker captured Saker’s imagination early in life. "I first learned about birds from my grandfather, Jack Saker. We would go through the Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America together and the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker captured my interest.

"The fact that it was extinct deeply affected me because the thought of no one seeing these beautiful birds again was very sad," said Saker. "The interest stuck and, as I got older, I became interested in the habitat that was unexplored. The deeper I looked into it the more I thought this woodpecker could still be out there."

After completing his undergraduate studies, Saker, 25, came to York specifically for its graduate program in environmental studies, which he says marries perfectly with his interests in environmental conservation and education.

"One of the attributes that attracted me to York was the opportunity to conduct research and to participate in the Las Nubes Rainforest project," said Saker.

York’s program has offered him an unprecedented opportunity to pursue his research into the ivory-billed woodpecker and other members of the woodpecker family, which Saker says, offer the best barometer of the environmental health of our planet. His fascination with the bird has led him through the swamps and wetlands of the Southern United States and through the archives of American history. As he searched for information on the woodpecker, he was increasingly convinced that it was not extinct.

Right: On location with Cornell University

Hardly a novice to this kind of research, Saker had embarked on his own personal search for the ivory-billed woodpecker in 2005 (prior to coming to York). He travelled to the dense forests of the Congaree National Park in South Carolina, a preserve of one of the largest tracts of old growth bottomland hardwood forest left in the United States."That trip was very exciting because I heard the birds, which produce a characteristic tree-knocking sound, while in Congaree," said Saker. Then, his experience as a volunteer of part of the Cornell University research last fall, further cemented his desire to become a leading expert on the ivory-billed woodpecker.

"The northern-most species of its genus, the bird has been affected by habitat loss," said Saker. "One thing it has in its favour is that swamps, its favourite place, are so inhospitable to people."

Saker said that historical literature reveals that at the turn of the century, more people were spending time in the bush and in wetlands hunting. Now, mankind has moved more into urban areas and those individuals who still live near the bush and wetlands may have seen the bird and it would not have occurred to them that it was close to extinction, said Saker. Sightings have come up since the rediscovery, which garnered a lot of media attention.

While in Arkansas, Saker stayed with the research team in a duck hunting lodge. "An average day involved waking at 6am, we would load up the vans and set out for the swamplands. We used boats with electric motors that were very quiet, so as not to startle the birds. We searched the White River National Wildlife Refuge, it is part of the big woods area which is 550,000 acres and is the largest continuous track of swamp forest in the US," said Saker. "Much of the area we searched on our own and I learned a lot about grid search techniques. The forests were flooded and swampy. We had to keep an eye out for signs of the birds and for their cavities. At the end of the day, we would enter all the data into a computer.

"Technology and observation are methods used by researchers to find hot pockets or hot spots of bird activity. We were searching for areas where there have been recordings of birds, feeding signs and cavity building," said Saker. Bound by a confidentiality agreement, Saker can’t say if they found the birds, however, the latest press releases from the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory can be found at www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/.

In addition to his work investigating the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, Saker is spending time this summer at the Las Nubes Rainforest Reserve. Recently, he travelled to the reserve as a teaching assistant working with a group of students from York University. He is hoping to stay on the reserve to study other species of woodpeckers. As part of his activities in the reserve, Saker delivered a number of lectures to the students. To view him in action, click here.

To view more videos of Saker and York students working in the Las Nubes Rainforest, visit www.youtube.com/profile_videos?user=tjvazquez&p=r where the group’s videographer, Tristan Vazquez, an undergraduate student in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, has posted a video diary.

"To have had the opportunity to apply the skills I learned while in Arkansas to Las Nubes is a dream come true," said Saker. "Looking at the biological corridor in Las Nubes offers an important indicator of the health of the region. Mankind has a lot to learn from the woodpecker."

Written by Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor.