Columns » John Brummett

An obsession, a camera, history

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David Luneau, just on the young side of 50, is — I can personally attest — a very good club-level tennis player. He’s one of those southpaw sonofaguns with sneaky speed that will exasperate you. But he maintains another hobby, and that is where he is now world-famous. He got interested in birds as a young man. From poring over books, he began an abiding obsession with one particular bird. Almost as if to apologize, he says, “I’m a one-species guy.” What grabbed him were photographs of a large and regal woodpecker, ivory-billed with a red crest, and the text that always labeled the bird “possibly extinct” or “probably extinct” in North America. A “serious birder,” Luneau says, can take such phrasing as a challenge. “You think — wouldn’t it be great if I could find it?” Let’s make the long story short: On April 25, 2004, just one hour and 15 minutes from his home in the Otter Creek section of southwest Little Rock, in a boat in the swampy woods of the Cache River, Luneau shot the video that, after considerable zooming and cropping by experts at Cornell University, proved to high academic satisfaction the existence of that very ivory-billed, red-crested woodpecker. It’s only what some are calling the greatest ornithological find of a lifetime. A non-birder from Hot Springs had reported seeing the bird in February 2004. A couple of experts from Cornell, hearing of that, reported seeing it the next month. They’d had camera equipment in a waterproof container, but the bird was gone before they could unpack the gear. Verification became the issue. That, and secrecy. If word got out, people would come, land might be bought and all manner of complication might ensue. In the 14 months between the first reported sighting and the announcement, maybe a thousand people, Luneau figures, came to know of this possibility. But no one told the press until the time was right and the federal and state authorities were ready to regulate visitation. Luneau, an engineering technology professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, had recently looked for the bird in Louisiana and on the White River. He loaded up a video camera and placed it in his boat atop a milk carton and cushion, and packed enough tapes and batteries to keep the camera running at all times. He headed to the Cache swamps. On April 25, 2004, he and his brother-in-law veered their boat from the main channel and into the woods to check motion-detection cameras they’d put on a few bark-removed trees. Suddenly, a large bird flew to a brief stop. “I just froze,” Luneau says. Was it an ivory-billed, or merely a fairly common, if not unimpressive, pileated woodpecker? There was the matter of his running camera. Back home, he loaded the video to his television set. Yes, he had a picture of the bird. But it was from about 65 feet and blurry, the six-foot focus being on his brother-in-law. He downloaded the image to his computer. He studied it hard. He thought he was looking at history, but he couldn’t be sure. You don’t want to claim an epic discovery and turn out to be wrong. He sent the video to the experts at Cornell. Then a donor-funded verification group including Luneau created two flapping models — of an ivory-billed and a pileated — and went back to the swampy woods to recreate the sighting from dozens of angles. Scientists studied the size of the bird in the photograph in relation to the size of trees. They became sure. This was an ivory-billed woodpecker. Luneau will need to get back to work soon at UALR, where he’s been on leave for two semesters. His tennis game has been on hiatus lately because he tore a tendon in his toe accelerating for a short ball. But his life seems to have been full enough otherwise.

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