A Close Encounter With the Rarest Bird

Newfound negatives provide fresh views of the young ivory-billed woodpecker

James T. Tanner's photographs of the ivory-billed woodpecker with guide J.J. Kuhn were believed to be the only pictures of a living nestling. (James T. Tanner)
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One of the first things I found was a glassine envelope containing a 2 1/4- by 3 1/4-inch negative. Holding it up to the light, I realized it was of the nestling ivory-bill from the Singer Tract—an image I had never seen. I quickly found another negative, then another and another. My hands began to shake. It turned out that Tanner had taken not 6 pictures on that long-ago March 6, but 14. As a group, they show the young bird not frozen in time, but rather clambering over Kuhn like a cat on a scratching post, frightened but vital.

Like almost any ornithologist, Jim Tanner would have liked to have been proved wrong about the ivory-bill’s fate. In 2005, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology announced that searchers had seen an ivory-bill multiple times in ten months in the Big Woods in Arkansas. Other researchers, connected to Auburn University, reported 13 sightings in 2005 and 2006 along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida’s panhandle. In both cases, the sightings were made by experienced observers, including trained ornithologists. Yet neither group’s documentation—including a 4.5-second video of a bird in Arkansas—has been universally accepted. So the wait for incontrovertible evidence continues. Photographs like the ones Jim Tanner took in 1938 would do nicely.

Stephen Lyn Bales is a naturalist in Knoxville. His book about James Tanner, Ghost Birds, is due out this month.


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