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IVORY BILLED WOODPECKER SIGHTED

The ivory-billed woodpecker, feared extinct for 60 years, has been seen in a remote part of Arkansas, ornithologists said on Thursday.

Several experts have spotted and heard at least one and possibly more ivory-billed woodpeckers deep in an ancient cypress swamp in eastern Arkansas. One was videotaped last year.

"This is huge. Just huge," said Frank Gill, senior ornithologist at the Audubon Society. "It is kind of like finding Elvis."

It is just a hop, skip and a jump, as a woodpecker flies, from the last reliable sighting of the bird in Louisiana in 1944.

The large black-and-white birds have distinctive white wing patches and measure at least 20 inches (50 cm) in height. Males have a red crest.

"This is the most spectacular creature we could ever imagine rediscovering," John Fitzpatrick of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology in New York told a news conference.

"For three generations this bird has been a symbol of the great old forests of the southern United States," he added.

"It is a flagship of the blunders of excess of overharvesting. Nothing could be more hoped for than this Holy Grail."

News of the sightings, first made in 2004, had been leaking out and outside experts said there was no question they were genuine.

Conservationists and state and federal officials have been moving quickly and quietly to secure the area, and the Departments of Agriculture and Interior announced a $10 million initiative to lease, buy and encourage the conservation of more land in the region.

Some of the money will also go to help keep the area under control, and to set up controlled viewing areas for ordinary citizens trying to catch a glimpse, said Interior Secretary Gale Norton. "Don't love this bird to death," she cautioned.

The nonprofit Nature Conservancy will seek to acquire another 200,000 acres in the area.

'LORD GOD BIRD'

A large, dramatic-looking bird, the ivory-billed woodpecker was known to be shy and to prefer the deep woods of the U.S. Southeast. It was sometimes nicknamed the "Lord God bird," Fitzpatrick said.

"It is such a striking bird. When people would see it they would say, 'Lord God what a woodpecker.' That's where it came from," he said.

As the name suggests, the birds have ivory-colored bills that help distinguish them from the similar but much more common pileated woodpecker.

They specialize in digging the bark off tall hardwoods that have died, and a breeding pair needs a large territory.

The survival of ivory bills is closely tied to that of the deep, swampy forests it lived in. The Big Woods area where the sightings occurred was heavily logged in the 19th and early 20th century but many of its tall hardwoods have grown back since then.

Gene Sparling, the amateur naturalist who made the sighting that got the experts convinced the birds had survived, was canoeing in a remote, bug- and snake-infested area. "It was a spiritual experience," he said.

He posted his sighting on the Internet and caught the interest of Tim Gallagher, of Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology and his friend Bobby Harrison, a college professor and keen bird-watcher .

Sparling took them to where he saw the bird and one almost immediately flew toward them. "We almost fell out of the canoe," Gallagher said.

By April one had been videotaped. The report of the sighting is published in the journal Science.

The birds only live about 15 years so the sightings mean they must be breeding somewhere.

"If there is a next Holy Grail ... the next Holy Grail would be to find a mated pair," Fitzpatrick said.

Conserving the land for a variety of species will be key, the experts said.

"We have been given a second chance and those are rare," Sparling said.

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Written by: Maggie Fox, Planet Ark

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