Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Rare Bird Indeed

Here I depart from my usual subject matter to plug a new book that has nothing to do with the movies. (Actually, there is a film connection of sorts, but I'll get to that in a moment.)

Titled Ghost Birds, the book describes how, during the late 1930s, a young Cornell graduate student named James T. Tanner undertook an ornithological expedition that led to what probably remains the most remarkable field research ever conducted on one of America's rarest birds, the ivory-billed woodpecker. It's a great story that takes the reader on a twisty tour of remote wetlands in eight southern states. While Tanner had disappointments along the way—his extensive searches in Florida, stretching from the panhandle to the Everglades, led to not a single sighting—he also experienced an extraordinary triumph: in a remote swamp in northeastern Louisiana, he was able to study several ivory-bills, including a young nestling that he handled, banded, and photographed at close range.

Full disclosure: This book is published by my employer, the University of Tennessee Press, and I had the privilege of copyediting the manuscript, a process in which I worked closely with the book's genial and gifted author, Stephen Lyn Bales, a naturalist at Knoxville's Ijams Nature Center. So I'm biased, but no matter: it's still an immensely enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it. For more about the book, here's a link to the UTP Web site. Also, this month's Smithsonian Magazine carries an article that Lyn wrote about how Tanner came to photograph the ivory-bill nestling. That story is an amazing mini-drama in itself.

Now for the movie connection. Coincidentally, a documentary called Ghost Bird (singular in this case) was released earlier this year. It focuses on a much more recent hunt for the ivory-bill, the one that followed reported sightings in Arkansas in 2005. Those sightings made national headlines because the bird was thought to have gone extinct in the decades that followed Tanner's groundbreaking research. Unfortunately, a lengthy Cornell investigation (eventually suspended) was unable to produce definitive confirmation. Birders remain hopeful, however, that the ivory-bill is still out there.

I haven't seen the documentary yet, but that will soon change. On October 21, UT Press (in cooperation with the Tennessee Clean Water Network) will host a screening of the film at the Knoxville Museum of Art. Lyn Bales will be there to sign copies of Ghost Birds, along with Nancy Tanner, Jim Tanner's widow, who played a big role in the writing of the book. (Mrs. Tanner was also interviewed for the film.) If you live in the area and are interested, click here for more information.

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