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A RARE BIRD, A RARER LOOK AT DISCOVERY

Politics, passion and the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker collide.

Geoff Hill is a boyish, red-haired scientist who retains his sense of humor even with wet feet, when water moccasins surround his kayak, when he's afraid he is lost in the deep, dark swamps.

When someone tells him something interesting, he says, "No way!'' as if he is a teen and not the middle-aged ornithology director at Auburn University in Alabama. For the past few years, as he has searched for the Holy Grail of birds along the Florida Panhandle's Choctahatchee River, he has enjoyed dozens of "No way!'' moments.

He is among the few people on earth who claim to have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker. Huge, majestic and wary, the ivory-billed has been considered extinct for seven decades.

To that, Hill might say, "No way!''

In 2004, Cornell scientists announced the rediscovery of the bird in Arkansas. Evidence eventually was dismissed by other experts as skimpy, but the excitement encouraged ornithologists to search in their own neighborhoods. On what probably is Florida's wildest river, the Auburn boys saw something thrilling in the thick trees.

Hill has written a thoroughly delightful book about the adventure.

What do scientists do when they believe they have the Holy Grail within their sights? They worry about politics. This is a book about the brass-knuckles side of big league science.

Hill and his colleagues have 14 ivory-billed sightings so far. They have audio recordings, photos of likely tree cavities. They even have video, but Hill doesn't think it's good enough to show the world.

"I'm perfectly content to call our evidence 'highly suggestive,' rather than 'definitive,' '' Hill writes. "These birds aren't going anywhere.''

Neither is Hill.

Jeff Klinkenberg writes about Florida culture. To read about his woodpecker hunt with Hill, see life.tampabay.com.

The Ivorybill Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness

By Geoffrey E. Hill Oxford, 260 pages, $24.95

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