I have taken another look at the map of the Singer Tract discussed in my previous post, and I find that I was so focused on John’s Bayou that I overlooked nests I and V, which were located near Mack’s Bayou. Nest I is dated May 14, ’34 and Nest V is dated May 10, ’35. The four nests found in 1935 are listed in Bales (p. 64.) Tanner mentions only two of these five in his monograph.
While it doesn’t change the overall point of the post, three nests were found in the John’s Bayou area in 1935, and I was mistaken about the possibility that there might have been a fourth.
Last week I linked to this image and pointed out that the caption described it as the “Third ivorybills’ nest”. That discovery sent me back to the online archives. What I found raises some interesting questions about the Singer Tract, the population density of ivorybills, at least around John’s Bayou in 1935, and about habitat quality in general.
Most ivorybill aficionados are familiar with images from the Singer Tract. I think most of us know the ones that show dramatic, ‘primeval’ forest, but I suspect we are all prone to overlooking those showing less impressive habitat (just as I am prone to taking photographs of the biggest trees and the most dramatically mature forest), even if we are familiar with the debate about how much actual old growth existed in the Tract in the 1930s. In browsing through the Louisiana Digital Library, I came across an image that I had missed, one of the bridge over John’s Bayou taken in 1940. Tanner (p.32) includes an ivorybill sighting from this immediate vicinity, just northwest of the bridge. What I find interesting about this photograph is that the forest along the road appears to be fairly even-aged and does not have the characteristics typically associated with old growth. It is similar to what can be found in many parts of Louisiana today. An image from along Sharkey Road taken in 1937 shows similar characteristics, although a 1939 shot shows more mature looking habitat and was probably taken to the east of the others.
What makes this even more interesting is that the “Third ivorybills’ nest” appears to have been found to the south of Sharkey Road in an area that was either outside or on the very edge of what Tanner considered to be one of the “Best areas for Ivory-bills” (p. 91). This map shows the location of the nest tree, which is designated “Tree III Squirrel”. (also mentioned in Bales p. 45, “two miles to the south of the first nest” and fifty feet up p. 45.) The image of the snag itself suggests it might have been outside of prime habitat, since the cavity was 45′ (caption), 47′ 8″ (Tanner) or 50′ (Bales) up, and the snag is considerably taller than the surrounding trees.
On Edit: The oak snag could have been a super-dominant tree, which would account for the height difference and be consistent with the location being in mature forest. It’s also possible that the tree was an older tree that had been left behind. A close look at the two maps suggests it was outside the area Tanner designated as prime in 1941; it is approximately a half-mile from the John’s Bayou bridge.
Things grow even more puzzling since what appears to be the “Elm Rock” nest, the famous one, is listed as “Nest II” on the 1935 map, and there is no “Nest I” (Nest I was near Mack’s Bayou. See following post for correction.) There is also a “Nest IV” shown. This is somewhat closer to the “Elm Rock” nest and about 2/3 of the way toward Methiglum Bayou.
In his monograph, Tanner apparently recognized nests II and III but not nest IV, and why there is no reference to a nest I remains a mystery. It seems that 1935 was a bad year for ivorybills, and there’s nothing to suggest that any of these three or four nests succeeded. It’s possible that there never was a “Nest I” and that Tanner later decided that “Nest IV” was not a nest after all. Nevertheless, it appears that at least two pairs of ivorybills attempted to nest in the John’s Bayou area in 1935 and that one of those nests was in or near the border of what Tanner would have deemed to be inferior habitat.
This raises many questions and may have some implications in terms of how the IBWO might have been able to persist. At the very least, it calls into question Tanner’s estimate that “six and a quarter square miles” per pair is “probably close to the maximum density.”
In searching Cornell University’s online digital archives, I ran across some IBWO related photographs from the 1935 Allen/Kellogg/Tanner expedition in the Albert Rich Brand collection. Many of these pictures are familiar and have been widely published. Others are likely to be new, even to the most obsessive researchers, since Brand was a relatively less celebrated member of the expedition. One of the more interesting images shows a nest cavity near the top of a very long dead pin oak. This appears to be one of the two nest trees found by Allen and Kellogg and listed and discussed by Tanner, pp. 67-70. The typewritten caption on the photograph reads “The third Ivorybill’s nest. . .”, although Tanner only mentions two. The quality of the photograph is poor, but it is interesting because the stub is clearly long dead.
For my purposes, the most interesting photograph, titled Rock Elm Observation Blind shows the better known nest tree (a maple) from a different perspective than the published photos and includes more of the trunk than the others I’ve seen. I downloaded the image, and enlarged it as best I could. Readers can do the same. On close examination, a bill is visible protruding from nest cavity, making this a modest addition to the body of ivorybill photographs. What I find most significant is the appearance of the scaling on the bole. While the condition of the underlying wood seems to be considerably worse than what we are deeming to be grade A scaling, the similarity in appearance is dramatic, especially on the edges. The resemblance between this work and the scaling found in July in the northern sector is particularly striking.
Edited to add: All the digitized Brand collection images are here. They’re worth a look.
In addition, I’ve found a hand tinted version of “Rock Elm Observation Blind” in the Arthur A. Allen collection, under the title “Ivory-billed Woodpecker – Blind at Nest“. Although the colors are slightly washed out and smeared, the bird in the cavity is a little easier to see, and the similarities between the scaling on that tree and the scaling we’re finding are a little more evident, at least to my eyes.
Wishing everyone the best for the holidays and the coming year!