An Unpublished Image from 2009 and Some Reflections on Remote Cameras

I wanted to respond a recent post from Cyberthrush and thought it would be better to do so here rather than as a comment on his blog, since I will include few photographs.

Cyberthrush wrote:

As a sidenote, there is BTW, one paradox that DOES concern me: it’s one thing for humans to have difficulty encountering IBWOs, it’s another for non-thinking, non-tiring, 24-hour-working cameras to fail to encounter the bird. Despite 1000’s of hours of automatic, remote camera-recording (literally millions of picture frames) from habitat, cavities, and foraging sites that appeared favorable, we have utterly failed, over years, to detect a SINGLE Ivory-billed Woodpecker — even though these birds must, to exist at all, regularly forage, roost, fly about, breed, etc.  This is the single most devastating result of the entire USFWS/Cornell search — having said that, I’ll quickly add that the cameras (which often malfunctioned, BTW) were used in relatively few areas — compared to all the suitable habitat available.  Still, cameras were placed where, following much study, the best chance of capturing an Ivory-bill on tape was anticipated — either Ivory-bills were not there, despite prior alleged evidence that they were, or we humans are bumblingly, mind-blowingly incompetent at ever understanding/predicting this species’ behavior (personally, I’m voting for the gross friggin’ human incompetence option, but I could be wrong, maybe they aren’t there)].

With regard to the failure of remote cameras to detect an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, over the years Project Coyote has gotten several Reconyx images that are suggestive but are not of sufficient quality to be conclusive. We published two images from the old search area on the old website and are reposting the more intriguing of the two below (we disagree about the other.) We’ve never shared a third image publicly, although we agree that it is suggestive. We are doing so now to illustrate just how limited the cameras are. Both pictures were taken at fairly close range, no more than 100 feet from the subject, and we have teased as much detail out of them as we can. In both cases, better camera technology would probably have made it possible to identify the subjects with certainty. These cameras were designed for taking pictures of terrestrial mammals at close range, and their limitations become very evident when birds are the target.

 

Reconyx image taken August 11th 2009. Possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker is just below the major fork in the center tree. A squirrel can also bee seen near the suspected roost hole, higher on the trunk.

Reconyx image taken August 11th 2009. Original image has been doubled to improve resolution but is otherwise unaltered. Possible Ivory-billed Woodpecker is just below the major fork in the center tree. A squirrel is also discernible near the suspected roost hole, higher on the trunk.

 

Detail of August 2009 image. It has been suggested that the red in the crest is an artifact, but artifact or not, the quantity of black in the crest appears inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker. What may be part of the white saddle is visible on the lower left.

Detail of August 2009 image, enhanced in Photoshop to the best of my ability. It has been suggested that the red in the crest is an artifact, but artifact or not, the quantity of black in the crest appears inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker. What may be part of the white saddle is visible on the lower left of the bird, a creamy white which contrasts with the bluish white of the backlighting just below it.

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Reconyx image taken November 30, 2011 and details showing suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker, possibly a female. Red crests are visible on Pileated Woodpeckers in Reconyx images captured under similar conditions and at similar distances. The bird is only present in a single frame. I had a sighting at this spot one week before.

 

As Cyberthrush observed, the cameras are prone to malfunction, and even when they do operate properly, they can only shoot an image every 20-30 seconds. This means they miss a good deal of avian activity. We have examined many thousand Reconyx images over the years, and the number of sequences showing any woodpecker for more than a single frame is very small. The sequence showing a PIWO and a HAWO (scroll down), captured last spring is unique. Getting good Reconyx images of common species is considerably more difficult than it seems.

 

There are several additional issues. First, when it comes to the kind of bark scaling we think is associated with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, there are no return visits for several months after the feeding sign has been found. In our search area, a tree scaled in March had additional work done on it in May. In the new area, we have had no clear evidence of return visits to the trees scaled last year, and in one instance – involving higher branch, more Tanner-like scaling – the work appeared to have been done approximately a year apart. Not leaving cameras in place for long enough may have led to missed opportunities.

 

I disagree with Cyberthrush’s “gross friggin’ human incompetence option”, but the human element is quite likely a factor. I understand that on at least some of the official searches, no effort was made to camouflage the cameras, something we think is very important. In addition, as I pointed out in a recent comment on CT’s blog, J.J. Kuhn (not James T. Tanner) was the last person who knew how to find ivorybills reliably. It’s pretty clear that feeding sign was a key component. The issue here isn’t competence; it’s the lack of sufficient, reliable information.

 

Some people are convinced there’s no way to distinguish IBWO from PIWO work (and I agree that’s true most of the time.) But I believe more attention could have been paid to the existing images from the Singer Tract and to the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. I’m also not aware of much importance being attached to bark chips, despite the fact that they’re mentioned in the literature. It took me several years of obsessing over this subject to arrive at a working hypothesis. But even if I’m correct, that doesn’t address the need to have a camera in the right place at the right time.

 

I’ll be making a brief visit to our search area next week and will likely post an update after I return.