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Trip Report: May 8-11, 2014

On Thursday and Friday, Patricia Johnson (my wife) and I visited the Project Coyote search area. On Saturday we were joined by Frank Wiley and Steve Pagans, and on Sunday, Frank and I visited one area and Steve another. Weather conditions were generally good, with clear skies and temperatures in the 80s, except on Friday when rain limited our field time to a couple of hours.

Thursday, Patricia and I visited the southern search area – where we’ve spent most of our time, have found concentrations of scaling, including two of the heavily heavily scaled hickories discussed in previous posts, and have had the most contacts over the past couple of years. We did not see or hear anything of interest and found no fresh feeding sign, except for an oddly excavated live maple, unusual but not what I consider highly suggestive. I suspect this to be Pileated Woodpecker work but have included a photograph and a detail nonetheless.

Unusual excavation on live maple

Unusual excavation on live maple

Detail of excavation on live maple

Detail of excavation on live maple

One nice find was a large canebrake rattlesnake, as big around as my forearm.

Canebrake

The weather on Friday was bad, with moderate to heavy rain in the early morning, sporadic rain a little later, and steadier rain toward noon. We did what we could, but conditions were such that it wasn’t much. We visited another area in the southern sector where we’ve found concentrations of feeding sign over the years and where there have been some putative encounters, both visual and auditory. Patricia and I found an impressively and recently scaled fallen sweet gum approximately 20 yards east of a gravel road. The tree was not long dead and had fallen across a bayou either before or shortly after succumbing, undoubtedly within the last four months. Close examination revealed that some of the upper branches had been scaled well before the tree fell, but most of the work was fairly fresh; some of the bark chips were quite large, considerably larger than Tanner’s ‘between the size of a silver dollar and a man’s hand’; the bark ranged from moderately tight (difficult to pull off by hand) to tight (impossible to pull off by hand).

MoreSGDowned

Photo of Frank Wiley and Mark Michaels by Patricia Johnson included to provide a sense of scale.

Photo of Frank Wiley and Mark Michaels by Patricia Johnson included to provide a sense of scale.

Detail of scaling on downed sweet gum

Detail of scaling on downed sweet gum

DSC00746 copy 3

Inch long larvae found under bark of downed sweet gum. Photos by Patricia Johnson

Inch long larvae found under bark of downed sweet gum. Photos by Patricia Johnson

We did not collect the beetle larvae found under the bark and do not know whether they are identifiable. Edited to add: the larvae were found under the loosest section of bark; an entomologist suggested they are likely some kind of darkling beetle (Tenebrionidae). One insect species has been identified for us, the Bess Beetle or horned passalus (Odontotaenius disjunctus). This insect appears to be abundant throughout the search area. This is the species Audubon depicted in his iconic image, which inaccurately shows this ground and stump-dwelling insect on a high branch. The Birds of North America species account for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker includes this passage:

“Although the favored food of Ivory-billeds appears to have been the large larvae of some long-horned beetles (Cerambycidae; probably because of their size and hence volume of nutrients per larva), they have also been reported attracted to trees killed during what sounds like southern pine beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis; Scolytidae) outbreaks. Reports of Ivory-billeds foraging on downed wood suggests the probability that they also readily took the large larvae of other beetles, such as the horned passalus (Popilius disjunctus; Passalidae).”

Horned Passalid

Horned passalus or Bess Beetle

On Saturday, Steve Pagans joined us, and we went into a more northerly area. This is one of the easiest access points for getting into some very mature, predominantly sweet gum forest. Upon reaching the bottom, we worked our way south to territory we had not visited before. We came upon an area that is often wet and found a concentration of old cavities and a good deal of old scaling but no recent feeding sign. The live sweet gum in the first image was probably 4.5′ dbh. The crown has blown off within the past few years, and there is an old cavity just beneath the blowdown, approximately 50′ up (second photo). Although all the sign in this area is clearly a few years old, we are encouraged because this is the first real concentration of large cavities we’ve been able to find. There’s very little indication of human activity in this sector, no shotgun shells or litter, and only two or three flagged hunting routes, well north of the cavity cluster. Adjacent areas are even less accessible.

Huge sweet gum. Still alive although crown had fallen. Old cavity was just below the break-off point, approximately 50' up.

Patricia Johnson and huge sweet gum, alive although the crown fell some time ago. Old cavity was just below the break-off point, approximately 50′ up.

Old cavity in de-crowned sweet gum.

Old cavity in de-crowned sweet gum.

Cavity on left side of dead stub, live sweet gum

Cavity on left side of dead stub, live sweet gum

Old cavities in dead sweet gum.

Old cavities in dead sweet gum.

Example of old scaling and other woodpecker work on snags in the vicinity of a cavity cluster

Example of old scaling and other woodpecker work on snags in the vicinity of a cavity cluster

On Sunday, Steve focused on one area in the southern section, and Frank and I went into the other. We went a little farther north than we’d been before and found the habitat to be of lower quality, more recently logged and more even aged, with less standing dead wood. The amount of woodpecker foraging sign was not insubstantial, but there was nothing remotely suggestive of IBWO. Steve did not find anything other than the heavily scaled tree shown above, but his movements were somewhat limited because a new beaver dam has altered conditions and made access more difficult.

An off-topic note that should be of interest to anyone who spends time outdoors during warm weather: biting insects and ticks are abundant at this time of year. Last season, I contracted a tick-borne illness (Ehrlichiosis) and was covered in mosquito bites. This year, I wore Gamehide tick-proof clothing, which also repels biting insects. I had no tick or chigger bites and was barely bothered by mosquitoes.

I expect to return to the search area in late fall or early winter and to devote more time to searching next season.

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