This was a difficult trip on multiple levels. Weather and road conditions prevented me from spending much time in our core search area, and a bad chest cold kept me out of the field almost entirely on the 26th. On that day, all I could manage was a morning, roadside stakeout of an intriguing cavity, in a pine snag a few miles from the core of the search area. (Frank will be posting a write up of that event and his perspective on it in the near future.) To our chagrin, the new game cam, which we had aimed at the spot where Frank had the sighting earlier this month, shut down about an hour after we left it. We suspect this was due to was some kind of card programming error on our part that Frank will try to address. That said, the image quality is far superior to our old cameras, and once we’ve worked out the bugs, we expect that the percentage of unidentifiable blobs will plummet.
Despite the challenges, the trip was still a productive one for a number of reasons. We were able to develop some strategies for reaching the more inaccessible areas when I return in June (provided water levels subside), and I was able to get some new insights into the feeding sign found on the last couple of trips and to make comparisons with other locations, even though I found no fresh work during my limited time in the core area.
On the 22nd, I drove to the trailhead; the access road was in poor condition due to the quantity of rain over the past month, and I nearly got stuck in a couple of spots. While a truck or 4-wheel drive vehicle would not have encountered any problems, I was mindful of the possibility of getting stranded in my small rental car, a very unappealing prospect. Heavy thunderstorms were predicted for the afternoon. I spent the morning in the area where Frank had his sighting and where there’s a concentration of scaling but did not see or hear anything suggestive, despite doing some playbacks and double knocks. What may be significant in future is that I found a large, live sweet gum limb that had blown down very recently. The base was embedded in the ground and the top was perhaps 20’ high. This presents us with an opportunity to monitor a potential feeding site for an extended period (once we’ve resolved the camera issues). At present, there are no signs of insect infestation in this blowdown, and we’re discussing the optimal time to begin the monitoring.
Cell phone access is spotty at best, so I was unable to monitor the local radar; shortly before noon, the skies darkened, and the air felt threatening. I decided it would be best to get out of the woods rather than risk getting stuck, retrieving the trail cam on my way out. As it happened, the rain didn’t start until much later in the day.
The forecast for the 23rd was even more ominous, with severe thunderstorms predicted for the area beginning late in the morning. Based on the forecast, I opted to visit some public land near our original search area for the first time since 2012. Some of the intriguing recordings from 2010 were obtained there, and I found some suggestive bark scaling in 2012.
This area has a great deal more standing water than where we’re currently focused, and the bugs were awful, gnats in particular. The diversity of the habitat makes it a great birding spot; it’s a fairly long walk into the mature hardwood areas, and I covered about eight miles round trip. The habitat is pretty impressive, and much of it is very inaccessible and unvisited (few people go off the ATV trails.) The forest is impressive – very mature second growth. The soil type is not the same as in our current search area, so the understory composition and secondary tree species are somewhat different, but as in much of our search area, oaks and sweet gums predominate. Many of the sweet gums are in the 3’ DBH range, and oaks of between 4’-5’ DBH are not unusual.
I did not see or hear anything suggestive, but I found several downed sweet gum limbs that appeared to be infested with the same larvae as the ones in our core search area (more on this below.) None of these limbs had been scaled.
I got back to my car shortly before noon, anticipating bad weather and headed back toward Frank’s. Once again, the forecasts were less than reliable. I stopped for lunch, and a squall blew through the area, but the skies brightened. I went to Frank’s, checked the radar, and decided to return to the most easily accessible part of our current search area. This is a location where there have been sightings, auditory encounters, and where we’ve found concentrations of scaling in the past but that does not seem to be very active at present. It is a couple of miles from the concentration in a straight line and considerably more distant if mature bottomland corridors are followed. I found a little higher branch work there in February of this year; we heard double knocks in late December 2014, and found this heavily scaled sweet gum in May of last year. I found the same signs of infestation on downed sweet gum limbs in this area but only minimal scaling from no more recently than last fall. This work could have been done before the branch fell.
On the 24th, I decided that the best option would be to look for ways to get into the less accessible parts of our search area by walking an old logging road that traverses nearby uplands. The composition of the forest traversed by the old road is mostly hardwood, but it is nowhere near as impressive as the bottomland forest. In many places it is abutted by pine plantations, which play a major role in limiting access to the core area, since the younger plantations are virtually impenetrable. I covered about 5 miles round trip, and made several attempts to find ways into the bottomlands, both by going cross country and by following old logging roads. Only the last of these attempts succeeded, although I didn’t go far because the weather was getting ominous, and I’m not keen on exploring new and inaccessible territory unaccompanied. The near total absence of flagging tape in this area points to how few people go off trail here, and even those who do seldom go into the lower lying areas (I found a deer stand at the edge of an impenetrable pine plantation.) As in the other non-core areas, I found signs of insect infestation in sweet gum limbs but no scaling.
The next day (4/25) Frank joined me, and we took his truck to the main access point. We hiked in following a somewhat different cross country route that took us into a perviously unvisited part of the area. Despite a favorable forecast, we got caught in a thunderstorm that lasted for approximately half an hour. We managed to stay almost completely dry during the storm itself but got drenched as we moved through the woods in its aftermath. The understory is often quite dense and above head height, which tends to force one to follow the beaten track. Because we’d entered the bottom at a different location, we were forced to fight our way through this dense understory. With full leaf out, looking for feeding sign, let alone ivorybills, is far more difficult. The photo below was taken with my pocket point-and-shoot, on full automatic, through an opening; it should provide a sense of just how hard it is to see anything in much of the search area once leaves are out.
My cough grew worse as the day went on, and we left the woods at around 3 pm, without having seen or heard anything suggestive, other than some older scaling on a large limb that had fallen into the crotch of a tree within 30 yards of the spot where Frank had his sighting, likely during the same storm that brought down the live branch.
Based on the appearance of the insect tunnels and frass found both in and outside of our core search area, I believe the sweet gum limbs and tops we’re finding are infested with ambrosia beetles (though not always exclusively). There are a number of different species, both domestic and invasive, that feed on sweet gums. While ambrosia beetles are tiny, the females tend to significant numbers of larvae within a chamber.
This would make them an attractive food source for a large woodpecker, including an adult ivorybill (though not to feed to a nestling, since Campephilus woodpeckers do not regurgitate). Most ambrosia beetles require live or very freshly dead wood as a substrate for the fungus on which they actually feed.
The foregoing leads to a few observations and the beginnings of a hypothesis. First, we did not find any fresh scaling on this trip, and the work found on the last was recent but mostly not fresh, probably less so than what I found in February. We thus suspect that the bulk of the scaling was done during the time frame when ivorybills would be courting, nesting, and brooding (this may also be related to the beetle’s life cycle, since in some species adults are most active in March.) We also cannot help but reiterate that evidence of recent woodpecker bark scaling on ambrosia beetle infested wood is abundant – found on well over 90% of downed medium to large sweet gum limbs and on the two young recently dead trees – in a very concentrated area where we suspect ivorybills are present. Recent woodpecker sign is absent on ambrosia beetle infested limbs in several nearby locations with similar forest composition and woodpecker populations (in one of these, where indications of ivorybills have been noted in the past, there was a very limited amount of older work.)
This may shed light on Tanner’s observations regarding high branch scaling on recently dead or dying wood (high branches are not preferred by the larger Cerambycids). This is exactly the substrate required by ambrosia beetles, some species of which are associated with sweet gums. While the larval chambers are not immediately beneath the bark, they are shallow enough, especially on smaller limbs, to be accessed with a blow or two and don’t require extensive digging. There is of course no way to prove this is so (nor are we suggesting that ambrosia beetles might be the sole prey species), but it makes intuitive sense to us and seems to resolve some apparent contradictions between what’s known about prey species and the way Tanner interpreted what he observed.
With the greatest sadness, we learned today that our friend Edith “Doe Doe” Kuhn Whitehead passed away due to kidney failure on April 22, 2015. She was the daughter of J.J. Kuhn, without whom James Tanner’s study of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker would have been nearly impossible. Her recollections of her father and his work with Tanner and the ivorybills were entertaining and provided us with many insights about the birds.
She crossed over quietly in her sleep after gall bladder surgery the previous day. She had a long, full, happy life and will be fondly remembered by her many friends and family. We will keep them in our thoughts and prayers during this time of sadness.
Godspeed Mrs. Edith.
As mentioned in the Part One of this trip report, I was alone in the search area from March 31st to April 2nd. Frank Wiley joined me from April 3rd-5th. He had a very robust, brief sighting on the morning of the 3rd, and we had a possible auditory encounter on the 4th. Conditions changed dramatically over the course of the week, and by the 4th, leaf-out had progressed to the point where examining tall trees for cavities and scaling had become very difficult. Weather conditions were generally good, although winds were high for much of the time. It rained heavily on the night of 3rd, and all we did on the 5th was set up a trail cam.
March 31, 2015
I hiked into what we now think is a hot zone and worked my way south, finding approximately a dozen downed sweet gums and the standing sapling that had been heavily stripped of bark. I did several playbacks and got reactions from pileateds and red-bellieds – calling and drumming but not attractions. I called it a day when I found a secondary feather that I suspected might come from an ivorybill. It seemed large for a red-headed and was white, except for the base, which was black on both sides. I bagged the feather and hiked back out. Upon examination, it became clear that it was indeed a RHWO feather; the differences are subtle. The innermost secondary of the Agey and Heinzmann feather, which has been confirmed as an innermost ivorybill secondary, is 3.5” long (thanks to Fredrik Bryntesson for providing the information on this feather, which comes from a letter from Heinzmann to Wetmore) and is all white. I have seen an ivorybill secondary that is 4.25″, though I’m not sure of the number. It had black on one side. The difference is a very fine one, especially since the innermost RHWO secondaries also have black on one side and white on the other. This was false alarm, but better safe than sorry. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Feather Atlas is a great resource; I only wish that it included the ivorybill.
April 1, 2015
To my relief, nothing much of consequence happened on April Fools Day. I returned to the same area and did several playbacks over the course of the morning, generating increased drumming and calling from pileateds, red-bellieds, and red-headeds. The playbacks also seemed to cause Barred Owls and American Crows to vocalize, and after one series at 9:00 am, two crows came in silently to investigate and then called a little. I also found the “chopped” sweet gum sapling that day; it was within a hundred yards of the scaled sapling, in an area where there was an abundance of work on sweet gums.
April 2, 2015
I visited three other locations. I began with the area where I found a concentration of bark scaling in 2012 and where I recorded calls in 2013 and where the tree on the homepage is located. The hydrology in this area has changed considerably for several reasons, and I saw nothing of interest. I did encounter a couple of large moccasins. Playbacks provoked some reactions from pileateds and red-bellieds. Strangely enough, the pileated did not respond to PIWO playbacks.
I then went to another patch where there have been contacts over the years, and where we found a heavily scaled downed sweet gum last spring. There has been no further work on that tree, and the decay has progressed to the point where the bark is loose and Bess beetles, skinks, and slugs are residing underneath. This tree has now been down for between between one and two years, and the twigs and small branches are starting to fall away. The bark too is getting looser.
Impressionistically, this is quite consistent with Tanner’s characterization of the decay process. We suspect that this lack of return visits is typical of ivorybill feeding behavior, since we’ve monitored multiple feeding trees and have seen this pattern repeatedly. In one case, the small scaled oak in the old search area, there was one round of scaling found in January and a second in May or June, but in all the other monitored trees have been scaled once and that’s all. In my experience pileateds typically return to feeding trees on a fairly regular basis, and in the case of this particular tree, there’s obviously an abundant food supply under the bark.
April 3, 2015
Frank and I hiked into the ‘hot zone’. We did some playbacks at approximately 8 am, although I did not record anything about them in my notes. We proceeded in a more or less southerly direction with Frank in the lead by about 10 yards; I was walking slowly and looking up and to my right. As we approached a body of water, Frank stopped and blurted something unintelligible. I caught up with him, and he said he had gotten a very good look at a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker that had flushed, presumably from a fallen log lying in the water or possibly from water’s edge. The distance was no more than 20 yards. I handed Frank my field book so that he could draw what he saw and record his observations. I’ve included the sketch and transcribed his description, with a few redactions related to the specific location. These were done immediately after the sighting and without reference to a field guide. Not included in the description is his estimate that the sighting lasted 2-3 seconds, as the bird, which was in the open for perhaps 10 yards (we’ll measure this distance at the next opportunity), flew upward into an opening in the woods across the water, and in his excitement, he mistakenly gave the date as April 4.
- Big traffic cone shaped WHITE bill (3”ish?)
- Solid black head/face – light colored eye (whiteish)
- Bright red crimson crest puffed up not what you’d expect.
- Stripe on face beginning behind.
- Stripes on back form chevron over rump.
- Wings long/thin shallow rapid flaps.
- Rear 1/3 to 1/2 of wings white, all the way out to primaries.
- Long tapered tail.
Later that day in an email exchange, we added the following comments.
“At the first sign of movement, I assumed a Wood Duck had flushed, looked in that direction, and immediately saw the crimson red of the crest. I then thought, “PIWO” but noticed the big white traffic cone bill, and an almost entirely black face. There was a white stripe that started below/behind the light (I got the impression of white – not yellow) colored eye. The crest was not “groomed” as is usually seen in most of the artwork – rather it was puffed up as if the bird were agitated.”
“I just have a few things to add to this. I was about 30 feet behind Frank and was looking in the opposite direction, so I didn’t see it. Frank kind of blurted something, and when I got to him, he was clearly and deeply shocked and absolutely sure of what he saw. I told him to sketch it and then write a description. I didn’t hear any splashing or wood duck sounds, and I’m sure I would have if it had been a duck. He mentioned that he didn’t think the bird was terribly frightened and had probably flushed due to the sound of something approaching, since he was likely out of view. We were approaching the area where I found a concentration of bark scaling, including both the hatchet sapling and the other scaled one I found on Tuesday. (A better photo and a detail of a worked exit tunnel on that one are attached) and were perhaps 100 yards away. I had not mentioned this to Frank until after the sighting. It’s also not at all far from the cluster of old cavities we found last spring. I guessed that the bird was drinking from the creek, and we are contemplating putting a camera on the log, in the event that it’s a place that might be a preferred spot.” The only other item of note on the third was our finding an interesting looking old cavity in a fallen sweet gum. Though partially healed over, it appears to have been quite large when fresh, at least 6″x4″ and the area beneath it had been stripped of bark.
April 4, 2015
We returned to the same general area on the morning of the 4th, covering a lot of territory and finding more scaling on downed sweet gums. At approximately 11 am, we heard a loud knock or knocks. Frank heard a softer first knock and a much louder second one. I only heard the second, but it was loud, sharp, and woody. It’s worth noting that though louder second knocks are unusual, they are by no means unheard of . . . “the second blow is louder in 21 out of 119 recorded examples of double-rap displays by seven Campephilus species we studied . . .” The knock or double knock had come from the northeast.
We decided to do some playback, after which we heard two more possible double knocks in close succession, now from the west. I was not overly impressed by these, feeling they somehow lacked the energy I associate with really good knocks. Frank agreed about the first but thought the second was as good as any he’s heard. Slight differences in perception like these are not at all uncommon in our experience.
April 5, 2015
On the morning of the 5th, we went out to place a trail camera where Frank had his sighting. We’re hopeful that this new higher resolution camera will provide unambiguous results. It’s worth noting that we flushed a Pileated Woodpecker from virtually the same spot and from a similar distance as we approached the water. There was no mistaking it, and within a roughy similar time frame, and with a virtually identical flight path, it was possible to note an equivalent number of field marks, including the facial pattern; we agree that this pileated appeared to be a female. Weather and lighting conditions on both days were similar with overcast skies, perhaps slightly darker on the morning of the 5th.
As always, my time in our search area was very productive – inspiring new insights and ideas and producing suggestive but inconclusive evidence that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are present in this location and have been for years. The weather was considerably more cooperative this trip than on the two or three preceding ones, although temperatures edged toward the uncomfortable – mid 80s and humid from Tuesday-Friday – and rain limited field time on Saturday and Sunday. I was alone from Tuesday-Thursday, and Frank Wiley joined me from Friday-Sunday. Later this week, I’ll post a day-to-day log that includes more about possible encounters and some additional images,
For reasons that should become clear, we are starting to think there may be a home range in an area of over four square miles (and possibly considerably more than that), much of which we have not yet explored, and some of which is very difficult to reach – a two mile walk from the nearest road and bisected by deep sloughs and streams. We have some reason to suspect that this range has been used for a number of years. This is in very mature bottomland forest, logged between 1905 and 1915, and it includes the stand of sweet gums where we found a cavity cluster last year.
Also on this trip, we did more experimenting with playbacks; I actually began the experiment shortly before I left for Louisiana, with a Pileated Woodpecker in my yard outside New York City. She responded with considerable agitation to my playback of Pileated calls and drums – calling and flying over at very close range while looking directly at me. She did not react at all to playback of ivorybill calls and pounding from the Singer Tract (the iBird Pro selections). Several species in our search area seem to react to ivorybill playbacks. Pileated, Red-bellied, and Red-headed Woodpeckers frequently react with drumming and scolding. In one instance, a calling Pileated Woodpecker went silent and flew away immediately after a playback. Barred Owls will often call immediately after, as will American Crows. In one case, a pair of crows came in to within 80 feet, apparently to investigate; in another, a Red-shouldered Hawk did the same.
There were three instances of possible ivorybill interaction with or response to playback. Two of them were very weak possibles, meriting only this passing mention. The third was a little more interesting and will be discussed in the day-by-day account. We will continue the experiment, both in Louisiana and New York (to see if and how various species react). We’ve recently been informed, by “Motiheal” from ibwo.net, that a Red-headed Woodpecker in Virginia approached in response to the playback of five kents.
One of the reasons we’re optimistic about having pinpointed a home range is the abundance of feeding sign in the area. In addition to the work sign from this area discussed in previous posts, there’s an abundance of older work, like this scaling on a hickory snag.
According to Tanner (p. 47), “Trees and limbs almost two years dead have lost almost all twigs, some small branches, and bark is loosened on some small branches.” Of course, the decay process is not as linear as Tanner’s description implies, and scaling of bark itself hastens the loosening of whatever remains. Thus, on scaled branches and boles, bark is likely to have loosened considerably unless the work is very fresh. Still, the presence of leaves and/or twigs is a strong indicator of recent death, perhaps even more so on blowdown, for which the decay process is likely hastened by proximity to the ground. In terms of more recent work, I found two sweet gums with sign on large high limbs, perhaps the most dramatic scaling that closely matches Tanner’s description we’ve found to date. Not only is it very extensive; the scaled limbs are quite recently dead. While it’s not possible to test the tightness of the bark, the presence of leaves in the case of the more recent scaling and twigs with buds in the case of the somewhat older work suggest that the limbs died within a six months to, at most, two years. It has been suggested that ivorybills are largely birds of the canopy that seldom if ever feed near the ground and that this behavior might account for the difficulty in obtaining clear photographs. Despite the fact that Allen and Kellogg observed a female bird feeding on the ground like a Flicker, and Tanner himself reported observations of foraging close to the ground, the idea that the species is limited to the canopy has become a kind of conventional wisdom. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I don’t accept this notion and much of the feeding sign we’ve found has been low on standing trees and snags and on blowdown or slash. In the last trip report, I discussed feeding sign found on recently downed sweet gums (just outside of what we believe to be the hot zone, although possibly within it if it is larger than we currently suspect). On this trip, I found over two dozen examples of extensive bark scaling on downed sweet gum tops and limbs. This work was so commonplace that photographing additional examples seemed redundant. In all cases, the blowdowns were recent and involved very freshly dead wood. At least some leaves were still attached, making it likely that these limbs and tops had fallen in the last six months to one year. In the hot zone, I found only two sweet gum tops or large limbs that had not been scaled. Most of the scaling was recent to very fresh, probably one or two days old in one instance (unfortunately, it had rained the night before, so any scat had been washed away.) I do not believe that all of this is the work of ivorybills. Nonetheless, I suspect that much of it is, due to its abundance and extensiveness and in light of Tanner’s study and the preference he found in the Singer Tract ivorybills for recently dead and dying sweet gums (this even though I believe Tanner overstated this preference and did not sufficiently account for specific conditions in the Singer Tract).
I did not find this type of work in brief visits to areas outside the hot zone, where it was ubiquitous; nor have I seen anything quite like it elsewhere. I did not see anything like it on other species of downed trees; the only partial exception was some scaling on longer dead parts of a live downed hickory. As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that the species of hickory in our area were not present in the Singer Tract, although their congeners, pecans and water hickory were. Unlike Tanner, we’re finding scaling on hickories that likely exceeds their relative abundance. We’re also finding considerably less scaling on various oak species.
In addition to the work on freshly downed sweet gums, I found two standing, recently dead young sweet gums that had been worked on in unusual ways. Both showed signs of infestation by insects that bored into the heartwood. Both had been very heavily scaled, one with minimal excavation only around the insect tunnels. The other had been hacked up in a way that, in the words of several people, looked as if someone had taken a hatchet to it; the wood was hard and not at all punky. Whatever did this work chopped through a small branch to the point where it broke off and almost severed the top of the tree as well.
In his report on Cuban ivorybills, George Lamb described something similar:
Soon after we observed a female ivory-bill . . . feeding on the dead branch of a Hilacho tree (Torrubia obtusata) in a small stand of hardwoods. Suddenly the branch broke off while she was still perched on it . . . The Hilacho limb previously mentioned as breaking while being fed on, represents a type of feeding which was neither scaling nor digging. The limb was vertical and had probably originally been about three inches in diameter. Possibly it had once been scaled, but when recovered showed evidence of feeding to the extent that hardly anything was left. The wood was very punky and hand been chipped away from the perimeter to of the limb all along it’s 2 1/2 foot length. The chips, some of which we gathered, were long and splintery appearing, and were riddled with beetle larvae “tunnels”.
Our broken branch is approximately 2″ in diameter, while the top appears to be more than 3″. Unlike the Hilacho tree, the wood on this sweet gum was hard, not punky.
While I suspect that some of the work on these trees, the very targeted work on the limbs (small rectangular scaling/digging), may have been done by Hairy Woodpeckers, the bulk of it is extremely unusual, inconsistent with any Pileated Woodpecker work I’ve ever seen and with Tanner’s description of that species’ foraging preference for longer dead wood; the type of prey is consistent with what would be expected for ivorybills. While the work on ‘hatcheted’ sapling doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria we’ve developed over the years, we think it highly likely that this is Ivory-billed Woodpecker work. The scaling on the other small sapling is generally consistent with our criteria, although it has some very limited excavation, clearly aimed at expanding existing tunnels, rather than digging into the wood in the manner typical of Pileated Woodpeckers. Again, from the Lamb report: At one point she was only about 25 feet away while she was feeding around the base of a small pine. She began working “barking” this tree around 30 inches from the ground and slowly worked her way up to the top.
Stay tuned for the second installment, which will also include details of a sighting Frank Wiley had on Friday, April 3.