Mystery Bird Meets Imperial Woodpecker – Trail Cam Photos Revisited (Part 2)

If you haven’t done so already, please read Trail Cam Photos Revisited for a more comprehensive discussion of the image that’s central to this post (including an explanation of our conclusion that the mystery bird is larger than a Pileated Woodpecker). At the time of writing, I didn’t envision doing a follow-up, but the nagging sense that the Rhein Imperial Woodpecker film might be even more relevant than I thought initially led me to go through the film again and pull an additional frame that showed the body profile, with neck extended, more fully and accurately. While I added an update to the original post that included a brightened composite for comparison, there’s a bit more to say.

We’re aware that many (perhaps most) in the scientific and birding communities will accept nothing less than a clear, high quality photograph (or series of photographs) or video. We’re also aware that many people will dismiss any post-processing whatsoever, even when intermediate steps are shown and the processing is relatively limited (in this case only involving the removal of motion blur). I must add, as should be evident from the images in this post, my skills with photographic post-processing tools are very limited. (Patricia Johnson, my wife, had to talk me through the rotation of the images in Photoshop.) Nevertheless, we think comparing the de-blurred mystery bird with frames from the Rhein film showing an Imperial Woodpecker in flight with similarly positioned wings makes a compelling case that our mystery bird is indeed an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Our choice of location for the game cam deployment was not random. As with this image (from our old search area), which was obtained a week after a sighting in the same location, the camera was deployed in an area where we’d had recent possible contacts – multiple double knocks (scroll to the end of the trip report) heard within a few hundred yards before and during the deployment, about a week before the image was captured. We also recorded an apparent double knock on the day we retrieved the cards. Thus, in both instances there was a close temporal association between a putative encounter and obtaining (at worst) a strongly suggestive trail cam capture. But I digress . . .

To return to the Imperial Woodpecker, these two screen captures are the most salient.

Screen cap of Imperial Woodpecker in flight, shortly after take-off, at a different angle, but with similar wing position.
Screen capture of Imperial Woodpecker in flight, shortly after take-off, at a different angle, but with similar wing position.
Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 6.15.38 AM
Screen capture of Imperial Woodpecker in flight.

I was unable to find frames in the film that replicate the angle from which the mystery bird was shot. In the first of these two frames, the bird is flying downward and is angled slightly away from the camera, obscuring the bill and foreshortening the neck and tail. The second is a ventral view from behind, and the bird is angled downward. Our mystery bird is ascending and is seen in profile. Nonetheless, the similarities in both the extent of white on the wing and physical structure are striking. This becomes even more apparent when the Imperial frames are rotated and sized to match the mystery bird. Be sure to click on the images to see the full sized versions.

Rotated, resized image of Imperial Woodpecker in flight. The bird is angled downward and slightly away from the camera obscuring the bill and foreshortening the profile.
Rotated, resized image of Imperial Woodpecker in flight. In the original, the bird is angled downward and slightly away from the camera obscuring the bill and foreshortening the profile.
Imperial Woodpecker in flight. Rotated and re-sized for comparison with mystery bird.
Imperial Woodpecker in flight. Rotated and re-sized for comparison with mystery bird. Although this is a more ventral and posterior view, the similarities in structure are dramatic.

I concluded the previous post by observing, “We realize that this is far from conclusive but can think of few alternative interpretations, all of which are problematic.” Based on the comparison with known stills of the Imperial Woodpecker, I am now firmly convinced that the mystery bird is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and do not think there’s a reasonable alternative explanation. Frank’s comment was, “People have been executed on far flimsier evidence.”

8 thoughts on “Mystery Bird Meets Imperial Woodpecker – Trail Cam Photos Revisited (Part 2)

  1. I’m sure there will be critiques asking why it could not be other spp., e.g. RHWO (realizing that the distance is not so provable). Maybe there is a wing-width to total length ratio that can help ID it? The RHWO is a bit stockier.

  2. At that angle, the white rump on a RHWO would be visible; as you note, the body is stockier, and the neck is short. There’s a good picture in the Crossley Guide; in addition, for it to be RHWO, it would have to considerably closer to the camera, and therefore the motion blur would be a lot worse, as in the other frame in which the unidentifiable bird was between the camera and the snag.

  3. I think the bird could very well be a PIWO, i believe what appears to be the white trailing edge is actually the underside of the bird’s other wing (left wing). Also, when I blew up the photo as large as my Mac allows, what appears to be possibly the white crescent common to the topside outer edge a PIWO wing is visible. Also, the bill is not very impressive, even blown up. Which leads me to believe its thinner and adrker in color. I noticed the red spot on the head. I don’t think its an artifact since there aren’t ay other reds seen.

  4. Cathy Schultz Wasiuta, thanks for posting and for taking the time and making the effort to examine the photos carefully. I will respond in more detail within the next couple of days. Frank asked me to post his response:

    “I’m always willing to entertain opposing viewpoints that are sensible and well considered. The suggestion that the “mystery bird” is a Blue Jay, as someone Tweeted, is borderline imbecilic. The bird is far too large – evidenced by the PIWO series and the degree of motion blur correction required – as well as my and several other people’s experience at interpreting these awful photos makes that clear. Another has suggested PIWO – I cannot prove conclusively that it’s NOT, though I don’t agree with the interpretation. Cathy Schultz Wasiuta, I can’t see the red in the crest that you and others think is there, but if you are correct, it really makes the Blue Jay a ridiculous suggestion – and to your credit, you identify a large woodpecker – which I honestly wasn’t convinced of until the motion blur correction was applied.

  5. I’m not sure I fully understand the comment with regard to the white on the wings, but if it were the underside of a PIWO’s left wing, the black trailing edge would be evident; this image clearly shows a white trailing edge. I don’t see the other white you’re referencing. In addition the profile is not at all PIWO-like; it’s considerably more “streamlined” as one of our reviewers described it. There are numerous images of PIWOs at similar angles and varying distances online (as well as in Crossley), and I couldn’t find any that remotely resemble this bird, either in distribution of white or in shape. Here’s just one example:

    There is also the issue of length, and the mystery bird appears to be longer than the PIWO shot at approximately the same distance.

  6. I am away this week and am having trouble accessing my Project Coyote email account. You can send the screenshots to Frank Wiley, projectcoyote2010 at He’ll pass them along to me, and we’ll review them. Thanks

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