I’ll be posting Frank Wiley’s report on his recent visit to the Project Coyote Search Area in two parts. Below is his account of his first day in the field.
I was contacted last month by Bob Ford, a biologist with the USFWS in Tennessee, about a possible visit to the Project Coyote study area sometime in early October. After some back and forth, we agreed that the weekend of the 9th would be best for both of us. Bob has visited the area in an unofficial capacity on a couple of previous occasions; he is a skilled birder, with a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Science. His focus has always been on birds and bird-habitat relations, especially in bottomland hardwood environments. All that aside, Bob is a great guy to spend time with, and an all-around skilled woodsman. He arrived on the evening of the 8th, having spent the earlier part of the week fishing in South Louisiana with some of his colleagues with the USFWS.
October 9, 2015:
We arrived at the study area at dawn, shouldered our packs and entered the forest. This particular spot is in the northern sector, and provides the easiest access to the area that we informally call Jurassic Park from a road that passes through the surrounding uplands – thus cutting out over a mile of fairly difficult foot travel at the beginning and end of the day. We were barely out of sight of the truck when I heard a rapid ticking sound in the leaf litter near my feet. I thumped the ground with my walking stick and was rewarded when a Copperhead about 18” long moved due to the vibration. Only a moment before, it had been completely invisible, camouflaged by the surrounding leaf litter. We stopped for a few moments, took a few photos and left the little guy to go about his business.
We hiked a fairly difficult three quarters of a mile through the bottom, crossing several deeply incised sloughs and secondary creek channels. The area was extremely dry; there’s not been a significant rain event since early July, when a series of severe thunderstorms passed through. Stealth was impossible, the dry leaf litter making it sound like we were walking on Corn Flakes. We made it to the main channel, and walked beside it until I found the top of a sweet gum tree that had blown down during Mark Michaels’ last visit. (It had green leaves and no sign of insect infestation when it fell in April.) We had speculated that there was at least a decent chance that ambrosia beetles would infest the two main forks of this top over the summer, and hopefully attract large woodpeckers. The smaller of the two forks did not disappoint. Not only had it been infested with beetles and larvae, the bark had been stripped from 60% or more of the branch. The scaling, in all respects fit the very narrow set of parameters that Mark and I have come to believe can be considered diagnostic as the work of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker – that is, extensive scaling on a freshly dead/dying tree with very tight bark, large (silver dollar or larger sized) bark chips that have clearly been removed with one or more powerful strikes, and little or no damage to the underlying sapwood.
When Mark first spotted this top on April 21, we both felt it was important to get a camera to this location to watch for woodpeckers. With this in mind, I had brought one of our new “Plotwatcher Pro” HD time lapse video cameras with me. I found a nearby tree that gives the camera a nearly perfect angle for recording any succeeding visits to this downed top by a woodpecker – both the stripped part, and the part that is almost untouched. We have high hopes for this camera in this location. It will take a photo every 5 seconds from 6 AM to 7 PM every day for three months or more according to the manufacturer.
While we were stopped, we took the opportunity to perform an ADK series and run a couple of playback sequences. During the quiet period, we neither heard nor saw anything suggestive of IBWO, even though there was a lot of activity from other woodpecker species.
As the main stream through the bottom is at a lower level than I have ever seen it, we took full advantage of the opportunity, and crossed at a location where the banks were eroded in such a way as to allow us to get in and out. Remember that the stream bed is incised approximately 15′ into the surrounding ground, so one has to be careful in choosing a crossing point, even with the stream completely dry in places. We did an “M” shaped transect that involved about 3 miles of difficult to negotiate terrain. The dry sloughs and incised cutoff channels are much more common in this area, making traversing the terrain much more difficult. We stopped at lunchtime and at two o’clock performed ADK series and playbacks but heard nothing suggestive of ivorybill activity.
At one point, I was walking near a large tree, paying more attention to the canopy than where I was putting my feet, when I happened to glance down. I quickly hopped to the side, because my left foot was about 3″ from the head of an enormous Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus atricaudatus). Bob backpedaled about 5 quick steps and asked, “Where’s it at?” Like me, he was very impressed with the size and apparent health of this beautiful and potentially deadly predator. Bob later said that he reacted the way he did because, “If it was big enough to startle you, I didn’t want to get too close…” We took a number of photos while the big guy (we estimated his length at nearly 5′) lay placidly with his head on a root buttress, clearly waiting on a convenient squirrel to pass within striking distance. He seemed totally unconcerned with our presence as we circled him (I got quite close several times) making photos. Finally, I just couldn’t resist and asked Bob if he wanted to hear him buzz. I gently poked him with my walking stick a few times. After the third poke, he rattled a bit, and coiled into the “OK, I’m pissed, now leave me alone” position. For those who’ve been dying to know, the answer is, “Five, and a button…”
We exchanged a happy high–five at having encountered this big guy and continued going about our business, leaving him to go about his. Truly an awesome and exciting encounter.
As the day wound down, we worked our way back to the stream, having explored about two and a half to three miles of ground that no one associated with Project Coyote had explored previously. The forest is of outstanding quality with many superdominant trees, mostly sweet gum and Nuttall’s Oak indicating a mature, healthy, and beautiful swamp forest. We crossed, and made our way back to the truck, feeling good about a productive and enjoyable day in the field.
As I mentioned earlier, Bob had spent the first part of the week with some of his USFWS colleagues fishing in south Louisiana. They were successful in bringing home some Redfish and Speckled Trout, both game fish that are exceptionally tasty. When we got in, we cleaned up, and I fried up a good mess of both kinds, along with steak fries and hush puppies. Bob liked my fry mix so much that he brought two ziploc baggies of it home with him for future use. I can make more. Got to teach them folks from up north how to cook!
Mark here pointing out that Bob’s from Tennessee, hardly up north from where I sit. Stay tuned for Part 2.
Day 2 – October 10, 2015
We have only visited the southeastern quadrant of our “northern sector” four times. This is mainly due to the amount of time it takes to cross about a mile and-a-half of the uplands surrounding the bottom. Bob and I decided we would try a longer, but possibly quicker and easier, approach by following a fire lane that is maintained a couple of times a year. It was a pleasant, if boring, hike of about a mile and three quarters, a little further, but much easier going to get to the edge of the bottom.
The forest on this side of the stream is of a somewhat different composition than that on the other side. As well as the sweetgums, loblolly pine, and various Quercus sp. an appreciable percentage of the trees are mature 3′ DBH or more beeches.
We made our way to the main channel with relative ease – this quadrant of the forest seems not to have as many deeply incised sloughs and secondary channels, so the temptation to just keep moving slowly is irresistible. After reaching the main stream, we began to do half-circle transects, looking for anything interesting. We finally took a break about mid-morning, and I performed an ADK series and shortly thereafter a series of playbacks. We then sat quietly for about thirty minutes.
We were separated by about 15 yards, and Bob was sitting at the bottom of a large tree facing away from me. Before we continued on our way, we compared notes, and we had both heard two double knocks, and possibly one kent call. Kent calls, what are and what aren’t, have been debated ad nauseum for years. Suffice it to say that this one, though further away and not as loud, stood out from the Jays that were making a ruckus all around us. All we could say for sure is this one was “different” in a way that’s hard to describe.
We continued on, finding our way back to the bank of the main channel every so often. The stream is dryer than I’ve ever seen it.
At one point, I came upon a series of curves, which being a bit deeper, allowed the water to pond. It was not running and none too fresh, but it was water. I noticed these two turtles on a log, probably a slider of some kind and a cooter. They seemed to be annoyed at one another.
We continued easing through the forest, moving slowly and stopping to listen and look occasionally. I photographed Bob standing next to a large swamp chestnut oak.
We found a bit of intriguing scaling here and there, but no large concentrations. This dying sweetgum snag is a good example. (Note the large insect at the upper right. We have not been able to identify it.)
At about one o’clock, we’d just kept walking through “lunch hour”, we decided to take a break. While we were snacking and rehydrating, I performed another series of ADKs followed by playbacks. After about an hour, Bob and I once again compared notes, and once again we had heard a pair of kents, and a single DK. I have to note that nothing we heard appeared to be a direct response to the recorded kents of the anthropogenic double knocks. While I was sitting there, I made this picture of a Red-headed Woodpecker.
We finally came to a corner with an adjoining piece of private property. As the property line was on a direct bearing for the truck, and was “only” a mile through unexplored terrain, we decided to take a chance even though terrain sometimes imposes obstacles. Fortunately for us (we had covered about six total miles previously) the terrain wasn’t bad at all, and other than a couple of hills to climb, the walk was pretty easy. On the way home, we stopped and picked up dinner at a local BBQ joint that has become something of a Project Coyote tradition.
Day 3 – October 11, 2014
On the way to the search area this morning, Bob and I, feeling a bit peckish, decided to stop at one of the convenience stores on the way. We were a bit mystified to find this sign in the window:
Being a proud son of Louisiana, I’m well aware of our love of foods that are considered a bit, ummm unconventional, but even I was a bit taken aback at the prospect of frying chicks…
We arrived at our entry point about ten minutes after first light and headed into the forest. This particular area Mark has discussed a number of times – a couple of hundred yards from the parking area one encounters a tornado blow-down track that is approximately 400 yards wide. This area is unbelievably difficult to traverse – large boled trees scattered like a giant’s game of pick up sticks, thick, almost impenetrable thickets of new growth, blackberry vines and saw briars, as well as the usual random sloughs, and cutoff stream channels.
It took us nearly an hour to make the half-mile to the location of the snag where photos, discussed in previous posts by Mark, were taken. My express purpose was to place one of our new Plotwatcher Pro cameras in this location. New growth of limbs and underbrush made this deployment a bit more complex than the last time. Bob trimmed intervening vegetation while I programmed, set up and started the camera.
After all this work, I used the camera’s Aimcheck function to make sure that the cam was placed optimally. We then proceeded to follow the bank of the main channel downstream. It should be noted that the stream is not running. In all my years of coming to this area, as a hunter, and searching for ivorybills, I have never seen it this dry.
We came to a familiar ponded slough where Mark and I have often stopped and rested for a few minutes. One of the larger trees, a 3.5 ft. DBH water oak had blown down since the last time Mark and I had visited the area in April. The tree still had leaves on it, though they were dry and brown, and the bole and upper branches had no sign of woodpecker workings. I believe that this tree was blown down on or around July 4th as that was the last time severe weather passed through the area. As they are very light and easy to carry, I had an extra Plotwatcher Pro cam with me. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I deployed the camera with a good view of the bole and top – hopefully this tree will attract insects, and soon thereafter woodpeckers feeding on them.
Bob and I continued upstream for another half mile, located a nice spot with a good view, and I performed an ADK series, followed about ten minutes later by a series of electronic playbacks of Singer Tract ivorybill calls. Shortly thereafter, Bob heard a double rap drum, that was captured on my digital recorder. I personally don’t believe that the drum was a direct response to my ADKs as there was at least a fifteen minute interval after the last of the ADK/playback series.
The double rap is not “perfect” in that the “intra-knock interval” is about .05 seconds longer than the “ideal” – based on averages of the intervals of other Campephilus drums – but it sounds very good.
As we were leaving, I determined to blaze a better trail through the blowdown area. Following a straight bearing on my GPS, I used a hatchet and snips to carve a path through the heavier ground cover. Perhaps crossing will be a bit easier next time.
On the way out of the forest Bob and I were treated to one last encounter. We came across this Buttermilk Racer sunning itself on the road. While not endangered, this snake is uncommon and seldom seen. After taking a few photos of him, I tapped his tail with my foot, encouraging him to seek a safer place out of the roadway.
I really enjoyed Bob Ford’s visit – he is a skilled woodsman and birder, and his insights as a professional wildlife scientist are greatly appreciated. I am looking forward to Mark’s next trip – hopefully over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Also, Mark and I would like to thank The Rapides Wildlife Association, and another donor “MC”, for their much appreciated and unsolicited assistance in purchasing our new trail cams, memory cards, and batteries.
A note from Mark: Frank captured some of the possible kent calls on his recorder. They are faint, and it may not be possible to tease any detail out of them. He may do a follow-up post if anything of interest can be gleaned.
Frank and a visiting ornithologist spent this past weekend in our search area. I’m eager to read and will be posting Frank’s report before long. For now, suffice it to say they set up three trail cams, one on the snag where we captured the image discussed here and here and one on this downed sweet gum top found in April:
It most likely fell on April 19th. When I found it a couple of days later, it had fresh green leaves attached and no sign of insect infestation. Since then it has been partially scaled. This is an important data point, as we know the scaling took place within five and a half months of death, and Tanner documented the IBWO’s preference for freshly dead wood. We hope there will be a return visit soon.
They also placed a camera on an even more recently fallen water oak, something that started me thinking about possible patterns in the feeding sign we’re finding.
I’ve counted the examples of feeding sign from our current search area I’ve posted on the blog (which is by no means all the suggestive work we’ve found but is generally the most impressive), and the results for sweet gums are interesting, especially in light of Tanner’s observations suggesting an IBWO preference for sweet gums. Our results also suggest a preference for hickory. (Hickories were scarce in the Singer Tract, and apparently the species present in our area were not present there.) In both cases, the frequency with which we’re finding scaling seems to exceed the relative abundance of either type of tree, although we have not made formal counts. This sign was found between the spring of 2012 and the Spring of 2015, except for the downed top pictured above, which was scaled a little later.
The tally includes a couple of examples of work that falls short of what we consider to be diagnostic for IBWO. It also includes the small sweet gum snag that looks like it was attacked with a hatchet.
While there seemed to be a preference for sweet gums prior to the 2014-2015 season, the preference was considerably more pronounced this year when the abundance of fresh scaling on sweet gums in a relatively small area was astonishing. Here’s the multi-year breakdown:
Sweet gum: 25
Presumed sweet gum: 6 (One example possibly PIWO)
Oak species: 3
Willow oak: 2
Maple: 1 (Possibly PIWO)
Ivorybills fed on sweet gums in 42.6% of Tanner’s observations, scaling in 40 instances and digging in 3. Sweet gums made up 20.8% of the forest composition in Tanner’s study area. Next on Tanner’s list of preferred foraging trees were Nuttall’s oaks. By contrast, Pileateds “appeared to have no preference for any species of tree.” Tanner observed PIWOs feeding on sweet gums on fourteen occasions; nine involved digging and five involved scaling. He further noted, “What scaling Pileateds were observed to do was mostly on loose bark and was never as extensive or cleanly done as the work of the Ivory-bills.”
On a more speculative note, I think I’ve been able to identify one species of beetle that’s infesting the sweet gums, including the small one shown above. They’re an invasive, the granulate (formerly Asian) ambrosia beetle Xylosandrus crassiuculus (or another closely related invasive). Ambrosia beetles are tiny, but they are gregarious, with adult females creating chambers and tending broods of larvae in the sapwood. They can kill small trees but also infest larger ones. They have a relatively short life-cycle, and one source suggests they can produce 3 or 4 broods a season in the deep south. It’s worth repeating that I’ve seen signs of ambrosia beetle infestation elsewhere in Louisiana (near our old search area and in upland hardwood forest adjacent to our current one) but did not find work suggestive of ivorybills in either place.
We’ve found known IBWO prey species in our search area, on trees that we suspect were fed on by ivorybills. We also suspect that, contrary to Tanner, they may feed on darkling beetles. Could they also be feeding on an invasive species? We can see no reason to suspect otherwise and will continue our investigations with this in mind. I plan to return to Louisiana Thanksgiving week.