Not So ‘Virgin’ Forest: The Singer Tract Myth Debunked

Update: This post includes hard data about the extent of old growth in the Singer Tract (scroll down past all photographs) and in ivorybill home ranges. The general points made below remain valid, although some of the wording is perhaps too strong; Tanner overestimated the amount of old growth in the Tract ( at “over 80%” v. 72% in fact), and the Mack’s Bayou home range was predominantly second growth.

This post is a companion to the previous one and to others discussing habitat conditions in the Singer Tract. Those posts reference Richard Pough’s 1944 report to the Audubon Society. Pough, whose study was never published, noted that much of the Singer Tract had actually been under cultivation prior to the Civil War. But it’s worth taking a closer look at just how much.

Tanner characterized the Singer Tract as “the largest tract of virgin timber in the Mississippi Delta,” contending that it contained “120 square miles of virgin forest in 1934”. He also wrote that the largest plantation “had about 3000 acres under cultivation,” while suggesting that “some of the early settlers along the Tensas River cleared land along the river banks for cotton fields.” Thus, the myth of the Singer Tract as virgin forest was born.

It’s not clear where Tanner got his information, but some of his characterizations are not supported by the historical record; the language about “early settlers” almost seems disingenuous when one looks at the history of Madison Parish. (Rootsweb has many pages devoted to this subject, and I’ve drawn heavily on them for this analysis.) As should become evident, there was a great deal of human activity in and around the Singer Tract, especially prior to the Civil War. I will suggest that most, perhaps virtually all, of the arable land in the parish, had been cleared for agricultural purposes and that the Singer Tract was a mix of second growth and remnant old growth, most of which was in the lower-lying, wetter areas that Tanner deemed to be less suitable for ivorybills.

A 1937 Masters thesis in economics by Robert L. Moncrief, “The Economic Development of the Tallulah Territory”, provides a great deal of information about the parish and its history. In the post-Columbian era, the area was very sparsely settled until the 1830s. Madison Parish was established in 1839, and in 1840, steamboats began plying the Tensas River. A major population influx began in 1836, and the population kept growing until the Civil War, going from 5,142 in 1840 to 14,133 in 1860. The war led to a dramatic decline to a mere 8,600 in 1870. Over the next couple of decades, the numbers grew again to 14,135 in 1890. Changing economic conditions and the boll weevil outbreak caused another decline that was only reversed between 1920 and 1940, when the number of residents reached 14,826. By 2010, it had fallen to 12,093.

Cotton and the quality of the soil drove this influx. By 1850, there were 27 landowners in the parish who owned more than $20,000 (over $590,000 in 2015 dollars) worth of real estate. The largest holding was valued at $140,000 (well over $4,000,000 in today’s dollars).

According to Moncrief, “the newcomers cleared away the heavy forests and planted the new ground in the favored crop then, as now –– cotton. They cleared all the lands fronting water courses (which are the highest and most desirable lands for cultivation in this region) to form a continuous line of plantations along the streams.” Streams in this context refers not just to the Tensas but also to the smaller non-navigable bayous. Cotton raised along the smaller streams was brought down to the Tensas in flat-bottomed boats.

Moncrief’s thesis also includes figures for cotton and corn production in Madison Parish. Cotton production peaked at over 46,000 bales in 1858. (Pough was apparently incorrect in stating it was over 100,000 bales; he may have combined the total with that of an adjoining parish.) It had fallen to 1,830 by the end of the war. Production recovered between 1870 and 1875 and reached a postwar/pre-boll weevil peak of 25,981 bales in 1890, about the same level of production as in 1936. Corn production peaked at 618,620 bushels in 1859, falling dramatically after the war, peaking at 836,000 bushels in 1909, and then falling to 320,000 by 1936. My crude, back of the envelope estimate based on  yields of 5 bales per acre for cotton and 15 bushels per acre for corn, suggests that between a quarter and a third of the total acreage in the Parish was under commercial cultivation prior to the war.

While Moncrief’s paper evokes Tanner by describing the Singer Tract as 81,102 acres (126 square miles) of virgin timber, it also notes, “The tract includes several abandoned and grown up plantations, which after the Civil War, reverted to the state and were later sold to the present owners.” The ruins of one plantation house are still standing, deep within the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge.

While it was adjacent to and not strictly part of the Singer Tract, the story of the Frisby Plantation is illustrative. The plantation was established in the early 1850s with land acquisitions taking place over the next decade. Norman Frisby, the founder, was murdered by his nephew by marriage in an 1863 in a dispute over property. When Frisby’s widow was forced to sell the plantation in 1870, it totaled 19,479 acres, and its crops generated over $77,000 in revenue (the equivalent of $1.36 million in 2015). Tanner visited the site of the plantation and photographed one of its old fields. I haven’t been able to pinpoint the location of the old house; one 19th century survey survey seems to place it in Tensas Parish, near Fool’s River. Another account (from the history of the Sharkey Plantation discussed below) says it borders Disharoon (or Dishroom) Bend, much closer to the core of the Singer Tract. As shown on this overlay of 1875 land ownership on a modern map, the Frisby holdings included parcels adjacent to Mack’s Bayou and on Dishroom Bend.

The maps help flesh out the story. An earlier and incomplete parish-wide map of patentees shows that many parcels in the Singer Tract were purchased well before Frisby started acquiring land in the 1850s. Lands purchased in the 1840s include parcels along John’s and Mack’s Bayous, which makes sense since frontlands along streams were most desirable. This history of the Sharkey Plantation reveals that land sales began in the heart of Tanner’s search area during the 1840s. The author explains that the Sharkey plantation and others like it were more like communities, with a cluster of families (and presumably their slaves) living in close proximity, near a watercourse.  The 1875 map shows that much of the Singer Tract remained in private hands even after many parcels were abandoned during the Civil War.

Perhaps even more telling is this hand drawn map of Madison and Carroll Parishes from 1862. It shows the locations of towns, roads, ferry crossings, and plantations in the Singer Tract area. While it is incomplete and John’s Bayou is not shown, Sharkey Road is there, cutting in a southwesterly direction from the Richmond-Carthage road, crossing Alligator Bayou, and the Swearingen parcel. Another road crosses the heart of the Mack’s Bayou home range and the Tensas itself. The map delineates abandoned plantations and appears to show that, except for those abandoned areas, some cotton was being grown in every division of the Singer Tract. However limited the agricultural activity may have been in these sectors, the area was hardly a primeval wilderness; habitat had been fragmented; and old growth conditions were likely restricted for the most part to areas unsuitable for farming.

This passage from an 1885 article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune sheds some additional light on conditions in the area both before and after the Civil War. “But little has been said about Tensas River and Joe’s Bayou as, but little interest is there as compared with former years. Before the war there was a continuous planting interest all along those two streams but overflows and the war left them to grow up into weeds and bushes. In 1870 Mason, and later Loyd bought cattle from other parts of the country and carried them to those bayou places for pasturage, wherein a few years they made large sums of money. This was in the neighborhood of Quebec, which before the war was a flourishing little city, shipping 7090 bales of cotton. It was at the junction of the Tensas River and the railroad. It is now a waste place and to pass there on the railroad you would never know that a town had been there.” (In The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, p.76 Hoose plays into the virgin forest myth by claiming that railroads “finally reached the Tensas River sometime around 1900.”) Quebec was just a few miles outside the tract, near Bayou Despair, where Tanner listed a pair from 1934-1936.

The Rootsweb pages provide a couple of additional and important pieces of information.

Theodore Roosevelt visited Madison Parish in 1907.  Roosevelt’s descriptions provide added detail about conditions in and around the Singer Tract several decades after the Civil War. According to Roosevelt:

“Beyond the end of cultivation towers the great forest. Wherever the water stands in pools, and by the edges of the lakes and bayous, the giant cypress loom aloft, rivalled in size by some of the red gums and white oaks. In stature, in towering majesty, they are unsurpassed by any trees of our eastern forests; lordlier kings of the green-leaved world are not to be found until we reach the sequoias and redwoods of the Sierras. Among them grow many other trees–hackberry, thorn, honeylocust, tupelo, pecan, and ash. In the cypress sloughs the singular knees of the trees stand two or three feet above the black ooze. Palmettos grow thickly in places. The canebrakes stretch along the slight rises of ground, often extending for miles, forming one of the most striking and interesting features of the country. They choke out other growths, the feathery, graceful canes standing in ranks, tall, slender, serried, each but a few inches from his brother, and springing to a height of fifteen or twenty feet. They look like bamboos; they are well-nigh impenetrable to a man on horseback; even on foot they make difficult walking unless free use is made of the heavy bush-knife. It is impossible to see through them for more than fifteen or twenty paces, and often for not half that distance. Bears make their lairs in them, and they are the refuge for hunted things. Outside of them, in the swamp, bushes of many kinds grow thick among the tall trees, and vines and creepers climb the trunks and hang in trailing festoons from the branches. Here, likewise, the bush-knife is in constant play, as the skilled horsemen thread their way, often at a gallop, in and out among the great tree trunks, and through the dense, tangled, thorny undergrowth.”

The most salient point here is that Roosevelt’s “great forest” applied to low-lying areas in which there was standing water (something that Hoose glosses over). Roosevelt also saw three Ivory-billed Woodpeckers:

“The most notable birds and those which most interested me were the great ivory-billed woodpeckers. Of these I saw three, all of them in groves of giant cypress; their brilliant white bills contrasted finely with the black of their general plumage. They were noisy but wary, and they seemed to me to set off the wildness of the swamp as much as any of the beasts of the chase.”


A photograph from the hunt is here. Tanner seems to have been unaware of the Roosevelt encounter. Roosevelt’s visit came just 17 years into cotton farming’s second decline and 52 years after the end of the Civil War. Habitat conditions are likely to have been poorer in general than when Tanner was there 3 decades later. The relative ease with which Roosevelt saw three ivorybills (despite their wariness) suggests they were not uncommon in 1907 and calls Tanner’s assumptions (pp. 48-50) about fire, tree death, and population influxes between 1911 and 1930 into question.

There’s another gem in the Rootsweb pages. It’s not directly on topic, but it relates to Tanner’s later dogmatism. In arguing for extinction and dismissing post-Singer Tract reports, many of which involved birds being flushed from tree stumps or other locations near the ground, Tanner characterized this behavior as being characteristic of pileateds not ivorybills.

Rootsweb has a newspaper account of  T. Gilbert Pearson‘s  visit to the Singer Tract in 1932. Pearson (who was President of the Audubon Society at the time) was the first ornithologist to confirm the presence of ivorybills in the Tract. He saw, “The birds . . . feeding on stumps of rotting trees, the tops of which had been broken off. A favorite place for feeding is also on dead limbs at or near the tops of the very tall sweet gum trees found abundantly in this region.”

The evidence that relates directly to Tanner’s study area and its immediate environs suggests that claims about “virgin forest” and IBWO dependency on old-growth are based on flawed premises. The Singer Tract was no doubt a remarkable place, a huge area of contiguous and relatively undisturbed forest, but it’s clear that much of it was not old growth or “virgin”.

It’s more useful to think about what the Singer Tract is likely to have offered Ivory-billed Woodpeckers – some measure of seclusion, enough big trees for roosting and nesting, and an abundance of standing and fallen deadwood. The myth that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker required vast tracts of “virgin” forest may be emotionally compelling, but it’s not based on evidence; it’s time to put it to rest.

I’m looking forward to spending a week in the field starting just after Christmas.

Tanner and Population Density

I recently gave a talk to the Rockland County Audubon Society, and a member raised what I think is the strongest question about our evidence and about the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in general. “How could the species have survived in such low numbers and at such low densities?”

In other posts, we’ve pointed to evidence that Tanner missed a population in Mississippi and was somewhat cavalier in his approach to evaluating potential habitat, disregarding advice Herbert Stoddard gave him in 1936, “The area where they (Ivory-billed Woodpeckers) may occur at present is simply tremendous, not restricted as many believe.”

A recent study on Magellanic Woodpeckers points to another factor that raises even more doubt about Tanner’s estimated population of 22 in 1939.  The study was conducted in an old growth Lenga forest in Patagonia. According to this study: “Our results show that Magellanic Woodpecker family groups require a minimum of 100 ha in old-growth forest habitat; thus, forest patches in less favourable forest conditions (e.g., younger, managed, fragmented, mixed forests) should probably be much larger to support a resident pair or family.”

The specific criteria that Tanner used for estimating the 1939 population at approximately 22 are unclear, but he assumed a maximum carrying capacity of six square miles per pair. The Wikipedia entry on the IBWO is even worse and is generally rife with bad information; the editors there expand Tanner’s six square miles to “9.7“.  Elsewhere, Tanner suggested a minimum home range of two and a half to three square miles. These numbers are somewhere between six and 16 times the minimum for a large southern congener that, like the ivorybill, lives in more temperate habitat than others in the genus.

Thus, there is a strong possibility that Tanner severely underestimated ivorybill populations in Florida. If he was so badly wrong about home range, he’s more likely to have missed populations in areas that he rejected for being suboptimal and not expansive enough.

Double the minimum acreage required by the magellanic in optimal habitat and apply that number to the ivorybill, and Sherburne, a large Louisiana WMA, could theoretically be home to just under 90 family groups. (We don’t think this is the case.) Even at 450 hectares per family group, the carrying capacity in Sherburne would be nearly 40. Such numbers are improbable in the extreme, but 9 or 10 family groups in an area that size would be very hard to detect.

With significantly smaller home range requirements, a substantially larger population in 1939, and a recognition that Singer Tract-like conditions are not a requirement (as Tanner himself made clear), various survival scenarios become considerably more plausible, assumptions about low densities become more questionable, and the quantity of potential habitat is far greater than anyone has imagined.

Edited to add: Although the study referenced above is more recent, Noel Snyder made the same basic argument about magellanics and other congeners in The Travails of Two Woodpeckers (2009). Snyder posits that hunting pressure, not habitat loss, was the primary cause of the ivorybill’s decline.

Snyder (who to the best of my knowledge has little hope for the ivorybill) does not fully address how Tanner’s assumptions might have affected his population estimates and habitat evaluations. He also doesn’t consider how taking Tanner at face value has influenced both search protocols and the “credibility” of post-Singer Tract reports. Nevertheless, he does hint at what I suspect is the key to the species’ survival: “With food supplies degraded, not eliminated, a reasonable possibility appears to exist that many ivory-bill populations in logged regions might still have found enough food to persist and might have endured at modest densities, had they been free of shooting pressure. The long persistence of the ivory-bill in one quite thoroughly logged region in Cuba supports this possibility . . .”

In my view, Snyder goes a little too far in downplaying specialization as a factor, even if Tanner overplayed it. It’s pretty clear – from range, habitat, and morphology – that ivorybills are more specialized than pileateds. But if the IBWO did persist after World War II and Snyder is right that hunting was a major factor in the species’  decline (even in the Singer Tract), there may be even more room for optimism, since hunting practices changed considerably in the post-war era.



Trip Report November 23-28, 2015, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

Thursday the 26th was Thanksgiving, and Frank spent the morning cooking. I ventured out alone; I get less comfortable going solo every year. Because I’m not very good with a GPS, I tend to prefer visiting areas I know well or restricting myself to places where I can rely on my sense of direction, compass, and iPhone map to get out safely.

For these reasons, I returned to the area where we had concentrations of scaling in 2012 and 2013, and where I recorded calls and had a possible sighting in 2013. There has been a significant increase in human and porcine activity in this area; both people and hogs are having an impact on the hydrology, and places I know well have changed a lot in less than three years.

I did not see or hear anything of interest – no sign, no calls, no knocks, but this is where access to the bottom is easy. The damage is being done on the periphery, and the core is much harder to reach. (Much of the activity in 2012 and 2013 was remarkably close to the edge.) Most of our attention has been focused elsewhere since 2014, so there’s no telling what might be going on in less accessible parts of this sector.

November 27th was something of a banner day but also a very difficult one. Frank, Brian, and I got to an area that hadn’t been visited before, although we did cross a track that Frank and Bob Ford made back in October. Access to the bottom involves hiking approximately 2 miles, .5 of which is on an old logging road. The rest is cross country and is not easy going, since there are dense pine plantations to traverse. Beyond the pines, there are several sloughs to cross or circumvent, but once you get there, it’s an incredibly beautiful area.


As Mark says, the area is quite beautiful once one has made it into the core. The difficulty in reaching the “core” cannot be overstated. The portion of the hike on the old logging road (actually more of an overgrown trail) is not too difficult, but once committed to crossing terrain, it becomes an entirely different story. We have often remarked on this, but I believe a little more explanation of exactly why the going is so tough will help the reader to better grasp the challenges.

Once the trail is left behind, one has to decide whether to blaze a straight line, or allow the terrain to dictate the direction of travel and work in a general direction. We generally just plow through thicker, younger pines in a straight line. The buffer habitat, which runs to middle aged pine with some oak and hickory scattered about is not too bad for either choice – at first glance. Once into these areas, one finds a lot of blown down timber in various stages of decay, from very recent to several years old. Even on level ground, these blowdowns require going off course, or stepping over. Then there is the occasional blackberry or saw briar patch to contend with.

As one continues to approach the core, the sloughs that Mark mentioned in passing begin to impose obstacles. Many times, to maintain a straight course, we find ourselves crossing the same slough several times. The sloughs are of two types, each presenting a different set of challenges. The first are the tributary sloughs. These are often dry, but are incised into the surrounding terrain, requiring one to find a way into and out of the streambed. The depth of the incision varies from a couple of feet to as much as ten to twelve feet depending on the carrying capacity of the slough, and its proximity to the main stream channel. The second type are the larger cutoff, stillwater sloughs. Once the rains begin in October, these hold water all the time. While only incised a foot or two into the terrain, they can be a couple of feet deep, often just enough to overtop one’s boots. This requires leaving the course line and hunting a place that’s shallow enough to cross – or finding a log to cross on. Waders, except during the wettest, coldest times, are not really practical as they get very hot and uncomfortable on even slightly warm days. Another challenge is the uniformity of the various types of habitat. Without a compass or GPS (I use a very high end Lowrance unit and carry a high quality compass for backup) one can be seduced by the easier walking and just make big circles, not really covering much ground. I’ve lived near, and turkey and deer hunted in this area for much of my life, and a few lucky souls get to spend a night or two in the woods every year.

On this particular day, Friday the 27th, the understory in the portion of the core area we visited was quite thick, unusual in this bottom, where the core areas tend toward an open hardwood gallery forest. The area is just a bit higher in elevation than most of the rest of the core – perfect for native bamboo canebrake. The cane affords a bit of protection for the blackberry briars and other “catchy” vegetation, making traversing even the heart of the bottom in this particular area a difficult proposition. On our way out, we encountered one of the “stillwater” sloughs that I mentioned earlier. Brian and Mark got water in their boots crossing it. I found a downed loblolly that made a pretty good bridge, but the bark was long gone, and the log was unbelievably slippery. I “scooted” across rather than risk a dunking, and strained my wrist in the process. Maybe I should have opted for the wet feet…

At the farthest point from the road, we found a recently downed sweet gum top that had been fairly heavily scaled (more heavily than the similar tree we found on the 24th).

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The hanging, shredded bits of cambium on some of the scaled areas appear to be what Edith Kuhn Whitehead said her father considered diagnostic ivorybill sign. This led me to revisit Tanner and look at Plate 8; the images of feeding sign in Tanner are very poorly reproduced, and the originals are not much better. There is a higher quality scan of Plate 8 on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, and after another look, we’re struck by the similarities between that image and a couple of the above details. While Tanner is often opaque about his reasons for selecting images of feeding sign, we suspect Plate 8 was included to illustrate what Mrs. Whitehead described.


Higher quality scan of Tanner’s Plate 8. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

We spent over an hour in this location and heard multiple possible kent calls and double knocks. We captured one of the double knocks on Frank’s recorder, but it’s too faint to be analyzable. One of the calls that I heard (but Frank did not) was perhaps the most Singer Tract-like ever to my ears, so much so that I had to ask Frank whether he had done a playback.

On the way out, I spotted some more extensive high branch scaling, apparently on a sweet gum within 25 yards of the downed tree.

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Unfortunately, while the location is fairly close to the concentration described on the blog, it’s only reachable as the bird flies. We’d love to put a camera on it, but that’s not possible at this time. And all four cams are deployed in promising locations. We don’t have the time or personnel to handle more than we’ve got.

On Saturday the 28th, we retrieved the card from the camera that’s trained on the downed sweet gum top. It functioned perfectly but produced no hits. We did get some apparent double knocks after a series of ADKs; one was captured on the recorder but again was too faint to be analyzable.

We’d like to address a Facebook comment from a British ornithologist and extinction believer who characterized our inability to obtain something conclusive thus far as “negative evidence”. The fact of the matter is that the negative evidence we’ve obtained relates to Pileated Woodpeckers, not ivorybills.

Pileateds are abundant throughout the area, in the uplands as well as the bottoms. I constantly scan the woods for suggestive scaling. To repeat something I’ve said in a couple of earlier posts, we have seen an abundance the type of work we think is characteristic of ivorybills in our two Louisiana search areas. I have looked at Pileated sign throughout much of that species’ range and have examined countless images of Pileated Woodpecker scaling online. I have not found any examples that match what we take to be ivorybill work. Nor have I ever found any in our search area’s mixed pine-hardwood uplands. In the bottomlands, we’ve found this work scattered throughout the mature forest. We’ve also found clusters of it in several locations. In a couple of places, like the area I visited on Thursday, there have been concentrations of scaling in one or two years and not in others.

This week we got a series of images of a PIWO on both forks of the downed sweet gum top (not retained), where it spent several minutes. It did no scaling. Over the years, we have obtained a few sequences showing the same behavior, including this one. In a single instance, we captured a Pileated scaling a quarter-sized piece of bark, with some difficulty, from our target tree, a freshly dead oak. It did nothing more, and approximately six months elapsed between incidents of major scaling. (The second round happened after we’d removed the trail cam.)

There’s no way to prove a negative, but the evidence we’ve obtained points to something other than Pileated Woodpeckers as the source for the following reasons:

  1. The scaling is unlike work done by Pileateds elsewhere.
  2. We have documented Pileateds on heavily scaled trees but have not documented them removing anything but a single small piece of bark.
  3. The distribution of the scaling in our search area points to something other than Pileated Woodpeckers as the source, since Pileateds are abundant throughout, and the scaling is found only in mature bottomland hardwood areas, not in mixed and hardwood dominant uplands.
  4. The fact that we’ve found concentrations of scaling in certain areas in one year and not in others suggests that whatever is doing the bulk of it has a home range that’s considerably larger than that of the Pileated Woodpecker.
  5. Anatomically, bark scaling is an inefficient foraging strategy for Pileated Woodpeckers. It seems unlikely that Pileated Woodpeckers would do so much foraging in such an inefficient manner when other food sources, including insects in rotten wood and (at this time of year) mast, are abundant.

We hope the current camera deployments will solve this mystery of what’s doing this type of work . . . within the next few weeks.

Trip Report November 23-28, 2015, Part One

This post will be something of a departure from previous ones in that we’re writing it jointly.

Though we met in 2008 and started calling our effort “Project Coyote” in early 2010, in many ways this week marks the 6th anniversary of our collaboration. It was the first time we visited the old search area together and everything grew from there. We’re an odd couple, with very different cultural backgrounds, personalities, and worldviews. There have been many strange ups and downs over the years but remarkably few major disagreements. One thing we’ve shared from the start is a similar approach to putting the pieces of this puzzle together – trying to glean what knowledge we can from those who were able to find ivorybills in the past, especially J.J. Kuhn. We think we’re on the cusp of obtaining something definitive for reasons that should become clearer in the post, if they aren’t already.

It’s remarkable that we’ve come this far. The obstacles involved in documenting the ivorybill are enormous. We’re just two individuals with limited time and resources searching in a fairly large, remote, and challenging patch. We have a small circle of supporters and trusted people who visit our area when time allows.

There are huge swathes of potential habitat in the southeast that get little human traffic, especially outside of hunting season, and many of these have not even been considered, let alone visited. It’s not uncommon for foreign (and some domestic) ornithologists to assume that conclusive imagery should have been obtained by now, just because it’s the US and birding is popular here and that extinction is likely because several organized searches have failed to come up with something definitive. Many American birders with little knowledge of or experience in the rural South jump to similar conclusions.

The mere fact that there have been formal, funded searches matters very little. The difficulties in obtaining documentation of an extremely rare, wary bird species that requires a large home range in secluded, difficult habitat are monumental. We think that camera traps are the most promising avenue for obtaining something conclusive (as is frequently the case with cryptic animals). The problem has been to place the cameras in a location that birds are likely to visit. This has been our approach from the start, but it’s only now that we think we’ve solved the problem. While we will continue to use other methods and to host visiting biologists and trusted supporters, camera traps will be our primary focus in the coming months.

On November 23, we were joined by Travis Lux, a freelance radio reporter who contacted us a few months ago and who has promised to keep our location confidential. We visited the downed sweet gum top discussed in several previous posts, most recently this one, and were elated to find that there was some new scaling at the top of the snag and decided that we’d return to Frank’s house to review the footage.


Fresh Scaling on Downed Sweet Gum Top

As soon as we looked at the data stored on the card, our elation turned to alarm and then almost to despair. Travis had been recording the whole day, and we’re sure this will make for some dramatic radio. Frank will pick up the narrative to explain.

Trying to understand what “goes wrong” with the various types of game cameras is a guessing game. Of the three cameras that we had deployed, two of them – upon reaching the 32 gb storage limit on the cards – began to overwrite the files rather than shut off automatically (as the instructions imply but do not directly state they should). The instruction manual was also misleading about the duration of a deployment based on the delay time set by the user. The instructions implied that a 32 gig card would not be completely full at the end of a 60 day deployment.

In reality, the card filled up after fifteen days. The camera continued to operate, but it overwrote the earliest files with the newest files, rendering the earlier files unrecoverable. With this hard learned bit of knowledge, I increased the time lapse to ten seconds, from five, and cut out about 45 minutes of “on” time at each end of the day.

According to the data gathered thus far and calculating data storage capacity vs. time deployed and time lapse setting, this SHOULD give us about 45 days with 50% battery and a fresh 32 gig card. The reprogrammed camera that we pulled the card on Mark’s last day in the field appeared to bear this finding out.

With very few exceptions, these cameras are manufactured and assembled in The People’s Republic of China. The instructions (and this has been true of several different brands we’ve tried) are generally translated from Cantonese or Mandarin…Poorly. Fractured syntax, and confusing usage of common words often leaves the guy programming the camera guessing what the instructions REALLY mean.

One of the cameras shut itself down for unknown reasons after taking just a few images. When checked, the batteries were still above 90%. I put a new card in it and conducted a 30 minute field test; it seemed to be functioning properly. Of the four cameras and three locations where we now have cams deployed, this one is in what we feel is the least likely to be visited by woodpeckers in the near future. Hopefully, the glitch will not reappear.

To add to Frank’s comments, unless one has well over $1000 to spend per unit, there are major tradeoffs involved in selecting trail cams. The brand we’ve selected stores individual frames as the equivalent of deinterlaced video stills. This allows for greater storage capacity and longer battery life but lower image quality, especially at a distance. Fortunately, all of our current deployments are at close enough range to produce a definitive image or series of images, and we now know that the cameras themselves do not scare off whatever is doing the scaling, something we thought possible in the past.

To return to the main topic, after the initial shock and disappointment wore off, we realized that there had in fact been relatively little scaling, except at the very top of the downed crown. The main trunk is almost untouched, and return visits remain a strong possibility. We have redeployed the camera and will leave it in place indefinitely.

Tuesday the 24th was a more encouraging day. We were joined by Tom Foti, formerly of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Committee and a member of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team’s Steering Committee. Tom is perhaps the foremost expert on bottomland hardwood ecology. He was very impressed with the habitat. He jokingly commented that if he were still with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Committee, he’d try encourage his state to annex the area.

While we were unable to show Tom any feeding sign, we did hear a couple of possible double knocks. In addition, we found a recently dead small sweet gum that had apparently been killed by ambrosia beetles, similar to others we’ve found, but as yet untouched.

While there’s no suggestive feeding sign in the immediate vicinity, the location is approximately a mile from the camera deployment discussed above and a few hundred yards from where we recorded an apparent double knock and obtained several intriguing game cam images. Given the absence of recent scaling in the immediate vicinity, we think this is the least promising of the three current locations.


We called it a day early because Tom had to return to Arkansas. What he saw and heard left him enthusiastic and eager to return. It’s a privilege to be around someone who’s so knowledgeable, and we look forward future visits and to learning from him.

If the 24th was a good day, the 25th was even better, though considerably more challenging. Brian, Frank’s son, came along and helped carry some of Frank’s gear. We went into an area that we’ve only visited once before. The area is approximately 1.5 miles from the nearest road, and as it turned out, we did that three mile round trip twice.

The habitat in this part of our patch is magnificent. There’s a good deal of old scaling high on live sweet gums. While this isn’t the type of work that we consider highly suggestive, it is consistent with what Tanner described and photographed (more on Tanner in Part 2).


Old High Branch Scaling at Lower Left and Center

We found a huge and recently downed (leaves attached) sweet gum, part of which fell between two recently dead saplings that both showed signs of ambrosia beetle infestation. Some  of the scaling on the huge downed gum seems consistent with Pileated work (having a layered appearance), and some of it comes close to what we think is diagnostic for ivorybill. This is the first freshly dead tree we’ve found that has feeding sign suggestive of both species.



This Huge Sweet Gum Blowdown Shows Sign Suggestive of Both Ivory-billed and Pileated Feeding.

After finding the sign, we decided the location merited our deploying two cameras. (It would take four or five to cover the whole blowdown.) Brian and I hiked out to retrieve the two that Frank and Bob Ford deployed in October, while Frank went back to his house to get additional cards. We hiked back in and reached the location at around 3 pm.

Over the next hour, we heard several double and single knocks that seemed to be coming from no more than three hundred yards away. A couple of the double knocks were what we consider the best (most Campephilus-like) we’ve ever heard.

It was getting late, so we hiked out as quickly as we could, stopping to rest a little before sunset. As the sun was going down, there was a small burst of shooting from the direction of the road. A PIWO started scolding in apparent response, and Brian and I heard a sharp single knock from the direction of the bottom (away from the shooting) and more distant than the squalling pileated. (As an aside, Frank is a very experienced hunter and can easily distinguish between shots and knocks. It’s not difficult for me either, except when the sounds are obscured by crunching leaves, etc.)

We now have all four cameras deployed on recently dead trees or parts thereof that have a good chance of attracting woodpeckers in the near future. This along an approximately three mile line, with about a mile between each camera.

To be continued . . .