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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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 . . .

 

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2 Comments on “Trip Report November 23-28, 2015, Part One”

  1. I really appreciate the details about the cameras; I’m sure it will prove useful. I also appreciate your comments in paragraphs 3 and 4. It is some of the most challenging terrain in the lower 48. I’m continually amazed that so many promising areas in the Ivorybill’s historic range have received only a cursory survey, and that so many regard “the race to save” the species from extinction as over.

    The high scaling on that sweet gum is intriguing. Why do you not consider it highly suggestive?

  2. Only because it is on longer dead wood, and the chances that the bark had loosened enough to be removed by other birds, especially PIWOs, are therefore greater. It’s certainly what we call “Tanneresque” sign though.


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