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Trip Report 12/26/15-1/2/16

I made the mistake of trying to save on flights (actually paid with miles this trip), flying out of LaGuardia and a change of planes in Dallas. I left New York with a bad cold, and the first leg of the trip was miserable. Little did I know that the second leg would be worse.

At 4:45 pm, fifteen minutes before boarding time in Dallas, my flight to Louisiana was still listed as “on time”, although there had already been a gate change. There were five or six more over the next couple of hours, and American Airlines personnel at the various gates were either willfully dishonest or utterly clueless. The flight finally boarded at around 7 pm. We left the gate and sat on the runway for an extended period. At one point, the pilot announced that some planes were turning back, but that our crew could remain on the runaway until 1:30 am.

The pilot turned out to be wrong, as regulations now forbid planes from sitting on the tarmac for more than 3 hours. Somewhere around 9:30, we headed back to the gate. It took a while to find cooperative personnel, but I was able to rebook my flight for noon the next day. Sick as I was, I opted for a hotel rather than a night on a cot in the airport. I had to eat a room I had booked in Louisiana but used points to get this one. I got there a little before midnight and was in bed around 1 am.

I had planned to spend the 27th in the field, but that wasn’t happening. To the extent possible, I will avoid American Airlines and connecting flights in the future. Fortunately, my cold improved rapidly, and my rental car was a 4-wheel drive, which might have been a serendipitous result of the delay.

On the morning of the 28th, Brian Wiley and I went to an area that’s readily accessible from the road because we had plans to meet Tom Foti a little later in the morning. I spotted the downed sweetgum that we later found was being worked on, at least in part, by squirrels from the road. I found some recent scaling trees in this area, one where we’ve had possible sightings, concentrations of possible feeding sign, and auditory encounters in the past. While I can’t rule out squirrel work as a possibility, both of these trees were standing and somewhat longer dead than the downed trees that we now suspect are mostly being stripped of bark by squirrels; however, there was no way to find bark chips.

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IMGP1227We met up with Tom at around 11 am, and we drove a few miles north to a location from which it’s easier to get into the mature bottomland areas. We spent the morning in this vicinity, where we’ve had a good deal of recent activity, but we did not see or hear anything of note.

I met Tom again the next morning, the 29th, and we covered a lot of ground, passing near a tree where we have a camera deployment (although we now suspect that much of the work was done by squirrels). We came upon another freshly stripped, downed sweet gum. Again, I now believe this to be squirrel work. (More on this in an upcoming post, but one indicator may be the presence of bark stripping on the underside of the limb at right.)

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Tom headed back to Arkansas, and I headed back to Frank’s house. On the way, I passed the downed sweet gum that’s visible from the road and noted that there was fresh work on it. I went to examine it and noted that there was also some recently deposited scat.

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I called Tom, and he turned around and met me. We collected the sample (which has a similar appearance to PIWO scat, although there was no urea, something that might point toward a mammal as the source). Despite the fact that we’ve documented squirrels stripping bark from this location, at over an inch long, this dropping was larger than and doesn’t resemble the images of squirrel scat found online. We are exploring the possibility of doing DNA testing on it . . . a very long shot indeed, but it may be worth a try.

Update, January 18: The consensus is that it’s not worth testing the scat.

Frank joined me on the 30th, along with Wylie Barrow and Tommy Michot, both great field people with a deep knowledge of bottomland forests and birds. They’re featured in Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird as leaders of “Team Elvis” south. It’s really amazing for laypeople like Frank and me to spend time with such experienced field biologists. Wylie probably knows more about the Singer Tract than anyone, and I’m looking forward to studying his materials on that subject. We didn’t see or hear anything of import, but I think it’s fair to say that Wylie and Tommy came away impressed with the habitat and thinking that ivorybill presence is at worst a possibility. Tommy took this photo of me crossing a log. He’s made of stronger stuff than I am and walked right across without hesitating.

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Photo by Tommy Michot

I devoted the next day, 12/31, to staking out the downed sweet gum that proved to have been stripped of bark by squirrels. Nothing hit the tree for the entire day; it was cold, damp, and very uncomfortable, actually considerably more difficult than walking miles through the swamps. I did think I heard a single, pretty good double knock at around 3 pm, but I don’t trust that impression, given the fact that I was alone, tired, and hopeful.

On New Year’s Day, I left Frank to stake out the downed gum and went to retrieve a trail cam so we could monitor it remotely. While crossing an area of blowdown, I knocked myself down and nearly out, trying to break off the (not so) rotted limb of a downed tree.

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Photo by Frank Wiley

I got the camera and met up with Frank. We then went to a location at the southern end of the search area that I had never visited before. Some of the habitat is very impressive, but there are many more signs of human activity (ATV tracks and empty beer cans in particular) than in some locations. We found some work on a downed sweet gum that we now think is almost certainly squirrel but did not see or hear anything else of interest.

On Saturday, the 2nd, I returned to the location I’d visited with Tom on the 28th; access is easy; it’s familiar; and it’s hard to get lost. I retrieved the card from the camera that’s trained on the downed sweet gum top I found in April. (The camera was unable to read the replacement card, so I ended up pulling it.) We’re unsure about whether the source of the scaling on this top is squirrel, as we’ve photographed them on it repeatedly over the past few months but have not documented them stripping bark. There was a little bit of fresh scaling on the tree (not enough to show up on the trail cam), and we suspect it to be Pileated Woodpecker not squirrel. Frank may replace this camera in the future.

I did not find any fresh feeding sign, but I did come across a sweet gum that had lost its top very recently, within days. I believe this to be a tree on which I photographed recent scaling last spring, and some of the fallen limbs had clearly been stripped before they fell. I found indications that a woodpecker or woodpeckers had worked on this limb at some point, as discussed in the previous post.

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Perhaps the most significant event of the day occurred at around 11 am, when I heard an extended series of kent-like calls. At the time, I estimated the calling lasted for about 5 minutes, but I suspect it was closer to 15. These seemed to be coming from 200-300 years away, across a couple of challenging sloughs. There was really no way to try and follow them, especially alone. I did manage to record some of the calls on my DSLR (with no external mic). To my ears, they sounded pretty good, similar to the ones I recorded in March 2013, although they were all single notes, with no descending pairs. Unlike the 2013 calls (which were recorded on a better device at what seemed to be closer range), these came from a single, stationary source, not two moving ones. They were repeated considerably more frequently, and the pitch is slightly higher. Like the 2013 calls, they’re more clarinet than horn-like and don’t resemble the Singer Tract recordings in that regard.

In the attached audio clip (which may have lost some quality being transferred from .m4v to .m4a), the calls come at approximately, 4, 9, 17, 20, 25, 31, 39, 1:20, 1:27, 1:53, 2:07, and 2:17. I got the recorder running fairly late in the incident, and calls in the first minute of the clip are about as numerous as they were in the preceding minutes. They tapered off dramatically before ending at 2:17.

A variety of other birds are vocalizing throughout, including Blue Jays. I think the duration of the possible kents is shorter than the Blue Jay calls, but Blue Jay can’t be ruled out; I’m nowhere near as confident about these as I am about some others I’ve heard and/or recorded, including the 2o13 calls, but am posting them anyway. At around 3:41, Blue Jays start making an unusual call that we hear very frequently in this part of the search area. I do some playbacks of the Singer Tract recordings at around the same time, but there’s no evident response.

Per Frank, the dominant frequency of the calls is 1800 hz, with another bar at 2700. Since the calls are distant and the recording is poor, this might suggest a base frequency of around 900. The structure is more consistent with Blue Jay than known ivorybill. On the other hand, the duration is between Blue Jay and the ivorybills on the Singer Tract recordings. Allowing for attenuation by distance, this makes Blue Jay less likely.

Later that morning I did some additional playback and got apparent responses from Blue Jays and a White-breasted Nuthatch. This is the first time I can recall hearing a WBNU vocalization immediately after an IBWO playback.

On the evening of the 2nd, Frank and I went through the card and found the two sequences of a squirrel removing bark. Seeing the images was a bit of a blow, though not a total surprise; Wylie Barrow had raised this possibility a day or two before. He was the first person ever to make this suggestion; removing bark from hardwoods seems to be a fairly unusual and poorly understood behavior in squirrels; most of the information online suggests that it’s done on standing live trees when food is scarce, not on fallen ones when other food is abundant.

I shared the news with several biologists, and a couple of them pointed out that not all of the work we’ve found fits the squirrel paradigm. In fact, I think most of what we’ve ascribed to ivorybills is inconsistent with squirrel and am in the process of trying to identify some diagnostics. Unfortunately, since we know squirrels are doing at least some of the work on downed trees, an avenue that seemed very promising for camera trap deployment now seems far less so.

I returned home on the 3rd, and to my relief, the trip back was uneventful save for the usual post-holiday chaos at LaGuardia.

I plan to do a series of follow-up posts exploring scaling in more depth within the next week or two. I also hope to be able to provide some stills from the sequences we obtained.

 

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