Guest Trip Report, March 22-24, 2016 by John Williams

Frank Wiley: Last month, John Williams and I spent three nights camping in the habitat. The following is his account of what we experienced and observed. I’ve added a few comments where there are significant points of disagreement, as well as a sketch.

Hi, I’m John Williams. I want to help with techniques to find the Ivorybilled Woodpecker. I have a BS Marine Science, MS Secondary Education, and a non-accredited, 10 year PhD in Natural Science. My field experience is from the last five decades, from Alaska to Guatemala, in many habitats. I have a life list of about 390 bird species, have led birding hikes, and have training in marine mammal spotting and identification. Many of my field hours are with student groups; my training there was to locate and interpret interesting organisms, ecologic relations, weather, and earth sciences.

I’ve been interested in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker story for a number of years (with a possible sighting in Manatee Springs State Park, Florida during the 2000s), been on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Researchers Forum for a number of years (as motiheal), and offered ideas there, including hypotheses on drone use (more for the Imperial Woodpecker), olfactory abilities, field techniques and equipment, and sound.

I’ve become especially interested in sound attraction. It’s common knowledge that birds can be attracted by the correct sounds; in fact, a growing problem with birding tourism expeditions is that playback seems to be too successful, possibly changing wild bird behavior. However, I feel that this technique is appropriate to document IBWO individuals and populations.

For the IBWO, there is much speculation that the Allen-Kellogg recordings, or parts of them, are of stressed individuals, and that playing these sounds for attraction is problematic. Additionally, there are some who believe that double knock sounds by the IBWO have a territorial component, with similar problems for attracting a bird. In looking for other sounds, I became interested in the SR recording series on the Project Coyote website. Some in particular can be interpreted as a male and female IBWO communicating; the two sounds are octave-related. Researching further, I found that other members of Campephilus, especially the Magellanic Woodpecker, make very similar sounds. Additionally, sounds that are octave-related can behave as the same frequency. The writeup for these ideas is found here (number 323 in “Effective Search Methods”).

I also studied how researchers play their sounds. This is often with limited volume. In searching for a solution to higher volume, to reach a wider area, hunting playback machines were found to be a good answer. My choice was a Cass Creek RPS Extreme, which is advertised to reach 90 decibels, and is portable. This device can record and store sounds.

In searching possible sounds to record, I reasoned that a IBWO-related begging juvenile sound could be a great attractant. Recordings from the Magellanic Woodpecker on the website Xeno-Canto have these. I also decided to record some of the possible and proven IBWO kents, available at Xeno-Canto, the Macauley Library, Project Coyote, and Cornell websites, at a slower speed, same pitch, to possibly work as a superstimulus. Finally, because there are accounts of feeding groups in Campephilus, I thought to include some of the few related sounds.

Following is a list of sounds recorded. Recordings were done ambient from laptop to RPS Extreme hunting playback device. Manipulations of some sounds (trimming, slowing) were done on the sound editing program Audacity:

  1. Project Coyote SR0010, 432 Hz, 6 kents, slowed, x3
  2. Project Coyote SR0010, 432 Hz, 6 kents, normal speed, x3
  3. Project Coyote SR0010, 6 higher kents (approx. twice 432 Hz), slowed, x3
  4. Project Coyote SR0010, 6 higher kents (approx. twice 432 Hz), x3
  5. Xeno Canto, Magellanic juvenile begging, slowed, x2, LOUD
  6. Xeno Canto, Magellanic juvenile begging, different version, x2
  7. Xeno Canto, Magellanic juvenile begging with knocking (feeding?), x2
  8. Xeno Canto, Magellanic kents, 432 Hz, 2x, LOUD
  9. Xeno Canto, Magellanic kents, 432 and other Hz, 2x, LOUD
  10. Project Coyote, Bill Benish DK
  11. Project Coyote, Bill Benish DK, slowed, showing multiple resonances
  12. Project Coyote, SR1721, 6 high kents
  13. Project Coyote, SR 1721, sampled section x 2
  14. Project Coyote, SR3255, toot x2
  15. Cornell, Allen-Kellogg, 2 kents, different frequencies, LOUD
  16. Cornell, Allen-Kellogg, 2 kents, similar frequencies, LOUD
  17. Cornell, Robust WO DK, LOUD
  18. Cornell, “A very active morning,” approx. 10 seconds, drumming and one DK
  19. Cornell, tooting with Flicker, 5 toots, 1 loud Flicker sound
  20. Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, high kents, wokawoka, LOUD
  21. Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, pounding, 1 kent
  22. Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, wokawoka, 10 seconds, LOUD
  23. Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, wokawoka and pounding
  24. Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, 7 short higher kents, LOUD
  25. Macauley Library, Crimson-Crested WO, DK with resonance
  26. Macauley Library, Magellanic juvenile
  27. Macauley Library, magellanic juvenile with kents

It should be obvious to students of the IBWO question that Project Coyote (Mark Michaels, Frank Wiley, and their guest researchers) have at this writing the best chance at good documentation. In the American Southeast with millions of square kilometers, they have a place with local documentation, feeding sign, multiple sightings with good field marks, a few photo images, all in a small search area that IBWOs seem to have stayed in for a period of several years. There are indications of multiple birds as well. After years of various emails to Mark and then Frank on various topics, I offered my ideas on sound attraction, asked to visit the area with them, and was accepted.

On the flight to Houston, I flew over hundreds of kilometers of possible IBWO habitat and was struck by two things—the many available riparian corridors facilitating IBWO survival and dispersal, and the many ground fires that day, with smoke plumes extending to the east for tens of kms. Asking the airline crew about the latter’s cause, I was told both lightning and canefield controlled burns. If it’s true that the IBWO is a “disaster bird,” and can detect and follow smoke plumes, then perhaps by the prevailing winds, their small Southeast populations are becoming concentrated to the west of their range.

From 22 to 24 March 2016, I camped in the study area with Frank Wiley. We hiked in during the AM, and made camp at noon on higher ground. The habitat is a floodplain, a week or so after historic flooding. There was little leaf litter, no snakes, and the high water marks on the trees were astounding—a good four feet above the present stream levels. Following is the trip report with some discussion. The decision to play various sounds at various times was made from Frank’s experiences, and eventually with some of mine.

22 March, 1200 noon—made camp. Clear skies. Variable windy day to 20 knots. Tree leaf-out was slight. Some faint bird sounds. Possible single knock to NW, then soon after, Frank thought he heard an SK to the SE. This was my first experience with hearing either an SK or DK. These did not sound anything like tree-on-tree noises, from wind knock, that I have heard in my experience; there is no component of rubbing, nor is there the expected repetition.

130—probable PIWO. Used RPS to play sound 7 twice.

230—other WO activity, with some sightings of PIWOs and RHWOs.

245—high kents? to the N. Played 7 2x, 9 3x. Bluejays called to SW.

345- hiked to N about 200 meters. Frank did a wooden stick DK. At this position, unbeknownst to us at the time, we were fairly close to a spot where Mark was finding abundant and recent feeding sign.

We sat in full camo on a log near the edge of a shallow water pond. No blind was used and, with the open woodland, we were visible to a bird if camo does not actually work the same for their vision (for example, sensing in the UV range as some have reasoned). We faced East. Frank suggested that we wait for a while, then begin playback in sequence, twice each with gaps of 30 seconds, waiting 2 minutes between different sounds.

400—began sound series:

Sound 1: after about 1 minute, two barred owls called

S2: soon after, there were two fairly close tree knocks (like SKs) behind us. Frank’s interpretation were that they were wind-caused; mine was that they were not. They sounded exactly like other SKs later in the trip, including when it was not as windy.

Frank Wiley: I cannot agree with this interpretation. Based on my experience, these were tree knocks and were an important contributing factor to this possible attraction event, and possibly the only factor.

We then played sounds 3 through 6 without any obvious sounds occurring.

S7: two large dark birds flew in to the front of us (from the East), to about 70 meters, landing in the tree canopies. My impression were that they were large crows. They did not call. Eventually, they worked their way to the left and flew away; field marks were for crows.

S8: we had an immediate PIWO sound as if a reaction

S9: a barred owl called to our right, after each playback

S10 and S11 played without any obvious sounds occurring.

S12: at this point, we had been at the spot for about an hour, and had been using playback for about forty minutes. There were two SK-sounding knocks to the East in front of us, then Frank saw a bird with good IBWO fieldmarks fly to a tree, similar to where the crows were, around 70-80 meters in front of us to the East. He told me he saw large white bill (the sun was bright in back of us), black face, red on crest, that the bird came in silently, and that the bird cupped its wings to land. Frank then saw the bird moving, apparently to get a better look at us.

Frank Wiley: My observations of this event, in spite of the fact that we were sitting within a few feet of each other, are considerably different. First, I am quite certain that the “single knocks” coming from directly behind us (west) were tree sounds. In spite of the fact that I saw what I feel were pretty good ivorybill field marks, I cannot be certain because of the brevity of the sighting and the fact that the sun, which was directly behind us, could have produced lighting artifacts. In his account, John does not mention the fact that the wind was causing two tree limbs to the southwest of us to knock together repeatedly. It’s my best guess that IF the bird we saw was indeed an ivorybill and came to that spot in response to something, the more likely explanation is that it was this repeated banging of the two limbs together more than any other stimulus. I agree that we heard two or possibly three very distinct single knocks coming directly toward us and the limbs that were banging together over the space of about five minutes, immediately prior to the possible sighting. This would have meant the bird was moving east to west.

Frank Wiley: 13023711_10153556918552335_1928648939_n

He tried to point this out to me but I did not see it. I took a wide-angle photograph of the area, then a zoomed-in photo of my best-guess where the bird was. Post-trip study of these photos has not revealed any pixels that could be the bird.

S12: after a minute, we repeated this sound, hoping the bird would move closer, but it did not. I remembered at the time that this rough distance of 80 meters or so has been reported as an IBWO stopping distance by more than one researcher.

After about five minutes, I suggested to Frank that he walk to the right, to see if the bird would move. He did so and, when he got to only about twenty feet away, I saw the bird jump-flap to the left, to another tree perhaps 15 feet away from it. It was a large-bodied bird, bigger than a crow, only appearing black, and it moved perpendicular to me so I did not see wings. It moved in a manner that has been described for an IBWO—a power jump. It landed on a section of tree in back of some emergent foliage, and I did not see its position. The sighting was in about two seconds. I took a zoomed-in photograph of my best-guess to its spot, but again, subsequent study has not shown a trace of the bird.

At this point, another dark bird appeared from very nearby, and flew to the right. My impression was that it was a crow. It flapped for about 40 meters, then landed in a tree. (During these encounters, there were no crow sounds or other sounds).

After another five minutes, I suggested that I walk to the right similarly, to flush the putative IBWO. I walked, circling the pond, and began to close the distance. When I took a particular step, Frank called that the bird had flown. I came back, and Frank told me that he had seen it power-fly away silently, in the manner that IBWOs have been reported to do. Its flight was directly East, the direction that it came in. This was at approximately 520 PM.

We returned to camp.

23 March, at camp. Clear skies, variable but lessening wind. Clouds beginning from NW.

800 AM: we had already seen pairs of Red-shouldered Hawks close to mating, then a pair of Wood Ducks flying over, and returning to land in a nearby tree, showing some courtship behavior. Frank saw a large woodpecker in a brief flyby.

900: a SK and then high frequency, kentlike sounds about 20 in sets of two, with two or three in sets of three. These were at frequencies that some researchers think Blue Jays can produce as IBWO mimicry (there were BJs present on our trip, but not numerous). We played sounds 12 and 15, but no reactions were heard.

1115: we hiked North about 300 meters. Stopped for playback. During this series, Mark and Tom were about 500 meters North of us, and did not report hearing any of our sounds. We played, with same cadence as previous day—



S10 (once)

S18: after two minutes, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew in above the treetops and circled.

Repeated S18: the RSHawk did not return



1145: we met Mark and Tom about 600 meters North of camp. They had found a hot zone of feeding; Mark reports this on this website .

I played sounds, with same cadence, S5, S6, S7, S15 (a series of 10 total kents), repeated S15 (series of 5 total kents), then S24. At some unrecorded place in these playbacks, we heard either an SK or a DK, not too far to the West (also discussed in Mark’s report).

We all studied the area for a while, eventually split up to our groups. Frank and I walked slowly back toward camp, listening, without hearing kents or knocks.

400 PM: we did a series of playbacks from camp, same sequence and cadence:

After S2, Frank did a stick DK

After S4, Frank did another DK

After S16, a crow cawed

After S22, a Barred Owl called

Sequence was stopped after S23.

At 500 PM, it began to rain.

24 March, at camp. It had rained through the night, then stopped around 900 AM. Woodpecker activity began, including PIWOs and RHWOs. A large tree or treetop fell to the immediate East, just out of sight range. Leaf-out, in the span of one day, was remarkable; there was much less visibility through the woods.

900AM: to the West, high kentlike sounds of about 1000 Hz, a total of 20 from two locations. We did two tree DKs, with no response; the kents stopped.

1030: to the East of camp, two different-frequency kentlike sounds which seemed to be conversing. One was at around 1000 Hz, the other a bit lower. A total of 20 sounds.

1230: we hiked about 300 yards South, stopped, waited 5 minutes, then did tree DKs and an SK. There seemed to be a DK response. I did not record the direction. We played sounds S4, S5 (repeated 5 times), the S25, with no obvious responses. On the hike back, we heard some possible kents.

25 March. We packed up camp around 5AM, then hiked North to around 50-100 meters from Mark and Tom’s hot zone, intending to do playback near this area at an early hour. On the way, we heard high kentlike sounds; according to Frank, these were Blue Jay. One responded to my approximation of a much lower (432 Hz?) kent sound, keeping its own frequency.

915AM: we found a spot, looking toward the hot zone to the NE, with a semi-blind from snags and limb deposition (there was so much flooding and runoff that these limbs were quite large). We wanted to begin playback but the RPS unit somehow stopped working. At this spot, a woodpecker to the West began slowly pounding on a tree, not too far from us. I walked a bit toward it, but could not see any bird. The pounding continued intermittently, not like a DK or SK but more a feeding sound. After 20 minutes or so, a PIWO called from this direction.

We hiked out with some time delay, having to cross the streams at only certain spots since they had risen from the rain.

I would like to conclude by offering some best-case opinions of what happened. The core of our encounter was on the 22nd, at a time when IBWOs are reported to be active and beginning to return to their roosts. Frank, who has seen the IBWO before, had a number of good field marks, in a good search area, so it is reasonable to presume we saw the bird. I also believe that the bird did not come in as a response to a wind-caused SK, although this has been reported to have happened before. To my experience, the sounds in back of us were not wind-caused, and therefore probably from another IBWO. In addition, the male came in some time later, and seemed to use an SK as it arrived (Frank). Because Frank saw a red crest, and following Tanner and others who report the bird travels in pairs, this possible IBWO in back of us would then have been a female.

FW: As I mentioned earlier, I disagree with this interpretation, and it is not something Mark or I would include as analysis, since it is so speculative.

This encounter suggests that the playback sounds that we used worked to lure in at least one IBWO, to a somewhat standard distance where the bird saw us, even though we used camo, and then stopped and continued to be curious. The loudest sounds played were the Magellanic Woodpecker juvenile begging calls, and then MGWO 432 Hz kents which are similar to the IBWO’s.

FW: Again, this is quite speculative, and I think ambient sounds were the more likely factor if there was an attraction event. However, there’s certainly room for further field testing of John’s hypotheses.

When the RPS unit is repaired, I will be sending it South to Frank for further use. Sounds played could have been louder, and been edited to remove background noise better. Additionally, with some kind of blind where the human form is blocked, a curious IBWO might have approached much closer.

Further research, reproduction, and refinement of the technique and its results, is needed.

Because this research was done with Project Coyote, any questions should be directed through them.

John Williams

Long Island NY

April 2016






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