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Bits ‘n’ Pieces Part 1 – Louisiana Conservationist, Matt’s Take on the March Calls, and More

I had planned on writing just one more post before my next trip to the search area, but based on a small but important new development, I’ve decided to divide it into two parts. Part 2 will follow within a week or so. It will focus on the historic range both pre- and post-contact, beavers, and some further thoughts on how the ivorybill might have survived.

First, a small news item from the search area: last month Tommy Michot and Phil Vanbergen visited to check on the trail cams. One of the deployments (two cams) was inaccessible due to high water; unless flooding was extraordinary, the cameras themselves should be okay. Phil and Tom were able to reach the other two locations without difficulty. The target trees were untouched, and there was sufficient battery and card-life to keep the cameras operational until my next trip. They did not see or hear anything suggestive of ivorybill during their visit. I appreciate their braving the August heat and taking the time to get to the area.

I’ve been reviewing copies of Louisiana Conservationist (formerly Louisiana Conservation Review), the official publication of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (formerly the Department of Conservation). Copies of the magazine, which is in the public domain, can be found in the Louisiana Digital Library. In the course of my research, I found one real gem and a couple of interesting pieces of less significance.

The gem is the initial report on the 1932 Singer Tract rediscovery and T. Gilbert Pearson’s visit to the area. Pearson was the first professional ornithologist to observe the Singer Tract birds. I’ve written previously about Pearson’s visit and have referenced newspaper accounts of his observations. At the time, I was focused on feeding sign and the statement about feeding on rotting stumps. As a result, I overlooked the important fact that Pearson had been searching for ivorybills to no avail since 1891; this highlights the difficulty in finding ivorybills, even during the era of relentless collecting.

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The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: Rare Bird Considered Extinct – Found in Louisiana, Margaret A. Coogan, July 1932, Louisiana Conservation Review

The newspaper articles were somewhat less detailed than Coogan’s account, which includes some interesting tidbits. It seems likely that Pearson himself provided the information to Coogan, either directly or via Armand Daspit. There’s an inaccuracy; the mention of carpenter ants as prey is not supported by the literature.* The only record of nesting in pines is in Thompson (1885), a record that Tanner deemed “questionable”.

Edited to add: Hasbrouck (1891) included a second-hand claim of a nest in pine from northwest Alabama. Tanner accepted the report but possibly not the claim of a nest, as the latter is not mentioned in the monograph.

Somewhat more interesting is the observation, “Occasionally it feeds on the ground like a Flicker”.  In 1937, Allen and Kellogg would publish a paper describing their 1924 observation of a female ivorybill foraging on the ground and “hopping like a Flicker”. It’s possible that Pearson was aware of this observation, and the reference to scaling the bark of dead pines suggests this is so. (There were no pines in the Singer Tract.) At the same time it’s also possible that Pearson observed the Singer Tract birds foraging on the ground or described foraging behavior based on general knowledge of how ivorybills in Florida, where he grew up, typically fed.

More significant and relevant to the recordings Matt Courtman and Phil made in March of this year is the description of ivorybill calls and the pattern of calling observed. I didn’t pay much attention to the description, but Matt, who was present during the extended period of calling on March 15 was struck by it. For Matt, the correction of Audubon was significant, and as he posted on Facebook: “Please note the description of the calls being from “one to fifty” over a few minutes. This matches perfectly what we recorded in March. Very exciting!!!” Matt’s strongest doubts about the calls had to do with cadence and the lack of calls in groups of three.

Matt elaborated in an email this morning. I asked him to allow me to post it in full, and he graciously agreed. His perspective sheds additional light on the March recordings, among other ivorybill related matters. It’s worth reading.

The following explanation might be excessive, but an appreciation of my history with the ivorybill is necessary to understand the visceral response that I had to reading the 1932 article reproduced by Mark.
 
My love of nature generally, and of birds in particular, was cemented by a visit to the LSU Museum of Natural History when I was eight. In reading George Lowery’s Louisiana Birds, I was beguiled by his account of having seen ivorybills in the Singer Tract (Madison Parish, near Tallulah) on Christmas morning, 1933. In a letter that I wrote to Dr. Lowery (adorned with my drawing of a pair of IBWO), I asked him if he thought that any ivorybills still existed. He promptly replied that he sure hoped that they did. I can’t be certain about all of the contents of a letter from almost 50 years ago, but I THINK that he expressed a belief that, due to the relative inaccessibility of the ivorybill’s putative environment, that isolated pockets of ivorybills could have survived undetected for decades.
 
In his reply, Dr. Lowery offered to show me the ivorybills in the LSU collection. The very next week, my father and I went to Baton Rouge for the LSU-Mississippi State football game. In an act typical of his unfailing grace and generosity, Dr. Lowery waded through post-game traffic to open up the Museum at 10:30 p.m. just for us. Holding ACTUAL ivorybills in my hands, set me on the vacillating belief/disbelief course that I still follow five decades later. Based on recent developments, my current course is trending overwhelmingly toward the shores of belief.
 
Dr. Lowery’s national preeminence as an ornithologist was impressive: under his direction, LSU was responsible for the discovery of more new bird species than any other institution during Lowery’s tenure; during this period, an entirely new GENUS of owl was discovered by LSU in Peru and named in Dr. Lowery’s honor. Despite that, his relative optimism about the ivorybill was not shared by ANY serious Louisiana birders that I knew. In fact, other ornithology professors around the state would scoff at Lowery’s optimism behind his back. This all came to a head when, in 1971, Dr. Lowery announced that he believed that photographs (subsequently revealed to have come from Mr. Fielding Lewis) sent to him depicted a LIVING ivorybill. Whispered skepticism gave way to thinly-veiled ridicule: everyone whom I knew to have an opinion on the matter voiced their belief that Dr, Lowery was a gullible victim of an obvious hoax. 
 
At the October, 1971 meeting of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, two (inebriated…birding WAS a different culture back then:)) men tried to coax me into asking Dr. Lowery exactly where the photographs had been taken.  They figured that since Dr. Lowery and I were close, and, since I was only 10 years-old, that he might tell me. Though young, I wasn’t stupid. I declined.
 
In sum, although I wanted to believe Dr. Lowery, the birders with whom I was in constant contact with had nothing but contempt for anyone who “believed in” ivorybills. Aside from Dr. Lowery, everyone seemed to accept the Gospel According to James Tanner: after 1944, no remaining virgin bottom-land hardwood forests meant NO remaining Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. 
 
To demonstrate the sway of the Tanner Gospel, even during flickers of hope regarding IBWO, circumstances were viewed through Tanner’s lens. For instance, in 1999, as (past) President of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, I was invited to participate in a state-sponsored search of the Pearl River Wildlife Area (near Slidell) to follow-up on David Kullivan’s reported sighting of a pair of ivorybills. Having some familiarity with the specifics of Kullivan’s report, I was surprised when I saw a map of the grids that we were assigned to search. The following colloquy ensued:
           
              Matt: [pointing to a specific spot on a map] I thought that Kullivan reported the ivorybills to have been near this campground.
              State Fish & Wildlife guy: That’s right.
              Matt: Well, why are we not searching any place NEAR that campground?
              State Fish & Wildlife guy: Because Tanner’s research showed that ivorybills were found only in really big trees, and there aren’t any really big trees there.
              Matt: So you believe that Kullivan was correct in saying that he saw ivorybills, but you think that he was incorrect about WHERE he saw them?
              State Fish & Wildlife guy: [insouciant shrug]
 
Moral of the story: with the vast majority of people, historical, remote Tanner Gospel trumps actual, recent, credible observation.
 
So, for most of my life prior to 2017 I had been surrounded exclusively by Tanner-quoting ivorybill “deniers.” Despite my veneration for Dr. Lowery (who had passed away in 1978), I could not but help to have their rigid doubts shape my views regarding the existence of IBWO.  In February, 2017 my friend, Frank Wiley passed away. Along with Mark Michaels, Frank had founded “Project Coyote,” in hopes of finding and documenting ivorybills. As a tribute to Frank, I decided to visit the Project Coyote search site in Louisiana. I had zero expectations regarding the trip. In fact my dominant thought prior to the trip was: “I am going to make a concentrated effort, spend several days in the woods, observe nothing to suggest the continued existence of ivorybills, and, then, FINALLY extinguish any lingering delusions about ivorybills so that I can get on with more productive, practical uses of my time.”
 
In preparation for the trip, I began to read through all of the blog entries on Project Coyote’s website.  There, through the heroically-diligent work of Mark Michaels, I discovered something shocking: that Tanner’s own data did not support the chief tenet of the Tanner Gospel, that ivorybills were found only in virgin bottom-land trees. As with the Bible, many people quote Tanner to support a particular assertion, but few people have actually read all of Tanner’s work.
 
Back to the issue at hand (finally!): why was the 1932 statement regarding the ivorybill call so meaningful to me?  The passage in question was: “The bird’s note is a peculiar nasal ‘yank,’ NOT REPEATED THREE TIMES as Audubon states, but as many as from ONE TO FIFTY in a few minutes (emphasis supplied).” For me this was like finding the missing link. The only thing that had conjured doubts (about the sounds being from ivorybills) in me about my recording was that the notes did not come in series of threes, but rather were relatively monotonous and evenly-spaced over an extended period of time. Prior to reading this 1932 description, I had never even considered that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers would call in any way that was NOT a series of three notes.
 
My myopia had been further compounded by my frequent exposure to the only widely-accepted recording of the ivorybill. The 1935 Cornell recording definitely presents as a series of three notes. As anyone can attest who has used the Cornell recording as playback when looking for ivorybills, hearing it repeatedly primes your brain to expect a series of three notes to be the only “valid” response that would indicate the presence of an ivorybill. Mark has since informed me that the literature contains many references to “non-three” note descriptions. In fact, I probably have encountered many of those same descriptions over the years. As with Tanner-induced single-mindedness, however, I had never INTERNALIZED anything other than, “If I ever hear an Ivory-billed Woodpecker call, it will come in the form of three notes.”
 
As I was reading the 1932 passage, my wife, Lauren, could tell that I was reacting emotionally to what I was reading. For the ONLY time in our eight years of wedded bliss (actually, not hyperbole) regarding something that I was reading, she asked: “Are you OKAY?” I find my visible, somatic response to be at least as important as all the intellectual reasons that I could adduce to explain the importance of the 1932 description. 
 
In sum, that 1932 description removed whatever lingering doubt that I had maintained regarding the probable source of the sounds that I recorded on March 15, 2017. Subjectively, I am convinced that I recorded at least two (and probably three) Ivory-billed Woodpeckers that day. Objectively, I can state unequivocally that the calls were consistent with those to be expected from ivorybills. While acoustics alone will never be sufficient to establish the continued existence of the ivorybill, for me the only pertinent question that remains regarding the 3/15/17 recording is: “Could anything other than an ivorybill also account for those sounds”?
 
Congratulations on reading my tome in its entirety! Please feel free to share with anyone. Of course, I would be happy to answer any questions raised herein.

The other interesting tidbits from Louisiana Conservationist pertain to possible ivorybill sightings in the 1950s. Both items (letters from readers and responses from state officials) are certainly questionable, but they also point to the way Pileated Woodpecker became the default, even when the description was inconsistent with PIWO.

The first is interesting for its location. Urania, Louisiana is southwest of the Singer Tract and is relatively close to the Project Coyote search areas. It was founded by Harry Hardtner in the 1890s and is considered the birthplace of conservation and reforestation in Louisiana. The image that prompted the letter is included for reference.

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 3.44.14 PMScreen Shot 2017-09-15 at 3.28.27 PM

The second letter is peculiar, but the description is considerably more suggestive of ivorybill than Pileated – like a Red-headed Woodpecker but the size of a chicken.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 8.45.06 AM

There’s one additional tidbit that doesn’t pertain to Louisiana. In the past, I’ve wondered about record committee submissions and how many there may have been over the years. A divided Arkansas committee accepted the Big Woods report (a fact that’s often glossed over in the literature), while the Florida committee rejected the Auburn reports. Other than these submissions, I was aware of one from Texas, from out of range and in unlikely habitat. I recently ran across another, from Florida, also rejected but interesting nonetheless. Here it is, for what it’s worth:

Ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis.
FOSRC 2011-852. This bird was described from an observation in suburban St. Augustine, St. Johns Co., on 13 April 2011. Although the observation included key characters of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, such as a white bill and white pattern on the back while perched, the observation was at a distance of 30 m and made without binoculars. It is the Committee’s opinion that the only acceptable submissions of this species would be those with veri able evidence (e.g, identifiable photographs or video). The recent controversy over video recordings, audio recordings, and sightings in Arkansas (Sibley et al. 2006) and Florida (FOSRC #06-610, Kratter 2008) calls into question whether the species may have persisted into the twenty-first century.

More soon.

*Ants are described as a prey species in Bendire (1895), but this is based on a misreading of Thompson (1885). Allen and Kellogg (1937) mention an observation involving suspected feeding on ants but found no ants or termites when they examined the substrate. The closest thing to evidence for ants as prey involves a Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker with a hugely overgrown bill that was observed feeding on arboreal termites – a species not native to the continental United States. It was observed and collected by Gundlach in 1843 and was also being fed grubs by its companions. Jackson speculates that this might have been a young adult bird, but given the extent of the hypertrophy, this strikes me as being somewhat unlikely. I’ll opt for the altruistic possibility that Jackson also posits. (Jackson 2004).

 

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