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Change of Pace, Change of Place: Trip Report and Sighting Follow-Up, November 16-21, 2017

On October 22nd, I received an email reporting a recent ivorybill sighting in eastern Louisiana. I found the report convincing for its high level of detail and decided to devote my next trip to following up on it. The source was Joseph Tyler Saucier, a pastor, avid hunter, and Louisiana native whom I’ve known virtually since early 2014, when he wrote and expressed his interest in Project Coyote. We exchanged a few emails at that time, but he was in more frequent contact with Frank. I have no doubt about his honesty.

When I asked him if I could post his entire report, with location details redacted, he courageously volunteered to attach his name to the sighting.  In addition to the initial report, I’m including some further comments he made when I shared my impressions of the area and asked if I could include his description in the post. His words should speak for themselves.

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I was a friend of Frank and talked to him on a few occasions about my own experiences with the IBWO. I saw a lone male when I was about 14 years old on my grandfathers property in West Central Louisiana. After many years of searching without success, I became a IBWO agnostic/ skeptic. I’m an avid hunter and the last two years I had pretty much given up on even thinking about the bird. Saturday morning that changed. I went on a annual squirrel hunting trip over the weekend . . . the birds presence there it never crossed my mind. On Saturday at approximately 9:30 am I was in pursuit of a squirrel . . . in a section of large trees. I saw through some brush a black animal with white stripes slowly making its way up the truck of a large tree. My first thought, was it was a black squirrel with white marks on it which would be the kill of a lifetime. I had killed a black squirrel the previous afternoon. My second thought, as the animal became more visible was that it was a skunk with white stripes somehow climbing up the bottom of the tree. Then suddenly, the bird came into better view and into the sunlight. I first noticed that it wasn’t climbing the tree slowly but was hoping or bobbing up the tree. I noticed the two clear stripes coming down from the neck to the lower back. When I reached for my phone in my front pocket the bird quickly turned its head in my direction. At that moment, I noticed the most startling thing I’ve ever seen. The bill on the bird was solid white. The sun illuminated its radiance as it stuck out against the dark bark of the tree. I noticed a black underdeveloped crest. Judging by the size and underdevelopment of the crest it was a fledgling. Suddenly, the bird flew to my right then ascended upwards and swung to my left where the bird was met in the air by a larger woodpecker without any red on its crest. The soaring birds quickly were no longer visible. I did not get the best view of them flying off because I was obstructed by trees and brush. I believe once again and have no doubt about what I saw. I know I won’t be taken seriously but do you think I should contact anyone . . . about this sighting?

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Thank you for your steadfastness and detailed report. I wish I could have gone assisted you guys on the search. Unfortunately, a number of things required my attention. Mark you can use my name or report as you wish. I’m certain that I viewed at least one IBWO. I’ve typically hunted once or twice a week for about 17 years and I see Pileated Woodpeckers nearly every outing. I know the difference. A large Woodpecker with two white stripes, a long ivory bill, and a solid black crest stood out. Certainly, some will roll their eyes or be dismissive of my sighting. I’ve simply shared what I saw and the experience itself helped heal this doubting Thomas.

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Steve Pagans and I visited the vicinity between November 16-21, spending a total of five days in the field and covering just over 23 miles. We had no possible sightings but heard what I’d describe as a weak possible single knock on the afternoon of the 21st. Because we were talking at the time, and there were some hunters in the vicinity, gunshot is a distinct possibility. I did not find the kinds of feeding sign I’ve suggested may be diagnostic for ivorybill; however, we did find several concentrations of bark scaling involving a variety of tree species. I usually post my trip reports as day-by-day logs, but since this involves a new area, I’ll take a different approach to summarizing our observations.

Habitat Characteristics

The area is part of a large parcel of bottomland hardwoods, much of it maturing second growth. Forest composition more closely resembles the old Project Coyote search area than the new one; Nuttall oaks, honey locusts, and pecans, which are absent from the new search area, are abundant. Overall, the forest is more mature than in the old search area, with many trees between 2′-3′ DBH, and some oaks and gums exceeding that in the most mature sections.

I have the impression that the harvest of cypresses from the area was limited. We only saw a couple of old stumps, and many seemingly healthy, large trees can be found, including the largest ones I’ve ever seen.

The woods are breathtakingly beautiful, and if ivorybills have persisted, I think the habitat is adequate to support them.

 

 

 

Woodpeckers and Nuthatches

Pileateds, Red-bellieds, Hairies, Downies, Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were abundant, and impressionistically, there were many more Sapsuckers than in the current Project Coyote search area. By contrast, Red-headed Woodpeckers were scarce; we only heard three over five days. We encountered no White-breated Nuthatches (which are very common in our current search area) or Red-breasted Nuthatches and got no responses to playbacks of both species. Playback of the (putative ivorybill) March calls sometimes provoked apparent reactions from Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers and from Red-shouldered Hawks.

Cavities

Finding cavities can be challenging, especially when the canopy is high, leaves have not all fallen, and the mid-story is thick. In addition, Pileated Woodpecker cavities vary considerably, and there are no data on the dimensions of ivorybill roosts. All we know is that ivorybill nests tend to be larger and more irregularly shaped than Pileated nests. It seems reasonable to infer that the same would apply to roosts. While cavities may not be strong indicators of presence, it’s still worth looking for outliers. We found two on this trip, one in a honey locust (which has harder wood than most oak species) and one in an American elm.

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Large cavity in a honey locust snag

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Large cavity in an American elm

Feeding Sign

As noted, we did not find any feeding sign that matches the diagnostic criteria I’ve hypothesized for ivorybill work. We did, however, find a decent quantity of bark scaling. Our field impression was that bark scaling was not as abundant as it is in our main search area, but on reviewing the photographs I took over five days, I’m doubting that impression.

We found bark scaling, some fresh some older, on a number of species – honey locust, sweet gum, red maple, persimmon (old and not photographed), and sassafras (not photographed and consistent with PIWO scaling on the species that I’ve found locally). The bark of small red maples is easy to scale, so this work too could well be Pileated.

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In the area where we found the cavity in a honey locust, there appeared to have been a substantial die-off of that species, and several snags had scaling on the upper branches and boles. Honey locust bark is very hard and tight when the tree is alive and shortly after death, but it softens, loosens and becomes easy to remove, as was the case of the snag shown below. Examination revealed that the snag shown below was infested with termites, making PIWO the likely culprit, at least with regard to the most recent work.

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There was scaling, both old and new, on a number of recently dead honey locusts in the vicinity.

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The bark remained hard and very tight on the recently downed locust shown below; however, the appearance and extent of the scaling are suggestive of Pileated. Squirrel is also possible, although there were signs of insect infestation.

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Sweet gum scaling was also abundant. Most of it was on higher branches and involved small limbs. The largest limb is shown in the first image below. Most of the chips were small, and all of the work strikes me as being within the range of what’s physically possible for Pileated. There was a time when some of this work would have excited me more. Nevertheless, the fact that bark scaling is abundant in the area is encouraging, since Pileated Woodpeckers scale bark relatively infrequently.  In addition, scaling is likely to be less abundant at this time of year, when other food sources are readily available.

 

 

Snakes

I always enjoy including herp photos when the opportunity presents itself. Steve nearly stepped on the rattlesnake, the biggest I’ve ever seen. I was glad to be wearing snake boots. The eastern ribbon and garter were mesmerizing.

 

 

Some Closing Thoughts

The forest is extensive. We focused on the vicinity of Joseph’s sighting, coming in from several different directions.  Many acres remain to be explored. We found little beaver sign but understand that beavers are abundant in nearby, much less accessible patches of similarly mature forest. Hunters frequent the area, but as in many other patches of potential ivorybill habitat, signs of human activity – litter, shotgun shells, flagging – diminish the farther one goes from existing ATV trails.

While Steve and I didn’t see or hear anything strongly suggestive of ivorybill, I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the habitat. I came away convinced that this area merits further attention, and that would be the case even without Joseph’s report. There is far more such habitat in Louisiana than most casual followers of the ivorybill saga imagine, and while I plan to remain focused on the current Project Coyote search area, I will do my best to give this area the attention it deserves.

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