Bits and Pieces Part 5: More on Range and Habitat Variety

I intended this long-delayed installment in the “Bits and Pieces” series to be the year’s final post. I also intended it to the be final installment in the series. While this may end up as the last post for 2017, I’ve decided to cut this short and save some discussion for what I anticipate will REALLY be the final installment.

Follow the links for Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

I’ll begin by reiterating that my focus here is not just on records from outside what’s commonly believed to be the historic range but also on records from habitats that depart from the stereotype that has emerged since the 1940s. Those who have studied the ivorybill’s natural history in depth understand that the species was not limited to Singer Tract-like habitats, and Tanner himself made this clear. Nevertheless, there’s a widespread tendency to think about habitat quality with a somewhat romanticized image of the Singer Tract – a vast contiguous area of old growth or virgin forest with huge trees and a high canopy – as the touchstone; Matt Courtman blamed this tendency on internalized beliefs. And for my part, I sometimes find it hard to shake these beliefs.

Ivorybill anatomy is specialized and particularly well-adapted to scaling bark, but the specialization pertains to securing food sources not easily retrieved by other woodpeckers (including Pileated) during the breeding season; it is not a specialization tied to particular tree species or habitat types.

Before moving on to a discussion of other records that don’t fit the Singer Tract model, I wanted to address something Cyberthrush said in an October post linking to this series. He wrote:

One of my hopes for the widespread USFWS/Cornell search was that it would at least narrow any possible IBWO persistence down to a very few (perhaps 2-3) localized areas; instead the failed endeavor left open the possibility of 2 dozen or more (sometimes little-birded) areas that scarce IBWOs might conceivably utilize. The lack of a single Ivory-billed Woodpecker appearing on remote, automatic cameras by now at more traditional and well-searched areas remains a pretty devastating obstacle to hope for the species… unless indeed it has found a home in the canopies of less-obvious, lightly human-trafficked woodlands.

I don’t want to hold out too much false(?) hope for this species, but on the other hand I believe most southeast woodland habitat is rarely birded in any regular or significant fashion and the vast majority of individual woodland birds are never systematically recorded — moreover, the ornithological literature is rife with weak, unscientific conclusions/generalizations/assumptions about bird behavior, and perhaps even bird biology. There’s just a lot we don’t know, while pretending we do.

While I don’t share Cyberthrush’s perspective on the lack of remote camera photos (or canopies), he makes very good points about the overall paucity of birding activity in many southeastern forests (I have never encountered other birders in the field) and about the limits of our knowledge.

With regard to his disappointment in the organized search effort, I suspect his hopes were founded in part on similar internalized beliefs; these beliefs were reflected to some extent in the excellent lists of potential habitat compiled by Bob Russell and Bill Pulliam that were so widely referenced a decade or so ago. That’s not to say the listed locations were unworthy of attention (and some of them have yet to receive much); however, there are many other areas that were not included.

In discussing his search efforts in one of these areas, Bill summed it up very well:

Many forest birds have modified their habitat usage in recent decades and centuries. Chimney Swifts are an obvious example; also quite telling is the Vaux’s Swift which has only begun moving out of old growth and into chimneys in the last few decades. But of more direct relevance, consider the following quotes:

When found they are usually in regions of original forest growth, rarely being seen where the woods have been once cut over. […] As this Woodpecker seems not to possess the faculty of adapting itself to the new conditions created by civilization, it is quite possible that it will not long survive the passing of our primeval forests. T. Gilbert Pearson, Birds of America, 1936.

Its presence in a region is more often revealed by the large cavities it excavates in dead stumps and trunks than by actual observation of the bird itself. […] This species is common only in the wilder parts of its range. Frank M. Chapman, Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, 1939.

Both of these early 20th Century characterizations are of the habitat requirements of the Pileated Woodpecker. In fact, as we all know, over the intervening decades Pileateds managed to adapt to forest fragmentation and second growth quite well, thank you, and are now widespread in habitats well beyond the range of what was described in the 1930s.

There’s also another fundamental, perhaps somewhat tautological factor at work. If in fact Ivorybills were an obligate old-growth bird, then yes, they are now extinct. If they were never able to utilize second growth and fragmented forest, then there is absolutely no reason to be looking for them now anywhere. But even given the historical accounts of their habits they demonstrated a bit more flexibility than this; and given the actual history of Pileateds and various other forest birds since the industrial revolution, it seems brash and unjustified to presume that the habitat utilization of a 21st Century Ivorybill would be the same as that of one in the 19th Century.

We now know that even within the Singer Tract, ivorybills nested successfully at Mack’s Bayou, an area that was predominantly second growth, and I’d suggest that ivorybills showed more than “a bit more flexibility”, when one looks at the historical record.

As Fangsheath at ibwo.net has pointed out both on the forum and in an email, most of the ivorybill localities referenced by Tanner are from within 20 miles of the coast, and “[t]hese coastal forests are quite different from the Singer Tract.” In many of these coastal areas, tree size would have been smaller, the understory would have been thicker, and the canopy would have been lower due to hurricanes and other factors. In addition, the coastal records may have implications for survival in fragmented habitat types.

There are a number of records from Florida and South Carolina involving offshore islands. While most if not all of these offshore islands would have been covered in old growth forest at the time of collection, reaching them would have required crossing expanses of open water or marsh.

In South Carolina, there were multiple reports from barrier islands into the 1880s. A specimen collected in 1879 or 1880 is now lost. Hoxie, writing in 1918, reported that ivorybills were generally “unpersecuated or harmed by man” and that they had opportunistically fed on the barrier islands, following hurricanes, but disappeared when the food supply was exhausted.

My knowledge about Florida and conditions there is limited, but it seems clear that ivorybills lived and bred in a variety of habitats. Florida is also the largest single source of specimens and probably had the largest ivorybill population in the country. What may also be relevant is their apparent use of of mangrove forests, including potentially some 1-2 miles away from the mainland, especially in the Everglades region. As with barrier islands, use of this habitat may have involved crossing some open water between mainland forests (e.g., Big Cypress, associated forested sloughs, and open pine woods, leading to the Gulf of Mexico) and mangrove forests, both along the coastline and in the area referred to as the Ten Thousand Islands, extending south to where Tanner relayed reports during the 1930s from Shark and Lostman’s Rivers within what is now Everglades National Park.

To end this tour of ‘unexpected’ habitats and ‘extralimital’ records, let’s jump north and west by a thousand miles or so and consider records from Arkansas/Missouri and Virginia.

The Arkansas/Missouri records are from George Featherstonhaugh who explored the area in the 1830s and published his account in 1844 as Excursion Through the Slave States from Washington on the Potomac to the Frontier of Mexico; with Sketches of Popular Manners and Geological Notices. Featherstonhaugh reported seeing ivorybills in two different locations – one from a bottomland area above the confluence of the Ouachita and Caddo Rivers, in the vicinity of present day Arkadelphia, AR. This passage is from Volume 2.

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The second location appears in Volume 1 and is more interesting for the purposes of this discussion, since it involves fire damaged upland forest, likely oak-dominated, with hickory and perhaps some shortleaf pine. It’s not clear whether the site is in present day Arkansas or present day Missouri. Either way, it appears to be on the edge of the Ozark Plateau where it meets the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. As an aside, Featherstonhaugh seems to have had an eye for detail and a dry sense of humor:

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Whether the birds were resident in this area or were merely feeding opportunistically in the fire damaged table-land, the habitat involved bears no resemblance to the Spanish Moss festooned, swamp forest stereotype.

Back in October, Matt Courtman discovered that Thomas Jefferson included the ivorybill on his list of Virginia birds found in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). While some authors have suggested that Jefferson was merely following Catesby, it has also been argued that Jefferson’s list was “a product of his personal observations”. If this is true, Jefferson’s observation would not have been from the Great Dismal Swamp (where Pearson thought ivorybills might be present in the early 20th-century), since Jefferson never went south of Norfolk.

Thomas Nuttall, writing in the 1830s, described the ivorybill as being “seldom seen to the north of Virginia and rarely in that state.” In The History of Ornithology in Virginia (2003), Johnston dismisses Nuttall’s assertion but also points to a much earlier and unambiguous record from an upland site, one that seems to have been otherwise overlooked.

The record is from a Native American midden dating to the early Woodland period, ca. 300 CE (AD). The site, Daugherty’s Cave, was used for millennia. It’s in the western part of the state, far from the coastal plain, at an elevation of approximately 2000′. The context suggests that the remains were not trade goods, and Johnston deems it to be “the only known record of this bird from Virginia”.

I’m struck by the fact that if the ivorybill had gone extinct before 1700, and we only had the scant archaeological record to go on, we’d imagine it to be a bird associated with upland forests. On a more serious note and perhaps one more relevant to the discussion that will follow in the next post, I wonder whether the appearance of ivorybill remains in Appalachian middens around 1800 years ago is related to the spread of maize agriculture and tree kills associated with this new farming technology.

So what inferences can be drawn from all this information and what are the implications? I have some thoughts, not all of them had occurred to me before I began  this exploration, and I hope they’ll inspire readers to reflect and come up with their own new insights.

The first and perhaps most mundane observation is that the range maps with which we’re all so familiar, like the one below from the IUCN, reflect the ivorybill’s status after what was likely a long period of decline, especially east of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, these maps reinforce ideas about habitat requirements and tree species associations that are, at best, oversimplifications.

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For contrast, I’ve updated the map I created showing most of the records discussed in this series.

This is not to suggest that reports from outside this “historic” range should be taken seriously today. The map is a fairly accurate reflection of the reality post-Civil War. The more important questions are why the range started to shrink, probably during the 18th-century, and what this more complex analysis of potential habitat types might imply for the species’ survival. That will be the subject of the next and final installment.

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March Recordings Revisited: A Compilation of the Calls for Easier Listening, Interesting Knocks, and Some Additional Analysis

If you’re interested in possible double knocks, I’ve made what may be some important new finds, so be sure to read the whole post and listen to the clips at the end.

In the meantime, I think this post will be of interest to many readers – from the new ones who’ve found the blog either because of the recent sighting or after reading about Project Coyote on the LABird list (thanks to Jay Huner for the mention) to other ivorybill searchers and aficionados to those who have had trouble hearing the putative ivorybill calls on the March recordings or didn’t want to wade through all the audio.

In the easy listening department, Steve Pagans has made a compilation of the clearest calls on Matt Courtman’s first, 2 hour clip recorded on the morning of March 15 using NCH software.

I tweaked Steve’s version a bit, amplifying it and applying noise reduction using Audacity, an equivalent program. Sonograms were generated using Sonic Visualizer, to my knowledge the best free program of its kind.

Both Steve’s version and mine (immediately below Steve’s) should make it considerably easier to hear many of the calls recorded that morning. Steve’s is somewhat cleaner, and mine is somewhat louder.

Steve’s extracts from Matt’s first clip:

With additional amplification:

Steve has done similar, shorter condensations of the the other two recordings Matt made. (The extract from the second clip adds little, so I’ve opted not to post it.)

Steve’s extract from Matt’s third clip:

With additional amplification:

The calls have a very consistent sonogram pattern (the stacks of three or more parallel horizontal lines), with an emphasis on the second partial (third horizontal line from the bottom). There are apparent tree squeaks in both clips that have a similar quality; the dominant frequency is similar, but the tree squeaks show more energy at that frequency. The second screen cap is a detail of the first, showing both calls and tree squeaks. The latter show a brighter orange, indicating more energy at a similar frequency to the calls’ dominant partial. The sounds are definitely different, but they can be hard to distinguish at the margins.

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Steve’s effort, which took many hours, inspired me to revisit the recordings and specifically to reexamine possible responses to Matt’s anthropogenic double knocks and Phil’s playbacks over the course of the more than three hours when Matt’s recorder was running. I had concluded that the ADKs did not seem to have had an impact, but on careful re-listening, I’ve amended that view. Matt’s knocks do seem to have stirred up calls in reaction and to have generated several possible single or double knocks.

Listening through the recordings and especially to the ADKs and their immediate aftermath was a time-consuming and difficult process, especially because the knocks are very loud and tightly spaced. Matt used two wooden blocks (rather than dowels and a tree trunk or a knock box) and did not follow a specific protocol. Overall, his approach was more aggressive than Frank’s or mine, both in terms of volume and number of knocks, and a somewhat more restrained approach is probably advisable in the future. Nevertheless, if you assume (as I do) that ivorybills were present on this morning, these recordings may provide some insights into the efficacy (or lack thereof) of ADKs in generating responses.

This return visit to the recordings also supported my view that the putative ivorybill calls (recorded in the old search area) that Phil played back generated no reaction at all from the suspected ivorybills on the morning of the 15th.  Blue Jays, however, appeared to respond, and I now tend to think those calls (though not all of those recorded in the old area) were Blue Jay, based on the apparent Blue Jay responses and on the harmonics. In retrospect, it’s unfortunate (but totally understandable under the circumstances) that playback of the Singer Tract recordings and other possible attraction methods weren’t tried. Perhaps another opportunity will present itself, although the events of March 15 were singular . . . thus far.

In the first of these two clips, the playback seems to have provoked Blue Jays to call faintly. In the second, in which the Blue Jay calls are easier to hear, they had been calling before the playback began.

Phil’s Playbacks:

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Sonogram of played back calls showing fundamental frequency, strong second partial, and strong higher harmonic at approximately 5000 hz. Presumed Blue Jay call is the faint horizontal line at bottom center with a frequency of around 2000 hz.

By my count, Matt did 7 sets of ADKS and performed approximately 205 knocks in all. I noted six possible double or single knock responses (of varying quality) in four of the six series. These knocks occurred within seconds of ADKs. The temporal proximity between the ADKs and the possible DKs and SK in response make it less likely that Matt and Phil (to a lesser extent) would have noted them in the field.

I’m posting the relevant extracts below in unmodified form followed by clips with the interesting knocks amplified using Audacity. They should be audible through a desktop computer, but headphones will help. To repeat a strong caveat: Matt’s ADKs are very loud (which made this analysis especially difficult). I should also reiterate that I don’t consider myself particularly skilled at analyzing recorded knocks; I don’t have the greatest ear for intervals and have no direct field experience with Campephilus woodpeckers; my ability to interpret sonograms is also limited. Nevertheless, I’m sure these sounds are neither shots nor industrial noise (or duck wingbeats). With one exception (the fifth knock, which sounds like a single to me), I’m also confident that Matt was not the source of the sounds. Some of inadvertent bumping together of his blocks should be audible at various points, and it has a different quality.

The first set of ADKs was the shortest, involving only six, and these were very closely spaced. The first ADK in the series produced a possible DK in response. Matt began the series 15 minutes and 52 seconds into the recording, and there had been a kent call at 14:59. Both a possible DK and a kent call can be heard between the first and second knocks. An additional kent can be heard after the third knock (omitted here).

Unmodified version:

Amplified knock:

I did not find any possible double knocks in the second and third series, and there were only a few kent calls – one during the second and three during the third. There was a possible double knock in the fourth series, at 1:48.22, two seconds after an ADK.

Unmodified:

Amplified:

During the 5th set, on the second clip, I found a possible single knock at 3:16. (Steve Pagans, who has an excellent ear, thinks it’s a closely spaced double.) I can’t rule Matt out completely as the source of this sound, but I think that’s a remote possibility.

Edited to Add: Playing the clip at a slower speed, reveals that there are two distinct knocks, the first louder, and leaves me convinced that Matt was not the source of this sound.

Unmodified:

Amplified:

Also on the second clip in the 6th set, there’s a possible double knock at 30:26, approximately 2 seconds after an ADK.

Unmodified:

Amplified:

On the final recording, during the 7th and final set, there’s possible DK after the 5th ADK in the series. It was preceded by a possible ambient DK about 50 seconds before Matt began the ADKs. The ambient knock is slightly buried behind some rustling, approximately three seconds into the recordings. To my ears, the DK in response sounds as though the first knock is softer than the second, something that’s uncommon but not unheard of for Campephilus woodpeckers. I’ve included both the entire relevant sequence and extracts in which I’ve amplified the knocks.

Unmodified clip with ambient DK and later DK in response to Matt’s 5th in a series of ADKs:

Ambient DK Amplified:

Amplified DK in response to ADK:

Finally, in listening to parts of Matt’s first clip again, I noted that there are a number of very distant kents. These are barely audible at normal volume and only faintly so on the amplified version. This suggests a highly mobile source (or sources) for the calls. It also suggests that there may be more calls on the recordings than the approximately 200 hundred I originally estimated. Steve noticed these calls too but elected not to include them in his compilation because the amount of amplification necessary degrades the sound quality. Thus, it may be difficult for some readers to hear these more distant calls.

The first few seconds of the extract below are unamplified to give a sense of the volume of other ambient sounds at the time. The kent calls come toward the end, and with one partial harmonic showing up faintly on the sonogram (the lighter colored dot near the left margin in the image below).

Amplified Distant Kents:

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Click the hotlinks for prior posts and pages related to the March recordings.

I owe readers the final installment of the “Bits and Pieces” series (hotlink is to the most recent installment). I anticipate that it will be my final post for this eventful year. Look for it just before Christmas.