We had a sustained presence, at least one person in the search area, between February 28th and March 16th (one rain day excepted). Between the 28th and the 16th, there were no possible encounters with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers either visual or auditory. We found a modest quantity of recent bark scaling and a few fresh cavities. We were able to do some preliminary surveys of nearby areas where local people have reported seeing ivorybills; we visited one of these on foot and think it is worthy of additional attention. We aimed a trail camera at a badly damaged hickory and have identified locations for deploying two more in the coming months. In my view, the lack of possible encounters this year supports the idea that the sounds heard and recorded last March came from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
I’m opting not to post a day-by-day log for this trip and will instead focus on what I think were the most important observations made and insights gained from this team effort. I arrived in the area on the morning of the 7th and was able to spend the afternoon in the field. I was joined at various times by Peggy Shrum, Jay Tischendorf, Tommy Michot, Amy Warfield, Phil Vanbergen, and Geoffrey McMullan, a British birder, artist, and woodpecker enthusiast. (His drawing of Mexico’s woodpeckers is shown on p. 139 of Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams).
Matt Courtman arrived on March 15 and remained in the area after my departure. If he has anything significant to report it will be discussed in the next post.
Erik Hendrickson’s post details his time in the search area prior to my arrival.
As noted, we did not hear anything suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. We did more stopping and listening than I have in many past trips; we also tried anthropogenic double knocks and playbacks of the calls recorded last year and of Barred Owls at various times, between early morning and early afternoon. At approximately 9:00 am on Wednesday, March 14, Tommy, Geoffrey, Peggy, and I heard several odd and unfamiliar “boom” sounds following my ADKs. We agreed that these were not woodpecker. They were repetitive; Tommy estimated they came in series of 5-6. While they had a metallic, industrial quality, they did not resemble shots or the typical industrial noises that are heard in the area – from logging or distant road construction. They did not seem distant, but when we hiked to the area from which they seemed to have originated, we didn’t find anything.
It’s always important to remember that correlation is not causation; while the sounds seemed to be coming in response to the ADKs, we surmised that the apparent association was coincidental. Whatever the source of the “booms”, it was a strange episode.
On the 15th, Phil and I heard some distant crow calls that were a little kent-like on first impression, enough for me to turn on my recorder and capture some of them, though we suspected crow and never thought they were ivorybill. You’ll hear Phil’s reaction when it became unquestionable that these were indeed crow calls.
They sound more obviously crow-like on the recording than they did to the naked ear, but I’m including them here since crows are rarely mentioned as a potential source of kent-like calls. The faint sonogram is not at all suggestive of ivorybill; only one frequency is readily discernible, at around 1300 hz.
To reiterate, the events of last March (2017) were unprecedented. We have had a couple of encounters involving multiple calls over an extended period – in March 2013 (these have higher fundamental frequencies) and one in the old search area, January 2010 that also involved apparent double knocks. But neither of these lasted nearly as long or involved as many suggestive sounds. Other potential auditory encounters have been brief. Thus, it’s reasonable to infer that the source is not a common species in the area. The calls strongly resemble known Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds (and resemble them more closely than they do any known species). In my view, none of the proposed alternatives (Blue Jay, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Red-breasted Nuthatch) are plausible. I’m hopeful that further analysis will support this perspective.
I found one cavity in a pine (not photographed) that seemed right in size and shape though it was old and only about 40 feet above the ground. I have not focused on pines given the paucity of records of ivorybills using them for roosting and nesting. This is probably ill-advised. The same applies to sycamores, as Erik pointed out in his trip report.
I found one intriguing and apparently recent cavity, high in a sweet gum in the area that we’ve considered to be a hot zone. Stakeouts have come up empty, and as is often the case, the cavity is too high in the tree and too subject to backlighting to merit targeting with a trail cam. This is an ongoing problem, even when the cavities are much closer to the camera, as in the “neck bird” image.
I also spotted this unusual, large and rectangular cavity in a cypress.
My thoughts on scaling continue to evolve. As time goes on, the category of what I think is diagnostic for ivorybill grows narrower. I’ve become more skeptical about much of the work we’ve found, especially on sweet gums. Nevertheless, I still think that certain types of scaling may be diagnostic and more generally that an abundance of bark scaling in a given area may be an indicator of ivorybill presence.
This is a good introduction for those who are unfamiliar with my perspective on bark scaling and what I’ve hypothesized. While I’ve been refining thy hypothesis over the years, a couple of posts from 2013 are still relevant and may provide more insights, including into the underlying anatomical rationale. There’s a gestalt involved in identifying “interesting” scaling. I look at a number of factors:
- Tree species and associated bark characteristics (tightness, toughness, and thickness) factor in. With very rare exceptions, I only consider hardwoods. Pine bark is easily scaled.
- The bark must have been removed cleanly, with little or no damage to the underlying wood (targeted digs within a scaled area excepted). It’s important to distinguish between true scaling and bark removal associated with shallow excavation; many recent searchers have not recognized the distinction (some of the work shown at the second link is true scaling and some appears not to be).
- Condition of the tree or snag. I generally exclude wood that appears to me more than two or three years dead (following Tanner), so twigs and small branches must remain. (The cherry bark oak mentioned below is an exception, due to the chip characteristics.)
- Diameter of the scaled bole or limb. Bigger is better. So are boles.
- Size, shape, quantity, and characteristics of bark chips. Bigger and broader are better. Chips can also help in distinguishing between scaling and shallow excavations. Sapwood chips point to the latter.
- Extent and appearance of the scaling. Neat edges are one factor. Pileated Woodpeckers often remove thick bark in layers, and their scaling has a messy appearance. Similarity to images of known or presumed ivorybill foraging sign (as in the example below), though these are few and hard to decipher, is another consideration; large, contiguous areas stripped of bark are required.
(Thanks to Tommy Michot for suggesting that I include this list and for his editorial suggestions generally.)
I found most of the interesting scaling on the first couple of days in the field. When I arrived in the late morning, on March 7, I went to the area where the calls were recorded last March and where we’ve had the most indications of ivorybill presence in recent years. While we often find scaled pines in the uplands, this is the first time I’ve found extensive hardwood scaling – on a number of small, recently fire-killed trees.
Because these trees are so small, the bark, while tight, is very thin and therefore easily removed. The scaling is extensive, but I don’t think Pileated Woodpecker can be ruled out. Some of the chips were substantial. The scaled trees are shown below. Two are black cherries, but I couldn’t identify the others. The trees were within approximately 100 yards of each other and no more than two hundred yards from the edge of the lower-lying hardwood habitat.
Water levels were high; I was hoping to reach one of our trail cameras, but conditions made it impractical to do so (avoiding flooded areas would have involved at least a two hour detour). I did find some recent sweet gum scaling in the area, including on a freshly dead snag that we’d found in December. Although some of the chips were large, I don’t feel confident ruling out Pileated Woodpecker for much or all of this work.
On March 8, Peggy, Geoffrey, Jay, Tommy and I visited the southern area, and Peggy spotted a sweet gum that Erik had photographed during his visit. There was new scaling, apparently done within the last week or so, especially on one of the larger limbs.
More significantly, I found a hickory with extensive scaling of the kind I suspect is diagnostic for ivorybill. My initial thought was that this was a new tree, but Phil later pointed out that it was the one he’d found last year, with a number of thin bark strips (which we attributed to Pileated Woodpecker) at the base. Nevertheless, the scaling lower on the bole of this hickory appears to be more recent, and while flooding had washed away most of the new bark chips, a couple that we found around the base are more consistent with the larger chunks of bark that I suspect are indicative of ivorybill. (The very large chip in the image may not be associated with the scaling, though I suspect it was.)
The bark on this hickory is approximately .5″ thick, and it remains very hard and tightly adhering. This is the first time I’ve found a hickory that appears to have been visited and extensively scaled at least twice, many months or even over a year apart. This was a surprise, as I’ve suspected that the life cycle of the beetles infesting the snag meant that this kind of feeding was a ‘one shot deal’. That does not appear to be the case with this tree, so some rethinking may be required.
Figuring out what animal is the first to scale these hickories is my top priority. We currently have three cameras deployed on hickories that are damaged, including one adjacent to this snag. I hope to be able to deploy two more this spring. If it turns out that Pileated Woodpeckers are responsible for the initial work, I will be persuaded there’s no way to distinguish between PIWO and IBWO work, although abundance and bark chip characteristics might still remain as possible indicators.
I remain convinced that the ivorybill has persisted and has been present in our search area, at least sporadically, but I will be disheartened if it turns out that there’s no qualitatively diagnostic feeding sign. Tanner relied heavily on feeding sign during his surveys (though he accepted reports from South Carolina where little or no sign was found) and rejected the 1970s Big Thicket reports in large part due to the absence of bark scaling.
If Pileateds are doing the initial scaling on these hickories, then Pileateds could be the source of virtually all scaling found in any part of the ivorybill’s historic range, including on live or freshly dead trees of any species. If this proves to be true, then the presence of feeding sign will be a weaker and more subjective indicator of presence.
But on a more upbeat note, we also found some scaling on a cherrybark oak. Because I’ve come to suspect that PIWOs can scale sweet gums extensively and well, other tree species are of particular interest. Though the tree was alive, the limb from which these chips were stripped was not recently dead (photographing it was impractical), with no twigs or small branches remaining. Nevertheless, the chips were large, hard, and dense. I haven’t found chips like these since 2013, and I think they are intriguing.
On March 12, we found one more scaled sweet gum that piqued my interest. The jagged appearance and extent of scaling on the bole are suggestive of known ivorybill work, subject to the caveats provided above. There was also extensive older work higher on the trunk.
We were rained out on Sunday, March 11 and took the opportunity to drive around in an area from which there have been several local reports (though I have not spoken to the people involved face-to-face and do not know them personally). Some of the upland areas are impressively restored stands of maturing longleaf pine; we did not find any stands of large hardwoods, though we did find places with numerous beaver-killed trees. I did not take any photographs.
On the morning of the 12th, I stopped to meet Jay for breakfast at one of the local hangouts, and an older man I’d talked to the year before pulled me aside and asked if I’d visited the area he’d told me about then. He specifically mentioned ivorybills and was very insistent that he’d seen them there from time to time during his hunting days (he’d stopped about a decade ago.) Last year, he’d recognized an ivorybill image on my phone but had not named the species. None of the other men in the restaurant were familiar with ivorybills, but this individual clearly knew what he was talking about.
A few years earlier, another person (a preacher and barbecue chef) told me he’d seen ivorybills in the same bottom (stating that he’d thought the ‘ones with white on the back were the males and the all black ones were the females’.
Peggy, Tommy, Jay, and I visited part of the bottom both men had identified and were impressed by the habitat, which is very similar to the primary search area. Like the main area, it appears to have been high-graded or selectively cut, so the conditions within a very narrow corridor (and one we believe to be fairly long) are near old-growth. We did not find any bark scaling during our brief visit to the area, but it definitely merits more attention. I suspect we were several miles southwest of the claimed sightings, so this may be an extensive, if narrow, strip of high quality habitat. The oak shown below (with Tommy for scale) was measured to be over 5′ in diameter, and many of the sweet gums in the area were well over 3′ DBH.
The woods were beautiful as spring was breaking out. Conditions changed dramatically over the course of my stay. Despite some very cold mornings (we only saw one snake), leaf out progressed rapidly. On my last day in the field, Matt and I found a loblolly pine that may be a contender for state champion; the current one is just under 5′ in diameter. I suspect the one shown below is close to that and may be taller. By the middle of the trip, wild azaleas were in bloom. And finding Red-headed Woodpecker feathers always causes my heart to skip a beat.
I have one or two more trips planned this season and am hopeful that they will generate some new insights.
I was very pleased that we were able to have searchers in the field almost without interruption for over three key weeks in February and March. Erik was in the area alone from February 28-March 6, and conditions were good enough for him to get out for part of almost every day. At present, Matt Courtman is still in the field. I will be posting my trip report within the next few days; it covers the afternoon of March 7 through the morning of the 16th. There have been no possible encounters during this period, a stark contrast with this time last year. I’ll be addressing this in my report, but in the meantime, here’s Erik’s. It was a pleasure to read. I’ve made a couple of side comments in italics.
Back in the early 2000’s, I often used the holiday break as a time to take off from work and go birding someplace I’d never been before. Following the Ivorybill rediscovery announcement in May 2005, I decided to go to Arkansas “on a lark” and at least see the habitat where the bird had been found. There would be birding opportunities – a chance to see wintering species not present at my home in Montana, and I wanted to visit Little Rock High School National Historic Site.
After several days of birding, I saw the ivorybill. Like many other sightings, it was a brief look, but I saw the bird through binoculars, sharply focused, in good light. I made 4 more trips to Arkansas and Florida in the next two years, before my job took me to Alaska for 8 years. I made no more trips to the southeastern United States in that time.
But retirement in March of 2017 allowed me time to think about a return; and Mark graciously responded to my inquiry with an invitation to join his search effort in December 2017 / January 2018. I got to accompany him and Steve Pagans again in February; and Mark had another search planned for March, but the timing and logistics didn’t quite work out. With trepidation, I asked about searching the week before the main search effort, and Mark was encouraging. I’d seen how well Mark navigated the woods he knows so well, and Steve was equally competent (Steve is considerably more competent) – and always had his GPS available to ensure we could get out of the woods. But on my two initial trips; I often did not know where we were headed and often got turned around. I didn’t say so, but I knew I’d have to get a lot better at reading my GPS.
Mark also encouraged me to purchase a dedicated audio recorder, in case I heard double knocks or kent calls as other searchers have in the past. This was perhaps the most obvious advantage to being in the woods in March: the likelihood that ivorybills would be more vocal and/or more noticeable if they engaged in courtship, cavity construction, brooding and interaction at a cavity, or feeding of nestlings/fledglings. If I could be in the woods a week before Mark’s major search effort, then at least I was providing some additional coverage for a possible encounter.
A friend of mine said with encouragement “I’m sure you’ll see it this time!” I didn’t respond that “I don’t think so…”. Of course I’m optimistic, but my primary goal in the field is to contribute quality hours to searching for a species which has a very low encounter rate. The more hours searchers rack up, the more encounters we have. It’s important to me to contribute by adding up those good hours.
Logistics are a major part of the search effort: traveling from my home in Colorado; arranging airflight, rental car and lodging. Being prepared with the right clothing, rain gear, hat, camera, GPS, audio recorder, first aid kit, and all the miscellaneous supplies carried each day. I studied maps so that I wouldn’t be as lost as I was on my first trips. I could check online for the weather forecast and sunrise/sunset times. And then on my travel day, it takes about 12 hours from my house to my destination. I pick up lunch supplies at a local supermarket, and get ready for 7 days of searching.
It’s exciting first thing in the morning – arriving at the start point, and getting everything ready to walk into the woods. I only forgot to record the location of my vehicle once – but remembered within a 1/2 mile of my start, and that was close enough to ensure I could get out in the afternoon. I start out listening to and trying to see every bird – they’re all different from the birds back in Colorado, and if I’m standing still trying to pull a Yellow-eyed Vireo out of the shrubs – well, I can be listening for ivorybills at the same time.
Much of my time in the bottomland forests, I’m simply acting as a roving Audio Recording Unit. Although I rely on my eyes more than my ears – and at times it seems that I can see a lot of the habitat around me – I know from experience that I can’t really see all that much. Woodpeckers cling to the backside of trunks and branches. Sometimes I watch them up high, and then they move around to the opposite side of a branch – and they’re completely invisible to me. Had I not seen them move to that location, I’d never know they were there.
So as I scan the forest around me, I’m aware that there’s really only a limited amount of “space” – of “volume” – that I can peer into to check for birds. My best method for detecting the presence of many (most?) birds, is being able to hear them. So I wander around the forest, always listening, and hoping to hear a bird that may not vocalize very often.
I know from experience that I have good hearing, in the sense that I can detect very low levels of sound; often I can hear levels of sound lower in volume than my birding companions (but, sometimes others hear sounds that I miss). However, I’ve also learned that I don’t have a “discriminating” ear, and I easily confuse all kinds of species: Pileated Woodpecker sounds a lot like Northern Flicker; Northern Cardinal sounds a lot like Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse can sound like Carolina Chickadee. It always makes sense to me when someone tells me what I’m hearing, and often – given enough time (if the bird continues to call) – I can figure it out. But I know I’m not as good at identifying birds by sound as I am by sight.
I’m pretty good at identifying birds in the field and in photographs. Often, I only need a few pixels to correctly identify a bird. I make my share of mistakes, and often call out the name of a bird before I’ve completely processed all the information – and my initial identification (part of the thought process for arriving at a final ID) is incorrect. But while I make lots of mistakes while trying to arrive at the conclusive ID for a bird, I’ve got to be certain in the end. Entire books have been written on this topic – and that makes sense to me.
Searching for ivorybills is very different (for me) from “birding”. Birding is a fun, enjoyable activity that I do regularly, in all kinds of habitats, with lots and lots of opportunities to see and identify birds. Searching for ivorybills is mostly just putting in hours without seeing or hearing anything. But my approach to searching is to go “birding” and enjoy the birds I see, and to be aware of the environs around me as I’m looking for or looking at, birds. I stop and pause for several minutes at a time. I’m not in any hurry – I don’t have to be anywhere else. I think about all the other recent encounters that have been described: someone in the right habitat, often engaged in an activity other than searching – and while relaxing, or while sitting down, or while engaged in something other that “actively looking”, suddenly they become aware of a bird that they focus on, and it turns out to be an ivorybill. I think about lots of things written about ivorybills, things that I can remember and things that I’ve heard other searchers and other birders talk about. And… I wander around the bottomland forest – listening and looking.
I made a point of looking for large cavities, and I found 8 on this trip that were large enough and asymmetrical enough for me to stop and record them. I photographed each cavity (several photos, at successive zoom ranges) and marked its GPS coordinates. I tend to consider cavities that are too small (suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers – or even smaller species), but I think I’d rather be conservative in this regard. I’d thought perhaps that if I found one or more candidate cavities, I would try to watch them as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as I could. But I realized that simply finding the cavities, and trying to find efficient routes from the cavities to/from my vehicle, would take more time than was available to me. A fresh, or routinely occupied cavity, might be distinctive in a way that would set it apart from other cavities – and none of the ones I found was notable in that regard. If I had unlimited time, I thought about aiming a trail-cam at the “better” cavities I found – and I might give that idea more thought in the future. (The last two intriguing cavities I’ve found were not good candidates for camera traps; height, backlighting, intervening vegetation can all be problems. This issue is under- appreciated, and it became more apparent to me last trip. More on that in my report.)
I looked for scaled bark, trying to pay attention to the details Mark has taught me in the field. As a long time reader of the Project Coyote blog, I read many of Mark’s descriptions of scaling, and looked at his photographs. But having him explain scaling in the field, spending several minutes at a tree with fresh scaling, increased my understanding by at least two orders of magnitude. Mark brought to life the importance of scaling as evidence for ivorybills occupying or using the area. But I also learned that Mark has an eye for “seeing” scaling, and in my previous trips I never spotted “good” scaling before Mark did. (It’s just a matter of practice.) On this trip, I did see some tree top scaling in a sweet gum, and I saw a few downed logs (recently downed) with scaling that might have been done by ivorybills (but which also could have been done by other species). I was conscious that I tried harder looking for scaling at some times, and less hard at other times – it’s a skill that needs to be learned, and I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve.
I saw many Pileated Woodpeckers over the week, and on the first day, I noted that I saw 4 pileateds while I was standing in one spot, more or less simultaneously.
Great Blue Herons (and other species) always seemed to be aware of me, when I was walking (even walking slowly/quietly), long before I was aware of them. By contrast, when I was standing or sitting still (especially when in a shadow, but even when in the sun), birds and other animals would sometimes approach quite close, and go on about whatever they were doing, clearly not yet aware that I was present. And sometimes, even once they became aware I was present, their behavior was still reserved and they lingered at closer range than the birds (or pigs, or deer, etc.) that became aware of me as I was walking.
Some observations under the latter conditions come to mind: (1) After a large limb broke off from a tree, crashing to the ground with an impressive disruption of the quiet, two pileateds flew to a cypress tree near where I was standing quietly. The first pileated flew to the top of the cypress and drummed a couple of times. The second pileated flew to the trunk of the cypress to investigate one of two cavities, one right above the other. The pileated stuck its bill and just a bit of its head into the cavity when suddenly a gray squirrel exploded from the cavity, driving the pileated away. The squirrel clung to the cypress just a foot or so from the cavity, chattering loudly for a few seconds before retreating back into the cavity.
(2) I was sitting with my back against a birch tree, watching a fresh, asymmetrical (but small) cavity in a cypress tree across a creek (mostly taking a break in the heat of the afternoon), when a Hermit Thrush approached from a nearby shrub. The thrush moved closer (to within perhaps 15′), then off to my right, and then back in front of me, before finally moving slowly off and out of view.
(3) Eating lunch on a log one day, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, seeming to fly right at my head, before veering off at the last second to perch on a large trunk about 12′ from me. I’d been sitting quietly (the bird might have thought I was a stump?), but seemed to recognize I was not part of the landscape when it veered off to perch and start tending its sap wells. I was able to grab my camera and take a couple photos while it was at close range, the bird never flushing as when they are startled, but rather simply moving gradually higher up the tree and out of view.
A couple of random thoughts based on my field notes: I flushed wood ducks about 3 or 4 times, and always thought it would be impossible to confuse a Wood Duck for an ivorybill. Even one time when I noted that “the ID was a little tricky”; the situation was that I wondered for a split second “what was that?”, and not “could that have been an ivorybill?”. I observed two (rather small, I think) Cottonmouths; both were well behaved and non-aggressive. Very beautiful snakes.
And one other observation: while standing quietly in a shadow, I saw a large bird, darkish in color, mostly obsucred by a tangle of vines, fly in to a log on the ground. I could not see the bird, and thought it was on the opposite side of the log from me, and there was much undergrowth that made visibility difficult. I heard several loud (very loud) raps, interpaced with quiet, and based on my time in the woods, I thought pretty sure this was a large woodpecker, foraging on a downed log, and occasionly delivering 3 to 6 heavy blows to the wood. The bird continued foraging in this manner, with several sequences of loud knocks, and I finally decided to move to my left to try to get a better angle on the log. I heard another couple sequences of raps and then quiet, and I was pleased I hadn’t started the bird and caused it to flush. I moved to my left, and a little closer to the log, and then there was a downed tree blocking my path, and some water, and I had to make some noise to get around the obstacle, and continue moving to try to see the area around the downed log better.
By this time, it was clear that I had flushed the bird, and did not see or hear it any more. I’ve thought about this event, and it emphasizes to me that birds may often be close enough to see, but impossible to see because of vegetatation blocking the view, and that birds we often think of being “in the shrubs” or higher “in the trees” are often on or near the ground. If I had to guess, the bird was either a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Flicker. I’ll never know.
I started writing this note with the intention of providing a simple summary of my observations during the week I was in Louisiana, but quickly realized I was describing a more general sense of purpose and the idea that looking for ivorybills is distinctly different from looking for other birds. I could add some good search hours to the effort – that was worthwhile and enjoyable to me, and although I’m uncertain how my hours contribute to the Project Coyote overall effort, I am very pleased to be part of the team.
photos follow . . .