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Trip Report: March 7-16, 2018

Summary

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.

Introduction

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.

Sounds

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.Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 1.40.31 PM

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.

Cavities

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.

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I also spotted this unusual, large and rectangular cavity in a cypress.

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Scaling

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.)
  4. Diameter of the scaled bole or limb. Bigger is better. So are boles.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.IMGP5945

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Jagged scaling on 1935 Singer Tract Nest Tree. Courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Library.

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Local Reports

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.

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Additional Tidbits

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.

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I have one or two more trips planned this season and am hopeful that they will generate some new insights.

 

 

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