Sunset Sighting (Possible): April 27, 2018 – Updated x2

Update 2, May 2, 2018: I have always made being forthright with my readers a priority. I chose to revert this post to draft in order to pause and reflect. Based on recent events and the prematurity of the post and first update, I think some changes in my approach to blogging are in order, something I will address in a future post.

I have decided to restore the initial post and the first update to public view because I owe it to my readers and think it’s the right thing to do.

As several people have pointed out, I was too hasty in “accepting” that whatever I saw on April 27 was a Pileated Woodpecker. My description of what I heard and saw on April 27th was inconsistent with Pileated, and I stand by the description. My observations of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost on the 28th differed from what I heard and saw on the 27th. From an email sent early in the morning on the 29th:

A PIWO came in, overhead, either silently or very soft wingbeats when it landed. It drummed a couple of times and went to roost about 20 minutes before sunset but continued tapping from inside the cavity for about five minutes. (The bird on the 27th had come in no more than 2 minutes before sunset.) I hope to have gotten some decent photos. All PIWO sounds in the area stopped ~8 minutes prior to sunset.

It strikes me this morning that this behavior was somewhat different than the other bird’s; last night’s PIWO must have seen me, but my presence didn’t prevent it from coming very close and going directly to the roost. The other bird appeared to have been spooked by my presence.

Here’s what I know: I am confident I heard the wing sounds, as described, and am personally convinced that what I saw was a large woodpecker. I’m also confident I saw a PIWO going to roost near where the other event took place, on the following night, approximately 20 minutes earlier relative to sunset. I have the pictures to prove that. The rest is inference.

It’s easy (for me at least) to get overly enthusiastic about possible encounters; its also easy for me to turn around and look for ways to discount or discredit them in my own mind. To some degree, this is a good thing and probably comes with the territory, unless you’re delusional or prone to self-inflation. Still, there are points at which enthusiasm and skepticism become unhealthy. This applies to personal enthusiasm, self-skepticism, and to the way others respond to ivorybill claims. The Internet environment feeds unhealthy responses.

Regardless of anything else, this was a productive trip. We have six cameras deployed (thanks to Erik, Geoffrey, and Jay for contributing a new cam each) – five on hickories, either recently dead or in decline, and one a big sweet gum stub, three years dead, with some very recent bark scaling and signs of beetle infestation, in an earlier stage of decay than the Singer Tract tree where Pearson observed ivorybills feeding in the early 1930s. While this work could well be something other than ivorybill, and the bark is loose, it seems worth watching for a while.

I have been monitoring this stub since the top came down; in fact, we deployed a camera there in the spring of 2015, only to lose it to flooding. (The new deployment is higher on a nearby tree.) This suggests that our main strategy for camera trap placement – finding potential feeding trees and stubs in advance of any large woodpecker activity requires a multi-year commitment.

Even in this impatient world, patience is a virtue.

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Update, April 30, 2018: Based on an observation last night of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost in the sycamore cavity shown below and an exploration of the clearcut area this afternoon, I strongly suspect the bird I saw on the 27th was also a Pileated Woodpecker. I still have trouble squaring what I heard and saw with Pileated, but the circumstances suggest that’s what it was. I’m opting to leave the content up, with this correction, in the interest of transparency. I will undoubtedly have more to say on this in the near future. Accepting that the bird in question was a Pileated Woodpecker in no way affects my view that the sounds Matt recorded in March and the ones Matt and Phil recorded in March 2017 were made by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

Original Post: I initially planned on including this sighting in a complete trip report but have decided to write it up and post it now as a kind of dispatch from the field. I may include some further commentary and imagery when I post the full report sometime within the next couple of weeks.

I expect this post will attract a number of new readers, so I want to preface the account with a few comments. Friends, associates, and many regular readers probably know that I’ve had a handful of possible sightings over the past 11 years, a total of seven, if memory serves. This over many hundreds of hours in the field. With the exception of the November 2009 sighting in the location where a suggestive trail cam photo was obtained a week later, I have not had a high level of confidence in these possibles and have rejected two of them as the product of wishful thinking. Last night’s experience was altogether different, even when compared to the 2009 possible, as was my reaction to it.

Here’s what I wrote to my inner circle approximately one hour after the sighting. I have made a few minor edits for clarity and to protect the location and have added revisions/corrections/additional comments in bold italics:

I’ve already shared this with Matt and Patricia, and I dictated the details into my recording device (which has been a little buggy) immediately after the incident. I haven’t listened yet, and this will include some additional details. (Any substantive differences between the recorded comments and the contents included here will be addressed in the full trip report, though I don’t anticipate there being any.)

I arrived at the spot where Matt made the recordings last month at approximately 6:40 PM (I was in the area before sunrise too). I sat facing WSW; the area directly across the water from me was recently clearcut. There are trees along the bank with an open expanse behind. Sunset was at ***. The events described took place between 2 minutes before and three minutes after sunset, by which time I had pretty much given up hope that anything interesting would happen.

There were two cypress trees across the water from me; one perhaps 1’ DBH and the other over 2’. I did not consciously register a bird flying in to the larger cypress, but I suspect I sensed it. (In retrospect, I wonder if I unconsciously heard it flying in, as my focus for the evening was on listening.) In any event, my first conscious observation was of a large woodpecker taking off from the backside of the tree. My impression was that it had flown in and took off almost immediately on seeing me. I was able to hear the wingbeats, which sounded stiff and wooden, not muffled and whooshing like the PIWOs I’ve heard. (I’ve only heard PIWO wingbeats when birds were directly overhead or when I’ve flushed them at very close range.) I was looking more or less directly into the remaining sunlight (the sun had long since gone below the tree line), and the light was very low, so I could only see a silhouette. The wings were long and narrow, and the overall GISS (General Impression, Size, and Shape) was not PIWO. After several flaps, the bird went into a glide, and I lost sight of it very soon thereafter. I’d estimate I had eyes on it for 2-3 seconds.

I continued to watch the area when what I took to be the same bird flew in to some hardwoods perhaps 20 yards SSW and 10 yards inland from the cypresses. I heard the wingbeats again but could not locate the bird in the trees; darkness was falling rapidly. I made a split second decision to try some Pileated playback to see whether it would provoke a response. PIWOs had been calling and drumming until a few minutes before this incident. I did several rounds of playback using the iBird Pro app and got no response or visible reaction. At this point, I checked the time, and it was three minutes past sunset.

FWIW, I find this sighting more personally compelling for IBWO than any of my previous possibles, including the one in the old search area where we got the trail cam photo a week later. (As implied by the updates, my view on this has shifted – as I not only heard wingbeats but saw white on the wings and the suggestive trail cam image obtained a week later adds support; there’s a closer temporal association than there is with the recordings Matt obtained just over a month before.) Some of this is gut feeling, but the wingbeats (audible at 30-50 yards) wing and body shape, the glide, and the lack of response to PIWO playback (though the hour was late), all contribute to my interpretation. Would I bet my life that this was an ivory bill? No. Will I add IBWO to my life list? I’m not sure, but I’m closer to doing so than I ever have been.

So there it is. I’m going back to the same vicinity tomorrow morning, though I may go to the edge of the clear cut.
The cavity in the attached image may also be of interest. It is likely fairly fresh, as Matt would likely have seen it last month had it been there then. I staked it out this morning and nothing emerged. It is southeast of where I was stationed.

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I returned to the area this morning and found an additional interesting cavity in a sycamore about twenty yards south of the oak and hickory where I last saw the bird.

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This cavity (in a sycamore) looks deceptively small in the photo due to the large diameter of the trunk. My field impression was that it was easily big enough, and I’m conservative in making these judgments.

It was either not used overnight or had been vacated by the time I arrived, as I had encountered an almost uncanny delay that caused me to miss the sunrise. I reached the end of a long gravel road, about a quarter mile from my planned stakeout spot and ran into a turkey hunter. As so often happens, a conversation ensued, and to my astonishment, he told me his name was Kuhn. I asked if he was related to the Tallulah Kuhns, and indeed he was; he was far from home himself, and we were nowhere near Tallulah. He had known his cousin (not sure what degree) Edith Whitehead and was aware of her father’s work on pecan agronomy and hybridization, though he knew nothing of the ivorybill and his relative’s central role in the story.  What an extraordinary (almost in the Sagan sense) coincidence.

A final note, while I saw no field marks, the wingbeats are an acoustic equivalent. As Fredrik Bryntesson reminded me, Tanner wrote about the sound very explicitly. I knew this in general terms, of course, but the actual language took me a little by surprise:

A description of the wing sounds is found in Tanner’s monograph, p. 58: “The wing-feathers of Ivory-bills are stiff and hard, thus making their flight noisy. In the initial flight, when the wings are beaten particularly hard, they make quite a loud, wooden, fluttering sound, so much so that I often nicknamed the birds ‘wooden-wings’; it is the loudest wing-sound I have ever heard from any bird of that size excepting the grouse. At times when the birds happened to swoop past me, I heard a pronounced swishing whistle.”

I’ll leave it there for now.

 

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Matt Courtman Records Three Kent Like Calls – March 19, 2018

Matt spent several days in the search area after my departure. On the afternoon of March 19, he staked out a fresh cavity approximately .25 mile from a location where I recorded a double knock in apparent reaction to an ADK in 2014 and where we captured some intriguing trail cam images. This is about a mile from where Matt and Phil recorded numerous kent-like calls last year.

After more than two weeks of steady presence in the area, and no possible contacts, Matt heard and captured one distinct kent-like call a few minutes after sunset. On reviewing the audio, I found two additional calls about 16 minutes earlier on the recording. There’s also a very faint possible call that comes approximately 2 minutes and 35 seconds before the most distinct one; it’s so faint that I’ve opted not to extract and include it here. Before providing some commentary, Here’s Matt’s description of his experience and observations:

While on the stakeout described above, I began recording at 6:51 p.m., exactly thirty minutes prior to official sunset for that date and location of 7:21 p.m. For the four days prior to this one, I had been keeping notes on “last of the day” woodpecker sounds. Small sample size, but the woodpeckers had consistently gone silent at six to four minutes prior to official sunset on each preceding day. Falling into the trap of unwarranted speculation, I noted with some sadness that sunset had passed without any intriguing sounds.

The mosquitoes on the evening in question were particularly persistent.  Based on my observation (of a whole four days . . . and involving species other than ivorybills), I almost stopped recording at sunset so I could retreat from the mosquitoes. Honestly, had I not been hearing great coyote howls just after sunset,I probably would have closed up shop for the day . . . but I wanted to record the coyotes.
Almost five minutes after sunset (the 35:52 mark of my recording), I heard a single kent-like call that sounded very much like the ones that we had heard the previous March. The sound seemed to have come from between 80 and 120 yards north/northeast of my position. I continued to record until last effective light, but heard no more similar sounds.*

The following clip runs approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds (to give a sense of the ambient sounds and conditions); the kent-like call comes at 1:36.  

Here is a much shorter, amplified extract. The call should be easy to hear.

The sonogram suggests that the call has a fundamental frequency somewhere between 515 and 550 hz. There’s a strong second partial and a weaker third partial (the horizontal lines to the right of center). While the sonogram is not a perfect match for last year’s recordings (or the Singer Tract recordings for that matter), my ears and my common sense tell me that the source of the calls is the same. While the frequency is slightly lower than most of the calls recorded by Hill et al. on the Choctawhatchee, the structure is very similar. (See figures E and F.)

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Kent-like call recorded March 19, 2018

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Kent-like calls (longer horizontal lines) and tree squeaks recorded March 15, 2017

The two additional calls I found are very faint and presumably more distant. I was not able to tease out a sonogram with my software, even with a lot of amplification. The calls may be hard to hear without headphones, so listen carefully. The first clip is unamplified, and the second is pushed as far as was practical.

Bob Ford had the following to say about the first call (heard by Matt in the field):

“I spent a little more time on this one than I usually do . . . . I don’t do the sonogram analysis work myself but instead listen, compare to other known/recorded sounds, use my field experience etc.

I cannot think of a single thing that would make this sound other than ivory-bill. For me, it’s easy to dismiss the usual suspects like Blue Jay or tree squeaks etc. I fall back to turkey and wood duck. I’ve heard both species make sounds I never knew were possible from those animals. But in this case, even stretching, I can’t make it into turkey or wood duck. The sound is too robust, too “direct” (hard to explain, maybe I mean punctuated?), it’s a single sound (my experience turkey and wood duck continue even if its same sound). It’s not artificial, I believe it came from an animal. I agree, this is about as hot as it gets lead-wise.”

As I pointed out to Bob and the rest of the team, Matt’s call and the ones recorded last year have frequencies and structures that are closer to geese than some of the other confusion species, though I’m convinced that none of the calls we’ve recorded came from geese. These Canada Goose sonograms illustrate the similarity. Jackson, pp. 179-180, also notes the similarity between IBWO sounds and those made by geese.

Cornell’s criteria call for fundamental frequencies between 580 and 780 hz. (the frequency of the kents on the Singer Tract recordings). As already noted, Matt’s sound is somewhat lower pitched, but not outside the capacity of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The calls on the Singer Tract recordings that Frank and I described as the “wonka-wonkas”, examples starting at around 3:14, are both goose like and have lower fundamental frequencies.

It’s also worth reiterating that the Singer Tract birds were obviously agitated when those recordings were made, and as Tanner put it: ” . . . the kent note given in monotone and slowly or infrequently is the ordinary call note. When the bird is disturbed, the pitch of the kent rises, and it is repeated more rapidly frequently doubled, kent-kent, with the second note lower. (p. 62, emphasis added.)

Rob Tymstra, an accomplished Canadian birder and IBWO searcher, visited the search area a couple of weeks later, and on April 5, he reported the following from a location a few miles south of Matt’s capture:

“. . .at 11:55 am yesterday, I heard one clear kent-like note about 50-100 yards north of the bridge. I noted the pitch of the sound (using my ukulele) and compared it later to the soundclip Mark sent me a few days ago. The quality of the sound is similar but the pitch of my sound was about a whole note higher than yours. I didn’t hear or see anything unusual after that. I can’t say that it sounded like an ivorybill but it’s certainly a sound I’d never heard before (and I know most of the birdsongs).”

A whole note higher would likely place the fundamental frequency at the low end of Cornell’s range.

I’m personally convinced these calls and the calls recorded last year came from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. It’s also my view that the recordings Matt and Phil have made are among the strongest evidence for the ivorybill’s persistence obtained to date.

I’m more puzzled by the difference between last year, when birds were calling very actively on at least one day, and it appeared that the sounds had at least two and possibly as many as four sources, and this year when calls have been so few and far between. I can’t help but wonder whether the difference might be due to nesting success last year and failure this year. Pure speculation on my part, but perhaps we’re getting close to resolving some of the mysteries.

If the sounds Matt captured last month were Ivory-billed Woodpecker calls, it seems likely that he was in the vicinity of a roost; however, Matt returned on the morning of March 21 and did not hear anything. (There was lots of avian and woodpecker activity.) No suggestive sounds were apparent on my review of that morning’s recording, so if there is a roost in the area, it seems unlikely that it was used on the night of the 20th. Whatever the case, the location is very short walk from the road, and I plan to devote several mornings and evenings to sitting in the area with recording device running and camera at the ready.

Edited to add: When Matt and I first discussed the call, I remembered that Don Eckelberry’s account and his description of the Singer Tract ivorybill calling around sunset. I’m grateful to Houston, of IBWO.net who was reminded of it too and sent me Eckelberry’s exact words:

. . . At 7:20, after I had finished all my notes and we were about to leave, she popped out and raced up the trunk to its broken top where, bathed in rich orange light of the setting sun, she alternately preened and jerked her head about in a peculiar angular way, quite unlike the motions of any other woodpecker I knew. I was tremendously impressed by the majestic and wild personality of this bird, its vigor, its almost frantic aliveness. She flew off after five minutes and in another five returned, calling once and going in to roost at 7:30 on the dot. By the time we regained the road it was quite dark.