The Choctawhatchee: A Detour

I’m still planning a post on historic range and one on questions of evidence but thought I’d take this brief detour first. Tommy Michot is braving the Louisiana summer to change batteries and cards and to deploy an additional trail cam. We’re trying to service the cameras and replace the cards on a bimonthly basis. If there’s anything noteworthy on the cards, I’ll adjust my posting schedule accordingly. Look for the historic range post within a couple of weeks and the one on evidence a few weeks after that, before the start of search season in October.

This is the first time I’ve devoted an entire post to someone else’s effort. Though I’ve received a number of other intriguing reports, I’ve chosen to write about this one for a couple of reasons. First, I want to counteract the oft-repeated notion that reports have dried up in areas where intensive searches have taken place. Second, the searcher in question has found intriguing feeding sign as recently as 2017. The images included in this post are among the most suggestive I’ve seen from outside our search areas and tick most of my Ivory-billed Woodpecker boxes. I use the word ‘among’ advisedly here, since virtually all the feeding sign imagery that I’ve found intriguing comes from the Choctawhatchee, including the images showing extensive work on this page from the site devoted to the Auburn search.

The source of the report is an experienced birder and photographer named Rick Sellers. He has generously agreed to my posting this and allowed me to include some of his photographs. His first sighting was in 2012, approximately four years after organized searching came to end in the area and approximately seven miles downstream from Auburn’s ‘hot zone’. Rick shared the details with his family members and with Geoff Hill at the time and posted his email to his family on ibwo.net in March, 2014:

2/26/12
No doubt about it! While in the swamp today, I heard a large woodpecker hammering in the direction of a stand of slash pines at the edge of the swamp. I headed that way and just as I entered the clearing I saw the silhouette of a large dark bird leaving a tall tree on the other side of the stand of pines. I couldn’t ID it because the overcast sky was too bright. All I saw was the dark silhouette against the sky but the bird was clearly larger than a pileated woodpecker and flew loon-like, not undulating like a pileated. There had been a fire in recent years in this area and about 50% of the pines were dead showing extensive bark scaling, diagnostic of ivorybill foraging. Lamenting the fact that I had been unable to ID the big bird, I decided to stake out the pine stand, hoping that an ivorybill would return to feed. I found a secluded spot on the edge of the pines next to the swamp, sat down and ate lunch. I sat there for about 45 minutes and then as I was feeling rather drowsy, lay back with my head on my daypack. I was about to doze off when I heard, “kent-kent” coming from the swamp to my right, no more than 100 feet away! Thinking I must have been dreaming, I sat up and listened intently. Then I heard it again, “kent-kent-kent…..kent-kent! Over the next 3 or 4 minutes, I clearly heard 15-20 kents, some louder than others, that sounded exactly like Dan Mennill’s recordings from 2007. There was no doubt in my mind that I was hearing at least one, if not two, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers! Then as suddenly as they started, the kents stopped. I waited about 5 minutes before moving and then walked into the swamp in the direction of the kents. Unfortunately, I neither saw nor heard anything more as I walked around the area from whence the kents came. I plan to go back tomorrow bright and early and stake out the pines again. (end of email)

Since that encounter, I have been back to the Choctawhatchee at least 10 times for a week at a time. I have hiked and kayaked many miles but have had no more encounters. I am not discouraged, though. Just that one encounter is enough to keep me going until I can get the video or photo of the bird.

Rick informs me that he has had one possible sighting since the time he posted – a large woodpecker showing a lot of white – but that his confidence level is only around 50%.

Rick suspects that the birds do much of their feeding in upland pines outside the floodplain, which is where he had his sighting. He shared a couple of images from the location of his sighting with the notations showing the bird’s path.

IMG_0084_LIIMG_0086_LI

Some of the scaling in this stand of pines is extensive, but none of it strikes me as being beyond the capacity of a Pileated Woodpecker. On its own, the work shown in these images would be unlikely to pique my interest. But as in our search area, fire killed pines in surrounding uplands are, at least potentially, a major food source.

What really captured my attention were a couple of photographs. I found the first on Rick’s Facebook page. It was taken in 2017. The tree may be a tupelo, but I’m not sure. The bark is thin, and regardless of species, it is undoubtedly weaker and more easily scaled than hickory. There are also some hints of layered removal, akin to blonding. Nevertheless, a number of characteristics suggest Ivory-billed Woodpecker to me – the mostly clean edges, the lack of damage to or excavation of the underlying sapwood, and the targeted expansion of already large exit tunnels. This is unusual work, and it’s what inspired me to reach out to Rick for more information.

17972213_10207057823404529_4531002632479987864_o

Rick subsequently shared images of a scaled spruce pine he found in 2017. And while I’ve generally taken the view that there’s no way to recognize Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on conifers, this sign is strikingly similar to the work on hickories that we’re finding and also to the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. The work is very extensive; there’s virtually no blonding or damage to the sapwood, except for targeted digging around the exit tunnels. It ticks my ivorybill boxes, save for the fact that it’s on a softwood and there was no chance to examine the bark chips. The final image below is a detail from one of our hickories for comparison.

IMGP4333

Except for a passing claim on Facebook about recent ivorybill sightings along the Pea River (a tributary) in Alabama, I’m not aware of other reports of sightings or auditory encounters in the area, but the fact that Rick has continued to find suggestive feeding sign, as recently as last year, suggests to me that the Choctawhatchee merits more attention than it has gotten since Auburn left. Of course, the same is true of many other areas, but this is the only instance where I’ve seen feeding sign that I strongly suspect is the work of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. If I were looking for a place to search, the Choctawhatchee would be at or near the top of my list.