I was very sad to learn that Bob Russell, Retired US Fish and Wildlife Service, died suddenly this week. Bob’s name (Rob on Facebook) will be familiar to most ivorybill searchers; he was involved in the events in Arkansas in the earliest days, and he developed one of the first lists of promising search locations, all this back in the ‘aughts.
I first met him in Minneapolis in 2009 or 2010, and he was the first real pro to befriend me, introducing Patricia and me to Jim Williams a Minneapolis journalist and searcher, and ornithologist Jim Fitzpatrick who had one of the Arkansas sightings. That meal was an important moment in my evolution. Beyond that, Bob’s generosity and support will always mean a lot.
Bob had a whole network of sources for ivorybill information that I hope will not be lost with his passing. He had been involved with Project Coyote/Prinicipalis for years, playing a more active role this season. I’m glad he had a couple of auditory encounters in the search area, but I’m so sad he won’t have the chance to be with us when and if we succeed. He will be missed.
I wanted to alert readers that Jay Tischendorf’s guest post on Lazarus species and my response to the recent USFWS service decision is undergoing some revisions. I hope to repost it soon.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has published a decision that the ivorybill should be listed as “Presumed Extinct”. As a result, I believe the formal delisting process will begin and will provide details about that process and how to respond when I have more information.
I won’t engage with the document in depth, at this time, but I think it’s a shoddy piece of work, clearly driven by political not scientific considerations. (Even the photo credit at the top of the document is erroneous.)
There’s a good chance this decision, and perhaps many others, would not survive a legal challenge should one be brought. Among the many problems with it, the arbitrary shift to a burden of “conclusive proof” is novel, and it imposes a thoroughly, slippery, circular standard. The existence of a controversy makes it self-evident that conclusive proof has not been obtained. And that’s the authors’ dodge.
My own submission, which argued that the evidence obtained amounts to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, was misleadingly cited to support this “conclusive proof” standard. This intellectually dishonest sleight-of-hand is tantamount to an admission that a new and unscientific standard, higher than beyond a reasonable doubt, is being applied.
I suspect that the Service will end up regretting this decision, and perhaps many others that are part of this massive, politically-driven push for delisting. Indeed, it appears to have been based on a quota imposed by higher-ups. Regardless of one’s views on the ivorybill, this document is part of a broader assault on the Endangered Species Act.
We will press on. Computer analysis of the audio we collected this spring is gearing up; I’m very excited about that based on my very limited review of a few deployments. While we’ve hit a few technical bumps in the DNA analysis, we expect those to be resolved before too long. We have several samples from both cavities and foraging sign, as well as samples from at least one known Pileated roost. We are also making plans for next year.
Jay’s post on Lazarus species is being reconsidered and may be revised and reposted in future.
WWNO just ran a long story on our search effort. You can listen at the link (recommended) and/or read the text. I’ll share some thoughts about it below, but first a brief update.
As April came to an end, Steve Latta, Jay Tischendorf, Tommy Michot, Phil Vanbergen, and I collected the AudioMoths that had been deployed in early March, completing the effort for the season. Jay, Tommy, and Mike Weeks will be returning to attempt some more DNA collection, and Tommy, Mike, and Phil will continue to service the trail cams. But the bulk of the work has come to an end.
We plan to get an earlier start next winter. And on the technical end, the lab is continuing to tweak the software and refine the machine learning; this has taken took a little longer than anticipated. Similarly, the DNA testing protocols are being refined. I don’t have a time frame for when detailed results will be available and can’t offer any information on if, when, and how results will be presented. But work is ongoing, and for next season, we hope that we’ll be able to turn the audio results around rapidly and get actionable information that will lead us to nesting or roosting sites.
To expand on something that’s mentioned near the end of the WWNO piece, I can say that I’ve cursorily reviewed perhaps .5% of the total audio, (from 3 or 4 of the first round deployments, February – early March). Most of this review involved scrolling through sonograms and listening when it seemed appropriate (meaning I likely missed a lot). It gave me greater appreciation for the technical challenges and the potential for false positives, especially when two or three potential confusion species are vocalizing simultaneously. While I have not heard extended bouts of kent-like calls at close range, I have heard more than enough suggestive sounds, both calls and double knocks, to be encouraged.
Changes to Project Coyote are in the works. Among these is a name change, to Project Principalis – to avoid confusion; I hope retaining “Project” will be enough of a reminder of Frank Wiley and the early days of our partnership. But there’s an existing NGO known as Project Coyote that focuses on actual coyotes, so the change is overdue.
It’s also likely that the blog will move to a different site and take on a somewhat different form. In the interim, there will probably be a guest post on Lazarus species by Jay Tischendorf, sometime in the next few weeks, and perhaps another one from me to detail the changes once they’re finalized. These plans are tentative at the moment. Stay tuned.
Hearing the WWNO story was a little disorienting. I’ve done a lot of media over the years, mostly unrelated to the ivorybill. I’ve never been the subject of such an in-depth profile. And I didn’t expect to be so much the focus. This is all about the ivorybill and the habitat, and while I won’t pretend to be above wanting acknowledgement for all my hard work, I am not the story.
I was disappointed that Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman, who made the March 2017 recordings and played a major part in bucking me up when my spirits were at their lowest, were not mentioned by name. I pushed for their inclusion as best I could.
Travis Lux, the reporter, first approached me about doing a story on Project Coyote back in 2015. He was just starting his career in radio and was planning to pitch the piece as a freelancer. Travis landed a job in Texas, continued to follow the blog but had otherwise been out of touch until he heard about the AudioMoth deployments, by which time he had returned to Louisiana. When he reached out to me in February, I think we both assumed that the focus of the story would be on the current effort. Apparently, the interest was there for a longer piece.
Listening to it was weird. I think it was the first time I’ve heard Frank’s voice since he died, at least in more than a very brief snippet. That jarring moment aside, four year seems like a lifetime. My thinking about the ivorybill and many of my perspectives have evolved since 2015. Today, I’d be a lot less excited about the bark scaling that’s a focus in the first part of the story than I was then. I’ve refined my scaling hypothesis considerably due to things I learned that year and later. I’ve also gotten more jaded, so I don’t think I’d be quite as overflowing with optimism.
The experience was a little like watching a movie based on a beloved book. The story wasn’t told in quite the way I would have liked; topics that seem important to me were glossed over; but I don’t see it through the eyes of an outsider. Taking that perspective as best I can, I think it was a well-constructed and illuminating piece. I hope you enjoy it too.
Here’s a gallery of photos from the recent trip.
This local publication reached out to me without knowing I was local. I’m interviewed along with Tim Gallagher and Mike Collins. It’s a straightforward, even-handed piece.
I was in the field from March 5-17; others were around before and after. Thanks to the whole team and a couple of guests for their hard work and contributions in the field this trip. We completed the swap out of recording devices in three days, which left a lot of field time afterwards. We were very fortunate in that only one unit was tampered with and only a couple malfunctioned. This is a very low rate of loss for these units.
We continue to have possible encounters in the area, perhaps at a higher rate than in past seasons, though the number of potential observers and time spent in the area has increased this year. And we have gotten some very preliminary results from the first round of deployments.
In addition to the audio deployments, we’re focused on obtaining DNA this season and have been refining the protocol for doing so. On this trip we collected samples from a couple of different forms of feeding sign, one I think is more promising than the other.
Here’s the basic protocol: collect a small quantity of material from places where a woodpecker’s tongue may have been; place it in a vial containing buffer and seal. With luck, genetic material can be obtained from these surfaces, and we can rule in or rule out ivorybill as the source of some kinds of feeding sign.
We also plan to collect samples from the most promising cavities. And are evaluating them following Cornell’s criteria. Cavities are graded:
A: very large cavity in size range of IBWO with irregular oval or rectangular shape (4.0–4.75in [10.2–12.1cm] wide and 5.0– 5.75in [12.7–14.6cm] tall);
B: cavity larger than typical PIWO cavity but shape is fairly regular, nearly perfect round or oval; or, cavity of irregular shape and within upper size range for PIWO, and lower size range for IBWO (3.5in x 3.7in or [8.8cm x 9.5cm] large PIWO and 4.0in x 5.0in [10.1cm x 12.8cm] small IBWO);
C: cavity of fairly regular shape, nearly perfect oval or round, in the upper size range for PIWO and lower size range for IBWO. Same dimensions as for B.
Here are some promising cavities (I’d grade all of them A or high B) I found last trip, plus some we know are being used by other species. I found more cavities this trip than I ever have in the past, mostly because I was paying attention. There’ll be some explanation in the captions. The truth is, no one really knows about cavities; I’ve seen a lot of variation in what PIWOs do; so a lot of this is speculation. I do think scaling or suggestive feeding sign on a tree with a cavity in it may be an indicator, including that the cavity is a former nest.
It can be a tough call. The first pair of cavities shown below is being used (and was likely excavated by) Red-bellied Woodpeckers. The size is deceptively large, but the small diameter of the high limb is an indicator.
The intriguing cavity below was being used as a PIWO roost but would probably have been graded A for its large size and irregular shape. There’s a second, possibly connected, cavity slightly higher and to the the left. Both are oddly shaped. The snag is severely decayed. But again, we have very limited information, so there’s no way to know whether IBWOs might avoid badly decayed snags.
Regarding feeding sign, extensive scaling on boles, especially of mature trees with tight bark, seems likeliest for Ivory-billed Woodpecker work. Hickories are the highest priority within this category, and we have only found a few such trees over the years. Extensively scaled sweet gums, like the one shown, are worth noting too. A second category, involving smaller sweet gums and branches, is also intriguing. Ambrosia beetles are the prey species involved in this work, which involves extensive stripping and targeted digs into the insect chambers.
In all cases, it’s important to distinguish scaling from shallow excavation with associated bark removal.
The appearance of this work is distinctive. The bark is removed cleanly, and there’s almost no damage to the underlying wood, except for expansion of the exit tunnels on the surface. We hope that DNA can be extracted from these tunnels and that the scaling shown in the first image is fresh enough to be a good candidate. Based on the life-cycle of the beetles involved, I suspect this work is likelier to be found in the latter part of spring and through summer, but keep your eyes open anyway.
We’re finding that Pileateds also feed on hickories and begin by removing bark. They go about it in a different way, however, excavating through the bark and into the sapwood. The appearance of Pileated work on hickories is similar but somewhat different. It tends to be patchier, without less extensive and contiguous bark removal. The chips are smaller, a mix of bark and sapwood, and the appearance of the wood in the areas where bark has been removed is distinctly different, as in the images below.
Extensive scaling on boles of other species is also noteworthy and may have DNA collection potential. There’s more room for overlap between what IBWO and what PIWO might be able to do, since the properties of hickory bark are unique. Look for extensiveness, large to enormous chips, and lack of damage to the underlying wood.
The final category involves sweet gum saplings and small to medium-sized limbs. I have found this distinctive appearing work in only two years, in a small cluster in 2015 and in a single example this season. The bark is extensively, indeed almost entirely, stripped. Chips on the ground should be large. Leaves should be still attached. The beetles’ brood chambers should have been vigorously attacked, and you may see superficial horizontal scratches in the sapwood (not the deeper grooves that used to be mistakenly ascribed to IBWO).
This was a longer trip than usual, and I was wiped out when I got home. We will be returning at the end of April to collect the units. This will mark the end of the deployments for this season, though we will continue to work with the trail cams, with a couple transferred to new locations. I’m hoping to have a guest post from a team member before the next trip.