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.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my request for comments about the blog and its future. It’s very gratifying to have received such positive feedback and to know that my work is appreciated. With that in mind, the comments and emails have convinced me that I shouldn’t make any major changes, even if it would have been wiser to have deliberated more before posting and amending the recent post about a possible sighting.
Apologies to those who were unable to view this post due to the temporary password protection while it was being reviewed.
As mentioned previously, we currently have six cameras aimed at potential feeding trees. Tommy Michot will be deploying the seventh (on the tree discussed below) in the near future. This will put us at or near what I consider full capacity in terms of servicing the cameras and reviewing the imagery. Since Frank’s death, the task of reviewing images and working with the cameras had fallen almost entirely on Phil Vanbergen’s shoulders, and we’ve only changed cards when there’s been evidence of woodpecker activity on the target tree but have otherwise allowed them to overwrite. Recently, several people have volunteered to review the imagery, and Tommy and I have gotten a better handle on deploying the cameras. Thus, we’ll be able to shift to replacing the cards every few months and (hopefully) reviewing all the images we capture.
On the last trip, Tommy and I found recent bark scaling on a sweet gum stub, and although the bark was loose, we decided to move one of our cameras and target the stub.
The camera had previously been aimed at a hickory that lost its top in a storm last year, a location where Peggy, Phil, Tommy, and I heard a double knock last year. For some reason, the overwrite function failed, so the card was full when Tommy and I redeployed the camera. I brought it home to review. I found some interesting imagery that I’ll share and discuss. I think that at least one of the frames is suggestive of ivorybill, although it is far from conclusive, and no one I’ve shared it with is nearly as interested by it as I am. Regardless, I’m now convinced it’s a good idea to check every card and am very glad that Geoffrey McMullan encouraged this approach.
First a few comments on trail cams, which will update some of Frank’s observations from this post on the subject written in January 2015.
Our trail cams are made by Day 6 Outdoors. The Plot Watcher Pro is the only dedicated time-lapse mass market trail camera. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and inexpensive compared to Reconyx, the second best time-lapse option. The accompanying software makes it possible to step through the captures frame by frame or to view them as video at various speeds. (Our time lapse interval is 20 seconds.) This simplifies the reviewing process, at some cost to image quality, although this has always been a problem with trail cams.
Trail cam sensors are relatively low resolution; only in the last year or so have 20 megapixel cams gone on the market, and many brands are in the 10-12 MP range. The bigger problem is that these cameras are designed to photograph terrestrial creatures, mostly large mammals and Wild Turkeys. It’s also almost impossible to avoid backlighting over the course of an entire day. Thus, unless the subject is at fairly close range, the chances of getting an identifiable image are greatly reduced, as will become clear from the examples below. So let’s look at some of the captures. I used Let’s Enhance, an internet based, automated image enhancement program.
The card ran from January 24 – May 1, and I worked my way backwards. During that time, there was one clearly identifiable woodpecker capture – a PIWO that spent under 40 seconds on the target hickory.
Note that WordPress has changed the way photographs are presented, at least in the format I’m using. To enlarge the images in this section, click on the image, and it will appear in a separate frame. There’s an option to see the full-sized image at the lower right. You can further enlarge the full-sized images by using the cursor.
The first large woodpecker capture was on March 16. The bird, which is not clearly identifiable, was present from ~3:25-3:46 pm, though it was not visible in all frames. I’ve included a QuickTime video covering the entire period (and about 10 additional minutes), along with a few enhanced screen caps with a box around the bird, which first appears on the right fork of the beech tree to the left of the target, then flies to a high branch in the background and moves around before disappearing.
The next series that interested me is from the morning of March 9. A bird in flight is visible in one frame captured at 8:22 am. It appears near the beginning of this 50 frame QuickTime animation.
This is an enhanced JPEG of the relevant frame with a box around the object of interest.
While others disagree, I think the object in the box is the upper (dorsal) surface of a bird’s wing. (One reviewer suggested it could be a squirrel’s tail.) There is nothing to suggest the bird in question is a woodpecker (if it’s a bird at all, which it appears to be based on the time lapse). To my eyes, however, it has a pattern of black and white that is consistent with the wing of an ivorybill, if the white is on the trailing edge. Given the distance from the camera and the extent of the white on the wing, I’m confident it is not a Red-headed Woodpecker. I’m also confident that this is actually an object, based on a review of the surrounding frames and on experimenting with color, exposure, and white balance. I’ve included a few examples, in a tiled mosaic to illustrate. Again, click on the individual images to embiggen.
A third frame that I found somewhat less interesting was captured on the morning of February 16th. I’m less intrigued by this image. It has been suggested that it might show a Pileated Woodpecker wing or a Red-headed Woodpecker on the target tree. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think it may show a woodpecker with a lot of white on one of the smaller trees behind and to the right of the target (which would make it too large to be a Red-headed Woodpecker). I suspect that the bright patch of white on the bird is an artifact, since it matches some of the highly reflective leaves below and to the right.
Regardless of whether any of these captures involves an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and despite the problems with image quality (which I hope are even more apparent to readers of this post), the images highlight the importance of reviewing all cards and having as many cameras functioning as is possible. I’m hopeful that this more extensive coverage, which is at or near the maximum that’s practical for us, will be productive in the future and may solve the mystery of what’s doing the initial scaling on the hickories. But as I noted recently, this will require patience, and it may take a few years.
Last year, a reader requested that I post some personal reminiscences about Frank. I didn’t get around to doing it then but thought I’d offer something on this sad anniversary.
Frank and I met through the Ivorybill Researchers’ Forum (www.ibwo.net) in the fall of 2008. I made my first trip to search with him in Louisiana shortly thereafter. Our collaboration gelled in the summer of 2009 when he began to visit our old search area. I visited him again in November 2009. In January 2010, I came up with the name Project Coyote as a play on his name and to reflect his central role in the effort.
On the surface, Frank and I were probably as different as the worlds in which we grew up. Frank was one of the smartest, most paradoxical people I’ve ever known. He was a very well-read autodidact whose writing style was deceptively at odds with the way he presented himself – as a stone cold, 2nd amendment loving, libertarian redneck, albeit a nerdy math, physics, sci-fi, and Star Trek loving one. I’m a very liberal New Yorker of Jewish ancestry with degrees in law and American Studies.
Despite our differences, we found more common ground politically than I could have anticipated, and he’d sometimes say, “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but . . .” We shared a distaste for spectator sports and also found common ground musically. Though he loved Pink Floyd first and foremost, and I grew up in the ’70s Punk scene, we both enjoyed rootsier genres, and some of our most enjoyable, non-field times involved tequila and singing together. Frank was a good singer and gifted all-around musician; I managed to harmonize decently on background vocals. The Stones’ “Dead Flowers” was a favorite.
But what really united us was the ivorybill, and more specifically, a shared sense that figuring out what J.J. Kuhn knew was the key to documenting the bird.
While there are echoes of the Tanner-Kuhn dynamic in our story – at least to the extent that, like Tanner, I’m from New York, with a graduate degree from an Ivy League school, and Frank, like Kuhn, was from Louisiana with no formal academic training – we were doing something different. We were equal partners, trying to solve a mystery together, bringing different, complementary skills to the effort.
Still, when we were approached about the possibility of doing a reality show (I’m thankful every day that didn’t happen), I described us as “the odd couple of the ivorybill world”. In retrospect, the oddness was more superficial than substantial; we may not have been the only such pair; and odd may be commonplace when it comes to the ivorybill. In any case, I miss my friend, our shared dedication to the search, the music, and our many running jokes – especially the ones about stump holes and the ubiquitous Plate 11.
Two weeks ago, Frank went into the hospital. About two days after admission, he was taken to the ICU with a systemic infection. He started showing signs of improvement on Monday this week and was able to go off the ventilator as of yesterday. (I was there from Tuesday 1/24-Tuesday 1/31.) I know Frank to be a fighter, but even so, he’s doing far better than I expected. His family is asking for prayers, so if that’s something you do, it would be appreciated. My thoughts are with him and with them.
When I began blogging on WordPress, I mentioned that I’d be posting sound clips from our old search area that were available on the old Project Coyote site, but I’ve been somewhat undecided about it and wasn’t sure I could track down all the material, a problem I’ve now solved. The most interesting audio was obtained between January 24-26, 2010. Archived selections from those recordings and accompanying sonograms are available through the Wayback Machine, and you can click on the links to hear the clips. Some of these were recorded in the field on handheld devices, while others came from remote units provided by Mark Gahler.
In addition, to these selections, I thought I’d take the opportunity to post Frank Wiley’s entire recording of the extended auditory encounter that took place just after noon on January 25th so that readers can hear the full recording as well as the extracts. Six people were present when this incident occurred, and it’s unusual in recent IBWO history, not only for the number of people present but also because putative double knocks and kent calls were heard during a single event that appeared to involve at least two birds. See below for a little more about the old search area, how we got there, and what transpired between Summer 2009 and January 2010. This is the same area where we obtained the suggestive camera trap photos. The adjoining parcel was logged between November 2010 and January 2011, and there has been little indication that IBWOs may be present since that time, although we suspect they may still be using one or more of the nearby Wildlife Management Areas. Frank’s complete 58 minute field recording should be of interest to the dedicated among you. If you’re wearing headphones, note that there are some clarinet toots at the beginning; a possible kent call follows soon thereafter:
The search effort was inspired by what seemed to be a credible report from a resident of rural East-Central Louisiana. This individual, who passed away shortly after Frank Wiley arrived on the scene, had attempted to report sightings of ivorybills for a number of years but had been dismissed. When Frank interviewed him, he was not only insistent that birds were present in the area, he corrected the drawings that are included in the Louisiana Game Guide.
The red shapes at the upper right are his rendition of the difference in shape between and ivorybill and pileated wings. He showed the crest as somewhat more erect in flight and perched. Perhaps most significant, he accurately depicted the female crest as considerably more erect than the game guide’s version (the red pen was used to highlight the differences not to show color.) I did not have the privilege of speaking to him, but Frank Wiley has told me he was very emphatic about these corrections.
During almost weekly visits to the property and surrounding locations between August and November 2009, Frank had several possible sightings, one of which involved three birds. In two instances, he obtained photographs, but these are of birds in flight at some distance and do not show definitive field marks. In addition, he heard suggestive knocks and kent calls on numerous occasions and recorded a number of the knocks.
I made my first visit to the location in November, 2009 On November 24th, 2010, during a stakeout of the location where the first of these photographs was obtained, we heard but did not record an extended series of calls, lasting approximately ten seconds, and coming from the general vicinity of the sighting described below. These calls were unlike others that have been recorded by contemporary searchers and resembled those documented by Tanner and Allen at 03:14 on the Singer Tract recordings.
On November 25, 2009, Frank and I were staking out a feeding tree when a large woodpecker flew into the top of nearby pecan. The bird was obscured by foliage but was moving around in the canopy as I tried to observe it. Frank moved and flushed the bird, and I got a brief glimpse as it fled, but only enough to notice white on the wings that appeared to be too extensive for a pileated. What was perhaps more significant about this sighting is that we both heard loud, rapid, Wood Duck-like wing beats, at a distance of approximately seventy-five feet. Later that day, I flushed a pileated at much closer range and the wingbeats were considerably softer and muffled sounding. We placed a camera trap in this location and the second image on this page was obtained there a week later.
Between January 24-26, 2010, Bill Benish, Ross Everett, and Frank Wiley had possible sightings. Everett, McCaslin, and I heard possible kents on the morning of January 25, and shortly after noon on that day, all six participants had an extended auditory encounter that was recorded in part by Wiley, Benish, and me on separate recording devices; a couple of minutes had elapsed before team members were able to activate their recorders. All team members heard multiple kents and double knocks during this incident. We believe that two birds responded to the banging of a tin roof on a deer stand in the vicinity. Just before sunset on January 26, Benish heard and recorded a double knock. In addition, Mark Gahler’s remote recording devices captured possible kent calls on January 25th and 26th.
In 2009, we learned of a private landowner in East-central Louisiana who claimed to have Ivory-billed Woodpeckers on his property. This individual seemed to be very credible, correctly pointing out several inaccuracies in sketches published in the Louisiana Hunting Guide. Over the next two years, there were a number of possible sightings and auditory contacts. Frank Wiley, Mark Michaels, and other Project Coyote volunteers gathered evidence – camera trap photosgraphs, recordings of suggestive calls and double knocks, images of extensive bark scaling on living and recently dead trees in the vicinity. This material was originally posted on a website that is no longer operational. We have received a number of requests to revive the site and have decided to do so here. Pages that included images will be available in PDF format.
In 2011, a large parcel of adjacent forest was logged, and while we believe that ivorybills are still present in the vicinity of the original Project Coyote search area, the birds do not seem to be frequenting our old hot zone. For this reason, we have shifted our focus to other parts of the state. We remain optimistic that the species is present in multiple Louisiana locations and that conclusive documentation will eventually be obtained, but this may well take years.
April 21, 2013