I returned to the search area last week and spent as much time as I could in the field. The trip was generally uneventful, and conditions – strong winds, rain, and high water – limited my field time. Woodpeckers are getting quieter generally; full leaf out, heat (temperatures in the high 80s on the 26th, 27th, and 28th), and abundant mosquitoes make things even more difficult at this time of year; nevertheless, I’m planning one more trip before summer.
On the 26th, I hiked to hickory stub that currently has two cameras trained on it, as one camera needed securing. There were no signs of woodpecker activity on the stub. This beautiful Great Egret in a beautiful spot was a highlight. There were Little Blue Herons in the vicinity too, but I couldn’t get a clear shot, too much mud and intervening vegetation.
On the 27th, I arrived at the “listening point” (where the March recordings were made) shortly after sunrise. I opted to sit quietly, rather than doing playback or ADKs. I did not see or hear anything.
I met up with Steve Pagans at around 10 am. Since water levels were low, we were able to get closer to the snag with the cavity that I found last month. I spotted a second cavity higher on the stub, on the opposite side.
These cavities are large, similar in size, shape, and unusual appearance. While I suspect they are no longer active roosts, we will put a camera on the snag in June, if it’s feasible to do so. The nest John Dennis found in Cuba appeared to have two entrance holes, although Dennis thought one might be too small.
On the hike out, I spotted this wolf spider with her young on her back.
On the 29th, Steve and I visited one of the less accessible parts of the search area. It is an impressive patch of forest, with some oaks and sweet gums approaching or surpassing 5′ DBH. The sweet gum below is probably the largest single trunked gum we’ve found.
Reminiscent of the Singer Tract.
Predicted wind speeds were 15-20 mph, and the gusts were undoubtedly stronger, so birds were not very active. The gusts were often unnerving, and a couple of large limbs fell, uncomfortably close to us, while we were stopped for lunch.
The forecast for the 30th was for even stronger winds, with thunderstorms in the afternoon. We decided to play it safe and stay out of the woods. Steve went home, and I spent part of the day driving scouting a large patch of nearby forest by car, but I wasn’t able to reach the bottomland area that had intrigued me on Google Earth.
The rains didn’t arrive until evening, but they were very heavy, with 3-4″ overnight. Thunderstorms continued until mid-morning on the 1st, so I didn’t venture out until about 10:30. Conditions were cool and cloudy, and everything was soaking wet. My movements were limited by high water levels; these continued to rise during the four hours I spent in the field. Avian activity was again minimal. Coming across this rattlesnake, the third or fourth I’ve found over the years, was the day’s highlight.
On May 2nd, my last field day, I spent the early morning trying to get to the hickory stub and trail cams. Water levels were too high, so I returned to my car and drove to a more accessible location. While I have been concentrating on it less this season, there have been a number of possible contacts in this area, and we have found abundant sweet gum scaling there every year. As has been discussed in several recent posts, classic, ‘Tanneresque’ high branch scaling on freshly dead sweet gums is not necessarily inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker.
Still, I found some very dramatic work on the dead fork of a dying gum. Phil and I first found this tree in February, but most of the scaling has taken place since then. Of particular note were the enormous bark chips found at the base, again all removed since the end of January. My hat, which is shown for scale, is 12.5″ x 12″. Note that this scaling involves some of the largest limbs. Since some gum balls are still attached to the dead limbs, I think it’s safe to assume that the bark remains relatively tight; the scaling also looks generally clean, something that I find suggestive of ivorybill. To the best of my recollection, the bark chips are the largest I’ve ever found from sweet gum limbs.
Later that morning, I found a mildly intriguing cavity in a small sweet gum (~18″ DBH). While it’s almost surely PIWO, I’m including it because the shape and skewed angle are somewhat interesting and also to illustrate that even smaller trees can host substantial cavities. The original image was badly backlit, so I’ve brightened it and rendered it in black and white to make the cavity easier to see. Referencing Dennis again, he estimated the diameter of his Cuban nest tree at 12″. While DNA evidence suggests the Cuban IBWO is/was a different species, more closely related to the Imperial than to the US IBWO, the conditions under which Dennis found a breeding pair seem relevant to the survival of the North American species, and the ‘old growth specialist’ caricature:
There was a sprinkling of deciduous trees, some quite large. Although this region had been heavily logged and burned over as well, growth was quite luxuriant in spots. A watercourse, as well as the generally rugged terrain, had prevented a clean sweep of all the timber. The pine trees, on the whole, were limited to less than five inches in diameter.
There may be more on this in an upcoming post.
Longtime readers of the blog have probably noticed the donate button and the advertising that now appears on the site. Project Coyote has been mostly self-funded from the start, except for a few donations from anonymous individuals and the Rapides Wildlife Association. Some used equipment has been passed on to us by other groups of searchers. I’ve long believed that we’d be able to document ivorybill presence (or go a long way toward ruling it out) with more consistent coverage in the area and a relatively modest budget.
At this point, remote recording units and a couple of additional cameras are at the top of the wish list. Ultimately, I’d love to be able to cover costs for our core group and to provide funding for one or two people to be in the area steadily, at least during February, March, and April. I can dream . . . Anyway, your contributions can help make some of this possible.
Before Frank’s passing, I had decided to ‘retire’ from active searching after this season, for a number of reasons – the sense that I had nothing further to say about feeding sign and the fact that I did not personally see or hear anything strongly suggestive of ivorybill presence in the 2015-2016 season among them. The lack of recent work on hickories was particularly discouraging.
Things started to change when Frank was in the hospital. It became clear that our search was important not only to Frank but also to his family and friends. A number of long-time, mostly quiet, enthusiasts and supporters (including Matt Courtman who had visited the area with Frank some years ago) reached out and encouraged me to continue and even to intensify the effort.
Shortly thereafter, Phil Vanbergen found some recent scaling of the kind that I think is diagnostic for ivorybill on two hickories, though it turned out the work was not as fresh as initially suspected. The trail cam capture of a PIWO removing a strip of bark from one of the trees led me to begin my first March trip in a somewhat pessimistic frame of mind. It didn’t take long for that to change – another ride on what I’ve taken to calling the IBWO-llercoaster.
I arrived in the search area on March 9 and met up with two out-of-state birders with whom Frank and I had been corresponding for some time. I showed them around the search area. They were impressed by the habitat, but we did not see or hear anything significant. On the morning of the 10th, I sent an email to some of the team expressing my frustration over not having had a “compelling recent encounter” and stating that my possible October sighting didn’t meet that standard (even now, I don’t think it compares to the March recordings.)
I was on my own on the 10th and had a slightly less discouraging day; I got my first opportunity to examine the scaled hickories Phil had found. This strengthened my suspicion that the recent PIWO work was “wake feeding”. Later, I met Matt for dinner and a strategy session.
Everything changed on the 11th. In addition to satisfying myself that the extensive scaling on the hickories was at least several months old and that the recent Pileated activity was likely secondary scaling (based primarily on the small bark chips); over the course of the day, we deployed three of our four trail cameras.
Even more importantly, we had auditory encounters in both the morning and the afternoon. Here is my write up from that day, with a few redactions.
At about 10:15, we were in close proximity to where we’ve had several possible contacts, most recently when I was out with Frank in October. We’d just deployed a second trail cam, and Matt had gone about 50 yards north and west of Phil and me. He texted and asked if he could do some DKs (he’s using two wooden blocks that he knocks together.) He did several, no particular pattern, mixed ASKs in with the ADKs.
I did not take notes, and my memory of the exact sequence is weak, but I heard 5-6 DKs and SKs coming from the east in response. If I remember correctly, there was at least some interplay between the ADKs and the DKs, meaning that there were a couple, and then a pause, then Matt DK’ed and there were replies. Matt said he heard 4-5, and I think Phil said he heard 3-4.
Whether or not I’m misremembering, it was far and away the most compelling series of responses I’ve ever heard, and I’ve done hundreds of ADK sessions. **** this was similar to what you encountered on your first trip, in the same general vicinity, but a lot more dramatic. In addition, there was no ambient foraging, and other than the responses, all we got was one PIWO drum from a different direction. Phil said that one of the DKs was very similar to the Pale-billed DKs he heard in Costa Rica last summer.
For the kents, we were at a different location a few miles away; the time was approximately 2:45 pm. Phil and Matt heard a number of calls, of which I only heard two. Of the two I heard, the first was on the low-pitched side, I’d say close to the pitch of the what Tanner called “conversational” calls on the Singer Tract recordings or what Frank and I called the “wonka wonkas”; it had a trumpet-like quality, maybe more than I’d expect for an IBWO, but still in the ballpark. The second was higher pitched and more tooty/reedy, very close to the Singer Tract recordings. The wind was dead calm for the second call, so it was not a tree squeak. In both cases, the calls came from the East.
. . .
So there we are. Quite a day. Now, if we could only find out what’s making the sounds and what’s knocking the bark off the hickories at the outset.
For those who missed it, here’s Phil’s recording of two of those calls – headphones or good speakers recommended. We did not record the knocks we heard in the morning.
On the 12th, Steve Pagans, Matt, and I returned to the location and heard 1 ambient DK and 2 SKs, at approximately 1:55 pm.
These sounds came from roughly the same direction as the calls we’d heard the day before. The possible DK was not as loud as the SKs, or as yesterday’s knocks, but it was distinct. Matt did some ADKs. There was a Red-bellied Woodpecker foraging to the south of the direction of the knocks. Matt’s ADKs seemed to induce it to bang more frequently and forcefully, but we didn’t hear any distinctly IBWO sounding knocks in response. Steve and I heard a single possible kent from the same direction as the possible SKs and DK. It was faint. Steve heard it better than I did and thought it was good; Matt didn’t hear it all. This was probably due to how we were positioned in terms of proximity to the sound.
Under normal circumstances I’d label this episode as a fairly weak possible, marginally worthy of mention on the blog. But given the location, it seems more significant.
The 13th was also eventful. Matt and I opted to return to the area where we’d heard the knocks on the morning of the 11th and give the other location a rest. Here’s my write up of the morning’s possible auditory encounter.
We decided to do a mix of playback and DKs at 9:40 AM. I did about a minute and a half of playback, using the iBird app (3 rounds – 28 seconds of Kents, “conversational” calls, and tapping). Matt followed with perhaps a minute of knocking wood blocks together. Over the course of the following five minutes, we had several knocks. Initially, Matt heard a single that I think I missed. It was followed by a very loud knock coming from the East. It was VERY loud and clear, what Frank would have described as some banging on a tree with a baseball bat. Shortly thereafter, another sound came from my left, roughly north of us. Matt heard it as a single, but I heard it as a double, with the second to my ears perhaps the closest thing to what Tanner described as an echo of the first I’ve ever heard. After that, we heard another loud single roughly from the southwest. The last was more distant and somewhat less striking.
The first single knock and the one I heard as a double were astonishing. There’s no doubt in my mind or his that these were neither mechanical sounds nor foraging. I am kicking myself hard for not having my recorder running; I’ve gotten too jaded about auditory encounters, and it’s a little tough to manage both recording and generating sounds.
A little later, I found a dying chestnut oak with some mildly intriguing feeding sign. There were some huge, thick bark chips on the ground and this, more than the appearance of the work on the tree, struck me as potentially suggestive; this is the first interesting work I’ve found on an oak in several years.
Matt and I returned to this location on the morning of the 14th. Matt did ADK series on the half hour until shortly before noon. It was a cold and windy morning, uncomfortably so. We heard nothing of interest.
On the 15th, I headed for New Orleans and my flight the following morning. Phil and Matt returned to the woods and captured numerous calls between 7 and 11 am. When I heard the recordings I cleared the decks and made arrangements to return as soon as I possibly could.
Patricia and I were back in the woods by lunchtime on the 23rd. Louis Shackleton – a good friend, professional photographer, and birder who happened to be in Louisiana – joined us on the 24th. We didn’t see or hear anything of interest and left early ahead of predicted heavy rains.
At shortly after 11:00 am on the 25th, Patricia and I heard some possible double knocks in apparent response to some very aggressive knocking on my part; two of these knocks came from roughly north and one from the east (the same direction from which the March 15th calls were coming). I’m still reviewing the audio from this trip and may have additional material to post in the future.
I went out alone on the 26th, returning to the same vicinity, and did not see or hear anything interesting.
We were rained out on the 27th. On the 28th, I found a large cavity not far from where the calls were recorded. It does not appear to be fresh enough to be a recent nest, but we plan to target it with a trail cam in the event that it’s being used as a roost. This find illustrates how difficult it is to spot cavities in our search area – six people had spent the better part of multiple days in the immediate vicinity before I noticed it, and the snag is in plain view.
More storms came through on the night of the 28th, and the next morning Patricia and I decided to take a break from the “hot zone” and instead visited the area where Phil found the recently scaled hickories and where Matt, Phil, and I had heard knocks on the 11th and 13th. We found that one of Phil’s scaled hickories had lost its top, which gave me a chance to examine one of the scaled areas up close. As expected, the wood was somewhat punky, and and the bark was fairly easy to remove by hand.
We also discovered that the top of one of our target hickories had been blown off. The tree shows signs of beetle infestation, which gives us reason to hope that it will be visited by woodpeckers before too long.
It was interesting to get a close look at this freshly fallen top and examine how hickory bark separates from the trunk under these circumstances. While it seems to come free fairly easily in very large strips, the bark is extraordinarily tough and strong. When fresh, it’s flexible but very hard to break; doing so requires twisting, and it won’t fracture. Within about 48 hours the piece I collected had dried out and become surprisingly hard. This further reinforced my view that Pileated Woodpeckers are not anatomically equipped to scale large chunks of bark from live or freshly dead hickories.
It was a beautiful day in the woods, and some of the other highlights included recently hatched Wood Ducklings, a posing Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and the first ‘gator (a small one) I’ve ever seen in the area.
The next morning, I returned and redeployed a second camera, which had been trained on another nearby hickory, to the one with the downed top so that we can cover the entire stub.
We spent the morning of the 31st in the area where the calls were recorded before catching an afternoon flight. We did not note any interesting sounds while in the field, but after listening through Patricia’s recordings, I noted the possible double knock discussed in the previous post.
I’m planning two more trips before summer. I anticipate that we’ll have all cams deployed and have high hopes for the hickory stub.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d throw in some additional images that may help to convey what a special and magnificent place this is.
This is my 100th post on the blog. It has been on hold for a while due to the new developments. There’s another coming soon with more discussion of recent events and the audio Matt obtained with numerous kent-like calls. I’m now even more firmly convinced that IBWOs were the source of those calls, but that’s a topic for the future.
On the weekend of March 4-5, Phil Vanbergen visited the search area and changed out the card on our deployed trail cam. He found that Pileateds had hit the target tree, scaling a single and large strip of bark during one of several visits. The raw sequence and a slowed version by Steve Pagans are immediately below. Phil also found a nearby hickory that had been extensively scaled and some fresh bark chips at the base. Footage of that tree is also below.
When I was in the search area earlier this month, I scrutinized both these trees quite closely, and it appears that the extensive scaling was not recent. Moreover, we did not pass near enough to have seen the scaling when we were in the vicinity in December.
The first of these trees could not be approached on foot, but no large chips were visible at the base, based on careful examination through binoculars. In addition, the strip of bark removed by the Pileated appears to have been exposed on three sides by whatever did the initial scaling. Nevertheless, it took the PIWO over a minute to remove this compromised bark strip.
The chips at the base of the second were either fairly long strips or small chips, many of which had adhering and punky sapwood (first set of images). This contrasts with large chips found at the bases of recently scaled hickories (second set of images).
I now suspect the scaling on these two trees was done no later than early fall of 2016 and quite possibly in late spring, based in part on what we know about the life cycle of the beetles that appear to have been the initial prey species. As discussed in my post on hickory bark, I think this initial work is beyond the physical capacity of Pileated Woodpeckers.
As I was preparing this blog post, Phil asked to see my notes on Tanner’s field notes, and I ran across an observation about which I had forgotten: Tanner observed IBWOs on a partially dead sweet gum, scaling bark in chunks from dollar to hand sized. Shortly after they left a pileated arrived and started knocking off bark. But, also did a little digging. While other scaled hickories monitored for months have shown no signs of subsequent visits by Pileated Woodpeckers, I suspect that what transpired with these two is what Jon Young, author of the outstanding What the Robin Knows calls “wake feeding”, a reference to seabirds following boats for the food they churn up or throw overboard, although the concept applies in a variety of circumstances. This behavior might help to account for the abundance of scaling in our search area relative to other locations in the southeast.
We’re currently targeting three hickories that have multiple old wounds, in fairly close proximity to trees of that species that have been scaled in the past. A fourth tree we had planned to target has fallen. I hope to deploy a fourth trail cam on a wounded or dying hickory in April. This is a very long shot, given the number of hickories in the area and our limited equipment and resources, but it still seems worth a try
According to Tanner, scaling bark was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s primary foraging strategy during breeding season in Louisiana. Tanner wrote that the ivorybill is “capable of easily scaling away heavy bark that other woodpeckers could not loosen.” (Tanner 1942). All woodpeckers in genus Campephilus have specific anatomical characteristics that enable them to forage in this specialized way (Bock and Miller 1959). Following Tanner, most post-Singer Tract search efforts have looked for feeding sign as an indicator of presence. Because Tanner’s descriptions are somewhat vague and many of the photographs showing feeding sign are poor, these efforts have tended to focus on decay state and bark adhesion without taking bark characteristics and tree species sufficiently into account. I posit that tree species and bark and wood characteristics are key factors that should be considered. I further posit that extensive bark scaling on live and recently dead hickories (genus Carya) may be beyond the physical capacity of the Pileated Woodpecker.
As all regular readers know, I’ve been somewhat obsessively focused on bark and bark scaling since my earliest years of ivorybill searching. The reason for this interest is simple: it’s how Tanner found ivorybills or inferred their presence when he couldn’t find them (Tanner 1942). Unfortunately, as discussed in a number of posts, Tanner’s descriptions are somewhat opaque, and most of the published images of feeding sign, including those in the monograph, are not very illuminating. Indeed, some of them are consistent with pileated work that we’ve documented. Plate 8, shown below, is a prime example. The caption reads, “Ivory-bill feeding sign on a slender limb”.
Early on in my study of this subject, I hypothesized that certain kinds of bark scaling on hardwoods might be beyond the physical capacity of the Pileated Woodpecker. I still believe this to be true, a view that is supported by what we’ve documented for pileated and by numerous examples of pileated scaling from online sources. At the same time, the details of what types of work might belong in this category have shifted somewhat, especially as it has become clear that Pileated scaling can look like what’s shown in Plate 8 and that pileateds will scale bark from recently dead sweet gums.
This is not to suggest that ivorybills never scale small and medium-sized branches in a similar manner. According to Tanner they did so frequently; however, I have been focused on what may be diagnostic for ivorybill. It seems likely that there is considerable overlap between ivorybill and pileated work when smaller branches are involved (at least on sweet gums).
The sequences we obtained showing pileateds scaling a sweet gum limb have inspired me to look more deeply at the characteristics of hardwood bark and pursue some research avenues that I hadn’t considered previously. I’ve linked to some of the sources in recent posts, but I’ve had some additional insights that seem important enough to share. Every time I think I’ve run out of things to say on the subject, something new crops up.
Like virtually everyone else, I’ve followed Tanner and focused on two bark characteristics, “tightness” and thickness, but it recently struck me that other features might be important as well. And the literature, mostly from the lumber industry, supports this idea.
Tanner suspected that the Singer Tract ivorybills preferred sweet gums and Nuttall’s Oaks because the bark is thinner, and the thinner barked limbs had “more borers” than thick barked ones. While abundance of food was likely a factor, I suspect that, at least with respect to sweet gums and possibly Nuttall’s oaks, ease of scaling and access to food played a role.
It’s important to point out that in live trees, hardwood bark adhesion varies seasonally, with bark becoming tighter during dormant stages and looser (with considerably less variation from species to species) during the growing season. Bark is often if not always tighter on recently dead trees than on live ones (Stokland et al. 2012).
In addition, “The structural and chemical traits of dead wood, inherited from the traits of living trees, are also major drivers of wood decomposition and these traits vary greatly among tree species.” (Cornellisen et al. 2012). The authors of the linked paper point out that other factors, including size and site, can also contribute to the way that bark loosens post-mortem, but specific traits seem to be paramount, especially since the scaling we deem to be suggestive, whether on standing or downed wood, is on trees that are alive or are recently dead. Because the scaling has a very distinctive appearance, we also deem as suggestive hickory snags and stubs that appear to have been scaled some years ago, even if they are in a considerably later stage of decay overall. Bark attached to hard wood on these longer dead stubs and snags often remains tight for 3 or more years after death.
A 1978 report, entitled Bark and Wood Properties of Pulpwood Species as Related to Separation and Segregation of Chip/Bar Mixtures examined bark morphology and strength properties in 42 different pulpwood species and identified factors that impede the mechanical removal of bark from logs. These include: cellular structure, bark adhesion, bark strength, bark toughness, wood toughness, specific gravity/density, and moisture content. (Institute of Paper Chemistry 1978) One caveat about this report: a subsequent paper gives the sample size for each species, and in many cases (including sweet gums) it was only 2 (Einspahr et al. 1982)
It may be counterintuitive, but the authors found that shagbark hickory was far and away the most difficult bark to remove. (The tightly adhering layer is thin, beneath the dead bark that gives the species its shaggy appearance.) One key finding was that:
“Morphologically, the presence of fibers increases inner bark strength and, when sclereids (a type of cell) are present, bark strength is decreased. Inner bark strength, in turn, has a major influence on hardwood wood/bark adhesion. The multiple regression equation employing wood toughness and inner bark strength accounts for 72% of the wood/bark adhesion variation encountered.”
Sclereids are virtually absent in hickories (Nanko 1980) and a few other species that don’t approach the hickories in bark strength and bark and wood toughness (Eastern cottonwoods, yellow poplars, white ashes, and black willows). These tables are particularly illustrative:
Shagbark hickories are the extreme outlier in this study, in terms of adhesion, as well as in terms of inner and outer bark toughness and strength; there are very few shagbarks in our search area, and we have never found scaling on one. I have been unable to find specific information about bitternut hickory bark strength or toughness, but the industry’s debarking problem applies to all species in the genus Carya due to the near absence of sclereids in conjunction with the other factors. Moreover, the industry does not differentiate among hickory species (Timber Mart South 2016). This 1996 paper is worth quoting at length in this regard (full text is not readily accessible):
The amount of published literature dealing with hickory debarking is very limited. Often it is only mentioned as an example of one of the hardest tree species to debark. One study quantified this by measuring the strength of the bark-to-wood bond of 42 hardwood species, including hickory. According to Einspahr et al., the dormant season bark-to-wood adhesion for hickory is greater than 3000 kPa, which is a tenfold difference from the growing season and nearly three times as great as the dormant season wood/bark adhesion for quaking aspen (Populous tremuloides, L.), a species considered to be extremely difficult to debark in the northern United States.
Einspahr et al. also microscopically examined the failure zone in an attempt to correlate morphological differences with bark-to-wood adhesion. For hardwoods in general, they found that during the growing season, failure occurred in the cambium or in the xylem just inside the cambial zone. Conversely, dormant-season failure occurred in the inner bark. They also found that fibers in the bark increased the inner bark strength while sclereids decreased inner bark strength. Hickory bark can contain between 15 to 20 percent fiber and contains less than 0.05 percent sclereids.
While these studies have confirmed that hickory is difficult to debark, they have not addressed possible solutions to the problem. As a result, hickory is often left behind during harvesting, reducing the total usable fiber from a given stand and, over time, increasing the percentage of the species in the hardwood resource, compounding the problem of future harvests.
When a tree dies, the bark eventually loosens and detaches naturally as the cambium decays. After felling, the cambium remains alive until it has consumed all available food or dries out. Moisture loss, while causing cambial death, initially greatly increases the strength of bark attachment because additional bonding between fibers occurs as the secondary valence bonds with water are broken (Belli 1996).
Thus, even though hickory bark adheres less tightly than sweet gum bark during the growing season, it seems likely that it’s harder to scale year round, given its much greater wood and bark strength and toughness. It is also clear from my observations that sweet gum bark loosens far more rapidly than hickory bark post mortem. Note that we have found fresh scaling on both live and recently dead hickories.
Based on specific gravity of the bark – averaging 0.72 for shagbark and 0.60 for bitternut – and bark moisture content – averaging 34% of dry weight for shagbark, and 60% for bitternut – it seems likely that bitternuts are somewhat easier to debark than shagbarks but considerably harder to debark than virtually any other tree species in our search area.
Comparing bitternut hickories to other species, most oaks have a considerably higher average moisture content in their bark (Chestnut and Southern red, including Nuttall’s oaks, are exceptions) and similar specific gravities. Sweet gum bark has an average specific gravity of 0.37 and an average moisture content of 91% of oven dry weight. (Schlaegel and Willson 1983, Miles and Smith 2009). But oaks and sweet gums have sclereids, and sweet gums and all tested oak species score far lower on bark toughness and strength than shagbark and, by inference, bitternut hickories. Sweet gums and the tested oak species are fairly similar in these regards, but I suspect that the higher density and lower moisture content in oak bark makes it harder to scale and may mean that oak bark adheres more tightly than sweet gum bark for a longer period after death.
I posit that when it comes to woodpecker scaling, dormant season bark adhesion, inner and outer bark strength, and inner and outer bark toughness are all relevant factors. We know that Pileated Woodpeckers remove sweet gum bark with some difficulty and that even on medium-sized limbs, they are not consistently able to remove bark cleanly down to the sapwood. It’s also clear that bitternut hickory bark is very difficult to remove, second only to shagbark hickory in our search area. This further reinforces my view that the work on hickories is not the work of Pileated Woodpeckers.
Click here and here for examples of the hickories that are scaled in a manner we hypothesize is diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Also be sure to watch this YouTube video of a Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucus) foraging. (Thanks to Phil Vanbergen for finding the clip and the scaled hickory at the second link.) I’m reposting the link to the video here because I think it very clearly illustrates many of the characteristics we associate with Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on hickories, although the species of tree being fed on is unknown. Note the striking similarity in appearance and also that the work of the substantially smaller billed Crimson-crested is not as clean around the edges as the work we’re ascribing to ivorybills.
There were no bitternut hickories in the Singer Tract, but there were congeners – pecans and water hickories. Tanner observed ivorybills scaling on these species twice and digging once. For pileateds, there were 4 instances of digging and none of scaling, as opposed to 5 scaling and 9 digging on sweet gums. The relative abundance of water hickory and pecan at Singer was 2.7%; approximately 10% of the trees in our search area are hickories, and hickories are second only to sweet gums in terms of the number of scaled trees we’ve found. While Tanner’s is obviously a minuscule data set, it may support the hypothesis that live and recently dead Carya bark is too tough for pileateds to scale extensively, if at all.
There are a number of hardwood species found in potential ivorybill habitat that are somewhere between sweet gums and hickories in terms of how easily scaled they may be and how soon after death bark decay and loosening set in – eastern cottonwoods, black willows, water tupelos, some oak species, red maples, green ashes, honey locusts, persimmons, and elms – in these species, it seems likely that close examination of the scaling and bark chips can provide some clues.
Previous Ivory-billed Woodpecker searches have focused on bark adhesion and state of decay when considering scaling as possible foraging sign. Bark morphology, dormant season adhesion, inner and bark outer strength, and inner and outer bark toughness, and wood toughness are all relevant to the ease with which bark can be scaled from live and recently dead hardwoods. Specific gravity and moisture content are also factors. Bark from trees in the genus Carya is difficult to remove industrially, and members of this genus are likely the most difficult trees to scale throughout the historic range of the ivorybill. Since Pileated Woodpeckers scale sweet gum branches with some difficulty and do not consistently remove bark down to the sapwood, it may be beyond the physical capacity of Pileated Woodpeckers to scale hickories extensively and cleanly, while leaving large pieces of bark behind. Extensive work on hickories that has a distinctive appearance may be diagnostic for ivorybills; this distinctive appearance of this scaling may also be the key to recognizing Ivory-billed Woodpecker foraging sign on other species.
This may be no more than an aside, but it may be a relevant data point. I recently observed a Pileated scaling briefly on a live 14″ DBH Norway maple in my yard near New York City. The photos show that the sap is flowing. The appearance of the scaling is exactly what I’d expect for Pileated, with strips about half an inch across. Norway maple may be a decent stand-in for sweet gum; while its bark has a higher specific gravity, 53 as opposed to 37, the moisture content of the bark is almost identical, 91% as opposed to 90%.
Bock, Walter J. and Waldron Dewitt Miller, The Scansorial Foot of the Woodpeckers, with Comments on the Evolution of Perching and Climbing Feet in Birds, American Museum Novitates, #1931, 1959
Belli, Monique L., Wet storage of hickory pulpwood in the southern United States and its impact on bark removal efficiency, Forest Products Journal. Madison 46.3 (Mar 1996): 75.
Cornelissen, Johannes H.C., Ute Sass-Klaassen, Lourens Poorter, Koert van Geffen, Richard S. P. van Logtestijn,Jurgen van Hal, Leo Goudzwaard, Frank J. Sterck, René K. W. M. Klaassen, Grégoire T. Freschet, Annemieke van der Wal, Henk Eshuis, Juan Zuo, Wietse de Boer, Teun Lamers, Monique Weemstra, Vincent Cretin, Rozan Martin, Jan den Ouden, Matty P. Berg, Rien Aerts, Godefridus M. J. Mohren, and Mariet M. Hefting, Controls on Coarse Wood Decay in Temperate Tree Species: Birth of the LOGLIFE Experiment, Ambio. 2012 Jul; 41(Suppl 3): 231–245.
Einspahr, D.W, R.H VanEperen, M.L. Harder et al. Morphological and bark strength characteristics important to wood/bark adhesion in hardwoods, The Institute of Paper Chemistry, 1982: 339-348.
Institute of Paper Chemistry, Project 3212, Bark and wood properties of pulpwood species as related to separation and segregation of chip/bark mixtures, Report 11, 1978.
Miles, Patrick D. and W. Brad Smith, Specific Gravity and Other Properties of Wood and Bark for 156 Tree Species Found in North America, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Northern Research Station, Research Note NRS-38, 2009.
Nanko, Hiroki, Bark Structure of Hardwoods Grown on Southern Pine Sites (Renewable Materials Institute series), Syracuse University Press, 1980.
Schlaegel, Bryce E. S and Regan B. Willson, Nuttall Oak Volume and Weight Tables, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Southern Research Station, Research Paper SO-l 86, 1983
Siry, Jacek, ed., Species Detail Report, Timber Mart-South, 2016
Stokland, Jogeir N., Juha Siitonen, and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson, Biodiversity in Dead Wood, Cambridge University Press, 2012
Tanner, J.T. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker,National Audubon Society, 1942.
Thanks to Fredrik Bryntesson, Steve Pagans, Chris Carlisle, and Bob Ford for their help with this post.
Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. I encourage you to read those posts first, as this one only adds a little to what’s been documented and discussed. Phil Vanbergen found an additional sequence this morning, one that shows the balance of the scaling that was done on the limb between December 22nd and January 26th.
In this sequence, Pileateds do most or all of the work that I had ascribed to squirrels. As in the other two sequences, the birds spent approximately fifteen minutes foraging, removing a couple of small patches from the lower part of the limb before working somewhat more extensively on the upper left. As in the other sequences, it appears that one bird did the vast majority of the work, but I haven’t found any frames that are well enough resolved to determine whether it was the female or the male. Per Phil, squirrels can be seen in additional sequences, “often poking around the scaled patches”.
Thanks again to all who sent condolences, and appreciations of Frank Wiley and our work. Your sympathy and support have comforted and encouraged me during this difficult time.
Part 1 is here. This post supplements the analysis at: Feeding Sign: Some Possible Ivorybill Diagnostics. I’ll be reiterating ideas that are familiar to longtime readers; I have posted many of the photographs before; but there’s some additional research and some new perspectives informed by the Pileated scaling sequences obtained in December and January.
I am now firmly convinced that the work we’ve found on a small number of hickories over the past several years cannot have been done by Pileated Woodpeckers. I have believed this to be the case for some time, but the recent sequences showing how Pileateds scale sweet gum bark provide strong, direct evidence in support of that conviction.
As noted in Part 1, sweet gum bark is in the mid-range for tightness among hardwood species. Hickory bark in general, and bitternut hickory bark in particular, is at the highest end of the range in terms of adhesion. Hickories belong to the genus Carya, which is divided into two types, “true” and “pecan” hickories. Bitternuts are in the pecan group, “which are not equal to true hickories in strength, hardness, and toughness.” This inequality is relative, and the differences are modest. In addition, the timber industry identifies bitternuts and a true hickory species, mockernuts, as “tight barked” hickories. True hickory bark adheres so tightly that its removal poses problems for the pulp lumber industry, and I suspect that for the purposes of the linked study, bitternuts are treated as true hickories. In any case, it is safe to say that hickories are the tightest barked hardwood species in our search area, and I have observed that hickory bark can remain tight for years after death, given the right conditions.
Now let’s examine the physical evidence we’ve found with regard to both sweet gums and hickories.
These are three of the largest chips found under the medium-sized limb of the downed sweet gum. There was one larger chip that broke on handling, as well as quite a few smaller ones. This is known Pileated Woodpecker work.
It is perhaps more accurate to describe these as strips. They’re approximately .25″ thick and 2″ across at the widest points.
Now let’s look at some presumed Pileated Woodpecker work from another sweet gum that appears to have been longer dead. This work is from somewhat larger limbs and a nearby hanging broken limb. I can see indications, patchiness and layered appearance, that would lead me to suspect Pileated, just based on the field impression. The chips are even more revealing, even though some of them are larger than what I would have expected.
Here’s an image of the chips found on the ground. There’s been a lot of scaling on this tree, and some older chips (that could be consistent with ivorybill) can be seen in the photograph. Note the variability in size.
Here are some of the fresh chips I collected, shown with my 13″ MacBook Air for scale.
Again, some of these chips are slightly larger than I would have hypothesized for Pileated Woodpecker, but the appearance, which suggests that a considerable amount of pecking was required before the bark was removed, would have led me to assume Pileated. I’m confident this is not squirrel work either, based on the exit tunnels and the way they’ve been pecked at (most readily visible at the far right). Note also that these chips were so brittle that the larger ones broke in transit. This work was done on larger limbs, and the bark is approximately .375″ thick.
By contrast, the hickory scaling is on boles, where bark is tighter and thicker; the surface area involved is typically much greater; and there is no sign of the layered appearance, which I presume to be a consequence of pecking rather than chiseling/prying. In those instances in which we’ve found fresh work, most or all of it appears to have been done within a very short timeframe. The example below, the homepage tree, was still alive, with the scaled areas wet with sap when found.
We found this tree in the spring of 2013 and monitored it regularly for over a year. There were no return visits by whatever did the scaling, and the only other woodpecker work involved the removal small patches of bark by a Hairy Woodpecker (captured on a trail cam). This particular tree had been partially uprooted and was in a lower, wetter area than many of the other hickories that have been worked on in this manner. By the spring of 2016, it had fallen and Pileated Woodpeckers were feeding on the rotting log.
I’ll repost the known PIWO scaling, done over approximately 30 minutes in two visits, five weeks apart, for comparison. Even if the same species of tree were involved I’d have suspected two different sources for the scaling.
As I see it, our Pileated sequences show that it would have required hours for a PIWO to have scaled so extensively on the hickory bole and suggest that they could not have done so as cleanly. The chips (>.375″ thick on a relatively young tree, not at all brittle, and no hint of pecking or removal in layers) and the remaining adhering bark should have a very different appearance if Pileateds were responsible, especially given the substantial differences between sweet gum and hickory bark adhesion and hardness. The work we’ve found on hickories involves both live and recently dead examples. Again, I’ll repost an image of the hickory chips from this tree for reference.
As discussed previously, the hickory scaling also has a distinctive appearance that strongly resembles presumed Ivory-billed Woodpecker scaling on one of the Singer Tract nest trees, a maple.
I think it may be possible to distinguish Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on sweet gum branches, based on very close examination of the scaling and the bark chips (when possible). The effort to do so is complicated by the fact that both Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels can and do strip bark in similar ways. Extensive, mostly contiguous, and clean appearing scaling on larger limbs may be suggestive for ivorybill, as in the example below and as Tanner suggests, but even if ivorybills are doing some of this work, identifying it requires making some fine distinctions.
By contrast, I think the work on hickory boles in our search area is diagnostic for ivorybill. Our focus going forward will be on trying to anticipate and document whatever is scaling bark from the hickories in this distinctive manner. Given the nature of hickory bark, I suspect I will have reached a dead end if it turns out I’m wrong about this.
One final note, identifying potential target trees is a very long shot. We found no scaled hickories of this type in 2015-2016. I have been looking for candidates on the last two trips and have found two wounded trees, both within 50 yards of hickories that have been scaled in recent years.
We’ll be targeting these and will be looking for two more when I return in March.
I’m still in mourning and adjusting to the loss of my friend. Thanks to all who have expressed appreciation for our work and a desire for it to continue. I’m sure Frank would have felt the same, and with that in mind, this will be the first of two or three installments discussing Pileated Woodpecker work on sweet gums that we’ve recently documented.
After my December trip, Phil Vanbergen and John Williams retrieved the trail cam we had deployed on December 21. They took the camera to Frank’s house, reviewed the card, and found that two Pileateds had visited the downed tree on the 22nd and had scaled some bark near the base of a medium to large limb. Phil, who has spent time with me in the field and who has paid close attention to my approach to analyzing feeding sign, immediately suspected Pileated for this work, based on the appearance of the scaling and the characteristics of the bark chips.
Rather than extract the images at that time, Frank and Phil opted to redeploy the camera. Although I had not yet seen the frames, many of my last communications with Frank, both on the phone and via email, touched on this subject. He was tickled by the fact that we’d anticipated and documented scaling activity on an untouched limb and was eager to get back out and see for himself. Sadly, that was not to be.
Phil and I retrieved the trail camera on January 28. I had visited the site on the 26th and had noted some additional scaling consistent with what I’d expect for Pileated Woodpecker, although with some bark chips on the larger side. As it happened, the second round of scaling had taken place approximately three hours earlier, five weeks to the day after the first.
In both instances, it appears that almost all the scaling was done by a female, although the image quality is too poor for me to be 100% certain. In both cases, the bird spent approximately 15 minutes on the trunk. It seems that squirrels (seen briefly at the beginning of the January series) are responsible for the modest quantity of scaling on the upper, less vertically oriented, part of the limb; this was my instinct at the time, and the idea is supported by the footage. The full time lapse sequences are at the bottom of the page. Phil extracted both sequences, and Steve Pagans created a slower version of the January 26th clip. The first four photos in the tiled mosaic series below were taken by Phil Vanbergen.
I’ll go into more detail in subsequent posts, but for now, I have a few observations.
- This work has a distinctive appearance, what I’ve called a layered look to the edges, that is consistent with what I’ve previously hypothesized for Pileated.
- While some of the bark chips are on the large side for what I have ascribed to Pileated, none are anywhere near as large as the larger ones that that we’ve ascribed to ivorybill. In addition, the chips found at this location and at another where I suspect the source is PIWO, seem to be less uniformly large in size and sometimes show signs of being taken off in layers, which matches what’s visible on the limbs.
- The tree in question was no more than six months dead, and the bark at the edges of the scaled area remained tight; however, dormant sweet gum bark is in the midrange of tightness relative to other hardwood species.
- This is a decay class that Tanner associated with ivorybills not PIWOs, but it’s clear that Pileateds can and do scale very recently dead sweet gum limbs, at least in mature bottomland forests.
- Tanner’s photographs provide little guidance in terms of differentiating between Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on high branches. I suspect he thought of his monograph as more epitaph than guide to identifying feeding sign. Nevertheless, his descriptions offer some clues. “Scaling, the Ivory-bill works steadily, removing all the bark for quite an area; one may work at a spot for an hour or more.” And for Pileateds, “What scaling Pileateds were observed to do was mostly on loose bark and was never as extensive or as cleanly done as the work of the ivorybills.
To conclude this installment, we already suspected that Pileateds can and do scale freshly dead sweet gums before the bark has loosened; these images show them doing it in a way that is inefficient and neither ‘extensive’ nor ‘clean’. The total surface area scaled over approximately 30 minutes is modest compared to scaling we suspect to have been done by ivorybills. In addition, PIWO work has some characteristics that may be recognizable upon close examination of the affected limbs and bark chips. The fact that these characteristics can be seen on medium-sized sweet gum limbs, with their relatively thin and only moderately tight bark, suggests that it should be even more evident on larger limbs, boles, and other tighter barked species. More on this and on bark chips in subsequent posts.