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.
Part 1 of this report is here.
Patricia opted to take the day off on the 19th, so I went out on my own and covered a lot of territory. I had been thinking hard about the hickories and the fact that, in virtually all cases, we’ve seen indications that bark is removed from these trees and stubs within a very brief period or perhaps in a single visit and that other woodpeckers don’t seem to begin working heavily on these trees for extended periods, sometimes for years. Except for changes in color due to exposure to the elements, some of the scaled surfaces we associate with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers can retain their distinctive appearance for at least three years and more likely five or more.
Steve Pagans later explained that this is due in large part to hardening by compression; hickory wood is hard and dense to begin with, and when a tree or stub is leaning, the wood that’s absorbing more weight becomes even denser, harder, and more impervious to rot. Thus, on many of these trees, Pileated Woodpeckers will have worked on the rotting side, sometimes extensively, while the compressed side remains very hard and virtually untouched by woodpeckers.
I examined and marked as many of these trees as I could over the remainder of the trip. Unfortunately, we did not find any of this scaling in the 2015-2016 season. Trying to find more of it this year and trying to find a way to identify potential target trees before they’re scaled will be priorities for me.
I plan to write about this work on hickories and what I think it suggests in an upcoming post. For now, suffice it to say that these particular snags and stubs are a kind of twofer having the decayed substrate that’s preferred by Pileateds and and the hard wood that, following Tanner, is preferred or used exclusively by ivorybills. As noted elsewhere, some bark on these snags and stubs can remain tight for years, and on one of the trees I examined, it was still difficult to remove, even when it had reached a point at which some of it would crumble to powder when it was being pulled off. More importantly, the harder surfaces show modest expansion of exit tunnels and targeted digging work that appear to be associated with the initial scaling (as in the hickory on the homepage and the one in Steve’s photo at the end of this post, both of which were very freshly scaled and alive when found) and little or no other work for a period of years, even when there are signs of infestation by multiple insect species (based on the presence of exit tunnels that vary greatly in size and shape). I’ve included multiple examples, long shots and details, to illustrate.
On the 20th, Patricia, Steve, Phil, and I went to Sector 2 together. We went through the area where I recorded calls in 2013 and where we found concentrations of scaling in spring 2012 and during the 2012-13 season. There has been none since in this little patch. We found no recent looking bark scaling in the morning (as it turned out, we missed a group of three sweet gums with high branch work perhaps a quarter mile to the northeast of this area, see below.) One odd highlight was coming across a patch of forest floor with many of these beautiful ice formations that had formed around the stems of a couple of species of plant.
At a little before noon, Steve opted to turn back; we had already covered 2.3 miles. Before we went our separate ways, we all speculated on and were baffled as to what might have damaged this sweet gum. The wounds seem to have been caused by a scrape, but there were no downed trees or tops anywhere in the immediate vicinity.
Phil, Patricia, and I proceeded another half mile farther north, reaching a hickory stub that I found in the spring of 2013, shown below. The stub was still standing, and the areas with putative ivorybill work had lost more bark but showed no signs of further woodpecker activity. The presence of a click beetle in this 2013 photo suggests that parts of the tree were already starting to rot even then.
We found two sweet gums with extensive scaling on large branches within 30 yards of this snag. Some of the work was recent. This is something that we’re finding repeatedly; even within clusters, the interesting feeding sign often seems to appear in tighter groupings involving two or more trees. I’ll provide a possible explanation in my next post.
We found a particularly unusual bark chip at the base of the tree on the left. While it comes from a relatively small branch, the way it was removed may be significant. Over 1/3 of the chip is cylindrical encompassing almost the entire circumference of the limb; it was not pecked off piece by piece; instead, it appears to have been loosened by several blows and then pried free. The bark is hard, suggesting it was tightly attached; it was moist and contained a good deal of frass when found. The piece is very large, approximately 13″ long and nearly 7″ in circumference.
On the return trip, we found a small group of three sweet gum snags, somewhat on the longer dead side. All three had recent to fresh scaling, and there were very large bark slabs at the bases of two of them. These slabs of bark were dense and hard, suggesting that they were tightly adhering when stripped.
We came across a massive relict cypress on the way back. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this tree, but it never fails to take my breath away.
On the morning of December 21st, Phil and I went to Sector 1, and Patricia and Steve went to Sector 3. We decided not to deploy a camera on the downed top we had found on the 16th. We have two functioning cameras at the moment, and it seemed more prudent to deploy them on untouched substrates. We didn’t find any new scaling or a substitute target, so we decided to head for Sector 3 where I had a couple of targets in mind.
As we were walking to the car, I got a text from Patricia saying that she and Steve had just had a possible auditory encounter. Steve is a dedicated birder with very good hearing and excellent ear-birding skills. Patricia has limited experience, but she is a retired opera singer with a good general ear. Here are their descriptions of the morning’s events.
Steve: At about 9:10 am, Patricia and I were in the bottomland hardwood area in Sector 3. The weather was overcast and cold without any wind – very good conditions to hear bird calls. We had walked southward for about a quarter of a mile in the bottomland area when we had decided to do some DKs. Actually it was Patricia’s idea to do some DKs, and we proceeded to find a small American Holly that was the right size to cut two sticks for knocking.
Patricia: I thought it would be a good location, as I remembered Frank, Steve, Mark and I had done them at the same location a few years back. I remember the fallen tree we all sat on for lunch. Steve had sardines! And where Frank sat down at the base of a tree and started to snore. When I mentioned to Mark that Frank was sleeping, Frank retorted “I’m not asleep”
Steve: The location is one where we could see for a distance fairly well. When we started the DKs, we did not keep up with how many were done or how long we did them, but I think it was for about 10 minutes. We made an effort to keep watch for an incoming IBWO that would be responding to the DKs, but we were probably not as diligent as we could have been. At a point we had engaged in some conversation. I was sitting on a sweetgum log and Patricia standing about six feet away. My right side was facing south. Patricia was talking when all of a sudden I heard what sounded like at least two distinct calls from my right. The calls sounded like textbook calls of the IBWO – a bit like a toy horn was being blown. I know White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatch calls very well and what I heard did not sound like either of those birds. I immediately put up my left hand to stop Patricia from talking and pointed with my right hand toward the south. I told her what I had heard while we both strained to hear any more calls. There were no more calls. Also, we did not see the bird. It is highly likely that we did not spend enough time watching and listening for the bird after I had heard it call. It is hard to say how close the bird might have been to our location because I don’t know how far their call can be heard.
Patricia: I think I did about 10 DKs, perhaps 15-30 seconds apart. When I didn’t hear anything interesting,I joined Steve, who was about 20 yards away. We started talking, and I was responding to something he said when his hands went up and his eyes widened. He whispered, “Did you hear that? Kent calls?” I shook my head no. We listened for a while, but probably no longer than 5 minutes.
Steve suggested we do another round of DKs to see if we could call in whatever made the sound again. I asked him to do the next round, as I my hands were stinging and sore; plus I wanted to hear them from someone with more experience. I think that, should someone have an auditory encounter, another person should take their place during a second round of DKs.
I stayed where I was standing when Steve heard the kents but was facing directly south. After 3 or 4 DKs, I heard something similar in cadence, but it had a sharper, crisper quality to it (similar to recorded Campephilus double knocks). It came roughly from the southwest. By the time Steve joined me later, I had convinced myself that it was caused by the logging that we heard going on in the distance, also to the southwest. If I mentioned hearing the DK to Steve, I probably downplayed it, blaming the logging or a falling limb; the winds were very calm at the time, and I didn’t hear any similar sounds from the logging that morning.
I have not spent much time in the field and am reluctant to place too much weight on my observations. I’d much prefer the IBWO (should it be out there) land on my shoulder “Sonny Boy” style and leave behind a fine DNA sample, after I manage to take a series of selfies!
Don’t we all . . . or at least that we could call them in like Barred Owls.
We met up with Patricia and Steve, and Phil set up the cams; one is currently aimed at a sweet gum stub we targeted last year before losing a camera to flooding. There is some fresh woodpecker work, I suspect Hairy, on the stub, so this may be a good time to target it. The other cam is trained on both a downed sweet gum top and a longer dead snag. Both are within the area where we’ve had multiple possible encounters recently, not far from the heavy concentration of sign found last spring.
Toward the end of the day, Phil went to do an evening stakeout in sector 1; Patricia went with him, while I took Steve a little farther north to show him a couple of the hickory stubs. In this location as well, there were a couple of recently scaled sweet gums in within 20-30 yards of the older hickories, which were similarly about 20-30 yards apart. We also examined one of the hickories Steve photographed in 2013; it was alive at the time. This one had decayed somewhat more rapidly than many of the others I’ve found, but it’s at a lower elevation relative to the nearest water body.
Steve remarked that he’s never seen feeding sign like this anywhere else, and he has spent countless professional hours in bottomland hardwood forests.
Frank, Phil, and John Williams will be in the search area over the next few days, so there may be another report coming soon, in addition to the post I’m planning on hickories and foraging behavior.
On this trip, I was joined by Patricia Johnson (my wife) who was making her first visit to our search area in over two years. Phil Vanbergen was along on Friday, when a classmate of his, Jeremy Irion, spent also spent the day with us. Steve Pagans, retired forester at D’Arbonne National Wildlife Refuge, was very active in our efforts until he was sidelined with back trouble. He too made his first visit in over two years on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s great to have Steve along for his birding skills and knowledge of this habitat type. Phil returned on Tuesday and Wednesday, and spent Thursday in the woods on his own. Frank Wiley was unable to get out this time around.
Prior to our departure, rain was predicted for three of our planned field days, but as it turned out, the weather was generally tolerable, if cold at times; Saturday was the only day when conditions, high winds and predicted thunderstorms, kept us away. Patricia and I took that day as an opportunity to visit Tensas National Wildlife Refuge (on the site of the Singer Tract) and Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge. More on these visits below.
Although I didn’t have any possible encounters (Steve and Patricia’s will be discussed in Part 2), the trip was an incredibly productive one for me. We found a good deal of recent feeding sign. I also took the opportunity to look at over 10 hickories that have been scaled within the last several years. This is the type of work I think is most compelling for ivorybill.
I got what I think are some important new insights and some ideas about how whatever is stripping bark is behaving over time; these merit a separate post that will likely follow Part 2 of the trip report; I also anticipate writing an addendum to the feeding sign page I added recently. I hope these insights can inform our strategies going forward. It’s especially helpful to get fresh perspectives, so I’m grateful to Phil, Steve, and Patricia. Each in their own way helped me think a little more deeply about my observations; a conversation I had with Frank after a long day in the field was similarly helpful.
The groups of images in this post are in “tiled mosaic” format. Clicking on any single image will enable you to scroll through the group and enlarge the individual photographs if you choose to.
We met Phil on the edge of what we call Sector 1 at 6:45 am on the 16th. The weather was cloudy, cold, and windy; later in the day, the thermometer soared to nearly seventy, but the skies remained a wintry gray, less than ideal conditions for finding feeding sign or observing birds. Nevertheless we did find some recent work on both standing and downed sweetgums and on a broken hickory limb, all of this in an area where we’ve found an abundance of scaling every search season. None of this work is in the category I find most compelling; the hickory limb is probably most interesting due to the characteristics of hickory bark and the very large bark chip we found below the limb. Given what we’ve observed on hickory boles, this may be good target tree for later in the season.
The scaling on the downed limb has some features that might point toward Pileated, especially the layered appearance at the lower right and the patchiness of the work on the smaller limb. Conversely, the shredding of the cambium on the stub is consistent with what Edith Kuhn Whitehead told us her father associated with ivorybills.
Phil and I considered aiming a trail cam at the downed limbs but decided the work was not quite interesting enough.
The weather forecast for the 17th was ominous, with winds upwards of 20 mph and thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. Patricia and I thought we might be able to spend a couple of hours in Sector 1, but when we reached the trailhead we found a truck parked where we were planning to walk in. Given the bad weather and the presence of hunters, we decided to head straight for Tensas, a pilgrimage I’d been wanting to make for some time.
The drive took a couple of hours, and our Wayz app sent us on a couple of roads that dead-ended in bean fields, but we finally made it, only to find the visitor center closed for the weekend.
We took a walk on the boardwalk behind the headquarters and found a dead tree that had been almost completely stripped of bark, large soft slabs of which were lying around the base. I’m posting a photograph to illustrate how difficult it can be to explain what we’re finding to those who haven’t seen it firsthand. I doubt there are ivorybills in Tensas, but if I found this work in our area, I wouldn’t suspect ivorybill. The remaining adhering bark is loose and decaying; the large slabs we found on the ground were soft and pliable. The tree in the background has a little bit of scaling on it too, but it is in an advanced state of decay, and the bark has not been removed from large, contiguous areas.
As we drove around Tensas, we did note occasional instances of high branch scaling, but nothing remotely suggestive. Again I’m again including these examples in hopes of providing more clarity with regard to the kinds of feeding sign I find suggestive for ivorybill; this work doesn’t qualify; it is on very small, longer dead limbs; it does not involve large, contiguous areas; nor does it reach the bole or larger parts of the limbs.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the refuge from the road, stopping at Africa Lake, on the West side of the Tensas River, and then drove Sharkey Road, stopping for a somber moment on the bridge over John’s Bayou. I’m facing south in the picture below; Tanner would have walked north to the core of the home range. There are strips of maturing woods along the banks of the bayou but bean fields to the east and west. Tensas is big, extensively wooded, and an impressive restoration effort is under way, but the visit left me saddened, with a more visceral sense of what was lost when the Singer Tract was logged.
From Tensas, we went to Bayou Cocodrie, a nearly 15,000 acre refuge that’s part of a large, east-central Louisiana potential habitat complex. While the corridors are not uninterrupted, they encompass many thousands of acres of maturing forest, from D’Arbonne and Tensas National Wildlife Refuges to Raccourci Island and Tunica Hills. There’s some connectivity with the Atchafalaya Basin as well. Bayou Cocodrie is fairly isolated and hard to reach (Wayz was unhelpful again); it includes a small (775 acre) stand of old growth hardwoods (the Fisher Tract), and there may be a good deal more surrounding forest that’s suitable for ivorybills. I met a professional hunting guide a couple of years ago, and he claimed to have had an encounter there. We’re planning to visit Bayou Cocodrie and see the Fisher Tract and surrounding areas on my next visit.
Patricia and I were on our own on the 18th, which was a much colder, clearer day after some early morning clouds broke up. We spent the early part of the day in the northeastern part of Sector 1 and didn’t find anything of interest. We went to the scaling concentration in Sector 3 in the latter part of the morning and stayed in the area until about 3 pm.
I didn’t notice any new scaling worth mentioning, but we found a limb that had fallen and broken apart in the storms that had raged through the night before. The scaling had been done before the branch fell, and except for one targeted dig, there was no associated excavation. While some of the bark had loosened, it was tight (impossible to remove without an implement) on the edges. I’ve included several images because they help illustrate the difference between the very extensive scaling we’re finding in our area and what’s common elsewhere (as shown in some of the Tensas photos). Patricia is 5’9″.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
I’ve created a page that expands on this post and should provide a good introduction to our thinking about the three most intriguing types of feeding sign, with images from the second and third categories. Think of this post as the shorter version.
Over the years, I have written a great deal about bark scaling and the types of work I think are diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker; however, I don’t feel that I’ve been effective enough at conveying the nuances of what I look for in situ. I’m going to try a somewhat different approach using images that have been posted previously. I will be focusing on the category of bark scaling that I think is most compelling for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I hope that the tiled mosaic layout will make it easier to get my points across.
The scaling I find most compelling for ivorybill is on hickories, mostly or all bitternut hickories (Carya cordiformis). This work represents a relatively small subset of the suspected ivorybill feeding sign we’ve found, as would be expected given that under 10% of trees in the area are hickories. It is not the type of foraging sign that Tanner emphasized, and I’m not suggesting that scaling on boles is the ivorybill’s predominant foraging strategy. I emphasize this work because it has a distinctive appearance, one that differs dramatically from presumed Pileated Woodpecker foraging sign on the same species.
The above images show presumed Pileated Woodpecker work on a recently dead bitternut hickory found last February. It seems reasonable to infer that this is Pileated work because of its extensiveness and the abundance of fresh chips at the base of the snag, suggesting the work was recent and was done by a large woodpecker. Some readers might be inclined to think of this as “scaling”, when in fact it is shallow excavation. The small size of the chips and the fact that some of the chips are sapwood, not bark, support this idea. Contrast the roughened appearance of the sapwood with the clean bark removal in the images below. Also contrast the extensiveness; while the work shown above involves fairly large areas, it pales in comparison to the very extensive scaling shown below.
Edited to add: I think squirrels can also be ruled out for this work due to the involvement of the sapwood, apparent bill marks, and the presence of insect tunnels.
I think that all of the images immediately above show Ivory-billed Woodpecker work, most of it fresh. The similarity in general appearance from tree to tree should be self-evident. This type of scaling can be found from within approximately one foot off the ground to the upper parts of boles. Large Cerambycid exit tunnels are visible in the sapwood. Bark chips, when found, were large, and the only hints of excavation involved targeted digging to expand the exit tunnels. It’s worth noting that the Hairy Woodpecker in the trail cam photo above spent several minutes removing a quarter-sized piece of bark. The Pileated Woodpecker also spent several minutes on the tree; it pecked and gleaned and looked around but did no excavating or scaling.
Bitternut hickory wood is “hard and durable” and the bark is hard and “much tighter than on most other hickories.” The bark is sometimes described as being thin, but this appears to apply to young trees only. On mature boles, it can be .5″ thick or more.
Due to these qualities, the decay process for hickory snags is often more gradual than for other species, especially in higher and dryer areas. This means that the wood can stay hard and the bark remain tight for as long as three years; such is the case with the tree shown in the penultimate image above. This has enabled me to do periodic checks on some of the snags, and in most instances, they have shown little or no indication of further woodpecker work for extended periods, until the wood starts to soften and excavation becomes easier. Whatever is doing this work seems to be hitting the trees once or twice without returning or, less frequently, to be making visits several months apart. I think this suggests a thinly distributed, wide-ranging species as the culprit, and in my experience, Pileated Woodpeckers tend to return to feeding trees on a regular basis.
In my view, this very specific type of work is diagnostic for ivorybill and is beyond the physical capacity of the Pileated Woodpecker. I’d suggest that similar appearing work on other tree species should be considered strongly suggestive. When it comes to the high branch work that Tanner emphasized, it is more difficult to rule out Pileated Woodpecker. As discussed in several recent posts, this type of foraging was the predominant one during breeding season and immediately after fledging young, at least for the John’s Bayou family group. Thus, for work higher on trees, where bark is thinner and tightness cannot be assessed, abundance is likely a key indicator. From this perspective, it may be significant that our friends the Carlisles who are searching in the Pascagoula area have found only two sweet gums with work that I consider to be intriguing and consistent with what’s described in the literature. By contrast, I found over 50 such trees in our area in the 2015-2016 season alone. Whether or not there are ivorybills in the Pascagoula, the difference between the Carlisles’ observations and ours is dramatic and suggests that something unusual is going on in the Project Coyote search area.