Update 2, May 2, 2018: I have always made being forthright with my readers a priority. I chose to revert this post to draft in order to pause and reflect. Based on recent events and the prematurity of the post and first update, I think some changes in my approach to blogging are in order, something I will address in a future post.
I have decided to restore the initial post and the first update to public view because I owe it to my readers and think it’s the right thing to do.
As several people have pointed out, I was too hasty in “accepting” that whatever I saw on April 27 was a Pileated Woodpecker. My description of what I heard and saw on April 27th was inconsistent with Pileated, and I stand by the description. My observations of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost on the 28th differed from what I heard and saw on the 27th. From an email sent early in the morning on the 29th:
A PIWO came in, overhead, either silently or very soft wingbeats when it landed. It drummed a couple of times and went to roost about 20 minutes before sunset but continued tapping from inside the cavity for about five minutes. (The bird on the 27th had come in no more than 2 minutes before sunset.) I hope to have gotten some decent photos. All PIWO sounds in the area stopped ~8 minutes prior to sunset.
It strikes me this morning that this behavior was somewhat different than the other bird’s; last night’s PIWO must have seen me, but my presence didn’t prevent it from coming very close and going directly to the roost. The other bird appeared to have been spooked by my presence.
Here’s what I know: I am confident I heard the wing sounds, as described, and am personally convinced that what I saw was a large woodpecker. I’m also confident I saw a PIWO going to roost near where the other event took place, on the following night, approximately 20 minutes earlier relative to sunset. I have the pictures to prove that. The rest is inference.
It’s easy (for me at least) to get overly enthusiastic about possible encounters; its also easy for me to turn around and look for ways to discount or discredit them in my own mind. To some degree, this is a good thing and probably comes with the territory, unless you’re delusional or prone to self-inflation. Still, there are points at which enthusiasm and skepticism become unhealthy. This applies to personal enthusiasm, self-skepticism, and to the way others respond to ivorybill claims. The Internet environment feeds unhealthy responses.
Regardless of anything else, this was a productive trip. We have six cameras deployed (thanks to Erik, Geoffrey, and Jay for contributing a new cam each) – five on hickories, either recently dead or in decline, and one a big sweet gum stub, three years dead, with some very recent bark scaling and signs of beetle infestation, in an earlier stage of decay than the Singer Tract tree where Pearson observed ivorybills feeding in the early 1930s. While this work could well be something other than ivorybill, and the bark is loose, it seems worth watching for a while.
I have been monitoring this stub since the top came down; in fact, we deployed a camera there in the spring of 2015, only to lose it to flooding. (The new deployment is higher on a nearby tree.) This suggests that our main strategy for camera trap placement – finding potential feeding trees and stubs in advance of any large woodpecker activity requires a multi-year commitment.
Even in this impatient world, patience is a virtue.
Update, April 30, 2018: Based on an observation last night of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost in the sycamore cavity shown below and an exploration of the clearcut area this afternoon, I strongly suspect the bird I saw on the 27th was also a Pileated Woodpecker. I still have trouble squaring what I heard and saw with Pileated, but the circumstances suggest that’s what it was. I’m opting to leave the content up, with this correction, in the interest of transparency. I will undoubtedly have more to say on this in the near future. Accepting that the bird in question was a Pileated Woodpecker in no way affects my view that the sounds Matt recorded in March and the ones Matt and Phil recorded in March 2017 were made by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
Original Post: I initially planned on including this sighting in a complete trip report but have decided to write it up and post it now as a kind of dispatch from the field. I may include some further commentary and imagery when I post the full report sometime within the next couple of weeks.
I expect this post will attract a number of new readers, so I want to preface the account with a few comments. Friends, associates, and many regular readers probably know that I’ve had a handful of possible sightings over the past 11 years, a total of seven, if memory serves. This over many hundreds of hours in the field. With the exception of the November 2009 sighting in the location where a suggestive trail cam photo was obtained a week later, I have not had a high level of confidence in these possibles and have rejected two of them as the product of wishful thinking. Last night’s experience was altogether different, even when compared to the 2009 possible, as was my reaction to it.
Here’s what I wrote to my inner circle approximately one hour after the sighting. I have made a few minor edits for clarity and to protect the location and have added revisions/corrections/additional comments in bold italics:
I’ve already shared this with Matt and Patricia, and I dictated the details into my recording device (which has been a little buggy) immediately after the incident. I haven’t listened yet, and this will include some additional details. (Any substantive differences between the recorded comments and the contents included here will be addressed in the full trip report, though I don’t anticipate there being any.)
I arrived at the spot where Matt made the recordings last month at approximately 6:40 PM (I was in the area before sunrise too). I sat facing WSW; the area directly across the water from me was recently clearcut. There are trees along the bank with an open expanse behind. Sunset was at ***. The events described took place between 2 minutes before and three minutes after sunset, by which time I had pretty much given up hope that anything interesting would happen.
There were two cypress trees across the water from me; one perhaps 1’ DBH and the other over 2’. I did not consciously register a bird flying in to the larger cypress, but I suspect I sensed it. (In retrospect, I wonder if I unconsciously heard it flying in, as my focus for the evening was on listening.) In any event, my first conscious observation was of a large woodpecker taking off from the backside of the tree. My impression was that it had flown in and took off almost immediately on seeing me. I was able to hear the wingbeats, which sounded stiff and wooden, not muffled and whooshing like the PIWOs I’ve heard. (I’ve only heard PIWO wingbeats when birds were directly overhead or when I’ve flushed them at very close range.) I was looking more or less directly into the remaining sunlight (the sun had long since gone below the tree line), and the light was very low, so I could only see a silhouette. The wings were long and narrow, and the overall GISS (General Impression, Size, and Shape) was not PIWO. After several flaps, the bird went into a glide, and I lost sight of it very soon thereafter. I’d estimate I had eyes on it for 2-3 seconds.
I continued to watch the area when what I took to be the same bird flew in to some hardwoods perhaps 20 yards SSW and 10 yards inland from the cypresses. I heard the wingbeats again but could not locate the bird in the trees; darkness was falling rapidly. I made a split second decision to try some Pileated playback to see whether it would provoke a response. PIWOs had been calling and drumming until a few minutes before this incident. I did several rounds of playback using the iBird Pro app and got no response or visible reaction. At this point, I checked the time, and it was three minutes past sunset.
FWIW, I find this sighting more personally compelling for IBWO than any of my previous possibles, including the one in the old search area where we got the trail cam photo a week later. (As implied by the updates, my view on this has shifted – as I not only heard wingbeats but saw white on the wings and the suggestive trail cam image obtained a week later adds support; there’s a closer temporal association than there is with the recordings Matt obtained just over a month before.) Some of this is gut feeling, but the wingbeats (audible at 30-50 yards) wing and body shape, the glide, and the lack of response to PIWO playback (though the hour was late), all contribute to my interpretation. Would I bet my life that this was an ivory bill? No. Will I add IBWO to my life list? I’m not sure, but I’m closer to doing so than I ever have been.
So there it is. I’m going back to the same vicinity tomorrow morning, though I may go to the edge of the clear cut.
The cavity in the attached image may also be of interest. It is likely fairly fresh, as Matt would likely have seen it last month had it been there then. I staked it out this morning and nothing emerged. It is southeast of where I was stationed.
I returned to the area this morning and found an additional interesting cavity in a sycamore about twenty yards south of the oak and hickory where I last saw the bird.
It was either not used overnight or had been vacated by the time I arrived, as I had encountered an almost uncanny delay that caused me to miss the sunrise. I reached the end of a long gravel road, about a quarter mile from my planned stakeout spot and ran into a turkey hunter. As so often happens, a conversation ensued, and to my astonishment, he told me his name was Kuhn. I asked if he was related to the Tallulah Kuhns, and indeed he was; he was far from home himself, and we were nowhere near Tallulah. He had known his cousin (not sure what degree) Edith Whitehead and was aware of her father’s work on pecan agronomy and hybridization, though he knew nothing of the ivorybill and his relative’s central role in the story. What an extraordinary (almost in the Sagan sense) coincidence.
A final note, while I saw no field marks, the wingbeats are an acoustic equivalent. As Fredrik Bryntesson reminded me, Tanner wrote about the sound very explicitly. I knew this in general terms, of course, but the actual language took me a little by surprise:
A description of the wing sounds is found in Tanner’s monograph, p. 58: “The wing-feathers of Ivory-bills are stiff and hard, thus making their flight noisy. In the initial flight, when the wings are beaten particularly hard, they make quite a loud, wooden, fluttering sound, so much so that I often nicknamed the birds ‘wooden-wings’; it is the loudest wing-sound I have ever heard from any bird of that size excepting the grouse. At times when the birds happened to swoop past me, I heard a pronounced swishing whistle.”
I’ll leave it there for now.
We had a sustained presence, at least one person in the search area, between February 28th and March 16th (one rain day excepted). Between the 28th and the 16th, there were no possible encounters with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers either visual or auditory. We found a modest quantity of recent bark scaling and a few fresh cavities. We were able to do some preliminary surveys of nearby areas where local people have reported seeing ivorybills; we visited one of these on foot and think it is worthy of additional attention. We aimed a trail camera at a badly damaged hickory and have identified locations for deploying two more in the coming months. In my view, the lack of possible encounters this year supports the idea that the sounds heard and recorded last March came from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
I’m opting not to post a day-by-day log for this trip and will instead focus on what I think were the most important observations made and insights gained from this team effort. I arrived in the area on the morning of the 7th and was able to spend the afternoon in the field. I was joined at various times by Peggy Shrum, Jay Tischendorf, Tommy Michot, Amy Warfield, Phil Vanbergen, and Geoffrey McMullan, a British birder, artist, and woodpecker enthusiast. (His drawing of Mexico’s woodpeckers is shown on p. 139 of Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams).
Matt Courtman arrived on March 15 and remained in the area after my departure. If he has anything significant to report it will be discussed in the next post.
Erik Hendrickson’s post details his time in the search area prior to my arrival.
As noted, we did not hear anything suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. We did more stopping and listening than I have in many past trips; we also tried anthropogenic double knocks and playbacks of the calls recorded last year and of Barred Owls at various times, between early morning and early afternoon. At approximately 9:00 am on Wednesday, March 14, Tommy, Geoffrey, Peggy, and I heard several odd and unfamiliar “boom” sounds following my ADKs. We agreed that these were not woodpecker. They were repetitive; Tommy estimated they came in series of 5-6. While they had a metallic, industrial quality, they did not resemble shots or the typical industrial noises that are heard in the area – from logging or distant road construction. They did not seem distant, but when we hiked to the area from which they seemed to have originated, we didn’t find anything.
It’s always important to remember that correlation is not causation; while the sounds seemed to be coming in response to the ADKs, we surmised that the apparent association was coincidental. Whatever the source of the “booms”, it was a strange episode.
On the 15th, Phil and I heard some distant crow calls that were a little kent-like on first impression, enough for me to turn on my recorder and capture some of them, though we suspected crow and never thought they were ivorybill. You’ll hear Phil’s reaction when it became unquestionable that these were indeed crow calls.
They sound more obviously crow-like on the recording than they did to the naked ear, but I’m including them here since crows are rarely mentioned as a potential source of kent-like calls. The faint sonogram is not at all suggestive of ivorybill; only one frequency is readily discernible, at around 1300 hz.
To reiterate, the events of last March (2017) were unprecedented. We have had a couple of encounters involving multiple calls over an extended period – in March 2013 (these have higher fundamental frequencies) and one in the old search area, January 2010 that also involved apparent double knocks. But neither of these lasted nearly as long or involved as many suggestive sounds. Other potential auditory encounters have been brief. Thus, it’s reasonable to infer that the source is not a common species in the area. The calls strongly resemble known Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds (and resemble them more closely than they do any known species). In my view, none of the proposed alternatives (Blue Jay, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Red-breasted Nuthatch) are plausible. I’m hopeful that further analysis will support this perspective.
I found one cavity in a pine (not photographed) that seemed right in size and shape though it was old and only about 40 feet above the ground. I have not focused on pines given the paucity of records of ivorybills using them for roosting and nesting. This is probably ill-advised. The same applies to sycamores, as Erik pointed out in his trip report.
I found one intriguing and apparently recent cavity, high in a sweet gum in the area that we’ve considered to be a hot zone. Stakeouts have come up empty, and as is often the case, the cavity is too high in the tree and too subject to backlighting to merit targeting with a trail cam. This is an ongoing problem, even when the cavities are much closer to the camera, as in the “neck bird” image.
I also spotted this unusual, large and rectangular cavity in a cypress.
My thoughts on scaling continue to evolve. As time goes on, the category of what I think is diagnostic for ivorybill grows narrower. I’ve become more skeptical about much of the work we’ve found, especially on sweet gums. Nevertheless, I still think that certain types of scaling may be diagnostic and more generally that an abundance of bark scaling in a given area may be an indicator of ivorybill presence.
This is a good introduction for those who are unfamiliar with my perspective on bark scaling and what I’ve hypothesized. While I’ve been refining thy hypothesis over the years, a couple of posts from 2013 are still relevant and may provide more insights, including into the underlying anatomical rationale. There’s a gestalt involved in identifying “interesting” scaling. I look at a number of factors:
- Tree species and associated bark characteristics (tightness, toughness, and thickness) factor in. With very rare exceptions, I only consider hardwoods. Pine bark is easily scaled.
- The bark must have been removed cleanly, with little or no damage to the underlying wood (targeted digs within a scaled area excepted). It’s important to distinguish between true scaling and bark removal associated with shallow excavation; many recent searchers have not recognized the distinction (some of the work shown at the second link is true scaling and some appears not to be).
- Condition of the tree or snag. I generally exclude wood that appears to me more than two or three years dead (following Tanner), so twigs and small branches must remain. (The cherry bark oak mentioned below is an exception, due to the chip characteristics.)
- Diameter of the scaled bole or limb. Bigger is better. So are boles.
- Size, shape, quantity, and characteristics of bark chips. Bigger and broader are better. Chips can also help in distinguishing between scaling and shallow excavations. Sapwood chips point to the latter.
- Extent and appearance of the scaling. Neat edges are one factor. Pileated Woodpeckers often remove thick bark in layers, and their scaling has a messy appearance. Similarity to images of known or presumed ivorybill foraging sign (as in the example below), though these are few and hard to decipher, is another consideration; large, contiguous areas stripped of bark are required.
(Thanks to Tommy Michot for suggesting that I include this list and for his editorial suggestions generally.)
I found most of the interesting scaling on the first couple of days in the field. When I arrived in the late morning, on March 7, I went to the area where the calls were recorded last March and where we’ve had the most indications of ivorybill presence in recent years. While we often find scaled pines in the uplands, this is the first time I’ve found extensive hardwood scaling – on a number of small, recently fire-killed trees.
Because these trees are so small, the bark, while tight, is very thin and therefore easily removed. The scaling is extensive, but I don’t think Pileated Woodpecker can be ruled out. Some of the chips were substantial. The scaled trees are shown below. Two are black cherries, but I couldn’t identify the others. The trees were within approximately 100 yards of each other and no more than two hundred yards from the edge of the lower-lying hardwood habitat.
Water levels were high; I was hoping to reach one of our trail cameras, but conditions made it impractical to do so (avoiding flooded areas would have involved at least a two hour detour). I did find some recent sweet gum scaling in the area, including on a freshly dead snag that we’d found in December. Although some of the chips were large, I don’t feel confident ruling out Pileated Woodpecker for much or all of this work.
On March 8, Peggy, Geoffrey, Jay, Tommy and I visited the southern area, and Peggy spotted a sweet gum that Erik had photographed during his visit. There was new scaling, apparently done within the last week or so, especially on one of the larger limbs.
More significantly, I found a hickory with extensive scaling of the kind I suspect is diagnostic for ivorybill. My initial thought was that this was a new tree, but Phil later pointed out that it was the one he’d found last year, with a number of thin bark strips (which we attributed to Pileated Woodpecker) at the base. Nevertheless, the scaling lower on the bole of this hickory appears to be more recent, and while flooding had washed away most of the new bark chips, a couple that we found around the base are more consistent with the larger chunks of bark that I suspect are indicative of ivorybill. (The very large chip in the image may not be associated with the scaling, though I suspect it was.)
The bark on this hickory is approximately .5″ thick, and it remains very hard and tightly adhering. This is the first time I’ve found a hickory that appears to have been visited and extensively scaled at least twice, many months or even over a year apart. This was a surprise, as I’ve suspected that the life cycle of the beetles infesting the snag meant that this kind of feeding was a ‘one shot deal’. That does not appear to be the case with this tree, so some rethinking may be required.
Figuring out what animal is the first to scale these hickories is my top priority. We currently have three cameras deployed on hickories that are damaged, including one adjacent to this snag. I hope to be able to deploy two more this spring. If it turns out that Pileated Woodpeckers are responsible for the initial work, I will be persuaded there’s no way to distinguish between PIWO and IBWO work, although abundance and bark chip characteristics might still remain as possible indicators.
I remain convinced that the ivorybill has persisted and has been present in our search area, at least sporadically, but I will be disheartened if it turns out that there’s no qualitatively diagnostic feeding sign. Tanner relied heavily on feeding sign during his surveys (though he accepted reports from South Carolina where little or no sign was found) and rejected the 1970s Big Thicket reports in large part due to the absence of bark scaling.
If Pileateds are doing the initial scaling on these hickories, then Pileateds could be the source of virtually all scaling found in any part of the ivorybill’s historic range, including on live or freshly dead trees of any species. If this proves to be true, then the presence of feeding sign will be a weaker and more subjective indicator of presence.
But on a more upbeat note, we also found some scaling on a cherrybark oak. Because I’ve come to suspect that PIWOs can scale sweet gums extensively and well, other tree species are of particular interest. Though the tree was alive, the limb from which these chips were stripped was not recently dead (photographing it was impractical), with no twigs or small branches remaining. Nevertheless, the chips were large, hard, and dense. I haven’t found chips like these since 2013, and I think they are intriguing.
On March 12, we found one more scaled sweet gum that piqued my interest. The jagged appearance and extent of scaling on the bole are suggestive of known ivorybill work, subject to the caveats provided above. There was also extensive older work higher on the trunk.
We were rained out on Sunday, March 11 and took the opportunity to drive around in an area from which there have been several local reports (though I have not spoken to the people involved face-to-face and do not know them personally). Some of the upland areas are impressively restored stands of maturing longleaf pine; we did not find any stands of large hardwoods, though we did find places with numerous beaver-killed trees. I did not take any photographs.
On the morning of the 12th, I stopped to meet Jay for breakfast at one of the local hangouts, and an older man I’d talked to the year before pulled me aside and asked if I’d visited the area he’d told me about then. He specifically mentioned ivorybills and was very insistent that he’d seen them there from time to time during his hunting days (he’d stopped about a decade ago.) Last year, he’d recognized an ivorybill image on my phone but had not named the species. None of the other men in the restaurant were familiar with ivorybills, but this individual clearly knew what he was talking about.
A few years earlier, another person (a preacher and barbecue chef) told me he’d seen ivorybills in the same bottom (stating that he’d thought the ‘ones with white on the back were the males and the all black ones were the females’.
Peggy, Tommy, Jay, and I visited part of the bottom both men had identified and were impressed by the habitat, which is very similar to the primary search area. Like the main area, it appears to have been high-graded or selectively cut, so the conditions within a very narrow corridor (and one we believe to be fairly long) are near old-growth. We did not find any bark scaling during our brief visit to the area, but it definitely merits more attention. I suspect we were several miles southwest of the claimed sightings, so this may be an extensive, if narrow, strip of high quality habitat. The oak shown below (with Tommy for scale) was measured to be over 5′ in diameter, and many of the sweet gums in the area were well over 3′ DBH.
The woods were beautiful as spring was breaking out. Conditions changed dramatically over the course of my stay. Despite some very cold mornings (we only saw one snake), leaf out progressed rapidly. On my last day in the field, Matt and I found a loblolly pine that may be a contender for state champion; the current one is just under 5′ in diameter. I suspect the one shown below is close to that and may be taller. By the middle of the trip, wild azaleas were in bloom. And finding Red-headed Woodpecker feathers always causes my heart to skip a beat.
I have one or two more trips planned this season and am hopeful that they will generate some new insights.
I was very pleased that we were able to have searchers in the field almost without interruption for over three key weeks in February and March. Erik was in the area alone from February 28-March 6, and conditions were good enough for him to get out for part of almost every day. At present, Matt Courtman is still in the field. I will be posting my trip report within the next few days; it covers the afternoon of March 7 through the morning of the 16th. There have been no possible encounters during this period, a stark contrast with this time last year. I’ll be addressing this in my report, but in the meantime, here’s Erik’s. It was a pleasure to read. I’ve made a couple of side comments in italics.
Back in the early 2000’s, I often used the holiday break as a time to take off from work and go birding someplace I’d never been before. Following the Ivorybill rediscovery announcement in May 2005, I decided to go to Arkansas “on a lark” and at least see the habitat where the bird had been found. There would be birding opportunities – a chance to see wintering species not present at my home in Montana, and I wanted to visit Little Rock High School National Historic Site.
After several days of birding, I saw the ivorybill. Like many other sightings, it was a brief look, but I saw the bird through binoculars, sharply focused, in good light. I made 4 more trips to Arkansas and Florida in the next two years, before my job took me to Alaska for 8 years. I made no more trips to the southeastern United States in that time.
But retirement in March of 2017 allowed me time to think about a return; and Mark graciously responded to my inquiry with an invitation to join his search effort in December 2017 / January 2018. I got to accompany him and Steve Pagans again in February; and Mark had another search planned for March, but the timing and logistics didn’t quite work out. With trepidation, I asked about searching the week before the main search effort, and Mark was encouraging. I’d seen how well Mark navigated the woods he knows so well, and Steve was equally competent (Steve is considerably more competent) – and always had his GPS available to ensure we could get out of the woods. But on my two initial trips; I often did not know where we were headed and often got turned around. I didn’t say so, but I knew I’d have to get a lot better at reading my GPS.
Mark also encouraged me to purchase a dedicated audio recorder, in case I heard double knocks or kent calls as other searchers have in the past. This was perhaps the most obvious advantage to being in the woods in March: the likelihood that ivorybills would be more vocal and/or more noticeable if they engaged in courtship, cavity construction, brooding and interaction at a cavity, or feeding of nestlings/fledglings. If I could be in the woods a week before Mark’s major search effort, then at least I was providing some additional coverage for a possible encounter.
A friend of mine said with encouragement “I’m sure you’ll see it this time!” I didn’t respond that “I don’t think so…”. Of course I’m optimistic, but my primary goal in the field is to contribute quality hours to searching for a species which has a very low encounter rate. The more hours searchers rack up, the more encounters we have. It’s important to me to contribute by adding up those good hours.
Logistics are a major part of the search effort: traveling from my home in Colorado; arranging airflight, rental car and lodging. Being prepared with the right clothing, rain gear, hat, camera, GPS, audio recorder, first aid kit, and all the miscellaneous supplies carried each day. I studied maps so that I wouldn’t be as lost as I was on my first trips. I could check online for the weather forecast and sunrise/sunset times. And then on my travel day, it takes about 12 hours from my house to my destination. I pick up lunch supplies at a local supermarket, and get ready for 7 days of searching.
It’s exciting first thing in the morning – arriving at the start point, and getting everything ready to walk into the woods. I only forgot to record the location of my vehicle once – but remembered within a 1/2 mile of my start, and that was close enough to ensure I could get out in the afternoon. I start out listening to and trying to see every bird – they’re all different from the birds back in Colorado, and if I’m standing still trying to pull a Yellow-eyed Vireo out of the shrubs – well, I can be listening for ivorybills at the same time.
Much of my time in the bottomland forests, I’m simply acting as a roving Audio Recording Unit. Although I rely on my eyes more than my ears – and at times it seems that I can see a lot of the habitat around me – I know from experience that I can’t really see all that much. Woodpeckers cling to the backside of trunks and branches. Sometimes I watch them up high, and then they move around to the opposite side of a branch – and they’re completely invisible to me. Had I not seen them move to that location, I’d never know they were there.
So as I scan the forest around me, I’m aware that there’s really only a limited amount of “space” – of “volume” – that I can peer into to check for birds. My best method for detecting the presence of many (most?) birds, is being able to hear them. So I wander around the forest, always listening, and hoping to hear a bird that may not vocalize very often.
I know from experience that I have good hearing, in the sense that I can detect very low levels of sound; often I can hear levels of sound lower in volume than my birding companions (but, sometimes others hear sounds that I miss). However, I’ve also learned that I don’t have a “discriminating” ear, and I easily confuse all kinds of species: Pileated Woodpecker sounds a lot like Northern Flicker; Northern Cardinal sounds a lot like Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse can sound like Carolina Chickadee. It always makes sense to me when someone tells me what I’m hearing, and often – given enough time (if the bird continues to call) – I can figure it out. But I know I’m not as good at identifying birds by sound as I am by sight.
I’m pretty good at identifying birds in the field and in photographs. Often, I only need a few pixels to correctly identify a bird. I make my share of mistakes, and often call out the name of a bird before I’ve completely processed all the information – and my initial identification (part of the thought process for arriving at a final ID) is incorrect. But while I make lots of mistakes while trying to arrive at the conclusive ID for a bird, I’ve got to be certain in the end. Entire books have been written on this topic – and that makes sense to me.
Searching for ivorybills is very different (for me) from “birding”. Birding is a fun, enjoyable activity that I do regularly, in all kinds of habitats, with lots and lots of opportunities to see and identify birds. Searching for ivorybills is mostly just putting in hours without seeing or hearing anything. But my approach to searching is to go “birding” and enjoy the birds I see, and to be aware of the environs around me as I’m looking for or looking at, birds. I stop and pause for several minutes at a time. I’m not in any hurry – I don’t have to be anywhere else. I think about all the other recent encounters that have been described: someone in the right habitat, often engaged in an activity other than searching – and while relaxing, or while sitting down, or while engaged in something other that “actively looking”, suddenly they become aware of a bird that they focus on, and it turns out to be an ivorybill. I think about lots of things written about ivorybills, things that I can remember and things that I’ve heard other searchers and other birders talk about. And… I wander around the bottomland forest – listening and looking.
I made a point of looking for large cavities, and I found 8 on this trip that were large enough and asymmetrical enough for me to stop and record them. I photographed each cavity (several photos, at successive zoom ranges) and marked its GPS coordinates. I tend to consider cavities that are too small (suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers – or even smaller species), but I think I’d rather be conservative in this regard. I’d thought perhaps that if I found one or more candidate cavities, I would try to watch them as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as I could. But I realized that simply finding the cavities, and trying to find efficient routes from the cavities to/from my vehicle, would take more time than was available to me. A fresh, or routinely occupied cavity, might be distinctive in a way that would set it apart from other cavities – and none of the ones I found was notable in that regard. If I had unlimited time, I thought about aiming a trail-cam at the “better” cavities I found – and I might give that idea more thought in the future. (The last two intriguing cavities I’ve found were not good candidates for camera traps; height, backlighting, intervening vegetation can all be problems. This issue is under- appreciated, and it became more apparent to me last trip. More on that in my report.)
I looked for scaled bark, trying to pay attention to the details Mark has taught me in the field. As a long time reader of the Project Coyote blog, I read many of Mark’s descriptions of scaling, and looked at his photographs. But having him explain scaling in the field, spending several minutes at a tree with fresh scaling, increased my understanding by at least two orders of magnitude. Mark brought to life the importance of scaling as evidence for ivorybills occupying or using the area. But I also learned that Mark has an eye for “seeing” scaling, and in my previous trips I never spotted “good” scaling before Mark did. (It’s just a matter of practice.) On this trip, I did see some tree top scaling in a sweet gum, and I saw a few downed logs (recently downed) with scaling that might have been done by ivorybills (but which also could have been done by other species). I was conscious that I tried harder looking for scaling at some times, and less hard at other times – it’s a skill that needs to be learned, and I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve.
I saw many Pileated Woodpeckers over the week, and on the first day, I noted that I saw 4 pileateds while I was standing in one spot, more or less simultaneously.
Great Blue Herons (and other species) always seemed to be aware of me, when I was walking (even walking slowly/quietly), long before I was aware of them. By contrast, when I was standing or sitting still (especially when in a shadow, but even when in the sun), birds and other animals would sometimes approach quite close, and go on about whatever they were doing, clearly not yet aware that I was present. And sometimes, even once they became aware I was present, their behavior was still reserved and they lingered at closer range than the birds (or pigs, or deer, etc.) that became aware of me as I was walking.
Some observations under the latter conditions come to mind: (1) After a large limb broke off from a tree, crashing to the ground with an impressive disruption of the quiet, two pileateds flew to a cypress tree near where I was standing quietly. The first pileated flew to the top of the cypress and drummed a couple of times. The second pileated flew to the trunk of the cypress to investigate one of two cavities, one right above the other. The pileated stuck its bill and just a bit of its head into the cavity when suddenly a gray squirrel exploded from the cavity, driving the pileated away. The squirrel clung to the cypress just a foot or so from the cavity, chattering loudly for a few seconds before retreating back into the cavity.
(2) I was sitting with my back against a birch tree, watching a fresh, asymmetrical (but small) cavity in a cypress tree across a creek (mostly taking a break in the heat of the afternoon), when a Hermit Thrush approached from a nearby shrub. The thrush moved closer (to within perhaps 15′), then off to my right, and then back in front of me, before finally moving slowly off and out of view.
(3) Eating lunch on a log one day, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, seeming to fly right at my head, before veering off at the last second to perch on a large trunk about 12′ from me. I’d been sitting quietly (the bird might have thought I was a stump?), but seemed to recognize I was not part of the landscape when it veered off to perch and start tending its sap wells. I was able to grab my camera and take a couple photos while it was at close range, the bird never flushing as when they are startled, but rather simply moving gradually higher up the tree and out of view.
A couple of random thoughts based on my field notes: I flushed wood ducks about 3 or 4 times, and always thought it would be impossible to confuse a Wood Duck for an ivorybill. Even one time when I noted that “the ID was a little tricky”; the situation was that I wondered for a split second “what was that?”, and not “could that have been an ivorybill?”. I observed two (rather small, I think) Cottonmouths; both were well behaved and non-aggressive. Very beautiful snakes.
And one other observation: while standing quietly in a shadow, I saw a large bird, darkish in color, mostly obsucred by a tangle of vines, fly in to a log on the ground. I could not see the bird, and thought it was on the opposite side of the log from me, and there was much undergrowth that made visibility difficult. I heard several loud (very loud) raps, interpaced with quiet, and based on my time in the woods, I thought pretty sure this was a large woodpecker, foraging on a downed log, and occasionly delivering 3 to 6 heavy blows to the wood. The bird continued foraging in this manner, with several sequences of loud knocks, and I finally decided to move to my left to try to get a better angle on the log. I heard another couple sequences of raps and then quiet, and I was pleased I hadn’t started the bird and caused it to flush. I moved to my left, and a little closer to the log, and then there was a downed tree blocking my path, and some water, and I had to make some noise to get around the obstacle, and continue moving to try to see the area around the downed log better.
By this time, it was clear that I had flushed the bird, and did not see or hear it any more. I’ve thought about this event, and it emphasizes to me that birds may often be close enough to see, but impossible to see because of vegetatation blocking the view, and that birds we often think of being “in the shrubs” or higher “in the trees” are often on or near the ground. If I had to guess, the bird was either a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Flicker. I’ll never know.
I started writing this note with the intention of providing a simple summary of my observations during the week I was in Louisiana, but quickly realized I was describing a more general sense of purpose and the idea that looking for ivorybills is distinctly different from looking for other birds. I could add some good search hours to the effort – that was worthwhile and enjoyable to me, and although I’m uncertain how my hours contribute to the Project Coyote overall effort, I am very pleased to be part of the team.
photos follow . . .
From January 25-30, Stephen Pagans and Erik Hendrickson and I searched in the vicinity of Joseph Saucier’s October sighting. I’ll begin with a day-by-day log accompanied by some photographs, followed by a discussion of our observations and what they may imply, with photographs from our last day in the field. I’ll end with some or Erik’s photos. They help convey the experience of being in the field more effectively than most of mine. This is an image heavy post, so I hope you’ll take the time to look at and enjoy the pictures.
We had no possible sightings or auditory encounters and devoted most of our time to surveying. We did a few ADK series, sometimes followed by Erik’s tooting on a baritone sax mouthpiece, the best imitation of the Singer Tract kents I’ve heard.
There were no apparent responses. Scaling consistent with what’s described for ivorybill was abundant in most areas visited. Large and possibly suggestive cavities were also relatively easy to find. This contrasts with the primary search area, where cavities of any size are difficult to locate. This may be due to the ~30% lower canopy at this location.
We covered between 4 and 5 miles most days. For the most part, we tried to avoid repeating the same tracks. We saw substantial flocks of Rusty Blackbirds on a couple of occasions. We didn’t encounter many mammals – an armadillo, a rabbit, and some glimpses of hogs. We found little beaver sign but didn’t get into the area where we understand beavers are most abundant.
We spent the 25th and 26th in the immediate vicinity of the sighting. The habitat in this area is extensive and impressive, as it was in most places we visited. We found considerably more scaling on this trip than on the last one, as well as more cavities. As mentioned previously, the cypress in this area was not heavily logged, so many large trees remain, not all of them as obviously undesirable as the ones shown.
Suggestive Scaling and Cavities Found January 25 and 26, 2018. Scaled tree species include sweet gum, honey locust, and sugarberry.
The 27th was a rainout. We spent that morning birding from the road around a nearby lake. I went to Alexandria for a brief visit to the annual meeting of the Louisiana Ornithological Society.
On the 28th, which was cloudy and drizzly, we went to a different nearby location. Again, we found some decent or better habitat, a good deal of bark scaling, and other indications of woodpecker activity, including a cavity resembling an ivorybill roost in an unpublished image from the Singer Tract. By late morning, we reached an area of much younger forest, so we turned back.
One of the cavities strongly resembled one of Tanner’s unpublished images of an ivorybill roost.
On the 29th, we visited a different area, also nearby. The habitat was again impressive, but we only found one recently and extensively scaled sweet gum with very large chips at the base and an unusual bit of excavation on the edge of a scaled part of the trunk. An area that we could not reach appeared to contain even more mature forest and probably merits a visit in future.
On the 30th, we found another entry point. About two miles into the woods, we found more sweet gum scaling than I’ve seen in a single day, approaching or surpassing the quantity found during the most productive weeks in our main search area. Again, we found a number of potentially interesting cavities, new and old, including one in a cottonwood snag that had been extensively stripped of bark, this along the edge of an old logging road. We guessed that this concentration of scaling was in a patch of around 100 acres, but we were unable to explore it fully, so we can’t be sure how extensive it might be.
With the passage of time, I’m even more struck by the extraordinary nature of what we found on the 30th.
Some Comments on the Scaling and Cavities
As noted, I was impressed by the abundance of scaling found in the vicinity of the sighting and even more so in the concentration found on the 30th. The latter was truly unprecedented in my experience. As was the case in Tanner’s day, sweet gums with dying crowns are the primary target. The work found is consistent with that shown and described by Tanner. More on sweet gums below.
Additional work was found on honey locust, sugarberry, American elm, and cottonwood. Bark on all of these species (possibly excluding cottonwood which has high adhesion values and bark strength) becomes easy to remove fairly rapidly after death, and none of the scaling approached what I’d consider possibly diagnostic for ivorybill (again perhaps excluding the cottonwood). Still, the quantity of it may be significant.
We found no scaling on oaks. (The same has been true in the main search area, except in 2012-2013.) Steve suggested this may be due to the fact that the forest is relatively young, so the oaks are still healthy.
The sweet gum scaling was mostly found in clusters, with the notable exception of the single tree found on the 29th. This may be due to the pattern of sweet gum die-off, but we did visit areas with unscaled, dead and dying gums.
The sweet gum scaling ranged from old to very fresh, probably a year or two to a day or two. All trees were recently dead, with twigs and sometimes gum balls and leaves attached. Much of it was extensive, involving larger limbs and sometimes main trunks. Bark chips ranged from very small and consistent with what I’d expect for PIWO, to larger strips that I’ve also tended to ascribe to PIWO, to much larger chunks that I think are considerably less likely to be Pileated.
Regarding the sweet gum scaling in general, I have only found a similar quantity and quality of scaling on this species in our main search area and at this location. Scaling in the old Project Coyote search area was on a wider variety of species, with only a little on sweet gums. I never saw anything like this in over two weeks in Congaree or in briefer visits to other areas. The Carlisles, who are searching in the Pascagoula area, have found at most a similar looking example or two over several seasons, and Paul McCaslin, one of the earliest Project Coyote team members recently sent me a note reading: “I am still amazed, every time, at the scaling pics you send from the tops of those sweetgum trees. I am an ISA Certified Arborist and spend a lot of time looking up at trees and I NEVER see anything even close up on my neck of the woods.”
To cut to the chase – if Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are not present and this work is being done by Pileateds, then I don’t think either quantity or apparent quality of bark scaling on sweet gums can be treated as a reliable indicator of ivorybill presence.
With regard to other tree species, I still think that the work on hickories found in the main search area is likely diagnostic. Work on live or very recently dead honey locusts (like the one in some of the old trail cam photos), cottonwoods, sugarberries (one example found in in the old search area) and oaks (one or two examples found in the old search area and several found in the new one in 2012-2013) may be as well. Though I’ve grown increasingly cautious about sweet gums, the concepts discussed in the post entitled Bark: An Exegesis still hold.
Some Closing Thoughts
Though I have now spent multiple days in this area without any possible ivorybill contacts, I remain very impressed by the habitat and continue to think the initial report is highly credible. The scaling is abundant and suggestive, as are the cavities. However, the extensiveness is daunting, and I don’t see a way for a small, self-funded group to search it effectively. In the current search area, we have the benefits of compactness and known, readily accessible locations where there have been frequent possible contacts over a period of years. I think there’s a good possibility that ivorybills are present in the vicinity of Joseph’s sighting, and there’s sufficient habitat to make detection very difficult. I’m at a loss as to how to find them (without an infusion of J.J. Kuhn’s skills as a ‘woodsman’), if indeed any are there.
Here are some of Erik’s photos for your enjoyment.
Regular readers are no doubt familiar with some of the images shown below. The “neck bird”, which was photographed in our old search area in August 2009, has been discussed in a number of posts. I think it likely shows a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker, something that became clearer once I satisfied myself that what appeared to be red in the crest (in the wrong place for either Pileated or ivorybill) was likely an artifact and that the crest appears to be all black, as shown in the enhanced image below. The original captures (the first taken a minute before the neck bird appears and the second showing the neck bird) are immediately below that for those who haven’t seen them.
Years after the capture and probably after the first post about this image in 2014, I noticed that an object suggestive of a light colored bill was visible in both frames, apparently protruding from the lower cavity in the snag to the right of center. While I have shared this information privately with a number of people and did a vague Facebook post about it a couple of years ago, I’ve hesitated to blog about it or discuss it in detail. That changed after I showed it to Jay and Erik before we parted company on my last trip to Louisiana. When Erik suggested that the object might be a vine or some other intervening vegetation, I decided to go back through my files. I discovered that Frank had sent me several additional captures from the same deployment. I examined these frames and found that the apparent bill was absent from all of them.
Below are details from frames 1095 and 1096 showing the apparent bill, which changes position slightly from one frame to the next. The time lapse interval between images was 1 minute. Again, the cavity in question is the lower one (below the fork) in the snag to the right of and behind the one on which the neckbird is seen in 1096. These snags are black willows (Salix nigra), and the neck bird snag (with the large cavity apparently being used by a squirrel) fell between November 2009 and January 2010. I’m also posting the close-ups in tiled mosaic format so they can be viewed side-by-side.
For this round of image processing, I used Let’s Enhance, which enabled me to retain a large format for cropped and zoomed versions.
Next are two details from images captured a few days later. The possible bill is nowhere to be seen. The same is true for the other captures from this deployment. Thus intervening vegetation and artifact can be ruled out.
To summarize, the following two photos show what appears to be a bill in the cavity:
2009-08-11 7:48 am (image 1095.jpg)
2009-08-11 7:49 am (image 1096.jpg – the neck bird photo)
The following photos show a cavity with no apparent bill:
2009-08-14 6:19 am
2009-08-14 6:20 am
2009-08-14 6:21 am
2009-08-14 4:06 pm
2009-08-14 4:07 pm
2009-08-15 6:20 am
If this is a bill, it appears to be large and light colored, consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Both Erik and I noticed that, in frame 1095, a topmost part of the white dorsal stripe also may be visible. When Jay first saw the photos, he was reminded of the Neal Wright photos from Texas. Some images from the Singer Tract also come to mind.
Thus, this apparent bill resembles those of known ivorybills in cavities – in size, shape, orientation, and contrast. It is present only in frames 1095 and 1096 (the latter of which shows another possible ivorybill); it changes position over the course of a minute, from one frame to the next. There is no way to be sure images 1095 and 1096 show an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a roost hole, but these facts, especially taken together, suggest that they may.
When I look back at what transpired in the old search area between August 2009 and November 2010, when the adjoining parcel was logged, it’s extraordinary. I may revisit those events in a future post or two.
For now, I’ll close by tying this into the Bits and Pieces series. The old search area is not one that would be deemed suitable under most habitat models. The images above were captured in a stand of black willows at the edge of a bean field. The other trail cam capture, where I had a sighting, was also within perhaps 30 yards of that field. When I look back at my assessment of the habitat from the time, I think I somewhat naively overstated its quality; however, there was a good deal of dead and dying timber, and it was in close proximity to several much larger habitat patches. If we did indeed capture ivorybills with our trail cams, their presence in this area may point to how the species has been able to adapt to more fragmented habitats.
Thanks to Erik Hendrickson for his input on this post and his help in making it clearer.
I returned to the main Project Coyote search area where I spent December 27-January 1. I was joined by two new team members – Erik Hendrickson, an excellent birder and retired National Park Service engineer who had an ivorybill sighting in Arkansas back in 2005, and Jay Tischendorf, a veterinarian with a long and adventure-filled background as a field biologist. Erik lives in Colorado, so he may not be able to visit often, but Jay is much closer. I hope that both of them will be able to return and bring their considerable skills to the effort.
Stephen Pagans, who has been with Project Coyote since 2012, was in the area for the duration. Steve is a retired forester, avid birder with a great ear, and an outstanding photographer. This portrait of a feral hog (more on hogs later), which I think is award-worthy, is just one example of his work.
Tom Foti made it down from Arkansas for a day. Spending time in the woods with Tom, whose knowledge of bottomland forests is second to none, is always an education. On this trip, Tom pointed out that I’d been mistaken about the hickories in the search area. I believed that they were all bitternut hickories (Carya cordiformis), except for a very few shagbarks (Carya ovata), but it turns out that many, perhaps the majority, are in fact pignut hickories (Carya glabra). One of these, shown below, has a DBH of 42″ and may be a state champion. Tom also identified a nutmeg hickory (Carya myristicaeformis), an uncommon species that may not have been previously recorded in the parish.
Having such great companions for the week caused me to look back at the past year, with its terrible low points – the losses of Frank and Bill Pulliam – and high points, particularly the March recordings, which I think are among the strongest evidence of ivorybill persistence obtained to date, and to appreciate my friends, collaborators, and outside advisors. Although I’ve been the public face of Project Coyote for years (Frank wanted it that way), this has always been a team effort, although the composition of the group has shifted over time. While it would be cumbersome to name everyone involved and some frequent advisers prefer to remain anonymous, there are several, in addition to those mentioned above, whom I’d like to acknowledge publicly.
On more than one occasion over the years, Bob Ford has lifted my spirits when they most needed lifting. When I talked to Bob shortly before Frank’s death, I was despondent. I knew Frank’s prognosis was not good and was having doubts about carrying on. Bob helped me see a way forward, reminding me that the search area is important, ivorybills or no ivorybills, and that I’d done meaningful work related to its ecology in general.
Matt Courtman, who had some involvement early on and had known Frank for several years, reached out shortly after Frank died, giving me much needed moral and intellectual support and breathing new life into Project Coyote. In one of those odd coincidences, Matt’s New York relatives knew and did business with my father decades ago.
Philip Vanbergen, the youngest among us, had the presence of mind to turn on his recording device on March 11 and capture a couple of calls, setting the stage for his and Matt’s return on the 15th when the much longer recordings were made. Phil has also been responsible for our trail cams since 2016. His energy, enthusiasm, and interest in the natural history of the area are invaluable.
Peggy Shrum’s ideas, background studying raptors in the Peruvian rainforest (a considerably more challenging environment), and familiarity with tropical Campephilus double knocks are great assets. Peggy has made the long trip from South Carolina to participate several times, and it’s always a pleasure to have her along.
Tommy Michot and Wylie Barrow from Lafayette have also been great sources of support. Though Tommy is a retired biologist with a Ph.D, I admire his youthful enthusiasm, open-mindedness, enjoyment of the woods, and his sense of humor. To top it off, he’s also an accomplished traditional Cajun musician from an illustrious musical family. Wylie and Tommy have known each other for years, and while Wylie has seldom been able to make it into the field, his careful, scientific approach and probing questions help keep me on track. While I skipped it on this most recent trip, the lunches I have with Wylie and Tommy (and sometimes Phil) in Lafayette on the way home invariably help me absorb and evaluate whatever I’ve observed or experienced while searching.
Professor Fredrik Bryntesson has been a great online friend and supporter. He has shared details from his research into some arcane aspects of ivorybill history, some of which have found their way onto the blog. I hope we get to meet in person and that he will be able to visit our search area sometime soon.
Finally, Patricia Johnson, my wife – Patricia comes along from time to time, holds down the house when she stays at home. Her moral and morale support sustain me.
Though 2017 was difficult, I’m grateful to be surrounded by such great collaborators. I’m hoping for more highs and fewer lows in the year ahead . . . Without further ado, here’s the trip report. As with the previous one, I’ve opted not to do a day-by-day log. There’s not all that much to report.
The weather this trip ranged from cloudy, dreary, and damp to bitterly cold; there was little sunshine, except on January 1st, and avian activity was generally low throughout. Woodpeckers, except for Red-headeds, were mostly quieter and less active than usual. Nevertheless, on at least one day, we saw or heard all seven species (ivorybill excluded) that are found in the area at this time of year.
Birds may not have been very active, but the hogs certainly were. We saw upwards of 15-20 on a couple of days, and signs of their rooting were everywhere. Their numbers seem to have increased considerably since 2012, despite the presence of at least a few dedicated hunters in the area. We ran across these newborn hogs and assumed their mother had been shot. Their cute appearance belies their destructive potential should they survive.
We did not have any possible ivorybill encounters and found little recent bark scaling, except on two or three sweet gums, some extensive work on a pine, and a small patch on a cypress. Some commentary below the images.
Phil solved the problem with the trail cams, and we now have three deployed on hickories – two that have lost their tops and one that is in obvious decline. We’ll deploy the fourth in the spring when it will be easier to locate unhealthy trees. Given what we’ve observed and the life cycle of the beetles involved, I think scaling on hickories is most likely to take place between mid to late spring and fall.
Fresh scaling on the bole and branches of a recently uprooted sweet gum. Some of the bark chips were large and consistent with what I would expect for Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
With regard to the sweet gum scaling, it is far and away the most abundant form of this work we’ve found, and this has been true year after year. It is considerably more common in the Project Coyote search area than in other places I’ve visited or than in the Pascagoula, based on the Carlisles’ efforts there. It also matches the work described by Tanner as being typical of ivorybill, but as discussed in my post entitled Bark: An Exegesis, sweet gum bark is relatively easy to scale, making it more difficult to exclude Pileated Woodpecker. As an aside, I’m puzzled by the fact that we found a good deal of scaling on oaks in 2012-2013 and have seen virtually none since then.
While I’ve written previously that I think pine has no potential for being a diagnostic because it is easily scaled, the example above impressed me for its extensiveness and the fact that the presence of needles suggests the tree died very recently. Lighting conditions in the field were so poor that it was impossible to see that scattered patches of bark remained. This only became apparent when I brightened the photographs. Even so, the extensiveness so soon after death remains impressive.
I’ve included the beaver-killed cypress scaling here not because I think it’s likely ivorybill work; it could be, but the bark was loose, and the scaled area, while contiguous, covered only a modest percentage of the bole. What may be significant is the presence of insect work of a kind that is suggestive of suitable ivorybill prey. Tanner thought that cypress-tupelo swamps were poor habitats for the ivorybill, presumably because both are long-lived and relatively insect-resistant species and perhaps because he rarely ran across large scale deadenings of those species. The example shown here leads me to wonder about this assumption, particularly in places where beavers are present or other disturbances occur; fire, to which water tupelos are apparently vulnerable, for example. While Allen and Kellogg reported that Florida ivorybills nested in cypress and fed nearby on fire damaged pines, I think it’s possible that food sources would be sufficient in cypress-tupelo swamps under certain conditions. This relates, at least indirectly, to issues that have been addressed in the “Bits and Pieces” series. Stay tuned for the final installment.
On October 22nd, I received an email reporting a recent ivorybill sighting in eastern Louisiana. I found the report convincing for its high level of detail and decided to devote my next trip to following up on it. The source was Joseph Tyler Saucier, a pastor, avid hunter, and Louisiana native whom I’ve known virtually since early 2014, when he wrote and expressed his interest in Project Coyote. We exchanged a few emails at that time, but he was in more frequent contact with Frank. I have no doubt about his honesty.
When I asked him if I could post his entire report, with location details redacted, he courageously volunteered to attach his name to the sighting. In addition to the initial report, I’m including some further comments he made when I shared my impressions of the area and asked if I could include his description in the post. His words should speak for themselves.
I was a friend of Frank and talked to him on a few occasions about my own experiences with the IBWO. I saw a lone male when I was about 14 years old on my grandfathers property in West Central Louisiana. After many years of searching without success, I became a IBWO agnostic/ skeptic. I’m an avid hunter and the last two years I had pretty much given up on even thinking about the bird. Saturday morning that changed. I went on a annual squirrel hunting trip over the weekend . . . the birds presence there it never crossed my mind. On Saturday at approximately 9:30 am I was in pursuit of a squirrel . . . in a section of large trees. I saw through some brush a black animal with white stripes slowly making its way up the truck of a large tree. My first thought, was it was a black squirrel with white marks on it which would be the kill of a lifetime. I had killed a black squirrel the previous afternoon. My second thought, as the animal became more visible was that it was a skunk with white stripes somehow climbing up the bottom of the tree. Then suddenly, the bird came into better view and into the sunlight. I first noticed that it wasn’t climbing the tree slowly but was hoping or bobbing up the tree. I noticed the two clear stripes coming down from the neck to the lower back. When I reached for my phone in my front pocket the bird quickly turned its head in my direction. At that moment, I noticed the most startling thing I’ve ever seen. The bill on the bird was solid white. The sun illuminated its radiance as it stuck out against the dark bark of the tree. I noticed a black underdeveloped crest. Judging by the size and underdevelopment of the crest it was a fledgling. Suddenly, the bird flew to my right then ascended upwards and swung to my left where the bird was met in the air by a larger woodpecker without any red on its crest. The soaring birds quickly were no longer visible. I did not get the best view of them flying off because I was obstructed by trees and brush. I believe once again and have no doubt about what I saw. I know I won’t be taken seriously but do you think I should contact anyone . . . about this sighting?
Thank you for your steadfastness and detailed report. I wish I could have gone assisted you guys on the search. Unfortunately, a number of things required my attention. Mark you can use my name or report as you wish. I’m certain that I viewed at least one IBWO. I’ve typically hunted once or twice a week for about 17 years and I see Pileated Woodpeckers nearly every outing. I know the difference. A large Woodpecker with two white stripes, a long ivory bill, and a solid black crest stood out. Certainly, some will roll their eyes or be dismissive of my sighting. I’ve simply shared what I saw and the experience itself helped heal this doubting Thomas.
Steve Pagans and I visited the vicinity between November 16-21, spending a total of five days in the field and covering just over 23 miles. We had no possible sightings but heard what I’d describe as a weak possible single knock on the afternoon of the 21st. Because we were talking at the time, and there were some hunters in the vicinity, gunshot is a distinct possibility. I did not find the kinds of feeding sign I’ve suggested may be diagnostic for ivorybill; however, we did find several concentrations of bark scaling involving a variety of tree species. I usually post my trip reports as day-by-day logs, but since this involves a new area, I’ll take a different approach to summarizing our observations.
The area is part of a large parcel of bottomland hardwoods, much of it maturing second growth. Forest composition more closely resembles the old Project Coyote search area than the new one; Nuttall oaks, honey locusts, and pecans, which are absent from the new search area, are abundant. Overall, the forest is more mature than in the old search area, with many trees between 2′-3′ DBH, and some oaks and gums exceeding that in the most mature sections.
I have the impression that the harvest of cypresses from the area was limited. We only saw a couple of old stumps, and many seemingly healthy, large trees can be found, including the largest ones I’ve ever seen.
The woods are breathtakingly beautiful, and if ivorybills have persisted, I think the habitat is adequate to support them.
Woodpeckers and Nuthatches
Pileateds, Red-bellieds, Hairies, Downies, Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were abundant, and impressionistically, there were many more Sapsuckers than in the current Project Coyote search area. By contrast, Red-headed Woodpeckers were scarce; we only heard three over five days. We encountered no White-breated Nuthatches (which are very common in our current search area) or Red-breasted Nuthatches and got no responses to playbacks of both species. Playback of the (putative ivorybill) March calls sometimes provoked apparent reactions from Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers and from Red-shouldered Hawks.
Finding cavities can be challenging, especially when the canopy is high, leaves have not all fallen, and the mid-story is thick. In addition, Pileated Woodpecker cavities vary considerably, and there are no data on the dimensions of ivorybill roosts. All we know is that ivorybill nests tend to be larger and more irregularly shaped than Pileated nests. It seems reasonable to infer that the same would apply to roosts. While cavities may not be strong indicators of presence, it’s still worth looking for outliers. We found two on this trip, one in a honey locust (which has harder wood than most oak species) and one in an American elm.
As noted, we did not find any feeding sign that matches the diagnostic criteria I’ve hypothesized for ivorybill work. We did, however, find a decent quantity of bark scaling. Our field impression was that bark scaling was not as abundant as it is in our main search area, but on reviewing the photographs I took over five days, I’m doubting that impression.
We found bark scaling, some fresh some older, on a number of species – honey locust, sweet gum, red maple, persimmon (old and not photographed), and sassafras (not photographed and consistent with PIWO scaling on the species that I’ve found locally). The bark of small red maples is easy to scale, so this work too could well be Pileated.
In the area where we found the cavity in a honey locust, there appeared to have been a substantial die-off of that species, and several snags had scaling on the upper branches and boles. Honey locust bark is very hard and tight when the tree is alive and shortly after death, but it softens, loosens and becomes easy to remove, as was the case of the snag shown below. Examination revealed that the snag shown below was infested with termites, making PIWO the likely culprit, at least with regard to the most recent work.
There was scaling, both old and new, on a number of recently dead honey locusts in the vicinity.
The bark remained hard and very tight on the recently downed locust shown below; however, the appearance and extent of the scaling are suggestive of Pileated. Squirrel is also possible, although there were signs of insect infestation.
Sweet gum scaling was also abundant. Most of it was on higher branches and involved small limbs. The largest limb is shown in the first image below. Most of the chips were small, and all of the work strikes me as being within the range of what’s physically possible for Pileated. There was a time when some of this work would have excited me more. Nevertheless, the fact that bark scaling is abundant in the area is encouraging, since Pileated Woodpeckers scale bark relatively infrequently. In addition, scaling is likely to be less abundant at this time of year, when other food sources are readily available.
I always enjoy including herp photos when the opportunity presents itself. Steve nearly stepped on the rattlesnake, the biggest I’ve ever seen. I was glad to be wearing snake boots. The eastern ribbon and garter were mesmerizing.
Some Closing Thoughts
The forest is extensive. We focused on the vicinity of Joseph’s sighting, coming in from several different directions. Many acres remain to be explored. We found little beaver sign but understand that beavers are abundant in nearby, much less accessible patches of similarly mature forest. Hunters frequent the area, but as in many other patches of potential ivorybill habitat, signs of human activity – litter, shotgun shells, flagging – diminish the farther one goes from existing ATV trails.
While Steve and I didn’t see or hear anything strongly suggestive of ivorybill, I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the habitat. I came away convinced that this area merits further attention, and that would be the case even without Joseph’s report. There is far more such habitat in Louisiana than most casual followers of the ivorybill saga imagine, and while I plan to remain focused on the current Project Coyote search area, I will do my best to give this area the attention it deserves.