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.
This was an eventful trip, with an extraordinary amount of activity on the first four days – including a possible sighting and several possible auditory encounters – and none at all on the last two. I was alone on October 13th, 17th, and 18th; Frank joined me from the 14th-16th. Conditions were generally good – light winds (strongest gust, 20 MPH, was on the 13th) and sunny or partly cloudy skies. Daytime highs were in the upper 80s-low 90s, with uncomfortably high humidity on 17th and 18th. Notwithstanding the recent flooding in Louisiana, the forest floor was dry and water levels were lower than I’ve ever seen, making it much easier to reach less accessible areas.
I found very little fresh scaling, although a tree on which we had a trail cam appeared to have been worked on quite extensively sometime after my last visit in late May. The card probably contains imagery through June and possibly into July. Unfortunately, it may have been corrupted; Frank is working on retrieving the data. If I were superstitious, I’d point to this as another case of “the curse of the ivorybill”. That aside, the paucity of fresh scaling (only a few trees with small chips consistent with PIWO work at the bases) supports the idea that bark scaling has a seasonal component that is related to breeding. This is implicit in Tanner, the limited data on ivorybill stomach contents, and in several previous posts (links).
I am somewhat hesitant to mention and describe my possible sighting and some of the other possible encounters this trip but have decided that it’s better to be comprehensive and transparent. Of all the events of the past several days, I think the double knocks Frank and I heard on Saturday were the most compelling. While my views on the IBWOs persistence are unchanged, my pessimism about obtaining conclusive documentation has grown. I may have more to say about this in a future post.
And with that, here’s the day-by-day log.
I arrived in Sector 3 at sunrise on Thursday morning and got to the ‘hot zone’ as quickly as I could.
The small pond with several scaled trees, discussed in this post, was completely dry, enabling me to look at some of the downed wood that had been in or under water on previous visits. I found a large and very interesting cavity in some blowdown. Both the shape and size are unusual and more consistent with IBWO than PIWO. (My iPhone 7 Plus’s dimensions are 6.23”x3.07”)
I went a little farther south to the trail cam and noted that one of the target trees had been more extensively scaled since my last visit in May. The work is on the bole of this less than 1’ DBH sweet gum that had been damaged by a falling limb and has recently succumbed (photo below). There were large chips on the ground, but they did not appear to be fresh. If the scaling was done in June, as I suspect, we hope to have captured the source.
I hunkered down and watched the trees for some time, seeing and hearing nothing of interest. When the sun was above the tree line, I ventured south and east, thinking I’d take advantage of the low water and explore some unvisited areas.
I had a possible sighting at about 9:25. I was walking south and turned to my right, looking across a clearing to a large snag that I estimated to be approximately 200 yards away (paced off at over 170 steps and later rangefindered at 160 yards). The snag in question is very close to where Frank had a sighting in March.
I texted my wife with a description that I fleshed out in an email that evening, bracketed remarks have been added for clarification.
“I saw a brilliant flash of white as a woodpecker flew up onto the tree [this was a dorsal view.] I reached for my binoculars not my camera; I think because the distance was so great. I got the bins on the bird and got them focused as it took off. I didn’t get anything like a good look, but again saw brilliant white wings with a little black. I also had the distinct impression that the bird was much too large to be a RHWO. But it was a fleeting glimpse (or better two fleeting glimpses).
I did some playback of PIWO and IBWO and had no responses.
I . . . went to the snag. There is a RHWO roost at the very top, and I saw one juvenile and another RHWO but didn’t see the head [and could not determine whether it was a juvenile or an adult]. Though RHWOs were present, seeing them at this close range made me feel even more strongly that the bird I spotted was much bigger. I can’t fully rule out RHWO, but I also find it hard to imagine that I would have been able to get any details at all such a distance unless the bird was large.” Snag where I had the possible sighting. The bird landed on and took off from the stub at center. A Red-headed Woodpecker cavity is at the top of the left stub. My view was dorsal and from below, so the white was clearly on the trailing edges of the wings, ruling out Pileated.
This was my first possible sighting in almost three years. I was disoriented and shaken by it, as I have been with my handful of other possibles. And since it was not a good look, I can’t help but doubt myself.
In reply to my emailed description, Bob Ford had this to say:
“My ‘for what it’s worth’, I had a similar sighting once and paced it off to the same distance, then found Red-headed Woodpeckers and watched them at around that distance (maybe a little closer). Yes, can’t rule out red-headed but they look pretty small at that distance.”
As it turned out, Frank and I were able to spend some time observing Red-headed Woodpeckers in an open area at 50-100 yards. This was on Sunday morning at approximately the same time and under lighting conditions that were, if anything, somewhat brighter than those on Thursday. These observations led me to lean somewhat more strongly toward Ivory-billed Woodpecker. While the white rump of the Red-headed was easily visible at these distances, the white on the wings at a similar angle of view appears a lot less extensive and vivid than what I saw, and Red-headeds indeed look quite small.
I was able to capture a female Pileated and a sub-adult Red-headed in several frames. I’ve included a couple of the images here, both because they illustrate the size differential and because the posture of the Pileated is very similar to the posture of the bird in one of our old trail cam photos; the angle of view is different; nevertheless, it seems relevant with regard to neck length. The snag was less than fifty yards away. The first photo in the series shows the entire area. Frank measured the distance to the distant snag at right as 100 yards; the snag in the second and third images is at the left edge of the frame in the first.
On Friday morning, Frank and I had hoped to return to the ‘hot zone’, but when we arrived another vehicle was parked at the end of the road, presumably a squirrel hunter. To avoid contact with others, we went to Sector 2 but found another vehicle parked where we were hoping to hike in. We opted to hike into Sector 3 from the south, a part of the area that we visit less frequently and that’s harder to traverse when water levels are high.
I did not note the time, but I’d estimate that it was between 9:00 and 10:00. Frank did a series of double knocks, and shortly afterwards, I heard two single knocks (Frank heard one) and then a possible distant double knock that we both heard. Later on, farther north and closer to the ‘hot zone’, he did another series, and there was a loud, close single knock, followed by what may be the longest and most agitated-sounding Pileated calling I’ve ever heard. We both found these knocks somewhat intriguing, but neither one of us thought they were compelling.
On Saturday, there were no vehicles at the trailhead, so we were able to return to the ‘hot zone’. At a little after 9:00 am, we were approaching the northernmost edge when we heard 5 double knocks from two sources to the west of us. I estimated the distance at over 200 yards, but Frank put it somewhat closer, perhaps 150. We both agreed they sounded very good for Campephilus; Frank thinks some of the best ever; he wrote: “. . . three of the first five, early on, were very crisp, clean, and woody; among the best I’ve heard.”
We stopped and waited, and heard nothing. Frank did an ADK series and got no response. About fifteen minutes later, I did another series, and this time, I heard 2-4 more double knocks. Frank was applying insect repellant, the reason for my uncertainty about the number of knocks I heard. He only heard one. We sat for another 20 minutes or so, and, after hearing nothing, proceeded south to the scaling concentration. When we reached the pond with the downed cavity, we heard another DK from the south, at fairly close range.
From there, I took Frank to where I was standing when I had the possible sighting, and he measured the distance. We then went on to explore some previously unvisited places, finding some possible cavities and starts and a little bit of older feeding sign. This part of our search area is difficult to reach and navigate unless conditions are extremely dry, and we suspect it may be where roosts are located at present. If we can visit and explore it when leaves are down, we will be able to do a more intensive search for potential roosts. This is a difficult undertaking, especially given that the big trees are more than 100’ tall.
On Sunday, we went to Sector 2, the easily accessible part of which has seen a major increase in human activity and four-wheeler use over the last three years. This is the area where the tree on the homepage is located. Because waters were so low were able to get to parts of this sector that we haven’t visited in a couple of seasons due to changes in hydrology caused by beavers and and human traffic.
I was sad to discover that what I called the kissing trees, my favorites, have separated.
At 11:30, about 4 miles in, Frank nearly stepped on this canebrake rattler, only the third one I’ve ever seen.
A few minutes later, a series of approximately a dozen calls from two or three sources caught our ears. We agreed on the following details: they sounded more like “yips” than “kents” (I didn’t consciously remember that Allen and Kellogg described some ivorybill calls as “yips”); they were all single notes with no variations in pitch, perhaps not as rich sounding and higher pitched than the Singer Tract recordings, but with something of their toy horn quality; the first calls came from the east and northeast, and with movement northwestward and away from us. A Downy Woodpecker called shortly afterwards; I mentioned to Frank (and he agreed) that the “yips” had a similar quality to the Downy’s “Pik”, what I’d describe in retrospect as their brevity and emphasis.
After the calls subsided, we proceeded north for another hour or so, before looping south and west. At approximately 2 PM and at about the same latititude, I heard three more calls that were more kent-like. Frank missed them; while I suspect they came from Blue Jays, I’m including them for the sake of completeness.
On the 17th, I explored parts of Sector 1 I haven’t visited before but did not see or hear anything suggestive of ivorybills. The same was true on the 18th, when I returned to the ‘hot zone’.
I don’t anticipate returning to Louisiana until sometime in December but may do another post or two between now and then.
Frank Wiley: Last month, John Williams and I spent three nights camping in the habitat. The following is his account of what we experienced and observed. I’ve added a few comments where there are significant points of disagreement, as well as a sketch.
Hi, I’m John Williams. I want to help with techniques to find the Ivorybilled Woodpecker. I have a BS Marine Science, MS Secondary Education, and a non-accredited, 10 year PhD in Natural Science. My field experience is from the last five decades, from Alaska to Guatemala, in many habitats. I have a life list of about 390 bird species, have led birding hikes, and have training in marine mammal spotting and identification. Many of my field hours are with student groups; my training there was to locate and interpret interesting organisms, ecologic relations, weather, and earth sciences.
I’ve been interested in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker story for a number of years (with a possible sighting in Manatee Springs State Park, Florida during the 2000s), been on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Researchers Forum for a number of years (as motiheal), and offered ideas there, including hypotheses on drone use (more for the Imperial Woodpecker), olfactory abilities, field techniques and equipment, and sound.
I’ve become especially interested in sound attraction. It’s common knowledge that birds can be attracted by the correct sounds; in fact, a growing problem with birding tourism expeditions is that playback seems to be too successful, possibly changing wild bird behavior. However, I feel that this technique is appropriate to document IBWO individuals and populations.
For the IBWO, there is much speculation that the Allen-Kellogg recordings, or parts of them, are of stressed individuals, and that playing these sounds for attraction is problematic. Additionally, there are some who believe that double knock sounds by the IBWO have a territorial component, with similar problems for attracting a bird. In looking for other sounds, I became interested in the SR recording series on the Project Coyote website. Some in particular can be interpreted as a male and female IBWO communicating; the two sounds are octave-related. Researching further, I found that other members of Campephilus, especially the Magellanic Woodpecker, make very similar sounds. Additionally, sounds that are octave-related can behave as the same frequency. The writeup for these ideas is found here (number 323 in “Effective Search Methods”).
I also studied how researchers play their sounds. This is often with limited volume. In searching for a solution to higher volume, to reach a wider area, hunting playback machines were found to be a good answer. My choice was a Cass Creek RPS Extreme, which is advertised to reach 90 decibels, and is portable. This device can record and store sounds.
In searching possible sounds to record, I reasoned that a IBWO-related begging juvenile sound could be a great attractant. Recordings from the Magellanic Woodpecker on the website Xeno-Canto have these. I also decided to record some of the possible and proven IBWO kents, available at Xeno-Canto, the Macauley Library, Project Coyote, and Cornell websites, at a slower speed, same pitch, to possibly work as a superstimulus. Finally, because there are accounts of feeding groups in Campephilus, I thought to include some of the few related sounds.
Following is a list of sounds recorded. Recordings were done ambient from laptop to RPS Extreme hunting playback device. Manipulations of some sounds (trimming, slowing) were done on the sound editing program Audacity:
- Project Coyote SR0010, 432 Hz, 6 kents, slowed, x3
- Project Coyote SR0010, 432 Hz, 6 kents, normal speed, x3
- Project Coyote SR0010, 6 higher kents (approx. twice 432 Hz), slowed, x3
- Project Coyote SR0010, 6 higher kents (approx. twice 432 Hz), x3
- Xeno Canto, Magellanic juvenile begging, slowed, x2, LOUD
- Xeno Canto, Magellanic juvenile begging, different version, x2
- Xeno Canto, Magellanic juvenile begging with knocking (feeding?), x2
- Xeno Canto, Magellanic kents, 432 Hz, 2x, LOUD
- Xeno Canto, Magellanic kents, 432 and other Hz, 2x, LOUD
- Project Coyote, Bill Benish DK
- Project Coyote, Bill Benish DK, slowed, showing multiple resonances
- Project Coyote, SR1721, 6 high kents
- Project Coyote, SR 1721, sampled section x 2
- Project Coyote, SR3255, toot x2
- Cornell, Allen-Kellogg, 2 kents, different frequencies, LOUD
- Cornell, Allen-Kellogg, 2 kents, similar frequencies, LOUD
- Cornell, Robust WO DK, LOUD
- Cornell, “A very active morning,” approx. 10 seconds, drumming and one DK
- Cornell, tooting with Flicker, 5 toots, 1 loud Flicker sound
- Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, high kents, wokawoka, LOUD
- Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, pounding, 1 kent
- Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, wokawoka, 10 seconds, LOUD
- Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, wokawoka and pounding
- Macauley Library 6784, Allen-Kellogg, 7 short higher kents, LOUD
- Macauley Library, Crimson-Crested WO, DK with resonance
- Macauley Library, Magellanic juvenile
- Macauley Library, magellanic juvenile with kents
It should be obvious to students of the IBWO question that Project Coyote (Mark Michaels, Frank Wiley, and their guest researchers) have at this writing the best chance at good documentation. In the American Southeast with millions of square kilometers, they have a place with local documentation, feeding sign, multiple sightings with good field marks, a few photo images, all in a small search area that IBWOs seem to have stayed in for a period of several years. There are indications of multiple birds as well. After years of various emails to Mark and then Frank on various topics, I offered my ideas on sound attraction, asked to visit the area with them, and was accepted.
On the flight to Houston, I flew over hundreds of kilometers of possible IBWO habitat and was struck by two things—the many available riparian corridors facilitating IBWO survival and dispersal, and the many ground fires that day, with smoke plumes extending to the east for tens of kms. Asking the airline crew about the latter’s cause, I was told both lightning and canefield controlled burns. If it’s true that the IBWO is a “disaster bird,” and can detect and follow smoke plumes, then perhaps by the prevailing winds, their small Southeast populations are becoming concentrated to the west of their range.
From 22 to 24 March 2016, I camped in the study area with Frank Wiley. We hiked in during the AM, and made camp at noon on higher ground. The habitat is a floodplain, a week or so after historic flooding. There was little leaf litter, no snakes, and the high water marks on the trees were astounding—a good four feet above the present stream levels. Following is the trip report with some discussion. The decision to play various sounds at various times was made from Frank’s experiences, and eventually with some of mine.
22 March, 1200 noon—made camp. Clear skies. Variable windy day to 20 knots. Tree leaf-out was slight. Some faint bird sounds. Possible single knock to NW, then soon after, Frank thought he heard an SK to the SE. This was my first experience with hearing either an SK or DK. These did not sound anything like tree-on-tree noises, from wind knock, that I have heard in my experience; there is no component of rubbing, nor is there the expected repetition.
130—probable PIWO. Used RPS to play sound 7 twice.
230—other WO activity, with some sightings of PIWOs and RHWOs.
245—high kents? to the N. Played 7 2x, 9 3x. Bluejays called to SW.
345- hiked to N about 200 meters. Frank did a wooden stick DK. At this position, unbeknownst to us at the time, we were fairly close to a spot where Mark was finding abundant and recent feeding sign.
We sat in full camo on a log near the edge of a shallow water pond. No blind was used and, with the open woodland, we were visible to a bird if camo does not actually work the same for their vision (for example, sensing in the UV range as some have reasoned). We faced East. Frank suggested that we wait for a while, then begin playback in sequence, twice each with gaps of 30 seconds, waiting 2 minutes between different sounds.
400—began sound series:
Sound 1: after about 1 minute, two barred owls called
S2: soon after, there were two fairly close tree knocks (like SKs) behind us. Frank’s interpretation were that they were wind-caused; mine was that they were not. They sounded exactly like other SKs later in the trip, including when it was not as windy.
Frank Wiley: I cannot agree with this interpretation. Based on my experience, these were tree knocks and were an important contributing factor to this possible attraction event, and possibly the only factor.
We then played sounds 3 through 6 without any obvious sounds occurring.
S7: two large dark birds flew in to the front of us (from the East), to about 70 meters, landing in the tree canopies. My impression were that they were large crows. They did not call. Eventually, they worked their way to the left and flew away; field marks were for crows.
S8: we had an immediate PIWO sound as if a reaction
S9: a barred owl called to our right, after each playback
S10 and S11 played without any obvious sounds occurring.
S12: at this point, we had been at the spot for about an hour, and had been using playback for about forty minutes. There were two SK-sounding knocks to the East in front of us, then Frank saw a bird with good IBWO fieldmarks fly to a tree, similar to where the crows were, around 70-80 meters in front of us to the East. He told me he saw large white bill (the sun was bright in back of us), black face, red on crest, that the bird came in silently, and that the bird cupped its wings to land. Frank then saw the bird moving, apparently to get a better look at us.
Frank Wiley: My observations of this event, in spite of the fact that we were sitting within a few feet of each other, are considerably different. First, I am quite certain that the “single knocks” coming from directly behind us (west) were tree sounds. In spite of the fact that I saw what I feel were pretty good ivorybill field marks, I cannot be certain because of the brevity of the sighting and the fact that the sun, which was directly behind us, could have produced lighting artifacts. In his account, John does not mention the fact that the wind was causing two tree limbs to the southwest of us to knock together repeatedly. It’s my best guess that IF the bird we saw was indeed an ivorybill and came to that spot in response to something, the more likely explanation is that it was this repeated banging of the two limbs together more than any other stimulus. I agree that we heard two or possibly three very distinct single knocks coming directly toward us and the limbs that were banging together over the space of about five minutes, immediately prior to the possible sighting. This would have meant the bird was moving east to west.
He tried to point this out to me but I did not see it. I took a wide-angle photograph of the area, then a zoomed-in photo of my best-guess where the bird was. Post-trip study of these photos has not revealed any pixels that could be the bird.
S12: after a minute, we repeated this sound, hoping the bird would move closer, but it did not. I remembered at the time that this rough distance of 80 meters or so has been reported as an IBWO stopping distance by more than one researcher.
After about five minutes, I suggested to Frank that he walk to the right, to see if the bird would move. He did so and, when he got to only about twenty feet away, I saw the bird jump-flap to the left, to another tree perhaps 15 feet away from it. It was a large-bodied bird, bigger than a crow, only appearing black, and it moved perpendicular to me so I did not see wings. It moved in a manner that has been described for an IBWO—a power jump. It landed on a section of tree in back of some emergent foliage, and I did not see its position. The sighting was in about two seconds. I took a zoomed-in photograph of my best-guess to its spot, but again, subsequent study has not shown a trace of the bird.
At this point, another dark bird appeared from very nearby, and flew to the right. My impression was that it was a crow. It flapped for about 40 meters, then landed in a tree. (During these encounters, there were no crow sounds or other sounds).
After another five minutes, I suggested that I walk to the right similarly, to flush the putative IBWO. I walked, circling the pond, and began to close the distance. When I took a particular step, Frank called that the bird had flown. I came back, and Frank told me that he had seen it power-fly away silently, in the manner that IBWOs have been reported to do. Its flight was directly East, the direction that it came in. This was at approximately 520 PM.
We returned to camp.
23 March, at camp. Clear skies, variable but lessening wind. Clouds beginning from NW.
800 AM: we had already seen pairs of Red-shouldered Hawks close to mating, then a pair of Wood Ducks flying over, and returning to land in a nearby tree, showing some courtship behavior. Frank saw a large woodpecker in a brief flyby.
900: a SK and then high frequency, kentlike sounds about 20 in sets of two, with two or three in sets of three. These were at frequencies that some researchers think Blue Jays can produce as IBWO mimicry (there were BJs present on our trip, but not numerous). We played sounds 12 and 15, but no reactions were heard.
1115: we hiked North about 300 meters. Stopped for playback. During this series, Mark and Tom were about 500 meters North of us, and did not report hearing any of our sounds. We played, with same cadence as previous day—
S18: after two minutes, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew in above the treetops and circled.
Repeated S18: the RSHawk did not return
1145: we met Mark and Tom about 600 meters North of camp. They had found a hot zone of feeding; Mark reports this on this website .
I played sounds, with same cadence, S5, S6, S7, S15 (a series of 10 total kents), repeated S15 (series of 5 total kents), then S24. At some unrecorded place in these playbacks, we heard either an SK or a DK, not too far to the West (also discussed in Mark’s report).
We all studied the area for a while, eventually split up to our groups. Frank and I walked slowly back toward camp, listening, without hearing kents or knocks.
400 PM: we did a series of playbacks from camp, same sequence and cadence:
After S2, Frank did a stick DK
After S4, Frank did another DK
After S16, a crow cawed
After S22, a Barred Owl called
Sequence was stopped after S23.
At 500 PM, it began to rain.
24 March, at camp. It had rained through the night, then stopped around 900 AM. Woodpecker activity began, including PIWOs and RHWOs. A large tree or treetop fell to the immediate East, just out of sight range. Leaf-out, in the span of one day, was remarkable; there was much less visibility through the woods.
900AM: to the West, high kentlike sounds of about 1000 Hz, a total of 20 from two locations. We did two tree DKs, with no response; the kents stopped.
1030: to the East of camp, two different-frequency kentlike sounds which seemed to be conversing. One was at around 1000 Hz, the other a bit lower. A total of 20 sounds.
1230: we hiked about 300 yards South, stopped, waited 5 minutes, then did tree DKs and an SK. There seemed to be a DK response. I did not record the direction. We played sounds S4, S5 (repeated 5 times), the S25, with no obvious responses. On the hike back, we heard some possible kents.
25 March. We packed up camp around 5AM, then hiked North to around 50-100 meters from Mark and Tom’s hot zone, intending to do playback near this area at an early hour. On the way, we heard high kentlike sounds; according to Frank, these were Blue Jay. One responded to my approximation of a much lower (432 Hz?) kent sound, keeping its own frequency.
915AM: we found a spot, looking toward the hot zone to the NE, with a semi-blind from snags and limb deposition (there was so much flooding and runoff that these limbs were quite large). We wanted to begin playback but the RPS unit somehow stopped working. At this spot, a woodpecker to the West began slowly pounding on a tree, not too far from us. I walked a bit toward it, but could not see any bird. The pounding continued intermittently, not like a DK or SK but more a feeding sound. After 20 minutes or so, a PIWO called from this direction.
We hiked out with some time delay, having to cross the streams at only certain spots since they had risen from the rain.
I would like to conclude by offering some best-case opinions of what happened. The core of our encounter was on the 22nd, at a time when IBWOs are reported to be active and beginning to return to their roosts. Frank, who has seen the IBWO before, had a number of good field marks, in a good search area, so it is reasonable to presume we saw the bird. I also believe that the bird did not come in as a response to a wind-caused SK, although this has been reported to have happened before. To my experience, the sounds in back of us were not wind-caused, and therefore probably from another IBWO. In addition, the male came in some time later, and seemed to use an SK as it arrived (Frank). Because Frank saw a red crest, and following Tanner and others who report the bird travels in pairs, this possible IBWO in back of us would then have been a female.
FW: As I mentioned earlier, I disagree with this interpretation, and it is not something Mark or I would include as analysis, since it is so speculative.
This encounter suggests that the playback sounds that we used worked to lure in at least one IBWO, to a somewhat standard distance where the bird saw us, even though we used camo, and then stopped and continued to be curious. The loudest sounds played were the Magellanic Woodpecker juvenile begging calls, and then MGWO 432 Hz kents which are similar to the IBWO’s.
FW: Again, this is quite speculative, and I think ambient sounds were the more likely factor if there was an attraction event. However, there’s certainly room for further field testing of John’s hypotheses.
When the RPS unit is repaired, I will be sending it South to Frank for further use. Sounds played could have been louder, and been edited to remove background noise better. Additionally, with some kind of blind where the human form is blocked, a curious IBWO might have approached much closer.
Further research, reproduction, and refinement of the technique and its results, is needed.
Because this research was done with Project Coyote, any questions should be directed through them.
Long Island NY
As usual, much of this report will be focused on bark scaling. I found an unprecedented amount of fresh work this trip, a total of 29 trees, all sweet gums. I only counted live and freshly dead trees that appeared to have been scaled within the last year, and probably more recently than that, in most cases. As will be discussed, I was able to ascertain that 11 of these trees had been worked on no earlier than March 15th. I was selective about what I included in the count, relying on my years of experience looking at scaling and how its appearance changes over time and this passage from Tanner for the criteria:
Ivory bill sign shows as bare places on recently dead limbs and trees, where bark has been scaled off clean and to a considerable extent. Pileateds do some scaling too, but it is usually confined to smaller limbs and those longer dead. Freshness of the sign can be judged by any appearance of weathering, which will soon turn bare wood a grayish color. Extensive scaling of the bark from a tree which has died so recently that the bark is still tight, with a brownish or reddish color to the exposed wood showing that the work is fresh, is one good indication of the presence of ivorybills.
We had a number of visitors during my stay. Tom Foti joined me again on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Phil and Eric Vanbergen came along on Friday. I appreciate the Vanbergens’ help in collecting the data I’ll be discussing. It’s great to have such enthusiastic young people involved. Meanwhile, John Williams (Motiheal from ibwo.net) visited and spent four days in the field with Frank. Both John and Frank are planning to provide their own accounts, and those will be posted in the weeks ahead.
A general note about the week, leaf out progressed rapidly, and the change between Sunday the 20th and Saturday the 26th was dramatic. Nonetheless, I was able to find a good deal of feeding sign later in the week.
I arrived on the evening of Saturday, March 19th, and Frank and I spent the 20th in the northern sector. There had been severe flooding in the area earlier in the week; the waters had receded – we suspect by the 15th or 16th and certainly no earlier than the 15th. One of our trail cams, placed about 4’ above the ground, was completely overtopped, ruining the card and probably the camera as well. Such floods are exceedingly rare, perhaps a once in 500 year occurrence in the area. Fortunately, flooding tends to recede rapidly, but crossing both permanent and seasonal water bodies remained a much bigger challenge due to deep water and slick banks. The most stunning aspect of the flooding was the near total scouring of leaf litter in many parts of the search area, leaving bare soil and deposited silt visible. The landscape was transformed, and familiar spots looked radically different.
Frank often describes walking through the forest on dry leaf litter as “walking on cornflakes.” The absence of leaf litter limits the noise made by walking. This may be advantageous between now and late fall. Unfortunately, I anticipate being able to visit the area only once more before summer, probably in June.
The flooding had another benefit this trip. The absence of leaf litter makes it much easier to find fresh bark chips on the ground and to determine with some degree of certainty when scaling has taken place. The flood waters receded no earlier than March 15, so all fresh chips found below trees where the leaf litter had been scoured were no more than a week old.
When we reached the vicinity of the downed top, first discussed here, we heard a loud single knock. Frank’s initial reaction was that it might have been a gunshot, but we both agreed that the sound seemed to have come from a nearby source; we heard no other shots that day and saw only one vehicle, almost 2 miles away. Later in the morning we heard a couple of weak possible double knocks and later a very good sounding one.
We also found a little bit of scaling just north of the northern concentration discussed below. While some of it looked to be quite fresh, we did not find any bark chips.
The scaling in the first of the above photographs is somewhat marginal, as only a single smaller upper limb is involved. While I’m unsure, I don’t think I counted either of these trees, as I only started keeping track later in the week; both examples came from very close to the northern cluster discussed below.
I was on alone on the 20th, and I returned to the same area. I found a good deal more scaling.
In many cases, the scaling shows sign of progressing from treetops down, as Tanner described.
The detail of the small tree, scaled down to where small branches are still in leaf, is at the edge of a small pond around or in which I found five other trees with recent scaling on them, as well as two more with older work (not counted).
There was new work on one of the trees I found last month, the larger one in the background, below. I found several other scaled trees in the immediate vicinity, including the one in the foreground, on which we’ve now deployed a camera, and much of that work was fresh too. I chose a spot for a stakeout and spent about an hour watching the treetops in this area of concentrated work. This location is 140 yards south of the small pond described above and is at the southern boundary of the cluster. During the stakeout, I heard a loud single knock that seemed to have come from the vicinity of the small pond.
As I was leaving, I passed the pond again and found what appeared to be new scaling on one of the trees at its edge. There were fresh chips in floating in the water at the base.
Tom Foti arrived on the morning of the 22nd. We spent the day in the one of the southern areas where we’ve found concentrations of bark scaling in past years and where there have been both possible visual and auditory encounters. We found several scaled trees in this area but did not see or hear anything.
I met up with Tom on the morning of the 23rd; I had decided overnight to be more methodical in my approach to documenting scaling. I’ve been so focused on what might be diagnostic that I haven’t attempted to quantify what I’ve found thus far and haven’t kept detailed location information. Thus, it seems like a good idea to start keeping better track. This should prove useful if we can document that ivorybills are present and that they are responsible for the bark removal.
Tom and I heard 6-8 likely kents at ~9:00 am, this at the downed top where we had the camera, the same location where Frank had his sighting last spring. The calls came from three directions, south, east, and west.
We headed south and met up with Frank and John in the core of the northern concentration, south of the pond. We did an extended playback series; John will have more to say about the specifics in his post. We all heard a nearby double knock during the playback; Tom, John, and I were sitting close together near the speaker and thought it was a single, but Frank, who was positioned closer to the source of the natural sound, called it as a double.
We found some very fresh bark chips (moist with sap) at the base of a 12” DBH dying sweet gum that has areas of scaling high on the bole. The tree (which is shown above) is only a few meters from the one found last month. We’ve deployed a camera aimed at this bole. Given the quantity of activity in the area and the evidence of return visits to feeding trees, we hope to get some hits before long.
We removed a piece of bark from a looser spot on a nearby downed tree (which had been fed on by woodpeckers both before and after it fell). Beneath the bark were Cerambycid larvae, pupae that I also suspect are also Cerambycids, and what I think may be a very young Elaterid larva. We placed some of these larvae and pupae on the piece of bark to illustrate. We suspect that Allen did the same for what became Plate 10 in Tanner.
On the way out and not far from the cluster, I spotted what appears to be the start of a large, irregularly shaped cavity. We’ll monitor this and see whether there’s any further excavation.
It rained heavily on the morning of the 24th. I spent part of the afternoon trying to take measurements but didn’t have much success, since I was using an ordinary tape measure.
On the 25th, Phil and Eric Vanbergen joined me and we took measurements in the two areas where there are concentrations of scaling, finding several more trees in the process. When I got back to Frank’s, the forester’s DBH measuring tape I ordered had arrived, making it possible for me to take measurements on my own.
I spent the 26th measuring suspected feeding trees in the southern area and found several more with recent work on them.
Except for feeding sign, I did not see or hear anything suggestive of ivorybills during my last three days in the area.
Now I’ll turn to some of the data I collected this week.
I counted 29 suspected recent feeding trees in the two areas, 13 in the northern sector and 16 in the southern. I did not count work that appeared to be more than a year old or work that was limited to very small branches.
The areas are 2.05 miles apart. The northern area was logged (probably partially) in 1905, although there may have been some later selective cutting. The southern area was logged in 1935. Forest composition is somewhat different between the two areas, with sweet gums seeming to be less predominant in the southern one. In the southern area, the scaled trees are in a narrow, almost linear strip with an area of .13 square miles/83.2 acres/33.67 hectares. The northern cluster is more compact and polygonal, with a total area of .03 square miles/19.2 acres/7.7 hectares. Within both areas, scaled trees were often found in groups of 2-6 – 11 out of 13 trees in the northern area and 11 out 16 in the southern. (This includes the cluster in and around the pond, which is perhaps 30 meters in diameter, but otherwise applies to trees that I estimated to be 20 meters apart or less.)
Scaled trees ranged from 6.5” dbh to over 5’ (estimated) for a gum with a split trunk, one stem live and the other dead. All but 3 inaccessible trees were measured.
76% of the trees were alive, sometimes just barely, with scaling on dead or nearly dead limbs or boles. There was scaling on live parts of one or possibly two of the trees.
Though we have found scaling on boles of larger trees in the past, all trees scaled on boles were 12” DBH or less. While these measurements may not be meaningful absent a random sampling of trees in each sector for comparison, I thought the numbers might be of some interest even now, especially in light of the recent discussion of Tanner:
This is obviously a very small sample, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless. The three smallest trees in the northern sector were all in or near a pond that appears to have had its outflow blocked in recent years. They probably died due to the change in hydrology. But for that difference, there seems to be an even greater favoring of 25-36” DBH trees than found by Tanner, and this is so even in the less mature southern sector (again without data on overall composition). This year, feeding sign has been found exclusively on sweet gums. We’ve found a few scaled oaks over the years and more bitternut hickories; I suspect the latter are being fed upon at a high rate relative to abundance. We’ve discussed doing some random sampling for tree size and species, but given our limited resources, this may not be worthwhile or feasible at present.
Of course, none of this proves that ivorybills are in our area, but I think it’s another indication that they are. The best-case scenario is that the dramatic increase in scaling this year and in this season is related to there being young in a nest or nests.
I made the mistake of trying to save on flights (actually paid with miles this trip), flying out of LaGuardia and a change of planes in Dallas. I left New York with a bad cold, and the first leg of the trip was miserable. Little did I know that the second leg would be worse.
At 4:45 pm, fifteen minutes before boarding time in Dallas, my flight to Louisiana was still listed as “on time”, although there had already been a gate change. There were five or six more over the next couple of hours, and American Airlines personnel at the various gates were either willfully dishonest or utterly clueless. The flight finally boarded at around 7 pm. We left the gate and sat on the runway for an extended period. At one point, the pilot announced that some planes were turning back, but that our crew could remain on the runaway until 1:30 am.
The pilot turned out to be wrong, as regulations now forbid planes from sitting on the tarmac for more than 3 hours. Somewhere around 9:30, we headed back to the gate. It took a while to find cooperative personnel, but I was able to rebook my flight for noon the next day. Sick as I was, I opted for a hotel rather than a night on a cot in the airport. I had to eat a room I had booked in Louisiana but used points to get this one. I got there a little before midnight and was in bed around 1 am.
I had planned to spend the 27th in the field, but that wasn’t happening. To the extent possible, I will avoid American Airlines and connecting flights in the future. Fortunately, my cold improved rapidly, and my rental car was a 4-wheel drive, which might have been a serendipitous result of the delay.
On the morning of the 28th, Brian Wiley and I went to an area that’s readily accessible from the road because we had plans to meet Tom Foti a little later in the morning. I spotted the downed sweetgum that we later found was being worked on, at least in part, by squirrels from the road. I found some recent scaling trees in this area, one where we’ve had possible sightings, concentrations of possible feeding sign, and auditory encounters in the past. While I can’t rule out squirrel work as a possibility, both of these trees were standing and somewhat longer dead than the downed trees that we now suspect are mostly being stripped of bark by squirrels; however, there was no way to find bark chips.
We met up with Tom at around 11 am, and we drove a few miles north to a location from which it’s easier to get into the mature bottomland areas. We spent the morning in this vicinity, where we’ve had a good deal of recent activity, but we did not see or hear anything of note.
I met Tom again the next morning, the 29th, and we covered a lot of ground, passing near a tree where we have a camera deployment (although we now suspect that much of the work was done by squirrels). We came upon another freshly stripped, downed sweet gum. Again, I now believe this to be squirrel work. (More on this in an upcoming post, but one indicator may be the presence of bark stripping on the underside of the limb at right.)
Tom headed back to Arkansas, and I headed back to Frank’s house. On the way, I passed the downed sweet gum that’s visible from the road and noted that there was fresh work on it. I went to examine it and noted that there was also some recently deposited scat.
I called Tom, and he turned around and met me. We collected the sample (which has a similar appearance to PIWO scat, although there was no urea, something that might point toward a mammal as the source). Despite the fact that we’ve documented squirrels stripping bark from this location, at over an inch long, this dropping was larger than and doesn’t resemble the images of squirrel scat found online. We are exploring the possibility of doing DNA testing on it . . . a very long shot indeed, but it may be worth a try.
Update, January 18: The consensus is that it’s not worth testing the scat.
Frank joined me on the 30th, along with Wylie Barrow and Tommy Michot, both great field people with a deep knowledge of bottomland forests and birds. They’re featured in Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird as leaders of “Team Elvis” south. It’s really amazing for laypeople like Frank and me to spend time with such experienced field biologists. Wylie probably knows more about the Singer Tract than anyone, and I’m looking forward to studying his materials on that subject. We didn’t see or hear anything of import, but I think it’s fair to say that Wylie and Tommy came away impressed with the habitat and thinking that ivorybill presence is at worst a possibility. Tommy took this photo of me crossing a log. He’s made of stronger stuff than I am and walked right across without hesitating.
I devoted the next day, 12/31, to staking out the downed sweet gum that proved to have been stripped of bark by squirrels. Nothing hit the tree for the entire day; it was cold, damp, and very uncomfortable, actually considerably more difficult than walking miles through the swamps. I did think I heard a single, pretty good double knock at around 3 pm, but I don’t trust that impression, given the fact that I was alone, tired, and hopeful.
On New Year’s Day, I left Frank to stake out the downed gum and went to retrieve a trail cam so we could monitor it remotely. While crossing an area of blowdown, I knocked myself down and nearly out, trying to break off the (not so) rotted limb of a downed tree.
I got the camera and met up with Frank. We then went to a location at the southern end of the search area that I had never visited before. Some of the habitat is very impressive, but there are many more signs of human activity (ATV tracks and empty beer cans in particular) than in some locations. We found some work on a downed sweet gum that we now think is almost certainly squirrel but did not see or hear anything else of interest.
On Saturday, the 2nd, I returned to the location I’d visited with Tom on the 28th; access is easy; it’s familiar; and it’s hard to get lost. I retrieved the card from the camera that’s trained on the downed sweet gum top I found in April. (The camera was unable to read the replacement card, so I ended up pulling it.) We’re unsure about whether the source of the scaling on this top is squirrel, as we’ve photographed them on it repeatedly over the past few months but have not documented them stripping bark. There was a little bit of fresh scaling on the tree (not enough to show up on the trail cam), and we suspect it to be Pileated Woodpecker not squirrel. Frank may replace this camera in the future.
I did not find any fresh feeding sign, but I did come across a sweet gum that had lost its top very recently, within days. I believe this to be a tree on which I photographed recent scaling last spring, and some of the fallen limbs had clearly been stripped before they fell. I found indications that a woodpecker or woodpeckers had worked on this limb at some point, as discussed in the previous post.
Perhaps the most significant event of the day occurred at around 11 am, when I heard an extended series of kent-like calls. At the time, I estimated the calling lasted for about 5 minutes, but I suspect it was closer to 15. These seemed to be coming from 200-300 years away, across a couple of challenging sloughs. There was really no way to try and follow them, especially alone. I did manage to record some of the calls on my DSLR (with no external mic). To my ears, they sounded pretty good, similar to the ones I recorded in March 2013, although they were all single notes, with no descending pairs. Unlike the 2013 calls (which were recorded on a better device at what seemed to be closer range), these came from a single, stationary source, not two moving ones. They were repeated considerably more frequently, and the pitch is slightly higher. Like the 2013 calls, they’re more clarinet than horn-like and don’t resemble the Singer Tract recordings in that regard.
In the attached audio clip (which may have lost some quality being transferred from .m4v to .m4a), the calls come at approximately, 4, 9, 17, 20, 25, 31, 39, 1:20, 1:27, 1:53, 2:07, and 2:17. I got the recorder running fairly late in the incident, and calls in the first minute of the clip are about as numerous as they were in the preceding minutes. They tapered off dramatically before ending at 2:17.
A variety of other birds are vocalizing throughout, including Blue Jays. I think the duration of the possible kents is shorter than the Blue Jay calls, but Blue Jay can’t be ruled out; I’m nowhere near as confident about these as I am about some others I’ve heard and/or recorded, including the 2o13 calls, but am posting them anyway. At around 3:41, Blue Jays start making an unusual call that we hear very frequently in this part of the search area. I do some playbacks of the Singer Tract recordings at around the same time, but there’s no evident response.
Per Frank, the dominant frequency of the calls is 1800 hz, with another bar at 2700. Since the calls are distant and the recording is poor, this might suggest a base frequency of around 900. The structure is more consistent with Blue Jay than known ivorybill. On the other hand, the duration is between Blue Jay and the ivorybills on the Singer Tract recordings. Allowing for attenuation by distance, this makes Blue Jay less likely.
Later that morning I did some additional playback and got apparent responses from Blue Jays and a White-breasted Nuthatch. This is the first time I can recall hearing a WBNU vocalization immediately after an IBWO playback.
On the evening of the 2nd, Frank and I went through the card and found the two sequences of a squirrel removing bark. Seeing the images was a bit of a blow, though not a total surprise; Wylie Barrow had raised this possibility a day or two before. He was the first person ever to make this suggestion; removing bark from hardwoods seems to be a fairly unusual and poorly understood behavior in squirrels; most of the information online suggests that it’s done on standing live trees when food is scarce, not on fallen ones when other food is abundant.
I shared the news with several biologists, and a couple of them pointed out that not all of the work we’ve found fits the squirrel paradigm. In fact, I think most of what we’ve ascribed to ivorybills is inconsistent with squirrel and am in the process of trying to identify some diagnostics. Unfortunately, since we know squirrels are doing at least some of the work on downed trees, an avenue that seemed very promising for camera trap deployment now seems far less so.
I returned home on the 3rd, and to my relief, the trip back was uneventful save for the usual post-holiday chaos at LaGuardia.
I plan to do a series of follow-up posts exploring scaling in more depth within the next week or two. I also hope to be able to provide some stills from the sequences we obtained.
This post will be something of a departure from previous ones in that we’re writing it jointly.
Though we met in 2008 and started calling our effort “Project Coyote” in early 2010, in many ways this week marks the 6th anniversary of our collaboration. It was the first time we visited the old search area together and everything grew from there. We’re an odd couple, with very different cultural backgrounds, personalities, and worldviews. There have been many strange ups and downs over the years but remarkably few major disagreements. One thing we’ve shared from the start is a similar approach to putting the pieces of this puzzle together – trying to glean what knowledge we can from those who were able to find ivorybills in the past, especially J.J. Kuhn. We think we’re on the cusp of obtaining something definitive for reasons that should become clearer in the post, if they aren’t already.
It’s remarkable that we’ve come this far. The obstacles involved in documenting the ivorybill are enormous. We’re just two individuals with limited time and resources searching in a fairly large, remote, and challenging patch. We have a small circle of supporters and trusted people who visit our area when time allows.
There are huge swathes of potential habitat in the southeast that get little human traffic, especially outside of hunting season, and many of these have not even been considered, let alone visited. It’s not uncommon for foreign (and some domestic) ornithologists to assume that conclusive imagery should have been obtained by now, just because it’s the US and birding is popular here and that extinction is likely because several organized searches have failed to come up with something definitive. Many American birders with little knowledge of or experience in the rural South jump to similar conclusions.
The mere fact that there have been formal, funded searches matters very little. The difficulties in obtaining documentation of an extremely rare, wary bird species that requires a large home range in secluded, difficult habitat are monumental. We think that camera traps are the most promising avenue for obtaining something conclusive (as is frequently the case with cryptic animals). The problem has been to place the cameras in a location that birds are likely to visit. This has been our approach from the start, but it’s only now that we think we’ve solved the problem. While we will continue to use other methods and to host visiting biologists and trusted supporters, camera traps will be our primary focus in the coming months.
On November 23, we were joined by Travis Lux, a freelance radio reporter who contacted us a few months ago and who has promised to keep our location confidential. We visited the downed sweet gum top discussed in several previous posts, most recently this one, and were elated to find that there was some new scaling at the top of the snag and decided that we’d return to Frank’s house to review the footage.
As soon as we looked at the data stored on the card, our elation turned to alarm and then almost to despair. Travis had been recording the whole day, and we’re sure this will make for some dramatic radio. Frank will pick up the narrative to explain.
Trying to understand what “goes wrong” with the various types of game cameras is a guessing game. Of the three cameras that we had deployed, two of them – upon reaching the 32 gb storage limit on the cards – began to overwrite the files rather than shut off automatically (as the instructions imply but do not directly state they should). The instruction manual was also misleading about the duration of a deployment based on the delay time set by the user. The instructions implied that a 32 gig card would not be completely full at the end of a 60 day deployment.
In reality, the card filled up after fifteen days. The camera continued to operate, but it overwrote the earliest files with the newest files, rendering the earlier files unrecoverable. With this hard learned bit of knowledge, I increased the time lapse to ten seconds, from five, and cut out about 45 minutes of “on” time at each end of the day.
According to the data gathered thus far and calculating data storage capacity vs. time deployed and time lapse setting, this SHOULD give us about 45 days with 50% battery and a fresh 32 gig card. The reprogrammed camera that we pulled the card on Mark’s last day in the field appeared to bear this finding out.
With very few exceptions, these cameras are manufactured and assembled in The People’s Republic of China. The instructions (and this has been true of several different brands we’ve tried) are generally translated from Cantonese or Mandarin…Poorly. Fractured syntax, and confusing usage of common words often leaves the guy programming the camera guessing what the instructions REALLY mean.
One of the cameras shut itself down for unknown reasons after taking just a few images. When checked, the batteries were still above 90%. I put a new card in it and conducted a 30 minute field test; it seemed to be functioning properly. Of the four cameras and three locations where we now have cams deployed, this one is in what we feel is the least likely to be visited by woodpeckers in the near future. Hopefully, the glitch will not reappear.
To add to Frank’s comments, unless one has well over $1000 to spend per unit, there are major tradeoffs involved in selecting trail cams. The brand we’ve selected stores individual frames as the equivalent of deinterlaced video stills. This allows for greater storage capacity and longer battery life but lower image quality, especially at a distance. Fortunately, all of our current deployments are at close enough range to produce a definitive image or series of images, and we now know that the cameras themselves do not scare off whatever is doing the scaling, something we thought possible in the past.
To return to the main topic, after the initial shock and disappointment wore off, we realized that there had in fact been relatively little scaling, except at the very top of the downed crown. The main trunk is almost untouched, and return visits remain a strong possibility. We have redeployed the camera and will leave it in place indefinitely.
Tuesday the 24th was a more encouraging day. We were joined by Tom Foti, formerly of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Committee and a member of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team’s Steering Committee. Tom is perhaps the foremost expert on bottomland hardwood ecology. He was very impressed with the habitat. He jokingly commented that if he were still with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Committee, he’d try encourage his state to annex the area.
While we were unable to show Tom any feeding sign, we did hear a couple of possible double knocks. In addition, we found a recently dead small sweet gum that had apparently been killed by ambrosia beetles, similar to others we’ve found, but as yet untouched.
While there’s no suggestive feeding sign in the immediate vicinity, the location is approximately a mile from the camera deployment discussed above and a few hundred yards from where we recorded an apparent double knock and obtained several intriguing game cam images. Given the absence of recent scaling in the immediate vicinity, we think this is the least promising of the three current locations.
We called it a day early because Tom had to return to Arkansas. What he saw and heard left him enthusiastic and eager to return. It’s a privilege to be around someone who’s so knowledgeable, and we look forward future visits and to learning from him.
If the 24th was a good day, the 25th was even better, though considerably more challenging. Brian, Frank’s son, came along and helped carry some of Frank’s gear. We went into an area that we’ve only visited once before. The area is approximately 1.5 miles from the nearest road, and as it turned out, we did that three mile round trip twice.
The habitat in this part of our patch is magnificent. There’s a good deal of old scaling high on live sweet gums. While this isn’t the type of work that we consider highly suggestive, it is consistent with what Tanner described and photographed (more on Tanner in Part 2).
We found a huge and recently downed (leaves attached) sweet gum, part of which fell between two recently dead saplings that both showed signs of ambrosia beetle infestation. Some of the scaling on the huge downed gum seems consistent with Pileated work (having a layered appearance), and some of it comes close to what we think is diagnostic for ivorybill. This is the first freshly dead tree we’ve found that has feeding sign suggestive of both species.
After finding the sign, we decided the location merited our deploying two cameras. (It would take four or five to cover the whole blowdown.) Brian and I hiked out to retrieve the two that Frank and Bob Ford deployed in October, while Frank went back to his house to get additional cards. We hiked back in and reached the location at around 3 pm.
Over the next hour, we heard several double and single knocks that seemed to be coming from no more than three hundred yards away. A couple of the double knocks were what we consider the best (most Campephilus-like) we’ve ever heard.
It was getting late, so we hiked out as quickly as we could, stopping to rest a little before sunset. As the sun was going down, there was a small burst of shooting from the direction of the road. A PIWO started scolding in apparent response, and Brian and I heard a sharp single knock from the direction of the bottom (away from the shooting) and more distant than the squalling pileated. (As an aside, Frank is a very experienced hunter and can easily distinguish between shots and knocks. It’s not difficult for me either, except when the sounds are obscured by crunching leaves, etc.)
We now have all four cameras deployed on recently dead trees or parts thereof that have a good chance of attracting woodpeckers in the near future. This along an approximately three mile line, with about a mile between each camera.
To be continued . . .
Day 2 – October 10, 2015
We have only visited the southeastern quadrant of our “northern sector” four times. This is mainly due to the amount of time it takes to cross about a mile and-a-half of the uplands surrounding the bottom. Bob and I decided we would try a longer, but possibly quicker and easier, approach by following a fire lane that is maintained a couple of times a year. It was a pleasant, if boring, hike of about a mile and three quarters, a little further, but much easier going to get to the edge of the bottom.
The forest on this side of the stream is of a somewhat different composition than that on the other side. As well as the sweetgums, loblolly pine, and various Quercus sp. an appreciable percentage of the trees are mature 3′ DBH or more beeches.
We made our way to the main channel with relative ease – this quadrant of the forest seems not to have as many deeply incised sloughs and secondary channels, so the temptation to just keep moving slowly is irresistible. After reaching the main stream, we began to do half-circle transects, looking for anything interesting. We finally took a break about mid-morning, and I performed an ADK series and shortly thereafter a series of playbacks. We then sat quietly for about thirty minutes.
We were separated by about 15 yards, and Bob was sitting at the bottom of a large tree facing away from me. Before we continued on our way, we compared notes, and we had both heard two double knocks, and possibly one kent call. Kent calls, what are and what aren’t, have been debated ad nauseum for years. Suffice it to say that this one, though further away and not as loud, stood out from the Jays that were making a ruckus all around us. All we could say for sure is this one was “different” in a way that’s hard to describe.
We continued on, finding our way back to the bank of the main channel every so often. The stream is dryer than I’ve ever seen it.
At one point, I came upon a series of curves, which being a bit deeper, allowed the water to pond. It was not running and none too fresh, but it was water. I noticed these two turtles on a log, probably a slider of some kind and a cooter. They seemed to be annoyed at one another.
We continued easing through the forest, moving slowly and stopping to listen and look occasionally. I photographed Bob standing next to a large swamp chestnut oak.
We found a bit of intriguing scaling here and there, but no large concentrations. This dying sweetgum snag is a good example. (Note the large insect at the upper right. We have not been able to identify it.)
At about one o’clock, we’d just kept walking through “lunch hour”, we decided to take a break. While we were snacking and rehydrating, I performed another series of ADKs followed by playbacks. After about an hour, Bob and I once again compared notes, and once again we had heard a pair of kents, and a single DK. I have to note that nothing we heard appeared to be a direct response to the recorded kents of the anthropogenic double knocks. While I was sitting there, I made this picture of a Red-headed Woodpecker.
We finally came to a corner with an adjoining piece of private property. As the property line was on a direct bearing for the truck, and was “only” a mile through unexplored terrain, we decided to take a chance even though terrain sometimes imposes obstacles. Fortunately for us (we had covered about six total miles previously) the terrain wasn’t bad at all, and other than a couple of hills to climb, the walk was pretty easy. On the way home, we stopped and picked up dinner at a local BBQ joint that has become something of a Project Coyote tradition.
Day 3 – October 11, 2014
On the way to the search area this morning, Bob and I, feeling a bit peckish, decided to stop at one of the convenience stores on the way. We were a bit mystified to find this sign in the window:
Being a proud son of Louisiana, I’m well aware of our love of foods that are considered a bit, ummm unconventional, but even I was a bit taken aback at the prospect of frying chicks…
We arrived at our entry point about ten minutes after first light and headed into the forest. This particular area Mark has discussed a number of times – a couple of hundred yards from the parking area one encounters a tornado blow-down track that is approximately 400 yards wide. This area is unbelievably difficult to traverse – large boled trees scattered like a giant’s game of pick up sticks, thick, almost impenetrable thickets of new growth, blackberry vines and saw briars, as well as the usual random sloughs, and cutoff stream channels.
It took us nearly an hour to make the half-mile to the location of the snag where photos, discussed in previous posts by Mark, were taken. My express purpose was to place one of our new Plotwatcher Pro cameras in this location. New growth of limbs and underbrush made this deployment a bit more complex than the last time. Bob trimmed intervening vegetation while I programmed, set up and started the camera.
After all this work, I used the camera’s Aimcheck function to make sure that the cam was placed optimally. We then proceeded to follow the bank of the main channel downstream. It should be noted that the stream is not running. In all my years of coming to this area, as a hunter, and searching for ivorybills, I have never seen it this dry.
We came to a familiar ponded slough where Mark and I have often stopped and rested for a few minutes. One of the larger trees, a 3.5 ft. DBH water oak had blown down since the last time Mark and I had visited the area in April. The tree still had leaves on it, though they were dry and brown, and the bole and upper branches had no sign of woodpecker workings. I believe that this tree was blown down on or around July 4th as that was the last time severe weather passed through the area. As they are very light and easy to carry, I had an extra Plotwatcher Pro cam with me. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I deployed the camera with a good view of the bole and top – hopefully this tree will attract insects, and soon thereafter woodpeckers feeding on them.
Bob and I continued upstream for another half mile, located a nice spot with a good view, and I performed an ADK series, followed about ten minutes later by a series of electronic playbacks of Singer Tract ivorybill calls. Shortly thereafter, Bob heard a double rap drum, that was captured on my digital recorder. I personally don’t believe that the drum was a direct response to my ADKs as there was at least a fifteen minute interval after the last of the ADK/playback series.
The double rap is not “perfect” in that the “intra-knock interval” is about .05 seconds longer than the “ideal” – based on averages of the intervals of other Campephilus drums – but it sounds very good.
As we were leaving, I determined to blaze a better trail through the blowdown area. Following a straight bearing on my GPS, I used a hatchet and snips to carve a path through the heavier ground cover. Perhaps crossing will be a bit easier next time.
On the way out of the forest Bob and I were treated to one last encounter. We came across this Buttermilk Racer sunning itself on the road. While not endangered, this snake is uncommon and seldom seen. After taking a few photos of him, I tapped his tail with my foot, encouraging him to seek a safer place out of the roadway.
I really enjoyed Bob Ford’s visit – he is a skilled woodsman and birder, and his insights as a professional wildlife scientist are greatly appreciated. I am looking forward to Mark’s next trip – hopefully over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Also, Mark and I would like to thank The Rapides Wildlife Association, and another donor “MC”, for their much appreciated and unsolicited assistance in purchasing our new trail cams, memory cards, and batteries.
A note from Mark: Frank captured some of the possible kent calls on his recorder. They are faint, and it may not be possible to tease any detail out of them. He may do a follow-up post if anything of interest can be gleaned.