Bits ‘n’ Pieces Part 1 – Louisiana Conservationist, Matt’s Take on the March Calls, and More

I had planned on writing just one more post before my next trip to the search area, but based on a small but important new development, I’ve decided to divide it into two parts. Part 2 will follow within a week or so. It will focus on the historic range both pre- and post-contact, beavers, and some further thoughts on how the ivorybill might have survived.

First, a small news item from the search area: last month Tommy Michot and Phil Vanbergen visited to check on the trail cams. One of the deployments (two cams) was inaccessible due to high water; unless flooding was extraordinary, the cameras themselves should be okay. Phil and Tom were able to reach the other two locations without difficulty. The target trees were untouched, and there was sufficient battery and card-life to keep the cameras operational until my next trip. They did not see or hear anything suggestive of ivorybill during their visit. I appreciate their braving the August heat and taking the time to get to the area.

I’ve been reviewing copies of Louisiana Conservationist (formerly Louisiana Conservation Review), the official publication of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (formerly the Department of Conservation). Copies of the magazine, which is in the public domain, can be found in the Louisiana Digital Library. In the course of my research, I found one real gem and a couple of interesting pieces of less significance.

The gem is the initial report on the 1932 Singer Tract rediscovery and T. Gilbert Pearson’s visit to the area. Pearson was the first professional ornithologist to observe the Singer Tract birds. I’ve written previously about Pearson’s visit and have referenced newspaper accounts of his observations. At the time, I was focused on feeding sign and the statement about feeding on rotting stumps. As a result, I overlooked the important fact that Pearson had been searching for ivorybills to no avail since 1891; this highlights the difficulty in finding ivorybills, even during the era of relentless collecting.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 7.59.35 AM

The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: Rare Bird Considered Extinct – Found in Louisiana, Margaret A. Coogan, July 1932, Louisiana Conservation Review

The newspaper articles were somewhat less detailed than Coogan’s account, which includes some interesting tidbits. It seems likely that Pearson himself provided the information to Coogan, either directly or via Armand Daspit. There’s an inaccuracy; the mention of carpenter ants as prey is not supported by the literature.* The only record of nesting in pines is in Thompson (1885), a record that Tanner deemed “questionable”.

Somewhat more interesting is the observation, “Occasionally it feeds on the ground like a Flicker”.  In 1937, Allen and Kellogg would publish a paper describing their 1924 observation of a female ivorybill foraging on the ground and “hopping like a Flicker”. It’s possible that Pearson was aware of this observation, and the reference to scaling the bark of dead pines suggests this is so. (There were no pines in the Singer Tract.) At the same time it’s also possible that Pearson observed the Singer Tract birds foraging on the ground or described foraging behavior based on general knowledge of how ivorybills in Florida, where he grew up, typically fed.

More significant and relevant to the recordings Matt Courtman and Phil made in March of this year is the description of ivorybill calls and the pattern of calling observed. I didn’t pay much attention to the description, but Matt, who was present during the extended period of calling on March 15 was struck by it. For Matt, the correction of Audubon was significant, and as he posted on Facebook: “Please note the description of the calls being from “one to fifty” over a few minutes. This matches perfectly what we recorded in March. Very exciting!!!” Matt’s strongest doubts about the calls had to do with cadence and the lack of calls in groups of three.

Matt elaborated in an email this morning. I asked him to allow me to post it in full, and he graciously agreed. His perspective sheds additional light on the March recordings, among other ivorybill related matters. It’s worth reading.

The following explanation might be excessive, but an appreciation of my history with the ivorybill is necessary to understand the visceral response that I had to reading the 1932 article reproduced by Mark.
My love of nature generally, and of birds in particular, was cemented by a visit to the LSU Museum of Natural History when I was eight. In reading George Lowery’s Louisiana Birds, I was beguiled by his account of having seen ivorybills in the Singer Tract (Madison Parish, near Tallulah) on Christmas morning, 1933. In a letter that I wrote to Dr. Lowery (adorned with my drawing of a pair of IBWO), I asked him if he thought that any ivorybills still existed. He promptly replied that he sure hoped that they did. I can’t be certain about all of the contents of a letter from almost 50 years ago, but I THINK that he expressed a belief that, due to the relative inaccessibility of the ivorybill’s putative environment, that isolated pockets of ivorybills could have survived undetected for decades.
In his reply, Dr. Lowery offered to show me the ivorybills in the LSU collection. The very next week, my father and I went to Baton Rouge for the LSU-Mississippi State football game. In an act typical of his unfailing grace and generosity, Dr. Lowery waded through post-game traffic to open up the Museum at 10:30 p.m. just for us. Holding ACTUAL ivorybills in my hands, set me on the vacillating belief/disbelief course that I still follow five decades later. Based on recent developments, my current course is trending overwhelmingly toward the shores of belief.
Dr. Lowery’s national preeminence as an ornithologist was impressive: under his direction, LSU was responsible for the discovery of more new bird species than any other institution during Lowery’s tenure; during this period, an entirely new GENUS of owl was discovered by LSU in Peru and named in Dr. Lowery’s honor. Despite that, his relative optimism about the ivorybill was not shared by ANY serious Louisiana birders that I knew. In fact, other ornithology professors around the state would scoff at Lowery’s optimism behind his back. This all came to a head when, in 1971, Dr. Lowery announced that he believed that photographs (subsequently revealed to have come from Mr. Fielding Lewis) sent to him depicted a LIVING ivorybill. Whispered skepticism gave way to thinly-veiled ridicule: everyone whom I knew to have an opinion on the matter voiced their belief that Dr, Lowery was a gullible victim of an obvious hoax. 
At the October, 1971 meeting of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, two (inebriated…birding WAS a different culture back then:)) men tried to coax me into asking Dr. Lowery exactly where the photographs had been taken.  They figured that since Dr. Lowery and I were close, and, since I was only 10 years-old, that he might tell me. Though young, I wasn’t stupid. I declined.
In sum, although I wanted to believe Dr. Lowery, the birders with whom I was in constant contact with had nothing but contempt for anyone who “believed in” ivorybills. Aside from Dr. Lowery, everyone seemed to accept the Gospel According to James Tanner: after 1944, no remaining virgin bottom-land hardwood forests meant NO remaining Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. 
To demonstrate the sway of the Tanner Gospel, even during flickers of hope regarding IBWO, circumstances were viewed through Tanner’s lens. For instance, in 1999, as (past) President of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, I was invited to participate in a state-sponsored search of the Pearl River Wildlife Area (near Slidell) to follow-up on David Kullivan’s reported sighting of a pair of ivorybills. Having some familiarity with the specifics of Kullivan’s report, I was surprised when I saw a map of the grids that we were assigned to search. The following colloquy ensued:
              Matt: [pointing to a specific spot on a map] I thought that Kullivan reported the ivorybills to have been near this campground.
              State Fish & Wildlife guy: That’s right.
              Matt: Well, why are we not searching any place NEAR that campground?
              State Fish & Wildlife guy: Because Tanner’s research showed that ivorybills were found only in really big trees, and there aren’t any really big trees there.
              Matt: So you believe that Kullivan was correct in saying that he saw ivorybills, but you think that he was incorrect about WHERE he saw them?
              State Fish & Wildlife guy: [insouciant shrug]
Moral of the story: with the vast majority of people, historical, remote Tanner Gospel trumps actual, recent, credible observation.
So, for most of my life prior to 2017 I had been surrounded exclusively by Tanner-quoting ivorybill “deniers.” Despite my veneration for Dr. Lowery (who had passed away in 1978), I could not but help to have their rigid doubts shape my views regarding the existence of IBWO.  In February, 2017 my friend, Frank Wiley passed away. Along with Mark Michaels, Frank had founded “Project Coyote,” in hopes of finding and documenting ivorybills. As a tribute to Frank, I decided to visit the Project Coyote search site in Louisiana. I had zero expectations regarding the trip. In fact my dominant thought prior to the trip was: “I am going to make a concentrated effort, spend several days in the woods, observe nothing to suggest the continued existence of ivorybills, and, then, FINALLY extinguish any lingering delusions about ivorybills so that I can get on with more productive, practical uses of my time.”
In preparation for the trip, I began to read through all of the blog entries on Project Coyote’s website.  There, through the heroically-diligent work of Mark Michaels, I discovered something shocking: that Tanner’s own data did not support the chief tenet of the Tanner Gospel, that ivorybills were found only in virgin bottom-land trees. As with the Bible, many people quote Tanner to support a particular assertion, but few people have actually read all of Tanner’s work.
Back to the issue at hand (finally!): why was the 1932 statement regarding the ivorybill call so meaningful to me?  The passage in question was: “The bird’s note is a peculiar nasal ‘yank,’ NOT REPEATED THREE TIMES as Audubon states, but as many as from ONE TO FIFTY in a few minutes (emphasis supplied).” For me this was like finding the missing link. The only thing that had conjured doubts (about the sounds being from ivorybills) in me about my recording was that the notes did not come in series of threes, but rather were relatively monotonous and evenly-spaced over an extended period of time. Prior to reading this 1932 description, I had never even considered that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers would call in any way that was NOT a series of three notes.
My myopia had been further compounded by my frequent exposure to the only widely-accepted recording of the ivorybill. The 1935 Cornell recording definitely presents as a series of three notes. As anyone can attest who has used the Cornell recording as playback when looking for ivorybills, hearing it repeatedly primes your brain to expect a series of three notes to be the only “valid” response that would indicate the presence of an ivorybill. Mark has since informed me that the literature contains many references to “non-three” note descriptions. In fact, I probably have encountered many of those same descriptions over the years. As with Tanner-induced single-mindedness, however, I had never INTERNALIZED anything other than, “If I ever hear an Ivory-billed Woodpecker call, it will come in the form of three notes.”
As I was reading the 1932 passage, my wife, Lauren, could tell that I was reacting emotionally to what I was reading. For the ONLY time in our eight years of wedded bliss (actually, not hyperbole) regarding something that I was reading, she asked: “Are you OKAY?” I find my visible, somatic response to be at least as important as all the intellectual reasons that I could adduce to explain the importance of the 1932 description. 
In sum, that 1932 description removed whatever lingering doubt that I had maintained regarding the probable source of the sounds that I recorded on March 15, 2017. Subjectively, I am convinced that I recorded at least two (and probably three) Ivory-billed Woodpeckers that day. Objectively, I can state unequivocally that the calls were consistent with those to be expected from ivorybills. While acoustics alone will never be sufficient to establish the continued existence of the ivorybill, for me the only pertinent question that remains regarding the 3/15/17 recording is: “Could anything other than an ivorybill also account for those sounds”?
Congratulations on reading my tome in its entirety! Please feel free to share with anyone. Of course, I would be happy to answer any questions raised herein.

The other interesting tidbits from Louisiana Conservationist pertain to possible ivorybill sightings in the 1950s. Both items (letters from readers and responses from state officials) are certainly questionable, but they also point to the way Pileated Woodpecker became the default, even when the description was inconsistent with PIWO.

The first is interesting for its location. Urania, Louisiana is southwest of the Singer Tract and is relatively close to the Project Coyote search areas. It was founded by Harry Hardtner in the 1890s and is considered the birthplace of conservation and reforestation in Louisiana. The image that prompted the letter is included for reference.

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 3.44.14 PMScreen Shot 2017-09-15 at 3.28.27 PM

The second letter is peculiar, but the description is considerably more suggestive of ivorybill than Pileated – like a Red-headed Woodpecker but the size of a chicken.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 8.45.06 AM

There’s one additional tidbit that doesn’t pertain to Louisiana. In the past, I’ve wondered about record committee submissions and how many there may have been over the years. A divided Arkansas committee accepted the Big Woods report (a fact that’s often glossed over in the literature), while the Florida committee rejected the Auburn reports. Other than these submissions, I was aware of one from Texas, from out of range and in unlikely habitat. I recently ran across another, from Florida, also rejected but interesting nonetheless. Here it is, for what it’s worth:

Ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis.
FOSRC 2011-852. This bird was described from an observation in suburban St. Augustine, St. Johns Co., on 13 April 2011. Although the observation included key characters of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, such as a white bill and white pattern on the back while perched, the observation was at a distance of 30 m and made without binoculars. It is the Committee’s opinion that the only acceptable submissions of this species would be those with veri able evidence (e.g, identifiable photographs or video). The recent controversy over video recordings, audio recordings, and sightings in Arkansas (Sibley et al. 2006) and Florida (FOSRC #06-610, Kratter 2008) calls into question whether the species may have persisted into the twenty-first century.

More soon.

*Ants are described as a prey species in Bendire (1895), but this is based on a misreading of Thompson (1885). Allen and Kellogg (1937) mention an observation involving suspected feeding on ants but found no ants or termites when they examined the substrate. The closest thing to evidence for ants as prey involves a Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker with a hugely overgrown bill that was observed feeding on arboreal termites – a species not native to the continental United States. It was observed and collected by Gundlach in 1843 and was also being fed grubs by its companions. Jackson speculates that this might have been a young adult bird, but given the extent of the hypertrophy, this strikes me as being somewhat unlikely. I’ll opt for the altruistic possibility that Jackson also posits. (Jackson 2004).



Repost with Addendum: Ivory-billed Woodpecker Sightings and Evidence 1944-2003: The Partially Hidden History

I’m reposting an entry from February 2015 with some new commentary as prologue.

I recently received a Google alert about a new paper on statistical approaches to extinction relying on sight records. According to the paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed:

We have shown that the rate of sightings is the strongest indicator to infer extinction, and too much information about the quality of the sighting can actually be detrimental. Ideally a sighting record would be a list of certain and uncertain sightings only.

I’m curious as to how this model might treat the ivorybill, using the sighting data compiled and analyzed by William C. Hunter in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, a document with which many extinction modelers seem to be unfamiliar.

I’m not trained in statistics, and the literature on this subject is often over my head, but I’m familiar with the concept: “garbage in, garbage out”. Unfortunately, when it comes to the ivorybill, information that is repeated in the statistical papers is often inaccurate:

“For example in 2005, based on a brief sighting and a pixelated image, the ivory-billed woodpecker was declared to have been rediscovered (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005), resulting in the mobilisation of resources for management strategies and recovery plans (Gotelli et al., 2012). However, based on the evidence its rediscovery was brought into question (Sibley et al., 2006), and subsequent extensive searches have failed to result in further sightings (Gotelli et al., 2012).” Roberts DL, Jarić I. (2016) Inferring extinction in North American and Hawaiian birds in the presence of sighting uncertainty. PeerJ 4:e2426c 

An example of a species with a high false detectability is the ivory-billed woodpecker. After 2006, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service offered $10,000 for information leading to an ivory-billed woodpecker’s nest, it was ‘observed’ 14 times and audio recorded 300 times. Nonetheless, the reward remained uncollected (Newton 2009). Lee, T. E. (2014), A simple numerical tool to infer whether a species is extinct. Methods Ecol Evol, 5: 791–796.

Neither of these papers applied the models described to the ivorybill, and I’m not commenting on the validity of the models themselves. I’m pointing to how peer-reviewed literature can sometimes function as an echo chamber in which inaccurate information gets repeated as fact.

While it’s true that extensive searches have failed to obtain indisputable proof, the Luneau video, however controversial, cannot be characterized as a “pixelated image”. There were many more sightings in Arkansas and elsewhere, and in Arkansas, numerous kent-like calls and double knocks were heard and recorded over several seasons.

The book by Newton cited in Lee is Hidden Animals: A Field Guide to Batsquatch, Chupacabra, and Other Elusive Creatures, clearly not a serious scientific treatment of the ivorybill and apparently not a very well-researched one. There were in fact 15 Arkansas sightings between 2004 and 2005 and 14 in 2005-2006. The reward, which was for $50,000, applied to Arkansas only and was offered by the Nature Conservancy, not the USFWS, in June 2006. The source of the claim that audio was “recorded 300 times” is not clear, nor is the meaning. Inaccuracies aside, it’s an enormous logical leap to base an assertion about high false detectability on the inability of an unknown number of bounty hunters to locate a nest in ~500,000 acres of forest.

It may well be true that the ivorybill is more prone to false detectability than some other species; its iconic status makes this seem likely. It’s also true that there have been a number of organized searches for the ivorybill and that the number of sightings has increased as a result of publicity and search activity, at least during the first decade of this century. Nevertheless, many of the records between 1944 and 2003 listed in the USFWS Recovery Plan were unrelated to publicity or organized searches and were incidental to other activities, including bird surveys. In addition, the Recovery Plan tally included some qualitative analysis of the sightings, and an unspecified number of reports were excluded as probable false detections.

I find it odd that Appendix E of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan is seldom if ever referenced in the recent literature, including Birdlife International’s species account (which I’m honored to say does reference the post below). It’s an official government report and is the most extensively researched document of its kind. I suspect that many readers will be unfamiliar with it and think it merits quoting at length; I’ve bolded some important passages.  I encourage people to click on the link above and read the rest.

Here, a potential encounter is defined as a report not easily explained as something other than an Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the basis of description of the bird, the type of habitat in which it was encountered, and distribution. After the Arkansas announcement was made, post-1944 reports were compiled prior to the 2005 announcement of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker being sighted in Arkansas. A map was produced of these potential encounters in Service brochures. These potential encounters were based on those discussed by Jackson (2004) or otherwise in Service files as “probably reliable,” defined here as not obviously another species. A review of other published literature and files maintained by some State working groups included other potential encounters that are cited and used in this treatment (both before and after 1950). Excluded from further consideration were reports that likely described other species (especially Pileated, but also Red-headed and sometimes other woodpecker species), as well as those reports outside the historical range of the species (as depicted in Tanner 1942) and in unlikely habitats such as golf courses and backyards. The reports between 1945 and 2005 considered further vary in detail, with some accepted based solely on the credibility and reputation of the observer. Reports since April 2005 (i.e., the Arkansas announcement) are similarly treated, but at least one diagnostic field mark had to be observed (most often the white trailing edges on a flying or perched large woodpecker).

It is important to understand the type and level of documentation accepted for this species’ persistence at the time when most collecting of specimens began to trail off (i.e., after 1900) compared with those reports which were accepted without question previously. While most previous treatments break down reports by State, here it is believed that important insights can be made by comparing reports, type and level of documentation, by decade starting with the 1800 and ending with the present. References for those reports besides those of Tanner himself prior to 1940 are provided in Tanner (1942, with cross-reference to location on his maps, his figures 3-10) and are so noted here.

Results and Discussion

The number of locations with Ivory-billed Woodpecker reports peaked between 1880 and 1910, the same period when most specimens were collected (Figures 1, 2). The number of locations with potential reports after 1940 generally dropped below the number of locations with all reports between 1900 and 1940. However, when including only potential encounters between 1900 and 1939, the range in number of locations among decades was roughly similar to the number of locations with potential encounters in the decades between 1940 and 2009, only dropping below 10 locations during the 1990s. The number of locations within each decade with multiple reports among years never exceeded 10 per decade prior to the extensive efforts underway after 2005 to search for this species.

Prior to 1940, only a small percentage of locations from decade to decade provided the source of reports from multiple years within any one decade, ranging from 12 to 28 percent of all locations with birds reported within each decade (Figures 3, 4). After 1940, there was a slight increase in the percentage of locations with multi-year reports in the later decades, ranging from 9 to 51 percent of all locations with birds reported within each decade. Despite this increase in locations with reports from multiple years there was no definitive documentation of persistence at any of these locations. Similarly, a very low percentage of locations with reports spanning more than one decade is documented in the historical record, but again with a slight increase during the latter decades (Figures 5, 6). Reports continue to come from most of Tanner’s regions into the present day with an obvious shift from those regions that included Florida to regions elsewhere (Figure 7).

In summary, there is no evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was ever widely or consistently relocated in the same areas from year to year or from decade to decade prior to 1940, despite the impression one may have about birds at the Singer Tract during the 1930s. Actually, during Tanner’s study the chore in locating birds often took days or weeks even where pairs or family groups were known to occur from previous years (and actually only one nesting pair at John’s Bayou was consistently relocated during his entire study). Whether the birds were truly more nomadic than previously thought, or whether the low percentage of repeated locations historically has been due to the search patterns of ornithologists and collectors is unclear. What is clear is that the present pattern of reports that do not effectively document occurrence of the species has been repeated from decade to decade for more than a century and that the number of locations with potential encounters within the same decade has varied little since the 1870s.

Whether or not many or all post-1944 reports pertain to actual Ivory-billed Woodpeckers will continue to be debated in some circles, and it also is possible that some of the reports dismissed for purposes of this treatment perhaps should not have been discounted so lightly. However, the pattern of credible-sounding reports accepted for this treatment from locations without firm documentation was from decade to decade slightly lower between 1940 and 2009 than the pattern recorded between 1890 and 1939. Most interestingly, the exceptional increase in locations with potential encounters during the present decade is on the surface similar to what was recorded during the 1930s, given both of these decades experienced a notable increase in amount of effort to firmly document the persistence of this species (with similar results despite substantially fewer observers involved in the 1930s than in the present decade).



One caveat about this material: the specific information in Appendix E is potentially subject to change in the future, but the overall patterns are likely to stay similar or the same.

Here’s the February 2015 entry.

This post is inspired in large part by an exchange of emails with Chris Sharpe, an ornithologist who is working on an IBWO literature review. Our correspondence revolved around the IUCN’s species account, which describes the ivorybill as “possibly extinct” and cites recent statistical analyses that suggest extinction is likely, as well as one that indicates survival is possible and another that concludes “very large search efforts are needed to detect small populations.”

Chris pointed out that there are many other species on the Red List that fall into a similar category with many unverified reports but in more remote habitats and nowhere near the search effort that has been expended on the ivorybill. While there’s some validity to this assertion, I think the reality is considerably more complex and that the ivorybill is in fact sui generis.

Many of the specifics of ivorybill history are little-known, and the statistical studies seem badly flawed. One focuses on collection rates but may not adequately address changing attitudes toward conservation in the early 20th century among other factors. Another is perhaps even more problematic for a number of reasons – most importantly its focus on “verified sightings”, which is a particularly complicated issue when it comes to the ivorybill. It omits numerous controversial sightings and does not include post-Singer Tract instances in which physical evidence was obtained, although the authenticity of that evidence has been contested. “Sidewinder” posted the abstract and a good summary of the findings on a few years ago:

Roberts, D. L., C. S. Elphick, and J. M. Reed. 2010. Identifying anomalous reports of putatively extinct species and why it matters. Conservation Biology 24:189–196.

As species become very rare and approach extinction, purported sightings can stir controversy, especially when scarce management resources are at stake. We used quantitative methods to identify reports that do not fit prior sighting patterns. We also examined the effects of including records that meet different evidentiary standards on quantitative extinction assessments for four charismatic bird species that might be extinct: Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), Nukupu`u (Hemignathus lucidus), and O`ahu `Alauahio (Paroreomyza maculata). For all four species the probability of there being a valid sighting today, given the past pattern of verified sightings, was estimated to be very low. The estimates of extinction dates and the chance of new sightings, however, differed considerably depending on the criteria used for data inclusion. When a historical sighting record lacked long periods without sightings, the likelihood of new sightings declined quickly with time since the last confirmed sighting. For species with this type of historical record, therefore, new reports should meet an especially high burden of proof to be acceptable. Such quantitative models could be incorporated into the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List criteria to set evidentiary standards required for unconfirmed sightings of “possibly extinct” species and to standardize extinction assessments across species.

Here are the Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting data they used:

Physical evidence: 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1913, 1914, 1917, 1924, 1925, 1932, 1935, 1938, 1939

Independent expert opinion added: 1911, 1916, 1920, 1921, 1923, 1926, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944

Controversial sightings: 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006

Data were from Tanner (1942), Hahn (1963), Jackson (2002, 2004), Fitzpatrick et al. (2005), Hill (2006), and Floyd (2007).

Some conclusions: For the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the prior sighting record suggests that even by the time of the first controversial sighting, the species was relatively unlikely to remain extant (ca. 21% chance), regardless of the level of evidence (physical or independent expert opinion) used…the effect on the predicted extinction date will depend on the details of the sighting record. Including controversial sightings will, by definition, move expected extinction dates forward in time. An ever-increasing burden of proof should be required with increasing time since the last verified sighting. The burden of proof also should be greater when there is a pattern of frequent sightings prior to the last accepted record and lower when long periods between sightings are common in the historical record.

A second paper published in 2012 reached the same conclusion using 39 sightings “classified as certain and 29 classified as uncertain”.

The insistence on verification is problematic because it’s founded on an appeal to authority, and for much of the time frame in question, the primary if not sole authority was James T. Tanner. Tanner had a strong predisposition to dismiss every post-Singer tract report he received and was somewhat cavalier about reports he investigated in the late ’30s as well. This likely resulted in his underestimating the population at the time. At minimum, he missed six pairs in Mississippi, according to Jackson ( In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, pp. 60-62.  These details reinforce the point made by “Fangsheath” of that, for the ivorybill at least, demanding verification leads to “a rather vicious circularity”. In a recent email, Fangsheath also pointed out that “the Roberts et al. scheme fits tidily into the narrative created by Tanner, that the Singer Tract was the last hope of the ivory-bill, and that when that: wilderness was lost the bird essentially became extinct . . . Tanner searched across several states for the bird and found none elsewhere, yet he himself believed that the bird survived in a number of areas. And so we have a curious contradiction – on the one hand an appeal to authority is being used to exclude many sightings, and on the other hand that same authority is saying the bird exists in areas where sightings are excluded. The mythos that the bird had very specific habitat requirements clouded every search effort and every sighting evaluation, before and after 1944.”

Fangsheath’s observation about the impact of Tanner’s narrative on future search efforts is profoundly important. Tanner’s ideas about habitat, which were in large part a product of his cultural background and the “myth of the frontier”, hardened over time. In later years, he ignored some of the caveats he set forth in his own monograph. But even his approach to reports from the 1930s reflected a set of beliefs about habitat requirements that had no scientific basis. Many people, myself included, are prone to reflexively accepting these assumptions about “habitat quality” because the conventional wisdom is so deeply engrained.

Fangsheath also reminded me that in the years before Tanner, the species was being written off and had been for decades. Florida was believed to be the last stronghold; the Singer Tract and Atchafalaya basin were not considered, nor were the large tracts of overcup oak/water hickory forest (where Beyer found ivorybills in 1898), many of which were untouched until the 1940s. Unlike the Singer Tract, these areas were often roadless and very difficult to penetrate; the Tract was bisected by a road, had few deep bayous, and was largely free of undergrowth, making it much easier to search. I’ve already discussed Tanner’s difficulty in finding ivorybills anywhere besides John’s Bayou. In this context, it’s worth noting that Bick’s 1941 sighting (from his car on Sharkey Road) involved two birds feeding in a lower lying “ash flat” in which overcup oak predominated.

In addition to these conceptual flaws, the papers grossly underestimate the number of post-Singer Tract encounters within the historic range. While it is impossible to quantify the controversial reports, it’s clear that the 26 or 29 referenced in the studies are the tip of the iceberg. There are well over four times that many on record for the 1944-2003 time period. And no doubt, numerous encounters never made it into the literature.

I initially posted a brief comment about this on Facebook and, with a link to Jerome Jackson’s 2002 Birdwatching Daily article listing 20 pre-Arkansas and post-Singer Tract encounters (some just auditory and one from Cuba) and a reference to Michael Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird catalogue of 85 sightings during the same time frame. A commenter wrote, “Yes but no confirming photos”. That also led me to think it would be worthwhile to explore this subject in a somewhat more depth, since there is physical evidence, albeit contested, related to several post-Singer Tract and pre-Arkansas reports.

Before turning to the physical evidence, it’s worth reiterating that the 1944 date for the last “verified sighting” is fundamentally flawed and arbitrary. The 1944 date is for the “Say Goodnight” encounter that involved artist Don Eckelberry and two local boys, Billy and Bobby Fought, and the purported last lone female IBWO in the Singer Tract. This poignant story was retold in The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, and it has become central to the popular lore about the species. There’s no doubt that the encounter took place, and Eckelberry no doubt believed that the bird was the last of her kind. Roger Tory Peterson apparently received and accepted a report that a single bird, presumably the same one, was still present in 1946. Tanner was likely aware of this and had an additional reason to think that birds persisted in the Tract well after 1944. His papers include a letter stating that Singer Tract game warden Gus Willett saw a pair in November 1948 at North Lake #1 (I have been unable to identify this lake). According to the letter, the “[b]irds are moving over a much larger area than formerly.” The letter mentions that there had been several other sightings during this time period. There’s no reply from Tanner in the archives and no further correspondence about the Singer  Tract birds. It appears that this is the letter from Tanner’s former student, Arthur MacMurray, that is referenced in Jackson, but Jackson’s account does not mention Willett, who would have been familiar with ivorybills. The strong possibility that a pair of birds remained in the Tract for more than four years after it was cut should itself raise questions about Tanner’s narrative.

Jackson’s list of 19 US reports between 1944 and 2003 was undoubtedly not intended to be comprehensive (and his book includes many others). Instead, it focuses on sightings by professional ornithologists and/or people who were familiar with the species. These include: Allan Cruickshank, John Terres, Herbert Stoddard, John Dennis, Davis Crompton (Dennis and Crompton studied ivorybills in Cuba), Whitney Eastman, and William Rhein. Jackson doesn’t mention it, and was perhaps unaware when he wrote the article, but Rhein had filmed the Imperial Woodpecker in Mexico several years prior to his 1959 Florida ivorybill sighting. It strains credulity to think that every one of these experienced observers, most or all of whom were familiar with the species and all of whom knew pileateds well, would be mistaken. Jackson points out that Terres kept his sighting to himself for more than 30 years out of “fear of being scorned.” Such was the climate surrounding ivorybill claims, even in 1955.

Steinberg lists 85 sightings between 1944 and 2003. His list includes most, if not all, of Jackson’s reports, breaking them down into individual incidents. Jackson treated repeat encounters in the aggregate. Nonetheless, most of Steinberg’s reports do not appear on Jackson’s list. Many of them are from less illustrious sources and quite a few are anonymous, but some of them are from game wardens, field biologists, and graduate students in ornithology.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan, prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and completed in 2010, includes an even more detailed compilation of records, some of which are of course also included in Jackson and Steinberg. It lists approximately 100 reports of varying quality between 1944 and 2003. Some of these are aggregates, involving multiple observations. The number of observations is sometimes enumerated and sometimes characterized as “numerous”, “multiple”, or “several”, so it’s impossible to arrive at an accurate tally, but the total almost certainly exceeds 150.

Although the Steinberg and the Recovery Plan compilations are more extensive, they are undoubtedly far from comprehensive. For starters, the climate of intimidation around reporting ivorybills was strong enough to deter John Terres in 1955, and that climate of intimidation only grew more toxic over time, as the Big Thicket and Fielding Lewis incidents, not to mention the battle over the Arkansas reports, make clear. In addition, there’s good reason to believe that countless reports from local people, hunters, and amateur birders have been discounted, dismissed, or ignored by authorities, at least prior to the “rediscovery”. Steinberg writes of his first visit to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Baton Rouge office in 2003,“ . . . few people took the book, or more important the larger issue very seriously. The typical response from many in the office, other than Nancy Higginbotham, seemed to be, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’” (Higginbotham claimed two sightings, one of male in 1986 and one of a female in 1987, both in the Pearl River area.) We’re personally familiar with several instances in which reports were dismissed or ignored. One involved the landowner in our old search area, who came forward after the Kulivan sighting and was deeply offended by the way he was treated. As far as I’m aware, no one has done a comprehensive review of records committee submittals within the historic range of the ivorybill; I know of one such submittal from Texas in 2002 that came from unsuitable habitat, outside the historic range, but there may well be others that are more robust.

I’d like to turn to three examples of physical evidence obtained in the post-1944 era. Some of this is fairly well known – the Agey and Heinzmann feather and the Fielding Lewis photographs. The other is somewhat more obscure, but no less interesting for being so.

The Agey and Heinzmann observations took place between 1967 and 1969, in Polk County Florida. They obtained two recordings that Tanner dismissed. There was evidently some very poor communication about it that was compounded by an obvious error on Agey and Heinzmann’s part. They mistakenly thought that calls on their first clip were consistent with some ivorybill sounds from the Singer Tract; they clearly are not. The second clip, which is dominated by a Red-shouldered Hawk, recorded March 3 1968, does have some faint kent-like sounds, but the quality is extremely poor. They are most easily heard on the amplified version that begins at 3:14. The RSHA calls were not what interested Agey and Heinzmann, but they failed to make this sufficiently clear.

I believe Tanner wrote the notes that accompany the recording:

“Well, I’m not sure what to say here. As far as I can determine, there are only four original sound clips here. The recordings at 0:04-0:32 and 0:49-0:57 are certainly flicker-like, especially the continuous series at 0:04-0:21 and 0:26-0:32, but I am less certain about the latter part of the first series (0:21-0:23), which appears to have been recopied twice at 0:41-0:48. A similar vocalization is included at 0:49-0:57 (recopied at 0:59-1:06). Given the very different quality of these sounds relative to those in LNS #6784, combined with the close similarity of the calls to those of Colatpes auratus, leads me to doubt that any of these sounds were given by C. principalis. The recordings from 3 March 1968 (2:45-3:07) represent the calls of Buteo lineatus. Quality unchanged (2;3 – the signal is not bad for the first part, but terrible for the rest, most of which seems to represent copies of various recordings)”

Agey and Heinzmann found several feathers near a cavity, and one was identified as the innermost secondary of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Oddly, Jackson wrote that “ . . . some shadow of doubt is cast over these records because Agey and Heinzmann also tape-recorded what they said were Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and personnel at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology identified the birds on those tapes as pileated woodpeckers.” Given that one of the recordings does include kent-like calls, this criticism is not entirely warranted, and the misidentification seems irrelevant in light of the physical evidence (and ironically Tanner seems to have failed to correctly identify the calls on the first clip). Jackson also alludes indirectly to rumors that the feathers were taken from a specimen. These have circulated for years but are unsubstantiated. Agey and Heinzmann published their findings:

Agey, H. N., and G. M. Heinzmann. 1971a. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker found in central Florida. Fla. Nat. 44 (3):46–47, 64.

Agey, H. N., and G. M. Heinzmann. 1971b. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Florida. Birding 3:43.

To the best of my knowledge neither publication is available online at this time.

The next event, chronologically, started with a series of encounters in east Texas in the late 1960s. John Dennis obtained a recording that Tanner initially dismissed, in part for the patently absurd reason that a Pine Warbler is also heard on the clip, but later described as “a real mystery” when confronted with the sonograms and analysis that were suggestive of ivorybill. That recording is now catalogued as IBWO.

Additional slides, taken in 1970 in east Texas by a man named Neal Wright, were turned over to the Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia which also houses the Fielding Lewis photographs. These were made public after the rediscovery, and since writing this in 2015, I obtained permission to post them on the blog. They show what appears to be a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a nest cavity. When I first viewed the Wright photographs, I was quite skeptical, but later, I was struck by the resemblance to this image from the Singer Tract.

Wright was apparently quite a local character, and I remain somewhat suspicious, as he may have had ulterior motives; however, the similarity to one of the unpublished images from the Singer Tract is strong, and in the pre-internet era, it seems unlikely that a Texas woodsman would be familiar with any of the ivorybill images that did not appear in Tanner’s monograph.

The Fielding Lewis photographs, taken in South Louisiana in 1971, are far better known, although Lewis wished to remain anonymous. His identity was not revealed until more than three decades later, and he was identified at the time only as “the Chief” (Jackson was unaware of his identity in 2004, though it was made public soon thereafter.) George Lowery presented these images at the American Ornithologists’ Union annual meeting and was attacked by many of his colleagues who deemed them to be a hoax. It’s worth pointing out that there have been hoaxes in recent years (these were swiftly and easily debunked), so there’s legitimate reason for skepticism about any claim. In the case of the ivorybill, however, skepticism has frequently been replaced by a virtually irrebuttable presumption of fraud (or error).

In a letter to Tanner, Lowery (who, unlike most of his detractors, had actual field knowledge of ivorybills) wrote: “I know the man in question very well and I am sure he would not pull something like that. In the first place, where would he have gotten the mounted specimen? Why would he have two photographs of the birds way up on two separate trees? Both of considerable diameter and not subject to being shinnied. Also, assuming he might have had a mounted bird to photograph, why didn’t he get a better picture while he was at it?”

The most common reasons given for believing that Lewis hoaxed the photos are that the bird is similarly positioned in both images (similarly but not identically, a neat trick with a specimen) and that the bill and feet are not visible. Bear in mind that these pictures were taken with a Brownie or Instamatic camera, and the quality is very poor. Nonetheless, I believe a foot is very faintly visible in both photos, positioned in a manner that would be expected of a live Campephilus woodpecker. I worked from scans of the originals and made some modest enhancements in Photoshop. Note also that in the first picture, both a cavity and bark scaling can be seen on the tree.

fieldle1-enlarg-scan copylewisphotoarrow

Regardless of whether my analysis is correct, the foundation for claiming that these photographs were faked is shaky indeed – not only for the reasons Lowery gave but also because of Lewis’s reticence about revealing his identity, insistence on keeping the location secret, and lack of any discernible motive.

The recovery plan mentions two other pieces of physical evidence. One is a feather that was purportedly found in a nest or roost cavity in 1985, and the other is a photograph supposedly taken in Georgia in 1975 (correction, 1965).

It’s not my intention to fault the IUCN or to quarrel with the “possibly extinct” designation, although I think Bill Pulliam’s analysis of the Luneau video in light of Rhein’s Imperial Woodpecker film should be dispositive. My main purpose is to call attention to the fact that there’s considerably more evidence for survival than is popularly recognized or than appears in the scientific literature. There are multiple instances of people, often outstanding birders, hesitating to come forward with reports and hard evidence – for decades. Terres waited 30 years; in the cases involving physical evidence, only Agey and Heinzmann went fully public and identified themselves in making their claims; in Stalking the Ghost Bird, Steinberg includes detailed 2005 field notes written by a Louisiana “birder for more than forty years” who “has also worked as a contract ornithologist conducting bird surveys on rice and crawfish farms for more than ten years.” This individual too requested anonymity. To a significant extent, the shortcomings in the literature are directly related to the controversy that has surrounded this species for nearly a century (remember Mason Spencer who went so far as to obtain a permit and kill an ivorybill to prove the species persisted) and the accompanying climate of unhealthy skepticism that has, if anything, grown even more unhealthy since the rediscovery. This sets the ivorybill apart from other possibly extinct species.

I’ll be heading for Louisiana at the end of the week and will post a trip report when I return.

In Which Someone Proposes Red-breasted Nuthatch for the March Calls

Someone recently proposed Red-breasted Nuthatch as the source of the March calls and pointed me to this clip.

It’s worth listening to the recording in tandem with some of our putative ivorybill calls. The pitches do sound close.

The habitat isn’t really right for Red-breasted Nuthatch. I’ve never encountered any in the search area, even during irruptions, and the area from which the calls were coming has no conifers. The two calls I heard did not sound like nuthatches to me, and Matt Courtman, who knows the species well, categorically rules out nuthatch of any kind. Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to revisit the sonograms and listen to a whole lot of nuthatch calls.

There’s definitely a similarity, but I’d describe the Red-breasted Nuthatch calls as being buzzier in quality. The harmonics are dramatically different, which accounts for the difference in sound.

For those unfamiliar with sonograms, the X axis is time (in seconds) and the Y axis is frequency.

Red-breasted Nuthatch toots consistently have a fundamental frequency of around 1000 hz; most of our recorded calls have a fundamental that’s closer to 500-600. The strongest emphasis in our calls is on the third partial, usually between 1600-1900 hz. Most of the emphasis in the RBNU calls is on the fourth and fifth partials, in the 2500-3500 hz range; these partials, when visible, are much weaker in our putative ivorybill recordings.

Screen Shot 2017-07-01 at 3.35.41 PM

Typical Red-breasted Nuthatch sonogram. Note the weak fundamental at over 1000 hz and the strong 4th and 5th partials.


Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 7.03.13 AM

Putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker recording, March 15, 2017. Three calls are visible to the left of the white vertical line. Note the stronger fundamental frequency at around 500-600 hz, the weaker second partial, the strong third, and faint, weaker higher partials.

Finally, for reference, it’s worth checking out the White-breasted Nuthatch, both the call and the sonogram. As discussed in a previous post, White-breasted Nuthatches are present in the area, and a number of their faint calls are captured on the recording.

Screen Shot 2017-07-02 at 8.29.26 AM

White-breasted Nuthatch sonogram, showing a weak first partial at approximately 1000hz, strong second and third partials, and somewhat weaker fourths.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that Tanner suggested that ivorybill calls were more like Red-breasted Nuthatches, while Hasbrouck described them as being “exactly like the note of the White-breasted Nuthatch”. I’m still on a learning curve when it comes to bioacoustics, but the harmonic structure of White-breasted call seems closer to known ivorybill calls than is the call of the Red-breasted.

The difference in tonal quality that was apparent to my ears is explained very succinctly on the Earbirding blog:

All nasal sounds are stacks of partials, but not all stacks of partials sound nasal. The tone quality of a complex sound depends on which partials are loudest—that is, darkest on the spectrogram.

The higher the darkest line in a stack, the more nasal the sound.

Known ivorybill calls have a strong 3rd partial and are on the less nasal side of the nasal spectrum; the strength of the 3rd partial became more apparent when the Singer Tract calls were played back and recorded at a distance of 145 meters. Red-breasted Nuthatch calls with their strong 4th and 5th partials are considerably more nasal. The White-breasted falls in between, with strong 3rd and 4th partials.

Tanner wrote that the calls of the ivorybill are “much longer and pitched higher than the White-breasted Nuthatch” and “are more in the range of the Red-breasted Nuthatch”. To reiterate a point made previously, this suggests that typical “kents” were of considerably longer duration than the calls on the Singer Tract recordings, as is the case with the calls Phil and Matt recorded in March. This is important to note, since Cornell, following the Singer Tract recordings, has assumed a duration of 60-100 milliseconds for ivorybill kents, whereas kent-like Red-breasted Nuthatch calls are much longer, often upwards of 300 ms, and White-breasteds seem to be in the 100-200 ms range. One outside reviewer provided durations for eight of the calls we recorded, and they vary considerably, from ~80 ms to ~350 ms.

Whatever these mystery sounds may have been, I’m sure they’re not Red-breasted Nuthatch. They’re not White-breasted Nuthatch either. Nor are they a good match for Blue Jay or Turkey. Carefully considered, serious suggestions are welcome.

Trip Report: June 7-11, 2017

This most recent trip was very snakey, meaning I nearly stepped on several – cottonmouths and timber rattlesnakes. In all my years of searching, I’ve seen six rattlers, three on the most recent trip.

Rather than do a day by day log, I’m just going to post the highlights this time. I took few photos, mostly of reptiles.

I made this trip with absolutely no expectations, given the time of year, although I had hopes that one of our target trees might have been hit. As is so often the case, my hopes went unfulfilled, even as my expectations were exceeded.

I was joined by wildlife biologists Tommy Michot and Peggy Shrum for the entire trip. Phil Vanbergen came along on Saturday. Phil has heard Pale-billed Woodpecker double knocks, and Peggy has heard numerous Campephilus DKs while doing fieldwork in South America.

There was no fresh work on the hickories we have targeted, but we are reviewing the trail cam photos nonetheless. We found another hickory that recently lost its top and have targeted it, along with a nearby hickory and a beech, with our remaining trail cam. The cavities discussed in an earlier post are currently obscured by foliage.

We had possible auditory encounters, all knocks, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and while I would label most of what we heard as “weak possibles”, the Thursday knocks were within one of our “hot zones”, not far from where the March recordings were made. The Friday knocks were in a different area, one we visit infrequently. In most instances, these knocks were heard by one or the other of us, but on Friday, we had some instances where two or all three of us heard them. And all of the Friday knocks were heard in the same general area over a couple of hours.

The Saturday knocks were a lot more interesting. Here’s a detailed description:

Tommy, Peggy, Phil, and went to deploy the trail camera. Peggy has heard many Campephilus DKs in South America, and Phil has heard them in Costa Rica. We heard a possible ambient knock (I can’t be sure if it was an SK or DK) while walking; it was quite loud, but we initially dismissed it as a gunshot. About an hour later, after deploying a trail cam, we set up and did a series of Barred Owl playbacks followed by a DK series. I turned off the recorder after about 15 minutes, but we remained in the area, talking quietly. At 28 minutes after the DK series, we heard a loud SK followed by an apparent DK 5-10 seconds later. We considered and ruled out gunshots (absolutely impossible given the context) and tree fall (light winds, no rain since Tuesday, no rustling of leaves or other accompanying sounds, length of the interval between the first single knock and the subsequent double). Both Phil and Peggy thought it was very good for Campephilus. The source of the knocks was close, probably no more than 200-300 yards away.

About three minutes later, Phil and I heard another more distant DK; we both thought it was quite good, but Peggy and Tommy missed it. My recorder was running at this time, but it did not capture the sound.

After discussing it, none of us felt a gunshot was likely for the earlier knock, since there was no other shooting all day; it seemed to have been fairly close; in June, the only hunting in the area is for hogs, and it is infrequent; the road is quite a distance away; and we hadn’t seen another vehicle in the area all week.

I’m looking forward to returning in October and hope to have enough material for a couple of posts before then. I’m also delighted to have Peggy on board as part of the team; she brings a lot to the table. I’m hoping that coming seasons will involve an expanded team and a more concerted effort, so that we can obtain something conclusive or rule out ivorybill. My only regret about this most recent trip is that I didn’t harvest more chanterelles and didn’t start collecting them until our last day in the field. They were everywhere, and they are delicious.

Project Coyote’s Future and Two Trip Reports from March

The audio obtained in March took precedence over the trip reports and a few other things I’ve been meaning to address for some time. They’re worth a listen if you haven’t done so already.

Longtime readers of the blog have probably noticed the donate button and the advertising that now appears on the site. Project Coyote has been mostly self-funded from the start, except for a few donations from anonymous individuals and the Rapides Wildlife Association. Some used equipment has been passed on to us by other groups of searchers. I’ve long believed that we’d be able to document ivorybill presence (or go a long way toward ruling it out) with more consistent coverage in the area and a relatively modest budget.

At this point, remote recording units and a couple of additional cameras are at the top of the wish list. Ultimately, I’d love to be able to cover costs for our core group and to provide funding for one or two people to be in the area steadily, at least during February, March, and April. I can dream . . . Anyway, your contributions can help make some of this possible.

Before Frank’s passing, I had decided to ‘retire’ from active searching after this season, for a number of reasons – the sense that I had nothing further to say about feeding sign and the fact that I did not personally see or hear anything strongly suggestive of ivorybill presence in the 2015-2016 season among them. The lack of recent work on hickories was particularly discouraging.

Things started to change when Frank was in the hospital. It became clear that our search was important not only to Frank but also to his family and friends. A number of long-time, mostly quiet, enthusiasts and supporters (including Matt Courtman who had visited the area with Frank some years ago) reached out and encouraged me to continue and even to intensify the effort.

Shortly thereafter, Phil Vanbergen found some recent scaling of the kind that I think is diagnostic for ivorybill on two hickories, though it turned out the work was not as fresh as initially suspected. The trail cam capture of a PIWO removing a strip of bark from one of the trees led me to begin my first March trip in a somewhat pessimistic frame of mind. It didn’t take long for that to change – another ride on what I’ve taken to calling the IBWO-llercoaster.

I arrived in the search area on March 9 and met up with two out-of-state birders with whom Frank and I had been corresponding for some time. I showed them around the search area. They were impressed by the habitat, but we did not see or hear anything significant. On the morning of the 10th, I sent an email to some of the team expressing my frustration over not having had a “compelling recent encounter” and stating that my possible October sighting didn’t meet that standard (even now, I don’t think it compares to the March recordings.)

I was on my own on the 10th and had a slightly less discouraging day; I got my first opportunity to examine the scaled hickories Phil had found. This strengthened my suspicion that the recent PIWO work was “wake feeding”.  Later, I met Matt for dinner and a strategy session.

Everything changed on the 11th. In addition to satisfying myself that the extensive scaling on the hickories was at least several months old and that the recent Pileated activity was likely secondary scaling (based primarily on the small bark chips); over the course of the day, we deployed three of our four trail cameras.


Even more importantly, we had auditory encounters in both the morning and the afternoon. Here is my write up from that day, with a few redactions.

At about 10:15, we were in close proximity to where we’ve had several possible contacts, most recently when I was out with Frank in October. We’d just deployed a second trail cam, and Matt had gone about 50 yards north and west of Phil and me. He texted and asked if he could do some DKs (he’s using two wooden blocks that he knocks together.) He did several, no particular pattern, mixed ASKs in with the ADKs.

I did not take notes, and my memory of the exact sequence is weak, but I heard 5-6 DKs and SKs coming from the east in response. If I remember correctly, there was at least some interplay between the ADKs and the DKs, meaning that there were a couple, and then a pause, then Matt DK’ed and there were replies. Matt said he heard 4-5, and I think Phil said he heard 3-4.

Whether or not I’m misremembering, it was far and away the most compelling series of responses I’ve ever heard, and I’ve done hundreds of ADK sessions. **** this was similar to what you encountered on your first trip, in the same general vicinity, but a lot more dramatic. In addition, there was no ambient foraging, and other than the responses, all we got was one PIWO drum from a different direction. Phil said that one of the DKs was very similar to the Pale-billed DKs he heard in Costa Rica last summer. 

For the kents, we were at a different location a few miles away; the time was approximately 2:45 pm. Phil and Matt heard a number of calls, of which I only heard two. Of the two I heard, the first was on the low-pitched side, I’d say close to the pitch of the what Tanner called “conversational” calls on the Singer Tract recordings or what Frank and I called the “wonka wonkas”; it had a trumpet-like quality, maybe more than I’d expect for an IBWO, but still in the ballpark. The second was higher pitched and more tooty/reedy, very close to the Singer Tract recordings. The wind was dead calm for the second call, so it was not a tree squeak. In both cases, the calls came from the East.

. . . 

So there we are. Quite a day. Now, if we could only find out what’s making the sounds and what’s knocking the bark off the hickories at the outset.

For those who missed it, here’s Phil’s recording of two of those calls – headphones or good speakers recommended. We did not record the knocks we heard in the morning.

On the 12th, Steve Pagans, Matt, and I returned to the location and heard 1 ambient DK and 2 SKs, at approximately 1:55 pm.

These sounds came from roughly the same direction as the calls we’d heard the day before. The possible DK was not as loud as the SKs, or as yesterday’s knocks, but it was distinct. Matt did some ADKs. There was a Red-bellied Woodpecker foraging to the south of the direction of the knocks. Matt’s ADKs seemed to induce it to bang more frequently and forcefully, but we didn’t hear any distinctly IBWO sounding knocks in response. Steve and I heard a single possible kent from the same direction as the possible SKs and DK. It was faint. Steve heard it better than I did and thought it was good; Matt didn’t hear it all. This was probably due to how we were positioned in terms of proximity to the sound.

Under normal circumstances I’d label this episode as a fairly weak possible, marginally worthy of mention on the blog. But given the location, it seems more significant.

The 13th was also eventful. Matt and I opted to return to the area where we’d heard the knocks on the morning of the 11th and give the other location a rest. Here’s my write up of the morning’s possible auditory encounter.

We decided to do a mix of playback and DKs at 9:40 AM. I did about a minute and a half of playback, using the iBird app (3 rounds – 28 seconds of Kents, “conversational” calls, and tapping). Matt followed with perhaps a minute of knocking wood blocks together. Over the course of the following five minutes, we had several knocks. Initially, Matt heard a single that I think I missed. It was followed by a very loud knock coming from the East. It was VERY loud and clear, what Frank would have described as some banging on a tree with a baseball bat. Shortly thereafter, another sound came from my left, roughly north of us. Matt heard it as a single, but I heard it as a double, with the second to my ears perhaps the closest thing to what Tanner described as an echo of the first I’ve ever heard. After that, we heard another loud single roughly from the southwest. The last was more distant and somewhat less striking.

The first single knock and the one I heard as a double were astonishing. There’s no doubt in my mind or his that these were neither mechanical sounds nor foraging. I am kicking myself hard for not having my recorder running; I’ve gotten too jaded about auditory encounters, and it’s a little tough to manage both recording and generating sounds.

A little later, I found a dying chestnut oak with some mildly intriguing feeding sign. There were some huge, thick bark chips on the ground and this, more than the appearance of the work on the tree, struck me as potentially suggestive; this is the first interesting work I’ve found on an oak in several years.

Matt and I returned to this location on the morning of the 14th. Matt did ADK series on the half hour until shortly before noon. It was a cold and windy morning, uncomfortably so. We heard nothing of interest.

On the 15th, I headed for New Orleans and my flight the following morning. Phil and Matt returned to the woods and captured numerous calls between 7 and 11 am. When I heard the recordings I cleared the decks and made arrangements to return as soon as I possibly could.

Patricia and I were back in the woods by lunchtime on the 23rd. Louis Shackleton – a good friend, professional photographer, and birder who happened to be in Louisiana – joined us on the 24th. We didn’t see or hear anything of interest and left early ahead of predicted heavy rains.

At shortly after 11:00 am on the 25th, Patricia and I heard some possible double knocks in apparent response to some very aggressive knocking on my part; two of these knocks came from roughly north and one from the east (the same direction from which the March 15th calls were coming).  I’m still reviewing the audio from this trip and may have additional material to post in the future.

I went out alone on the 26th, returning to the same vicinity, and did not see or hear anything interesting.

We were rained out on the 27th. On the 28th, I found a large cavity not far from where the calls were recorded. It does not appear to be fresh enough to be a recent nest, but we plan to target it with a trail cam in the event that it’s being used as a roost. This find illustrates how difficult it is to spot cavities in our search area – six people had spent the better part of multiple days in the immediate vicinity before I noticed it, and the snag is in plain view.

IMGP4571 (2)IMGP4571 (3)

More storms came through on the night of the 28th, and the next morning Patricia and I decided to take a break from the “hot zone” and instead visited the area where Phil found the recently scaled hickories and where Matt, Phil, and I had heard knocks on the 11th and 13th. We found that one of Phil’s scaled hickories had lost its top, which gave me a chance to examine one of the scaled areas up close. As expected, the wood was somewhat punky, and and the bark was fairly easy to remove by hand.


We also discovered that the top of one of our target hickories had been blown off. The tree shows signs of beetle infestation, which gives us reason to hope that it will be visited by woodpeckers before too long.

It was interesting to get a close look at this freshly fallen top and examine how hickory bark separates from the trunk under these circumstances. While it seems to come free fairly easily in very large strips, the bark is extraordinarily tough and strong. When fresh, it’s flexible but very hard to break; doing so requires twisting, and it won’t fracture. Within about 48 hours the piece I collected had dried out and become surprisingly hard. This further reinforced my view that Pileated Woodpeckers are not anatomically equipped to scale large chunks of bark from live or freshly dead hickories.

It was a beautiful day in the woods, and some of the other highlights included recently hatched Wood Ducklings, a posing Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and the first ‘gator (a small one) I’ve ever seen in the area.

The next morning, I returned and redeployed a second camera, which had been trained on another nearby hickory, to the one with the downed top so that we can cover the entire stub.

We spent the morning of the 31st in the area where the calls were recorded before catching an afternoon flight. We did not note any interesting sounds while in the field, but after listening through Patricia’s recordings, I noted the possible double knock discussed in the previous post.

I’m planning two more trips before summer. I anticipate that we’ll have all cams deployed and have high hopes for the hickory stub.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d throw in some additional images that may help to convey what a special and magnificent place this is.




Possible Double Knock in Reaction to a Barred Owl

For a slight change of pace, I’m posting this possible double knock in reaction to a calling Barred Owl that Patricia Johnson captured at 8:40 AM on March 29th, within 50 yards of where the calls were recorded on March 11 and 15. I’m posting this particular double knock because the context may give it added significance – the apparent reaction to the Barred Owl call and the fact that there was no temporally proximate ambient foraging.


I’m somewhat hesitant about posting recordings of knocks, especially those not noted in the field, for a number of reasons: our field tests have revealed that in deep woods, ADKs can sound like single knocks at a couple of hundred yards; it’s also not uncommon for observers to disagree about whether knocks heard in the field are singles or doubles, and the same is sometimes true about recordings. In addition, most of the interesting knocks captured last month are faint on the sonograms, and in the case of the knock posted below, the second knock does not show.

Nevertheless, this double knock appears to be in the right range for Campephilus in terms of the interval and the pattern – louder first knock followed by a softer second one.

Edited to add: Another reviewer has suggested that the knocks are “too slow”.

I’m two trip reports behind and hope to get to them before returning to Louisiana.

More Recordings from March 15: Approximately Three Hours of Kent-like Calls and Analysis

On March 15, Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman recorded numerous kent-like calls at the same location where we heard several calls on March 11 and 12. Phil was able to record two of the March 11 calls. That capture is included in the post, along with Phil’s audio from the morning of the 15th. I heard two of the calls on the 11th; the second one in particular struck me as being consistent with the Singer Tract recordings; the first seemed a little low pitched to my ears, an observation that’s captured on the recording. Steve Pagans and I heard several calls on the 12th, but these were not recorded.

Matt obtained nearly three hours of audio, and to my ears the sounds are coming from 2-4 distinct sources; I had the same impression after listening to some of Phil’s clips. I have now listened all the way through Matt’s recordings several times and will share my analysis below. Matt and Phil are likely to weigh in later with their perspectives. I also have a couple of trip reports pending, so there should be a lot of activity on the blog in coming weeks.

To start with, I counted over 200 kent-like calls in all.

On the long clips posted here, I’ve edited out all of Matt’s ADK (anthropogenic double knock) series, which he did on the half hour. The knocks are very loud, as can be heard from the one trailing sound I’ve left in. I also snipped out several minutes of conversation between Phil and Matt. The ADKs seem to have led to more frequent calling and may have provoked some double knocks, something we may address in a future post.

Edited to add: On further review, there does not appear be a correlation between ADKs and more frequent calling. Clips like the one posted below can be deceptive. One kent-like call that overlaps with a knock has been deleted. There is also one possible knock in response. Caution, ADKs have not been completely spliced out, and they are loud. See bottom of page for brief clip and sonogram.*

Between 6:12 and 6:25 on the last long recording made that morning, there are five calls of differing durations and volumes, followed by what may be a double knock. Similarly, at the end of the full clip, starting at 14:14, 3 calls are bracketed by some potentially interesting knocks, 2 before and 1 or 2 after.

The first four clips below are shorter, amplified extracts on which the calls can be heard easily.

The first two of these are extracted from the final segment described above and include the interesting, tooting sounds and possible knocks.

The third clip includes multiple calls over 2 minutes and nine seconds, along with a wide variety of other sounds.

The fourth is four minutes long (pardon the airplane noise) and should provide additional context while also revealing some of the variations among the calls.

For those, like me, who don’t have professional sonogram software, I recommend using Sonic Visualizer – an easy to use, free program that enables you to watch the sonogram as you listen.

And for those who are unfamiliar with avian bioacoustics, this is a great place to start. I’m on a very steep learning curve myself and am prepared to stand corrected about any misstatements in this post.

Many of the sounds are audible on built-in computer speakers, but playback through headphones, earbuds, or external speakers is highly recommended.


I think these calls were likely made by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. My perspective is based in part on the fact that I have spent all or part of nearly 40 days in close proximity to where the calls were recorded, starting in 2014. A considerable amount of this time was spent sitting quietly, and the total person hours spent in the area is well into the hundreds. We have had occasional kent-like calls, possible double knocks, and possible sightings over the years, but nothing approaching what transpired on the 15th.

Matt spent the morning of the 16th in the same location and did not hear any of the sounds, and Patricia and I spent 4 mornings and one afternoon there between the 23rd and 31st and heard no similar calls. I think this militates strongly against the idea that the source of the sounds is a common resident of the area.

Three alternative hypotheses have been suggested.

On the morning of the 15th, Phil proposed that the sounds might be tree squeaks. There appear to be multiple tree squeaks on the recording, some with similar pitches, but they bear little resemblance to the kent-like calls on the sonogram or to the ear. In addition, the calls sometimes come singly, sometimes in groups, and they vary in pitch, volume, and duration and seem to occur independent of wind velocity (on the 11th we noted that there was no wind.)

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 9.29.13 AM

Sonogram of first clip, showing apparent tree squeaks before and and immediately after two kent-like calls – the stacked horizontal lines right of center.

The first sound, at just after 4 seconds on the second clip, seems ambiguous. The sonogram is somewhat similar to the kent-like sounds, but the duration is very short, and it has a creaky quality. It’s also associated with the two creaky sounds that follow. These can be heard frequently over the course of the morning, and their appearance on the sonogram is nearly uniform.

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 7.51.16 AM

Sonogram of second clip showing tree squeaks.

One reviewer proposed Wild Turkey and Blue Jay as possible sources. I think turkey can be ruled out due to the absence of other turkey-like sounds associated with these very persistent calls.

Blue Jay strikes me as a more plausible alternative. Blue Jays can be heard at numerous times on Matt’s recordings. And Blue Jays are known to make kent-like calls, some of them very similar to known Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds. This is likely not mimicry, since the most similar recorded calls I know of were obtained in upstate New York. The recordist noted the similarity. On the sonogram, the resemblance between these calls and either known Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds or Matt’s recording is not as strong as it might seem to the ear. While they share a strong third partial, the Blue Jay fundamental is higher and some of the higher partials are considerably stronger.

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 7.03.13 AM

Kent-like, suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker calls recorded by Matt Courtman on March 15, 2017. Note the relatively strong base frequency and 3rd partial, and weak 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6ths.

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 11.05.39 AM

Kent-like Blue Jay calls. Note the relatively weak fundamental and strong second through fifth partials.

It’s also important to note that on the Cornell Blue Jay recording, the kent-like calls are intermixed with typical Blue Jay vocalizations. Over the three hours of Matt’s recording, kent-like calls occur during periods when Blue Jays are vocalizing and during periods when Blue Jays are silent.

Some of the kent-like calls have harmonics consistent with Cornell’s recorded playbacks of Singer Tract calls at 145 meters. Many are lower in pitch. Most have a considerably longer duration, although to my untrained eye/ear, some seem close to the 80-100 ms duration on the Cornell recording. More on duration below.

On March 28, I did some playback of Singer Tract calls using an iPhone and a bluetooth speaker. Patricia recorded them on a Roland Edirol R09HR digital recorder. I’m including the recording and the sonogram for comparison. Like Matt’s recordings, the second partial is strong throughout, and the 1st, 3rd, and 4th appear to be weaker than for the Blue Jay shown above.

Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 12.30.00 PM

At various points, Phil also experimented with doing playback, using calls recorded in 2010 at the old Project Coyote site. (He also played back several other species – Red-bellied, Golden-fronted, and, possibly, Gila Woodpecker to gauge Red-bellied response, and Eastern Towhee out of personal interest.) Examples of putative ivorybill playbacks can be heard over the first 3 minutes of the fourth long clip posted above and also during the first part of the fifth. These sounds are longer but similar in tonal quality to the lower pitched calls. Their harmonic structure is different, however, with a fundamental at around 800 hz, a second partial at around 1600, and a fairly strong higher partial at approximately 5000 hz., and should be readily identifiable on the sonogram.

Screen Shot 2017-04-04 at 2.15.09 PM

Higher pitched playback calls, at middle left and far right.

Phil’s playbacks do not seem to have provoked any kent-like replies. Blue Jays can be heard during the same time frame, but it’s not immediately apparent whether the recorded Blue Jay calls are responses or merely contemporaneous vocalizations. This segment includes some Blue Jay vocalizations.

With regard to Blue Jays and the numerous kent like calls heard from March 11, 12, and 15: to reiterate, many hours have been spent in this vicinity, with close attention being paid to kent-like sounds. These are heard infrequently and never before in such quantity or over such an extended period. If Blue Jays in the area were making these sounds, we almost certainly would have heard and recorded many of them over the years. In addition, both Steve Pagans and Matt Courtman are experienced and skilled ear birders and neither thinks these are Blue Jay calls.

It’s also worth pointing out that another potential confusion call can be heard on the recordings – White-breasted Nuthatch. The sound is similar but much weaker, as should be clear from the amplified March 15 excerpt. On the sonogram, just below the amplified recording, the calls show up very faintly, with dominant frequencies of around 2200-2400 hz and a relatively strong partial at 1700-1800.



I encourage people to listen through and draw their own conclusions. Input from those with expertise is welcome.

While I can’t say if any of these calls are a perfect match for the Allen and Kellogg recordings (some may be), many of them are close on the sonogram and similar to the ear. It’s important to bear in mind that the Singer Tract birds were likely agitated when those recordings were made, even though Tanner described some them as being good examples of kents. It’s also important to read Tanner’s descriptions carefully, though as is so often the case, his writing can be opaque. Perhaps his most important observation was that “all of the notes have the same nasal, trumpet-like quality.”

According to Tanner, “The notes of the nuthatches are the only bird calls I know that sound like the voice of an ivorybill; the Ivory-bill’s calls are much longer and pitched higher than the calls of a White-breasted Nuthatch, are more in the range of a Red-breasted Nuthatch.” (Emphasis added.) By contrast, Hasbrouck, writing in the 1890’s, described it as being “exactly like the note of the White-breasted Nuthatch” only much louder and stronger.

Tanner’s reference to Red-breasted Nuthatches has always confused me. I’m very much in Hasbrouck’s camp; I think the Singer Tract kents sound far more akin to White-breasted than Red-breasted Nuthatch. Either way, most of the Allen and Kellogg kents are lower pitched than typical White-breasted Nuthatch calls, as are the ones on Matt’s recording. In addition, the Allen and Kellogg kents seem to be of similar in duration to typical nuthatch calls, rather than longer or “much longer”. This too suggests that they are not typical but are more rapid and perhaps higher pitched due to agitation. Tanner wrote further, “[t]he kent note, given in monotone or infrequently, is the ordinary call note. When the bird is disturbed, the pitch of the kent rises, and it is repeated more rapidly, frequently doubled, kent-kent, with the second note lower. The prolonged and slurring, kient-kient-kient call I always heard when two or more birds were together.” This call was never recorded.

According to Allen and Kellogg, “kenting varied a great deal” and a male bird called “loudly and deliberately”, again suggesting that many calls were of longer duration than those on the recording. Tanner’s notes also point to this variability. At one point, he wrote of “1 and 2 syllable yaps”; he has the Mack’s Bayou bird (whose voice he claimed he could recognize) making a “kient-kient” and also transliterated calls with “keent keent” and “yeenh yeenh” (Bales). These renderings all suggest a more drawn out call than those on the Allen and Kellogg recordings. George Miksch Sutton described the Singer Tract birds’ calls as, “strange, bleat like, not quite sharp enough for a woodpecker’s cry. It was slightly nasal in quality and it sounded to me like ‘Gip!’, with a hard g“. Sutton’s description also suggests that many kents had a fairly long duration.

Edited to add: similarly, several observers (Audubon, Beyer, Hoyt)  described ivorybill calls as “plaintive”; this too seems to imply calls of longer duration than what’s heard on the Singer Tract recordings.

Given the resemblance to the Singer Tract recordings and the lack of plausible alternatives, I posit that these calls are at worst highly suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

*Possible knock and kent-like calls temporally associated with ADK series. Caution remnant ADKs are loud.

Screen Shot 2017-04-09 at 7.37.53 AM