Exciting news on the search front, and we’re indebted to Matt Courtman for making this happen. It is a dream come true for me, and I hope it will represent a major breakthrough in the search effort.
This post is going live on the second anniversary of Frank Wiley’s passing. I imagine that he would be as thrilled as I am about this new development.
Matt recently reached out to the National Aviary, which is collaborating with the Kitzes Lab at the University of Pittsburgh on a variety of acoustic monitoring studies. As a result of Matt’s efforts, Pitt and the Aviary will be supplying us with 200 remote recording units, as well as technical support and processing of the data collected.
The technology has advanced considerably since the organized ivorybill searches in the early 2000s.
We plan to start deploying the units toward the end of the week, with the hope that we’ll be able to home in on potential nest/roost sites in our primary search area. Barring that, we hope the data collected will at minimum provide insight into the movements of putative ivorybills in the area. In addition, we’ll be deploying units in a number of other Louisiana locations.
In other acoustical news, Guy Luneau, whose acute hearing and outstanding ear-birding ability continue to impress, listened to the compilation clip discussed in the previous post and heard something that, to the best of my knowledge, everyone had missed. I know I had.
There are two calls toward the end of that clip (at around 2:25) that sound very similar to the “wonka-wonkas” or “wonks” (as Guy calls them to make it clear the sounds are single syllables) calls from the ’35 recordings. They’re soft, the first softer than the second, but they can be heard on headphones and both show up on the sonogram, the first very faintly. They occur approximately 3 seconds into this 16 second clip.
I’ve extracted a relevant segment and created a sonogram using Sonic Visualizer. I have also included a bit of a sonogram from the Singer Tract showing both kents and wonka-wonkas. (The relevant segments can be found at 0:57 and 3:14 on the Allen and Kellogg recordings.) Note the smaller harmonic interval (distance between each horizontal line) in the wonkas as compared to the kents. Also note that the wonkas frequently came in pairs, with the first note considerably shorter than the second.
The two calls are at the left of the screen cap. The similar harmonic structure suggests to me that the source is the same creature. I think it also tends to further support the suggestion that these calls were made by ivorybills and tends to exclude other species.
I had reason to listen to this clip yesterday and realized that I’ve not previously posted it. It includes amplified selections, greatest hits, from the March 2017 recordings – numerous calls and some knocks, including several in apparent response to Matt’s banging with wooden blocks. At this point, I’m not even sure who made it, probably Steve Pagans. In any case, it’s worth a listen, especially if you haven’t heard the recordings before. Headphones aren’t a must, but they’ll help.
The calls are not a perfect match for the known ivorybill sounds recorded in the Singer Tract, but they are similar in many ways. They are also consistent with historical descriptions of ivorybill calls. They do not seem to match any known North American animal. The fact that the suggestive calls and knocks occurred during the same event lends further weight to the idea that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are the source of the sounds (which seemed to come from more than one source).
Similar sounds are heard rarely in the area, and we have recorded some. The events of mid-March were unique, however, in that the calls were heard in the same location on multiple days, and on the morning of March 15, they continued for hours and numbered in the hundreds. Since that time Matt recorded three calls in April 2018 and Guy, Jay, and I heard similar sounds on New Year’s Day this year.
We are gearing up for a more intensive search effort as the season heads toward its peak. More about that in upcoming reports, so stay tuned.
I’m still planning a post on historic range and one on questions of evidence but thought I’d take this brief detour first. Tommy Michot is braving the Louisiana summer to change batteries and cards and to deploy an additional trail cam. We’re trying to service the cameras and replace the cards on a bimonthly basis. If there’s anything noteworthy on the cards, I’ll adjust my posting schedule accordingly. Look for the historic range post within a couple of weeks and the one on evidence a few weeks after that, before the start of search season in October.
This is the first time I’ve devoted an entire post to someone else’s effort. Though I’ve received a number of other intriguing reports, I’ve chosen to write about this one for a couple of reasons. First, I want to counteract the oft-repeated notion that reports have dried up in areas where intensive searches have taken place. Second, the searcher in question has found intriguing feeding sign as recently as 2017. The images included in this post are among the most suggestive I’ve seen from outside our search areas and tick most of my Ivory-billed Woodpecker boxes. I use the word ‘among’ advisedly here, since virtually all the feeding sign imagery that I’ve found intriguing comes from the Choctawhatchee, including the images showing extensive work on this page from the site devoted to the Auburn search.
The source of the report is an experienced birder and photographer named Rick Sellers. He has generously agreed to my posting this and allowed me to include some of his photographs. His first sighting was in 2012, approximately four years after organized searching came to end in the area and approximately seven miles downstream from Auburn’s ‘hot zone’. Rick shared the details with his family members and with Geoff Hill at the time and posted his email to his family on ibwo.net in March, 2014:
No doubt about it! While in the swamp today, I heard a large woodpecker hammering in the direction of a stand of slash pines at the edge of the swamp. I headed that way and just as I entered the clearing I saw the silhouette of a large dark bird leaving a tall tree on the other side of the stand of pines. I couldn’t ID it because the overcast sky was too bright. All I saw was the dark silhouette against the sky but the bird was clearly larger than a pileated woodpecker and flew loon-like, not undulating like a pileated. There had been a fire in recent years in this area and about 50% of the pines were dead showing extensive bark scaling, diagnostic of ivorybill foraging. Lamenting the fact that I had been unable to ID the big bird, I decided to stake out the pine stand, hoping that an ivorybill would return to feed. I found a secluded spot on the edge of the pines next to the swamp, sat down and ate lunch. I sat there for about 45 minutes and then as I was feeling rather drowsy, lay back with my head on my daypack. I was about to doze off when I heard, “kent-kent” coming from the swamp to my right, no more than 100 feet away! Thinking I must have been dreaming, I sat up and listened intently. Then I heard it again, “kent-kent-kent…..kent-kent! Over the next 3 or 4 minutes, I clearly heard 15-20 kents, some louder than others, that sounded exactly like Dan Mennill’s recordings from 2007. There was no doubt in my mind that I was hearing at least one, if not two, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers! Then as suddenly as they started, the kents stopped. I waited about 5 minutes before moving and then walked into the swamp in the direction of the kents. Unfortunately, I neither saw nor heard anything more as I walked around the area from whence the kents came. I plan to go back tomorrow bright and early and stake out the pines again. (end of email)
Since that encounter, I have been back to the Choctawhatchee at least 10 times for a week at a time. I have hiked and kayaked many miles but have had no more encounters. I am not discouraged, though. Just that one encounter is enough to keep me going until I can get the video or photo of the bird.
Rick informs me that he has had one possible sighting since the time he posted – a large woodpecker showing a lot of white – but that his confidence level is only around 50%.
Rick suspects that the birds do much of their feeding in upland pines outside the floodplain, which is where he had his sighting. He shared a couple of images from the location of his sighting with the notations showing the bird’s path.
Some of the scaling in this stand of pines is extensive, but none of it strikes me as being beyond the capacity of a Pileated Woodpecker. On its own, the work shown in these images would be unlikely to pique my interest. But as in our search area, fire killed pines in surrounding uplands are, at least potentially, a major food source.
What really captured my attention were a couple of photographs. I found the first on Rick’s Facebook page. It was taken in 2017. The tree may be a tupelo, but I’m not sure. The bark is thin, and regardless of species, it is undoubtedly weaker and more easily scaled than hickory. There are also some hints of layered removal, akin to blonding. Nevertheless, a number of characteristics suggest Ivory-billed Woodpecker to me – the mostly clean edges, the lack of damage to or excavation of the underlying sapwood, and the targeted expansion of already large exit tunnels. This is unusual work, and it’s what inspired me to reach out to Rick for more information.
Rick subsequently shared images of a scaled spruce pine he found in 2017. And while I’ve generally taken the view that there’s no way to recognize Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on conifers, this sign is strikingly similar to the work on hickories that we’re finding and also to the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. The work is very extensive; there’s virtually no blonding or damage to the sapwood, except for targeted digging around the exit tunnels. It ticks my ivorybill boxes, save for the fact that it’s on a softwood and there was no chance to examine the bark chips. The final image below is a detail from one of our hickories for comparison.
Except for a passing claim on Facebook about recent ivorybill sightings along the Pea River (a tributary) in Alabama, I’m not aware of other reports of sightings or auditory encounters in the area, but the fact that Rick has continued to find suggestive feeding sign, as recently as last year, suggests to me that the Choctawhatchee merits more attention than it has gotten since Auburn left. Of course, the same is true of many other areas, but this is the only instance where I’ve seen feeding sign that I strongly suspect is the work of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. If I were looking for a place to search, the Choctawhatchee would be at or near the top of my list.
Evidence collected by Project Coyote in two parts of Louisiana from 2009-2018 should, on its own, suffice to justify maintaining the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s current listing as an extant, endangered species in the United States. Others may differ, but I think the totality of the evidence does even more, making a compelling case that the species persists in more than one Louisiana location.
This will be a two part post. The initial impetus for writing it was a conversation I had with Erik Hendrickson about how the scientific, birding, and legal approaches to evidence seem to differ. That will be the main focus of Part 2. As for Part 1, after talking to Erik, I realized that I’d never done a single post aggregating the evidence we’ve obtained over the years, so when it was announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be conducting a status review for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the need for writing this up became more urgent. That’s the primary focus of Part 1, but some of what I’m planning for Part 2 will be foreshadowed in this lengthy treatment.
There is a strong tendency to privilege visual evidence over other forms – audio and circumstantial. I’m inclined to think that our audio evidence is the most compelling material overall; as regular readers know, I also think circumstantial evidence, feeding sign in particular, is very important. But the structure of this post will track conventional attitudes, starting with visual material followed by a discussion of sound recordings and auditory encounters, and concluding with more circumstantial forms of evidence.
Project Coyote has been focused on two areas in Central and East-central Louisiana. I found what I call the “old” search area after reading a newspaper account of a local landowner’s efforts to get his reports taken seriously. This is the landowner who sketched corrections to the Louisiana Hunting Guide’s ivorybill illustrations and who showed Frank Wiley (my late collaborator) bark scaling when he visited the area.
To be clear about what he was trying to show in the corrections: the gentleman died before I had a chance to meet him, but as Frank told me after his August 2009 interview, all of the corrections are in red ink, so the intent was not to put a male crest on a female bird; it was to show the female’s crest as more erect and recurved than the drawing and indicate that the male’s crest also is more erect and prominent (less Pileated-like) than the game guide representation. Also note the drawings at top right, in which he compared IBWO and PIWO wings, implying that the wings in the game guide image are a little too rounded.
What’s most salient about these observations is not whether they are perfectly accurate, although they do seem to reflect some little-known nuances, it’s that the landowner had enough claimed observations of male and female ivorybills to recognize subtle differences and to distinguish them from Pileateds. In addition, he was offended by the treatment he received when he tried to alert the authorities. I have personal knowledge about this last aspect based on conversations with family members who wanted to see him vindicated.
He was certainly convincing enough for Frank to start visiting the property on a weekly basis during the summer of 2009. Thus, Project Coyote was born.
The landowner’s reports go back to the 1990s. (The linked post includes audio from 2009). There are several medium to large state WMAs and National Wildlife Refuges in fairly close proximity to the site. We heard additional claims from residents of the area while we were focused there.
Putative ivorybill activity on the property seems to have diminished or ended altogether after an adjoining parcel was logged in late fall 2010. As a result, we gradually shifted our attention to the new search area.
The old search area received minimal attention during the post-Arkansas period; some peripheral Ivory-billed Woodpecker-related research was conducted in the general vicinity, but there was no formal, funded search effort. Nor was it visited by Cornell’s Mobile Search Team, although Martjan Lammertink did spend several days on site, after the logging.
Similarly, our “new” search area was entirely off the radar. It doesn’t show up on anyone’s list of promising locations, notwithstanding the fact that it is in one of the most sparsely populated, heavily forested parts of the state. There’s also a long history of local reports. Most of the claims seem to have been fairly recent, but some go back to the late 1990s.
And these are only the claims I know about . . .
For reasons that I hope will become clear, I have not kept track of all our possible sightings since 2009 and have not always mentioned them in blog posts. Nevertheless, I’ll begin with sightings. Over the years, Frank had more possibles and reported having better views than anyone else. I’m probably second, with approximately six since 2009, but unfortunately no good looks. Steve Pagans has had several possibles; a few visitors have also made claims.
While this is largely a subject for the next post, it’s well-known that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, at least when the source is an untrained observer. Nevertheless, eyewitness testimony is central to many a criminal trial, and it has a strong impact on jurors. There seems to be a parallel with respect to the ivorybill. Accounts of possible sightings tend to attract more interest than many more substantive and important posts.
Thus my Sunset Sighting post, which is not quite two months old, has had approximately 800 pages views, but my March 18, 2017 post entitled, Numerous Kent-like Calls Recorded on March 11 and 15, 2017 received a total of 744 views last year. Similarly, the post on Joseph Saucier’s October 2017 sighting and our follow-up visit to that location, Change of Pace Change of Place, posted in late November, received 804 page views, the second highest total for the year, (well behind the announcement of Frank’s passing).
According to a survey conducted in the aftermath of the Arkansas controversy, “[R]espondents were most confident in the sightings, less confident in the Luneau video and recordings of double-knocks and kent calls, and least confident in the FishCrow video.” The discrepancy was strongest for the “Definitely of IBWO” category, where 22 people listed sightings as conclusive, compared to 10 for the Luneau video, 9 for kent calls, 8 for double knocks, and 4 for the first Fishcrow video. (PDF) The Great Ivory-billed Woodpecker Debate: Perceptions of the Evidence. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259337980_The_Great_Ivory-billed_Woodpecker_Debate_Perceptions_of_the_Evidence[accessed Jun 28 2018].
So sightings have an almost irresistible appeal; in some cases, there’s good reason to credit them, but it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, to determine what’s trustworthy and what isn’t. And there are many kinds of chaff – wishful thinking, self-delusion, ignorance, mistake, and deception to name the most obvious.
I’ve retrospectively rejected a couple of my possible sightings (and almost did so with the recent “Wooden Wings” incident), partly because I’m disposed to look for reasons to doubt myself and partly because I realized that I was in some way primed in a couple of those instances; for example, in one case, I’d been looking at specimens the day before. In the absence of a good look, I think it’s better to err on the side of self-skepticism.
When it comes to claims from others, it’s impossible to know with certainty what someone else saw, even when reports are accompanied by detailed sketches and field notes, as is the case with several of Frank’s sightings. I was with him for one, on April 3, 2015, when he made notes (available at the link) and a sketch (at my urging). I have no doubt that he was convinced he saw an ivorybill, as he was visibly shaken immediately afterwards and was very slow to regain his composure.
But I really like corroboration, and to the best of my recollection, Frank and I had two possible two-person sightings in all our time together – the first was in the old search area, the day after an auditory encounter and a week before a suggestive trail cam capture was obtained, effectively from the same spot. I consider this my strongest possible sighting.
The second was much weaker, a flyover with two birds seen in silhouette within 15-20 minutes of an ADK series. (Three of my possible sightings, two of which Frank also saw, have been associated with ADKs.) We did not think much of this possible at the time but could not explain it away entirely. I should add that Frank had several other two or more person sightings, but I was not present for those.
With regard to the local reports, I’m always mindful of the possibility that I’m being played, especially as an obvious northerner in rural Louisiana, but I don’t think that has ever happened. It’s still necessary to listen closely and ask the right questions. Pileated, Red-headed, and even Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be confusing for non-birders. I’m more likely to credit accounts from people who make it clear they know Pileateds and know the difference (like the landowner in the old search area) or from people who say they thought the ‘ones with the white backs are the males’ and the ‘ones with the black backs are the females’. I’ve heard this only a couple of times. But I like it best when we get ivorybill claims from different, unconnected people referencing the same location; this has happened in the vicinity of the current search area.
To conclude, members of our group have had multiple sightings of varying quality, in two different Louisiana locations since 2009. In addition, there have been multiple claims from locals in both areas.
One final note, relevant to the USFWS review: I am aware of a number of additional post-2009 claims from Louisiana (and a few from other states). In a couple of cases, Frank interviewed the people involved and found them to be credible. A cellphone video was obtained in one instance; the observers’ excitement over apparently seeing a pair of ivorybills is evident, but the quality of the video is extremely poor. In the other case, two people saw the bird and one provided a highly detailed description and sketch. There’s also Joseph Saucier’s report from last fall; our follow-up suggested that much of the habitat in this large expanse of forest was likely suitable, and Matt Courtman, who is an excellent birder, heard what he thought was a very good double knock on one of his follow-up visits.
I recently posted a couple of Frank’s 2009 sightings and accompanying photographs that hadn’t been made public previously. These are the only photographs associated with possible sightings that we have obtained. Full details are available at the link; rather than recapitulate them here, I’ll focus on trail cam photos, including several that have been discussed previously plus a few intriguing ones from the old search area that have not been posted previously.
These are the images I think are most strongly suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker and for which I am unaware of a strong counterargument.
The first two have been discussed repeatedly at length in a number of other posts. Both are from the old search area; the first was taken in August 2009 and the second, which appears to show a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker, was taken in late November, a week after the sighting discussed in the previous section.
To reiterate a couple of points about the August 2009 image: in the original photograph, there appears to be some red in the crest (though it’s not positioned right for either PIWO or IBWO). Careful review and image enhancement made it clear to me that the red is an artifact and the crest is black. In addition, as shown in the enhanced detail, there appears to be a large, light-colored bill protruding from a cavity in the background. This apparent bill is absent from captures obtained on other days. It changes position in the two frames where it is visible, suggesting it is attached to something within the cavity. (Unfortunately, the other frames from that morning have long since been lost.)
The image of a bird in flight, from the new search area, is more problematic, as it is not demonstrably a woodpecker. The still above includes an inserted Imperial Woodpecker for comparison, with motion blur reduction applied to the bird captured by the trail cam. One prominent birder stated that it is a Blue Jay, but as discussed in the original post, the bird is behind the snag and appears to be as large as or larger than a Pileated Woodpecker captured on the trunk.
Although we’ve determined that one of the initially intriguing images from that deployment shows a Red-headed Woodpecker, a few others remain interesting.
There’s an additional image from the spring of 2010 (old search area) that has always intrigued me, though I never had a chance to examine the original. I think it shows a large woodpecker, with a black crest, high on a honey locust. If it were a Pileated, male or female, I’d expect some red to be visible in the crest, even under these conditions.
Finally, there are a couple of additional trail cam captures from the old search area that I have not posted previously. By now, the original sequences are lost, and I’ve long since forgotten any details or discussion we might have had when Frank sent me the images. While they are far from conclusive, I think they are interesting enough to post in this context. At minimum, they further illustrate the challenges associated with obtaining definitive trail cam imagery.
Note: If you listen to the recordings below with headphones (recommended) be aware that some have loud sounds, clarinet toots and ADKs, in the foreground. This applies to the clip from March 2013 that I recorded and to many of Matt and Phil’s recordings from March 2017.
Possible auditory encounters far outnumber possible sightings, and over the years we have made numerous recordings of putative kents and double knocks (more than once in combination, which should add to their evidentiary value). Some visitors have been rewarded by hearing something within a day or two of arriving, and this has been true in both search areas, although others have been less fortunate, and I heard nothing suggestive during the most recent field season (though Matt Courtman recorded three possible calls in April of this year).
I will not be including all the audio evidence we’ve obtained, just some of the material I think is most significant. Some of the putative kent calls that have been recorded over the years may be Blue Jays; it has been suggested that Matt’s calls from this spring are too low pitched for ivorybill and might be from a heron, though I think they come from the same source. Regardless, many of the calls are simply inconsistent with any known bird species, are fairly close to the Singer Tract recordings harmonically, and are perfectly consistent with written descriptions of Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds.
One of the most dramatic encounters involving both apparent kents and double knocks was from the old search area. It seemed to have been triggered by banging from the tin roof of an old deer stand. Six people were present, and much of the incident was recorded. There were apparently two birds involved. More details are in this post, and here is Frank’s 58 minute recording:
Extracts from the encounter and other material recorded in person and on remote units in the old search area and environs, as well as sonograms, can be found here, via the Wayback Machine. Some of the Wayback Machine links are not functioning, and the material posted there includes a couple of double knocks; here are several of the recorded kent-like calls:
Note that the fundamental frequencies on many, but not all, of these calls are in the 900-925 hz range, higher than the Singer Tract recordings and possibly consistent with Blue Jay. But in the second clip above, the fundamentals of both the lower calls at the beginning and the higher calls at the end appear to be a little over 800 hz., and during the extended encounter mentioned above, the calls went on for a prolonged period without the source revealing itself as a Blue Jay, which would be typical if the animal were indeed a jay.
The same applies to calls I heard and recorded in the new search area on the morning and afternoon of March 2, 2013. The morning calls went on for ~20 minutes. I did not think they were Blue Jays in the field.
We have recorded apparent double knocks in apparent reaction to ADKs and to Barred Owl calls and sometimes in contexts where the trigger is unclear, as in this example from an October 2015 post written by Frank:
“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.”
The 15 minute interval between ADK/playback and apparent response is similar to the lag time that has been observed in other Campephilus woodpeckers responding to ADKs; it may be worth distinguishing between a slower ‘response’ and a more immediate ‘reaction’ in this context. (M. Lammertink, pers. comm.)
In my view, the audio recorded by Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman in March 2017 is compelling, perhaps the most compelling evidence we’ve obtained. On the morning of March 15, they recorded over 200 calls, along with a number of possible double knocks, over an approximately three hour period. The calls have lower fundamental frequencies than many of those in earlier recordings; these frequencies are considerably lower than any kent-like Blue Jay calls I’ve been able to locate online. Other suggestions have included, Red-breasted Nuthatch (too high) and Wild Turkey (no typical Turkey vocalizations were recorded that morning).
Overall, the calls appear to be inconsistent with any other known species of bird, mammal, or amphibian. Their association with Campephilus-like double knocks strengthens the argument for Ivory-billed Woodpecker as the source. As far as I know, the sheer number of recorded calls is unprecedented for a single incident in the post-Singer Tract era.
I was lucky enough to hear a couple of the calls on March 11, the day Phil first captured them, along with a couple more and some knocks at the same location on the following day. I’ve blogged about these recordings at length in multiple posts; I won’t repeat all that material here, but the discussions are worth reading. I will repost some of the original recordings and enhanced versions.
Here is the first recording Phil made, one clip with the calls isolated and one with our talk and reactions. It may be difficult to hear the calls without headphones.
Here are some brief extracts from Phil’s March 15 recordings:
Here are some from Matt’s:
In the interest of brevity, I encourage readers to visit this post for in depth analysis, various extracts, and amplified versions that highlight the calls and some of the knocks. As always, it helps to listen through headphones.
Indirect Evidence: Bark Scaling, Bark Chips, and Cavities
I’ve discussed my bark scaling hypothesis – that a certain type or types of scaling may be diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker – multiple times over the years. As explored in a couple of recent posts, we are in the process of testing it. I won’t recapitulate the hypothesis here except to say that I remain convinced that neither Pileated Woodpeckers nor squirrels are physically capable of removing hickory bark in the manner we’ve found in the new search area. There may be other diagnostic characteristics, but my main focus is now on the hickories, since the work on that species is the most extreme outlier. Below are some dramatic examples of bark scaling (plus one image of interesting feeding sign on a sweet gum sapling that had been stripped of bark) on hickories, oaks, and sweet gums from both search areas.
For Tanner, bark scaling was one of the strongest indicators of ivorybill presence, even though he accepted some reports from trusted sources in areas where he found no scaling. The absence of scaling (along with poor habitat “quality”) was one of his main reasons for dismissing reports during his 1930s survey and rejecting the ones from the Big Thicket in the 1960s. He also doubted reports from the Chipola and Apalachicola area in 1950 based on finding no cavities or scaling during a 4 day visit. He concluded his notes on the trip by stating:
Conclusion: No I-b now in Chipola R. and neighboring Apalach R. swamps. Many of Kelso’s reports are mistaken, – not deliberately false, but due to ignorance and wishful thinking. There appear to be contradictions in some of his stories. I could not get any clear statement of what Ivory-bills sound like from him. He said that the local name of I-b was “Saddleback”, – which appears good but in many ways odd. Also “Van Dyke”! There certainly is no fresh sign in any area we visited indicating that the birds are present. The only possibility is that of scaling on pine; this may be solved by watching Pileateds in the pine woods.
(F. Bryntesson, pers. comm.)
While I think it’s possible, indeed likely, that some of the work Tanner ascribed to ivorybills was done by Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels, there’s no question that an abundance of bark scaling is relevant in assessing possible ivorybill presence in a given area.
Based on visits, some lasting a week or more, to suspected ivorybill haunts in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana and on information provided by other searchers and people who have spent years in southeastern forests, I feel safe in saying that the quantity and quality of bark scaling found in both search areas is unusual. We also found an abundance of scaling in the area where Mr. Saucier had his sighting last year, something that I think lends added credibility to his report.
In the past, many in the searcher community speculated that lateral groves or bill marks in the cambium or sapwood might be suggestive, but this view has fallen out of favor; much of what was thought to be “scaling” in these instances was in fact shallow excavation with associated bark removal. We found one example of superficial lateral marks in 2013 that continues to intrigue me, although the snag in question is a young sweet gum that could easily have been stripped by a squirrel or Pileated Woodpecker.
The edges of the scaled area may tell more of a story, especially in conjunction with any bark chips found on the ground. On the trees shown above, damage to the still-adhering bark suggests that lateral blows were integral to the scaling. This would be expected if the source were a Campephilus woodpecker.
An abundance of large, hard, thick bark chips (or chunks) around the base of a tree is also a likely indicator. Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels seem to remove bark in smaller pieces and in strips. Additionally, when squirrels are involved and the bark has been recently removed, it’s likely that there will be a lot of smaller debris in the mix, since squirrels have to gnaw their way through the bark. Some of the chips we found in the old search area seem to have bill marks consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
The bills of specimens, at least, seem to fit perfectly into indentations in the chips, but Pileated Woodpecker bills seem to be too small. The larger chips shown below are suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker from a variety of species – oak, hickory, sweet gum, sugarberry, and honey locust. The specimen shots are with a honey locust chip from the old search area. The first few images show squirrel and Pileated woodpecker leavings for comparison.
Cavities are vexing. I’ve become convinced that there’s no bright line for distinguishing Pileated from Ivory-billed Woodpecker, notwithstanding the dimensions Cornell gave for “large” PIWO (3.5″ x 3.7″) versus “small” IBWO (4.0″ x 5.0″). The small ivorybill sample was limited to nest holes, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of oddly shaped and large holes being used by Pileated Woodpeckers. Thus, while I keep my eyes open for cavities, I don’t think there’s a reliable way to determine which species is responsible for creating or using large, irregularly shaped cavities, although extensive bark scaling on the tree may be indicator.
It has been a challenge to find cavities of any kind in our current search area, probably due in part to the high canopy. We did find a cluster of interesting cavities in what I call the northern sector in the 2014-2015 season. This cluster was in the vicinity where we’ve found an abundance of scaling over the years and where Phil and Matt made the recordings last year. Below are some of the most interesting cavities we’ve found in the two search areas. Cavities were much easier to find when we followed up on the Saucier sighting, but I’ve omitted those from this document.
In conclusion, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persist in Louisiana. It is self-evident that none of this evidence rises to the level of proof required for establishing beyond all doubt that the species has survived, but I think the case for persistence is a compelling one, without regard to evidence obtained in other areas since 2005.
Stay tuned for a more theoretical discussion of evidence, proof, and professional approaches thereto.
Thanks to Wylie Barrow, Fredrik Bryntesson, Patricia Johnson, Tommy Michot, Steve Pagans, and Phil Vanbergen for their input. Some photos by Steve Pagans and Erik Hendrickson.
While I have not been keeping close track of numbers, I’m going to give some guesstimates on trail cam results. Our current settings (~12 hours daily at 20 second intervals) result in ~2000 captures per day with cards filling and beginning to overwrite at somewhere between 80-90 days. PlotWatcher’s proprietary software makes the process a lot easier than it was with the old Reconyx images, which had to be stepped through manually. This is the first time I’ve really immersed myself in reviewing imagery, and even with the ability to review the images in a video format, it’s a tedious process involving a lot of stops and starts.
I’d estimate that I’ve reviewed about 500,000 images over the past 8 weeks, and I’m struck by the relatively small number of hits, especially avian ones. Squirrels make up a significant percentage, probably more than half, the total captures, and I suspect that Northern Cardinals are second. Other common species show up infrequently. I don’t recall seeing any identifiable Blue Jays (although there may be one among the images below). Nor were any Wild Turkeys captured (including on a camera that was mis-aimed, with the target tree at the right edge of the frame and a large open area to the left as shown in some of the captures below).
Woodpecker captures have been extremely rare, except on the targeted hickory discussed post before last, that was already extensively scaled. Among the rest of the images I’ve reviewed thus far, I’ve seen three identifiable Pileated Woodpeckers – one on a target tree (below) and the other two on an adjacent tree that had one pre-existing PIWO foraging pit in the frame – and as best as I can recall, a couple of identifiable Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a Hairy (captures not saved/posted).
I suspect it would be fairly easy to obtain Pileated imagery in quantity by targeting trees with obvious PIWO foraging sign, but otherwise, it seems even this abundant species is hard to capture in a camera trap. This should help illustrate another reason I don’t think the so-called failure to obtain conclusive ivorybill imagery using trail cams is very meaningful.
Assuming the ivorybill persists, it is a very rare species with incompletely understood behavior, and no one alive today, myself included, knows exactly what makes a good target tree. The best anyone can do is make educated guesses and hope to get lucky, against extremely long odds.
Now some housekeeping: the next couple of posts will be about evidence. I’ve never assembled all of Project Coyote’s evidence in a single post and discussed it as I plan to in the next post, which I expect to take live sometime next week. Look for a more theoretical piece on evidence to follow that. Both of those posts will be password protected for review, though I will try and make them public as soon as possible. After that (probably in August), I’m planning a postscript to the habitat and historic range series.
I won’t be doing regular updates on the trail cam imagery unless there’s something significant to report or I have insights similar to those expressed here.
And now some imagery. It should be illustrative of some of the challenges. See what you can find, including in the featured image . . .
Think of this as a prologue to some upcoming posts on evidence – including a more structured discussion of the evidence we’ve obtained over the years and my take on broader issues of evidence and the ivorybill controversy. Look for those at the end of this month and in July. There’s likely to be a trip report posted before then. I’m also planning a postscript to the Bits ‘n’ Pieces series that summarizes my thoughts in a more organized fashion. That will come sometime this summer. In addition, we will have trail cam imagery from seven deployments (plus unreviewed imagery from five cards) to examine over the summer. We’ll be adding an eighth camera later this month, targeting some scaling Tommy found last month. As discussed previously, we plan to leave these cameras in place for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share the details about and accompanying photographs related to two sightings Frank had in the old search area during the summer and fall of 2009, before my first visit. But first, I’d like to share a trail cam image from the location and deployment where we obtained a suggestive trail cam image a week after I had a possible sighting. With the passage of time, I had forgotten that the landowner’s grandsons (who are mentioned in one set of Frank’s notes) had reported seeing an ivorybill in the same immediate vicinity on the morning when Frank and I had an auditory encounter, and the day before my possible sighting.
This image below was captured in 2009, the day after the one mentioned above that we published years ago. The bird is in flight, just below the fork and to the left of the scaled trunk. I’ll leave it to readers to evaluate; I don’t know what it is, but I think the wing pattern is intriguing. You can click on this image (and the others) to view them in a larger format.
With regard to trail cam photos, this is a processed detail from another image from 2009 that Frank liked for ivorybill and that he may have posted on ibwo.net back in 2009 or 2010. I was initially intrigued by this image but was eventually convinced that it shows a Pileated Woodpecker with somewhat worn feathers and that the apparent long tail is due to the posture of the bird. It was a rare time when Frank and I agreed to disagree about an ivorybill related matter. I remain convinced the bird is a Pileated and won’t be including this in my planned discussion of our evidence, but I’m posting it here because Frank had such a strong opinion about it.
In summer and fall 2009, before my first visit to the property, Frank had two sightings in the course of which he obtained several photographs. These images are inconclusive at best, and the late Bill Pulliam had a critical take on the two Frank took during the first encounter. I’ll include the bulk of Bill’s analysis below; his commentary notwithstanding, I think these images are worthy of posting now. In retrospect, they are among the very few such images that have been obtained in conjunction with a sighting and with accompanying field notes. The context in which they were obtained, in a small area where there were multiple sightings and auditory encounters by multiple people over a period of six months, gives these notes and images added weight, in my view. I’m grateful to Amanda Wiley Legendre for giving me the go-ahead to post this material. All photos and field notes are by Frank Wiley
Here are screen caps of Frank’s handwritten notes (with a minor redaction to protect location information). The photographs follow.
Bill Pulliam compared the images with others showing the background without the bird present. This is what he had to say:
First Image: I’m actually having a very hard time making sense of this one. What I get as bird is the three large white areas, the small black spot between them, and a reddish or yellowish mass to the lower left. From the context of the two images thus would seem to be a side view of a bird flying to the left and somewhat away. At a glance it almost looks like a bird with a white body, white wings, dark on the breast, and rusty red head. In the absence of any other information, I would think it is some sort of duck except I’m not sure how to make the colors match up. The reddish blob to the left really does look like the head of a duck flying to the left.
I can’t reconcile this with a woodpecker of any kind, or with the description you provided. It might be a molting young little blue heron or white ibis, I suppose. It really kinda looks like a canvasback, except this is august, right? Even if I disregard the red head, I don’t see how to line it up sensibly.
Second Image: This one is even more problematic. There are the two white arcs that look like wings, but then there is a long narrow dark extension to their left. This time the foreground object comes out to be: I don’t know WHAT this might be. If I disregard the long thing to the left it might be something with white wings, but it’s hard to say more than that.
In summary — I can’t make sense of these objects to have any idea what to call them; the first one is not easy to reconcile with Ivorybill, the second is just hard to say anything about. Given that they are actually the same object, I’m still at a loss.
Sorry, not what you want to hear, but it’s what I come up with. Bill
In reading Bill’s comments for the first time in years, nearly a decade after he wrote them, I’m struck more by how perplexing he found the images to be than by his coming up with something I didn’t want to hear. I am also struck the level of detail in Frank’s description, which I also hadn’t looked at since he wrote it or shortly thereafter.
It’s worth bearing in mind that these photographs were taken with a mid-range, consumer 2008 DSLR with a very modest burst mode. It’s to Frank’s immense credit that he got any pictures at all under the circumstances; the same goes double for the next series.
This is Frank’s account of his November 8, 2009 sighting, which he wrote up in Word, again with a few redactions unrelated to the substance of the report. This was approximately a half mile from the camera trap location. Note that I don’t have copies of all the images Frank used in the figures below, so I’ve taken screen captures from the Word document. The images I do have are reproduced in full size at bottom.
Figure 1: Overview map of sighting area
On 11-08-09, Frank Wiley at approximately 7:30am CST was on speakerphone with Mark Michaels of New York. During the time we were on the phone I was approximately 1000 yards Southwest of the location shown in Figure 1 above. During that time while I had Mark on speakerphone, he heard several possible double raps (though over the phone he could not separate the individual raps), and at least one very loud single rap that he remarked upon as being very distinct and woody. These sound detections were quite loud to me, as the observer on the scene, and were obviously loud enough to be picked up at a considerable distance by the speakerphone microphone in my Blackberry. I had my Sony IC recorder running nearby at the time, but have not yet reviewed the recording to determine which (if any) of the putative sound detections it may have picked up.
During the time we were connected, Mark was able to make out calls of Pileated Woodpeckers, a Yellow Shafted Flicker, and Red Bellied Woodpeckers, as well as numerous other bird calls. Additionally, I identified by sight a number of other woodpeckers including 2 Downy Woodpeckers, a Yellow Shafted Flicker, numerous Red Bellied Woodpeckers, numerous Pileated Woodpeckers, 1 Hairy Woodpecker and a pair of Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers. Photos of all (time and date tagged) are available for review, except no photo of the Yellow Shafted Flicker.
Note: I do not have copies of the photos or the audio recording referenced above.
At one point, I stated to Mark that I was possibly being approached by an ivorybill. A black and white bird with the apparent giss of a large woodpecker was approaching my position. Before the bird reached me, it was mobbed by a small (3 or 4 birds) murder of crows, and fled to the North. The unknown woodpecker appeared slightly larger than a Pileated, but was slimmer in profile with seemingly longer wings. Its flight did not undulate as a Pileated normally would. I cannot ascribe any field marks to this bird that would definitively identify it as a Pileated or any other species of large woodpecker, so obviously, Pileated Woodpecker cannot be ruled out in this instance.
After the forest quieted down, I got off the phone with Mark, and staked out a small finger lake in the area for a couple of hours. Woodpecker activity remained higher than usual in the area, especially the Red Bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. During this time, I heard some loud “hammering” that had a pop…POP-pop sequence coming from across the lake, at a distance I would estimate to be greater than 150 yds.
Slightly before noon I walked out of the forest to the home of a member of the family, that owns this tract of forest. I visited with him and his wife until their son M (14) and nephew B (14) returned from their morning squirrel hunt. As I planned to deploy a game camera, and having had one stolen a couple of weeks before, the boys had hooked a trailer to their ATV, and were hauling a caving ladder so I could strap the camera to a tree 10-12 feet off the ground to deter theft and meddling.
We were on the ATV (B riding on the trailer, M driving, and I was riding behind him) and headed to the spot where I planned to deploy the camera (in the forest approximately 100 yds West of the tree circled in Figure 1). Immediately after crossing the slough shown on the Southern portion of the map, B began pounding my back and shouting “There goes the bird!”
Though young, B and M have spent their lives in the woods. They have keen eyesight, and are becoming quite adept at identification of the larger birds common to the area by sight and sound. I have repeatedly tested them with Pileated visual and auditory contacts with “Is THAT the bird?” and they never claim that a Pileated is “the bird.” “The bird” we are discussing is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
M and I looked in the direction (North/Northeast). B was pointing and sighted the bird at approximately 275 yards, flying just above the canopy West to East. The bird did not “swoop” or “undulate” in the manner of most woodpeckers, and displayed distinct white plumage on both the dorsal and ventral secondary flight feathers. The bird’s giss was more slender, and longer, with a longer seeming tail than a normal Pileated. I quickly raised my camera and snapped off three quick shots. While the bird was definitely in the frame, I had bumped my focusing dial, and it was not focused at infinity for the zoom setting. Upon review, these three frames reveal nothing but blur, but have been retained for my records. This occurred at 1:38pm CST (2:38pm CDT on the camera). The bird then banked to its left (North) and disappeared from view.
M restarted the ATV and began moving North, when approximately 1 minute later, B shouted “There’s one on the side of that tree!” indicating a large pecan in the Northwest corner of the clearing. Both M and I looked up as three large black and white woodpeckers with trailing white secondary dorsal flight feathers flushed from the side of the tree. I am quite sure of our identification of these birds as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
Even though the range was extreme (later measured at approximately 225 yards), I raised my camera again (prefocused to infinity this time) and got off four shots of a bird fleeing to our left (West). These photos, Figures 2 thru 9, appear below. Figure 2, 3, 4, and 5 are the pictures as seen in the original file reduced for insertion into this document. Figure 6, 7, 8, and 9 are cropped and zoomed at the same pixel rate and resized for insertion into this document. In my opinion, except for the long tail, and odd wing shape, Figures 6 and 7 look somewhat like a crow. Figure 8 is apparently a large woodpecker with wings in a “tucked” position. Figure 9 is the same bird with the wings in an upward position. In both Figure 8 and 9, a long, substantial bill appears to be present. In Figure 9, the bird’s right wing shows possible white along the trailing edge in the location of the secondary flight feathers.
Again, the fact that he was able to get any photographs at all is a reflection of Frank’s skills, which he had honed as a hunter. And while these photographs are inconclusive, the description of what he observed lends them considerable weight in my view.
Here are the frames that I still have on my computer. A couple are processed and cropped somewhat differently. One includes an annotation that Frank omitted from the report, highlighting an American Robin to provide a sense of scale. It may be helpful to examine these higher resolution versions.
Regarding the Blog
To follow up on some comments I made in the previous post, I’m still reflecting on where to take the blog in the future and am interested in hearing from readers about their reasons for visiting, as well as what they find most helpful or enjoyable to read.
When I first started blogging in 2013, I had a few purposes in mind. Foremost among them were replacing the original Project Coyote website, which had not been operational for a couple of years, and inspiring hope in other searchers and the general public. At the time, the organized, well-funded searches had long since wound down, leaving the field to handful of independents, most of whom were searching quietly.
In the intervening five years, readership has grown, approaching 40,000 unique visits and 110,000 page views at the time of writing. My reasons for blogging have also evolved over time. When Frank Wiley was alive, he was happy to have me play the more public role, while he stayed mostly in the background. Between 2013 and Frank’s passing, Project Coyote was mostly Frank, Steve Pagans, and me; we had a number of friends, advisors, and visitors to the search area, but their active involvement in planning, strategizing, and on the ground activities was limited. During this period, the blog became a place for me to share trip reports, including details of possible sightings, and to work through my thinking on various aspects of ivorybill history, behavior, and ecology.
The blog came to play another role for me – reward for an effort that has been expensive, lonely, and sometimes thankless. I enjoy watching the traffic spike when I post something, especially about suggestive material and possible encounters. (At the same time, I sometimes get a little frustrated when it appears that people visit the site and don’t read the material or listen to the audio that’s posted; this seems to happen often according to the analytics.) I think that some of my initial haste in posting about the possible sighting was influenced by this reward (while my haste in posting my subsequent misgivings was driven by an exaggerated sense of responsibility). This is true even though Project Coyote has become a true team effort, and I can get great support and insight from my trusted collaborators.
I don’t think posting in haste is salutary, and in retrospect, it probably would have been better to take a long pause to consider and consult with the rest of the team. Even then, I suspect it might have been better to refrain from posting altogether. (Since the post is already up, some additional discussion follows below.)
The bottom line is I’m not sure if there’s value in posting additional trip reports, possible sightings, and suggestive but inconclusive data or if it would be better to circulate this material privately. I’m open to persuasion in either direction.
The Possible “Wooden Wings” Sighting on April 27, 2018
In retrospect, the main reason I started to question myself about the April 27th sighting was my failure to see any white on the wings, something that started to nag at me the following day, even before I found a Pileated Woodpecker roosting in the immediate vicinity. Of course, had the bird in question been a PIWO, some white should have been visible if lighting conditions and sightlines had allowed for it. One advisor asked if the bird could have been a Wood Duck or a Hooded Merganser. I think this is unlikely for a few reasons.*
I saw neither Wood Ducks nor Hooded Mergansers (the latter are not common in the core search area) during this trip. There were small stubs and a broken limb on the back side of the tree, poor perches, but no cavities, and my impression at the time was that the bird was a woodpecker that had landed briefly and then flown from mid-bole on the larger cypress in the photograph below. The bird flew away and to the left over the clearcut and then apparently returned, within a minute, to one of the two trees in the background farther to the left. I thought it was into the one farther in the background, a hickory, not the closer tree where a Pileated went to roost, approximately 20 minutes earlier, on the 29th.
One final comment on the sound of the wingbeats: I’m not familiar with Ruffed Grouse wingbeat sounds, which Tanner suggested were similar, and have not seen a Ruffed Grouse in the field since I was a kid. They’re rare in my county, and I suspect the numbers have declined based on the lack of recent eBird records. All are from before 2000. I listened to a couple of recordings of Ruffed Grouse wingbeats, and while memory can be tricky, I think there’s a similarity between them and what I heard on April 27 and in November 2009.
I should also point out that Tommy Michot and/or I staked out the area through the morning of May 3rd. Pileateds were heard but not seen in the vicinity of the possible sighting or using the sycamore roost during that period.
While my initial certainty about the sighting has diminished, I am still hard pressed to explain it as anything other than Ivory-billed Woodpecker. But there is room for uncertainty, so the sighting must remain a possible. My life list will have to wait.
One final note, I did not see or hear anything else suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker on this trip, except for a couple of possible double knocks in response to Barred Owl playback on the 27th, earlier in the day and several miles away from the location of the possible sighting.
I’ll have another post soon on our plans for the immediate future and some additional images from the most recent trip.
*Edited to Add: Unfortunately my recording device (probably the microphone) malfunctioned last trip. There’s nothing on any of the tracks. Thus, my dictated observations on the night of the possible sighting went unrecorded as did any ambient sounds. Because I’m confident in the accuracy of my initial write up, as I had given brief oral descriptions of the incident to Matt and Patricia but had not consulted anyone or looked at any descriptive materials.
Update 2, May 2, 2018: I have always made being forthright with my readers a priority. I chose to revert this post to draft in order to pause and reflect. Based on recent events and the prematurity of the post and first update, I think some changes in my approach to blogging are in order, something I will address in a future post.
I have decided to restore the initial post and the first update to public view because I owe it to my readers and think it’s the right thing to do.
As several people have pointed out, I was too hasty in “accepting” that whatever I saw on April 27 was a Pileated Woodpecker. My description of what I heard and saw on April 27th was inconsistent with Pileated, and I stand by the description. My observations of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost on the 28th differed from what I heard and saw on the 27th. From an email sent early in the morning on the 29th:
A PIWO came in, overhead, either silently or very soft wingbeats when it landed. It drummed a couple of times and went to roost about 20 minutes before sunset but continued tapping from inside the cavity for about five minutes. (The bird on the 27th had come in no more than 2 minutes before sunset.) I hope to have gotten some decent photos. All PIWO sounds in the area stopped ~8 minutes prior to sunset.
It strikes me this morning that this behavior was somewhat different than the other bird’s; last night’s PIWO must have seen me, but my presence didn’t prevent it from coming very close and going directly to the roost. The other bird appeared to have been spooked by my presence.
Here’s what I know: I am confident I heard the wing sounds, as described, and am personally convinced that what I saw was a large woodpecker. I’m also confident I saw a PIWO going to roost near where the other event took place, on the following night, approximately 20 minutes earlier relative to sunset. I have the pictures to prove that. The rest is inference.
It’s easy (for me at least) to get overly enthusiastic about possible encounters; its also easy for me to turn around and look for ways to discount or discredit them in my own mind. To some degree, this is a good thing and probably comes with the territory, unless you’re delusional or prone to self-inflation. Still, there are points at which enthusiasm and skepticism become unhealthy. This applies to personal enthusiasm, self-skepticism, and to the way others respond to ivorybill claims. The Internet environment feeds unhealthy responses.
Regardless of anything else, this was a productive trip. We have six cameras deployed (thanks to Erik, Geoffrey, and Jay for contributing a new cam each) – five on hickories, either recently dead or in decline, and one a big sweet gum stub, three years dead, with some very recent bark scaling and signs of beetle infestation, in an earlier stage of decay than the Singer Tract tree where Pearson observed ivorybills feeding in the early 1930s. While this work could well be something other than ivorybill, and the bark is loose, it seems worth watching for a while.
I have been monitoring this stub since the top came down; in fact, we deployed a camera there in the spring of 2015, only to lose it to flooding. (The new deployment is higher on a nearby tree.) This suggests that our main strategy for camera trap placement – finding potential feeding trees and stubs in advance of any large woodpecker activity requires a multi-year commitment.
Even in this impatient world, patience is a virtue.
Update, April 30, 2018: Based on an observation last night of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost in the sycamore cavity shown below and an exploration of the clearcut area this afternoon, I strongly suspect the bird I saw on the 27th was also a Pileated Woodpecker. I still have trouble squaring what I heard and saw with Pileated, but the circumstances suggest that’s what it was. I’m opting to leave the content up, with this correction, in the interest of transparency. I will undoubtedly have more to say on this in the near future. Accepting that the bird in question was a Pileated Woodpecker in no way affects my view that the sounds Matt recorded in March and the ones Matt and Phil recorded in March 2017 were made by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
Original Post: I initially planned on including this sighting in a complete trip report but have decided to write it up and post it now as a kind of dispatch from the field. I may include some further commentary and imagery when I post the full report sometime within the next couple of weeks.
I expect this post will attract a number of new readers, so I want to preface the account with a few comments. Friends, associates, and many regular readers probably know that I’ve had a handful of possible sightings over the past 11 years, a total of seven, if memory serves. This over many hundreds of hours in the field. With the exception of the November 2009 sighting in the location where a suggestive trail cam photo was obtained a week later, I have not had a high level of confidence in these possibles and have rejected two of them as the product of wishful thinking. Last night’s experience was altogether different, even when compared to the 2009 possible, as was my reaction to it.
Here’s what I wrote to my inner circle approximately one hour after the sighting. I have made a few minor edits for clarity and to protect the location and have added revisions/corrections/additional comments in bold italics:
I’ve already shared this with Matt and Patricia, and I dictated the details into my recording device (which has been a little buggy) immediately after the incident. I haven’t listened yet, and this will include some additional details. (Any substantive differences between the recorded comments and the contents included here will be addressed in the full trip report, though I don’t anticipate there being any.)
I arrived at the spot where Matt made the recordings last month at approximately 6:40 PM (I was in the area before sunrise too). I sat facing WSW; the area directly across the water from me was recently clearcut. There are trees along the bank with an open expanse behind. Sunset was at ***. The events described took place between 2 minutes before and three minutes after sunset, by which time I had pretty much given up hope that anything interesting would happen.
There were two cypress trees across the water from me; one perhaps 1’ DBH and the other over 2’. I did not consciously register a bird flying in to the larger cypress, but I suspect I sensed it. (In retrospect, I wonder if I unconsciously heard it flying in, as my focus for the evening was on listening.) In any event, my first conscious observation was of a large woodpecker taking off from the backside of the tree. My impression was that it had flown in and took off almost immediately on seeing me. I was able to hear the wingbeats, which sounded stiff and wooden, not muffled and whooshing like the PIWOs I’ve heard. (I’ve only heard PIWO wingbeats when birds were directly overhead or when I’ve flushed them at very close range.) I was looking more or less directly into the remaining sunlight (the sun had long since gone below the tree line), and the light was very low, so I could only see a silhouette. The wings were long and narrow, and the overall GISS (General Impression, Size, and Shape) was not PIWO. After several flaps, the bird went into a glide, and I lost sight of it very soon thereafter. I’d estimate I had eyes on it for 2-3 seconds.
I continued to watch the area when what I took to be the same bird flew in to some hardwoods perhaps 20 yards SSW and 10 yards inland from the cypresses. I heard the wingbeats again but could not locate the bird in the trees; darkness was falling rapidly. I made a split second decision to try some Pileated playback to see whether it would provoke a response. PIWOs had been calling and drumming until a few minutes before this incident. I did several rounds of playback using the iBird Pro app and got no response or visible reaction. At this point, I checked the time, and it was three minutes past sunset.
FWIW, I find this sighting more personally compelling for IBWO than any of my previous possibles, including the one in the old search area where we got the trail cam photo a week later. (As implied by the updates, my view on this has shifted – as I not only heard wingbeats but saw white on the wings and the suggestive trail cam image obtained a week later adds support; there’s a closer temporal association than there is with the recordings Matt obtained just over a month before.) Some of this is gut feeling, but the wingbeats (audible at 30-50 yards) wing and body shape, the glide, and the lack of response to PIWO playback (though the hour was late), all contribute to my interpretation. Would I bet my life that this was an ivory bill? No. Will I add IBWO to my life list? I’m not sure, but I’m closer to doing so than I ever have been.
So there it is. I’m going back to the same vicinity tomorrow morning, though I may go to the edge of the clear cut.
The cavity in the attached image may also be of interest. It is likely fairly fresh, as Matt would likely have seen it last month had it been there then. I staked it out this morning and nothing emerged. It is southeast of where I was stationed.
I returned to the area this morning and found an additional interesting cavity in a sycamore about twenty yards south of the oak and hickory where I last saw the bird.
It was either not used overnight or had been vacated by the time I arrived, as I had encountered an almost uncanny delay that caused me to miss the sunrise. I reached the end of a long gravel road, about a quarter mile from my planned stakeout spot and ran into a turkey hunter. As so often happens, a conversation ensued, and to my astonishment, he told me his name was Kuhn. I asked if he was related to the Tallulah Kuhns, and indeed he was; he was far from home himself, and we were nowhere near Tallulah. He had known his cousin (not sure what degree) Edith Whitehead and was aware of her father’s work on pecan agronomy and hybridization, though he knew nothing of the ivorybill and his relative’s central role in the story. What an extraordinary (almost in the Sagan sense) coincidence.
A final note, while I saw no field marks, the wingbeats are an acoustic equivalent. As Fredrik Bryntesson reminded me, Tanner wrote about the sound very explicitly. I knew this in general terms, of course, but the actual language took me a little by surprise:
A description of the wing sounds is found in Tanner’s monograph, p. 58: “The wing-feathers of Ivory-bills are stiff and hard, thus making their flight noisy. In the initial flight, when the wings are beaten particularly hard, they make quite a loud, wooden, fluttering sound, so much so that I often nicknamed the birds ‘wooden-wings’; it is the loudest wing-sound I have ever heard from any bird of that size excepting the grouse. At times when the birds happened to swoop past me, I heard a pronounced swishing whistle.”
I’ll leave it there for now.
Matt spent several days in the search area after my departure. On the afternoon of March 19, he staked out a fresh cavity approximately .25 mile from a location where I recorded a double knock in apparent reaction to an ADK in 2014 and where we captured some intriguing trail cam images. This is about a mile from where Matt and Phil recorded numerous kent-like calls last year.
After more than two weeks of steady presence in the area, and no possible contacts, Matt heard and captured one distinct kent-like call a few minutes after sunset. On reviewing the audio, I found two additional calls about 16 minutes earlier on the recording. There’s also a very faint possible call that comes approximately 2 minutes and 35 seconds before the most distinct one; it’s so faint that I’ve opted not to extract and include it here. Before providing some commentary, Here’s Matt’s description of his experience and observations:
While on the stakeout described above, I began recording at 6:51 p.m., exactly thirty minutes prior to official sunset for that date and location of 7:21 p.m. For the four days prior to this one, I had been keeping notes on “last of the day” woodpecker sounds. Small sample size, but the woodpeckers had consistently gone silent at six to four minutes prior to official sunset on each preceding day. Falling into the trap of unwarranted speculation, I noted with some sadness that sunset had passed without any intriguing sounds.
The following clip runs approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds (to give a sense of the ambient sounds and conditions); the kent-like call comes at 1:36.
Here is a much shorter, amplified extract. The call should be easy to hear.
The sonogram suggests that the call has a fundamental frequency somewhere between 515 and 550 hz. There’s a strong second partial and a weaker third partial (the horizontal lines to the right of center). While the sonogram is not a perfect match for last year’s recordings (or the Singer Tract recordings for that matter), my ears and my common sense tell me that the source of the calls is the same. While the frequency is slightly lower than most of the calls recorded by Hill et al. on the Choctawhatchee, the structure is very similar. (See figures E and F.)
The two additional calls I found are very faint and presumably more distant. I was not able to tease out a sonogram with my software, even with a lot of amplification. The calls may be hard to hear without headphones, so listen carefully. The first clip is unamplified, and the second is pushed as far as was practical.
Bob Ford had the following to say about the first call (heard by Matt in the field):
“I spent a little more time on this one than I usually do . . . . I don’t do the sonogram analysis work myself but instead listen, compare to other known/recorded sounds, use my field experience etc.
I cannot think of a single thing that would make this sound other than ivory-bill. For me, it’s easy to dismiss the usual suspects like Blue Jay or tree squeaks etc. I fall back to turkey and wood duck. I’ve heard both species make sounds I never knew were possible from those animals. But in this case, even stretching, I can’t make it into turkey or wood duck. The sound is too robust, too “direct” (hard to explain, maybe I mean punctuated?), it’s a single sound (my experience turkey and wood duck continue even if its same sound). It’s not artificial, I believe it came from an animal. I agree, this is about as hot as it gets lead-wise.”
As I pointed out to Bob and the rest of the team, Matt’s call and the ones recorded last year have frequencies and structures that are closer to geese than some of the other confusion species, though I’m convinced that none of the calls we’ve recorded came from geese. These Canada Goose sonograms illustrate the similarity. Jackson, pp. 179-180, also notes the similarity between IBWO sounds and those made by geese.
Cornell’s criteria call for fundamental frequencies between 580 and 780 hz. (the frequency of the kents on the Singer Tract recordings). As already noted, Matt’s sound is somewhat lower pitched, but not outside the capacity of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The calls on the Singer Tract recordings that Frank and I described as the “wonka-wonkas”, examples starting at around 3:14, are both goose like and have lower fundamental frequencies.
It’s also worth reiterating that the Singer Tract birds were obviously agitated when those recordings were made, and as Tanner put it: ” . . . the kent note given in monotone and slowly 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. (p. 62, emphasis added.)
Rob Tymstra, an accomplished Canadian birder and IBWO searcher, visited the search area a couple of weeks later, and on April 5, he reported the following from a location a few miles south of Matt’s capture:
“. . .at 11:55 am yesterday, I heard one clear kent-like note about 50-100 yards north of the bridge. I noted the pitch of the sound (using my ukulele) and compared it later to the soundclip Mark sent me a few days ago. The quality of the sound is similar but the pitch of my sound was about a whole note higher than yours. I didn’t hear or see anything unusual after that. I can’t say that it sounded like an ivorybill but it’s certainly a sound I’d never heard before (and I know most of the birdsongs).”
A whole note higher would likely place the fundamental frequency at the low end of Cornell’s range.
I’m personally convinced these calls and the calls recorded last year came from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. It’s also my view that the recordings Matt and Phil have made are among the strongest evidence for the ivorybill’s persistence obtained to date.
I’m more puzzled by the difference between last year, when birds were calling very actively on at least one day, and it appeared that the sounds had at least two and possibly as many as four sources, and this year when calls have been so few and far between. I can’t help but wonder whether the difference might be due to nesting success last year and failure this year. Pure speculation on my part, but perhaps we’re getting close to resolving some of the mysteries.
If the sounds Matt captured last month were Ivory-billed Woodpecker calls, it seems likely that he was in the vicinity of a roost; however, Matt returned on the morning of March 21 and did not hear anything. (There was lots of avian and woodpecker activity.) No suggestive sounds were apparent on my review of that morning’s recording, so if there is a roost in the area, it seems unlikely that it was used on the night of the 20th. Whatever the case, the location is very short walk from the road, and I plan to devote several mornings and evenings to sitting in the area with recording device running and camera at the ready.
Edited to add: When Matt and I first discussed the call, I remembered that Don Eckelberry’s account and his description of the Singer Tract ivorybill calling around sunset. I’m grateful to Houston, of IBWO.net who was reminded of it too and sent me Eckelberry’s exact words:
. . . At 7:20, after I had finished all my notes and we were about to leave, she popped out and raced up the trunk to its broken top where, bathed in rich orange light of the setting sun, she alternately preened and jerked her head about in a peculiar angular way, quite unlike the motions of any other woodpecker I knew. I was tremendously impressed by the majestic and wild personality of this bird, its vigor, its almost frantic aliveness. She flew off after five minutes and in another five returned, calling once and going in to roost at 7:30 on the dot. By the time we regained the road it was quite dark.
I was very pleased that we were able to have searchers in the field almost without interruption for over three key weeks in February and March. Erik was in the area alone from February 28-March 6, and conditions were good enough for him to get out for part of almost every day. At present, Matt Courtman is still in the field. I will be posting my trip report within the next few days; it covers the afternoon of March 7 through the morning of the 16th. There have been no possible encounters during this period, a stark contrast with this time last year. I’ll be addressing this in my report, but in the meantime, here’s Erik’s. It was a pleasure to read. I’ve made a couple of side comments in italics.
Back in the early 2000’s, I often used the holiday break as a time to take off from work and go birding someplace I’d never been before. Following the Ivorybill rediscovery announcement in May 2005, I decided to go to Arkansas “on a lark” and at least see the habitat where the bird had been found. There would be birding opportunities – a chance to see wintering species not present at my home in Montana, and I wanted to visit Little Rock High School National Historic Site.
After several days of birding, I saw the ivorybill. Like many other sightings, it was a brief look, but I saw the bird through binoculars, sharply focused, in good light. I made 4 more trips to Arkansas and Florida in the next two years, before my job took me to Alaska for 8 years. I made no more trips to the southeastern United States in that time.
But retirement in March of 2017 allowed me time to think about a return; and Mark graciously responded to my inquiry with an invitation to join his search effort in December 2017 / January 2018. I got to accompany him and Steve Pagans again in February; and Mark had another search planned for March, but the timing and logistics didn’t quite work out. With trepidation, I asked about searching the week before the main search effort, and Mark was encouraging. I’d seen how well Mark navigated the woods he knows so well, and Steve was equally competent (Steve is considerably more competent) – and always had his GPS available to ensure we could get out of the woods. But on my two initial trips; I often did not know where we were headed and often got turned around. I didn’t say so, but I knew I’d have to get a lot better at reading my GPS.
Mark also encouraged me to purchase a dedicated audio recorder, in case I heard double knocks or kent calls as other searchers have in the past. This was perhaps the most obvious advantage to being in the woods in March: the likelihood that ivorybills would be more vocal and/or more noticeable if they engaged in courtship, cavity construction, brooding and interaction at a cavity, or feeding of nestlings/fledglings. If I could be in the woods a week before Mark’s major search effort, then at least I was providing some additional coverage for a possible encounter.
A friend of mine said with encouragement “I’m sure you’ll see it this time!” I didn’t respond that “I don’t think so…”. Of course I’m optimistic, but my primary goal in the field is to contribute quality hours to searching for a species which has a very low encounter rate. The more hours searchers rack up, the more encounters we have. It’s important to me to contribute by adding up those good hours.
Logistics are a major part of the search effort: traveling from my home in Colorado; arranging airflight, rental car and lodging. Being prepared with the right clothing, rain gear, hat, camera, GPS, audio recorder, first aid kit, and all the miscellaneous supplies carried each day. I studied maps so that I wouldn’t be as lost as I was on my first trips. I could check online for the weather forecast and sunrise/sunset times. And then on my travel day, it takes about 12 hours from my house to my destination. I pick up lunch supplies at a local supermarket, and get ready for 7 days of searching.
It’s exciting first thing in the morning – arriving at the start point, and getting everything ready to walk into the woods. I only forgot to record the location of my vehicle once – but remembered within a 1/2 mile of my start, and that was close enough to ensure I could get out in the afternoon. I start out listening to and trying to see every bird – they’re all different from the birds back in Colorado, and if I’m standing still trying to pull a Yellow-eyed Vireo out of the shrubs – well, I can be listening for ivorybills at the same time.
Much of my time in the bottomland forests, I’m simply acting as a roving Audio Recording Unit. Although I rely on my eyes more than my ears – and at times it seems that I can see a lot of the habitat around me – I know from experience that I can’t really see all that much. Woodpeckers cling to the backside of trunks and branches. Sometimes I watch them up high, and then they move around to the opposite side of a branch – and they’re completely invisible to me. Had I not seen them move to that location, I’d never know they were there.
So as I scan the forest around me, I’m aware that there’s really only a limited amount of “space” – of “volume” – that I can peer into to check for birds. My best method for detecting the presence of many (most?) birds, is being able to hear them. So I wander around the forest, always listening, and hoping to hear a bird that may not vocalize very often.
I know from experience that I have good hearing, in the sense that I can detect very low levels of sound; often I can hear levels of sound lower in volume than my birding companions (but, sometimes others hear sounds that I miss). However, I’ve also learned that I don’t have a “discriminating” ear, and I easily confuse all kinds of species: Pileated Woodpecker sounds a lot like Northern Flicker; Northern Cardinal sounds a lot like Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse can sound like Carolina Chickadee. It always makes sense to me when someone tells me what I’m hearing, and often – given enough time (if the bird continues to call) – I can figure it out. But I know I’m not as good at identifying birds by sound as I am by sight.
I’m pretty good at identifying birds in the field and in photographs. Often, I only need a few pixels to correctly identify a bird. I make my share of mistakes, and often call out the name of a bird before I’ve completely processed all the information – and my initial identification (part of the thought process for arriving at a final ID) is incorrect. But while I make lots of mistakes while trying to arrive at the conclusive ID for a bird, I’ve got to be certain in the end. Entire books have been written on this topic – and that makes sense to me.
Searching for ivorybills is very different (for me) from “birding”. Birding is a fun, enjoyable activity that I do regularly, in all kinds of habitats, with lots and lots of opportunities to see and identify birds. Searching for ivorybills is mostly just putting in hours without seeing or hearing anything. But my approach to searching is to go “birding” and enjoy the birds I see, and to be aware of the environs around me as I’m looking for or looking at, birds. I stop and pause for several minutes at a time. I’m not in any hurry – I don’t have to be anywhere else. I think about all the other recent encounters that have been described: someone in the right habitat, often engaged in an activity other than searching – and while relaxing, or while sitting down, or while engaged in something other that “actively looking”, suddenly they become aware of a bird that they focus on, and it turns out to be an ivorybill. I think about lots of things written about ivorybills, things that I can remember and things that I’ve heard other searchers and other birders talk about. And… I wander around the bottomland forest – listening and looking.
I made a point of looking for large cavities, and I found 8 on this trip that were large enough and asymmetrical enough for me to stop and record them. I photographed each cavity (several photos, at successive zoom ranges) and marked its GPS coordinates. I tend to consider cavities that are too small (suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers – or even smaller species), but I think I’d rather be conservative in this regard. I’d thought perhaps that if I found one or more candidate cavities, I would try to watch them as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as I could. But I realized that simply finding the cavities, and trying to find efficient routes from the cavities to/from my vehicle, would take more time than was available to me. A fresh, or routinely occupied cavity, might be distinctive in a way that would set it apart from other cavities – and none of the ones I found was notable in that regard. If I had unlimited time, I thought about aiming a trail-cam at the “better” cavities I found – and I might give that idea more thought in the future. (The last two intriguing cavities I’ve found were not good candidates for camera traps; height, backlighting, intervening vegetation can all be problems. This issue is under- appreciated, and it became more apparent to me last trip. More on that in my report.)
I looked for scaled bark, trying to pay attention to the details Mark has taught me in the field. As a long time reader of the Project Coyote blog, I read many of Mark’s descriptions of scaling, and looked at his photographs. But having him explain scaling in the field, spending several minutes at a tree with fresh scaling, increased my understanding by at least two orders of magnitude. Mark brought to life the importance of scaling as evidence for ivorybills occupying or using the area. But I also learned that Mark has an eye for “seeing” scaling, and in my previous trips I never spotted “good” scaling before Mark did. (It’s just a matter of practice.) On this trip, I did see some tree top scaling in a sweet gum, and I saw a few downed logs (recently downed) with scaling that might have been done by ivorybills (but which also could have been done by other species). I was conscious that I tried harder looking for scaling at some times, and less hard at other times – it’s a skill that needs to be learned, and I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve.
I saw many Pileated Woodpeckers over the week, and on the first day, I noted that I saw 4 pileateds while I was standing in one spot, more or less simultaneously.
Great Blue Herons (and other species) always seemed to be aware of me, when I was walking (even walking slowly/quietly), long before I was aware of them. By contrast, when I was standing or sitting still (especially when in a shadow, but even when in the sun), birds and other animals would sometimes approach quite close, and go on about whatever they were doing, clearly not yet aware that I was present. And sometimes, even once they became aware I was present, their behavior was still reserved and they lingered at closer range than the birds (or pigs, or deer, etc.) that became aware of me as I was walking.
Some observations under the latter conditions come to mind: (1) After a large limb broke off from a tree, crashing to the ground with an impressive disruption of the quiet, two pileateds flew to a cypress tree near where I was standing quietly. The first pileated flew to the top of the cypress and drummed a couple of times. The second pileated flew to the trunk of the cypress to investigate one of two cavities, one right above the other. The pileated stuck its bill and just a bit of its head into the cavity when suddenly a gray squirrel exploded from the cavity, driving the pileated away. The squirrel clung to the cypress just a foot or so from the cavity, chattering loudly for a few seconds before retreating back into the cavity.
(2) I was sitting with my back against a birch tree, watching a fresh, asymmetrical (but small) cavity in a cypress tree across a creek (mostly taking a break in the heat of the afternoon), when a Hermit Thrush approached from a nearby shrub. The thrush moved closer (to within perhaps 15′), then off to my right, and then back in front of me, before finally moving slowly off and out of view.
(3) Eating lunch on a log one day, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, seeming to fly right at my head, before veering off at the last second to perch on a large trunk about 12′ from me. I’d been sitting quietly (the bird might have thought I was a stump?), but seemed to recognize I was not part of the landscape when it veered off to perch and start tending its sap wells. I was able to grab my camera and take a couple photos while it was at close range, the bird never flushing as when they are startled, but rather simply moving gradually higher up the tree and out of view.
A couple of random thoughts based on my field notes: I flushed wood ducks about 3 or 4 times, and always thought it would be impossible to confuse a Wood Duck for an ivorybill. Even one time when I noted that “the ID was a little tricky”; the situation was that I wondered for a split second “what was that?”, and not “could that have been an ivorybill?”. I observed two (rather small, I think) Cottonmouths; both were well behaved and non-aggressive. Very beautiful snakes.
And one other observation: while standing quietly in a shadow, I saw a large bird, darkish in color, mostly obsucred by a tangle of vines, fly in to a log on the ground. I could not see the bird, and thought it was on the opposite side of the log from me, and there was much undergrowth that made visibility difficult. I heard several loud (very loud) raps, interpaced with quiet, and based on my time in the woods, I thought pretty sure this was a large woodpecker, foraging on a downed log, and occasionly delivering 3 to 6 heavy blows to the wood. The bird continued foraging in this manner, with several sequences of loud knocks, and I finally decided to move to my left to try to get a better angle on the log. I heard another couple sequences of raps and then quiet, and I was pleased I hadn’t started the bird and caused it to flush. I moved to my left, and a little closer to the log, and then there was a downed tree blocking my path, and some water, and I had to make some noise to get around the obstacle, and continue moving to try to see the area around the downed log better.
By this time, it was clear that I had flushed the bird, and did not see or hear it any more. I’ve thought about this event, and it emphasizes to me that birds may often be close enough to see, but impossible to see because of vegetatation blocking the view, and that birds we often think of being “in the shrubs” or higher “in the trees” are often on or near the ground. If I had to guess, the bird was either a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Flicker. I’ll never know.
I started writing this note with the intention of providing a simple summary of my observations during the week I was in Louisiana, but quickly realized I was describing a more general sense of purpose and the idea that looking for ivorybills is distinctly different from looking for other birds. I could add some good search hours to the effort – that was worthwhile and enjoyable to me, and although I’m uncertain how my hours contribute to the Project Coyote overall effort, I am very pleased to be part of the team.
photos follow . . .