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 . . .
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.
On March 15, Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman recorded numerous kent-like calls at the same location where we heard several calls on March 11 and 12. Phil was able to record two of the March 11 calls. That capture is included in the post, along with Phil’s audio from the morning of the 15th. I heard two of the calls on the 11th; the second one in particular struck me as being consistent with the Singer Tract recordings; the first seemed a little low pitched to my ears, an observation that’s captured on the recording. Steve Pagans and I heard several calls on the 12th, but these were not recorded.
Matt obtained nearly three hours of audio, and to my ears the sounds are coming from 2-4 distinct sources; I had the same impression after listening to some of Phil’s clips. I have now listened all the way through Matt’s recordings several times and will share my analysis below. Matt and Phil are likely to weigh in later with their perspectives. I also have a couple of trip reports pending, so there should be a lot of activity on the blog in coming weeks.
To start with, I counted over 200 kent-like calls in all.
On the long clips posted here, I’ve edited out all of Matt’s ADK (anthropogenic double knock) series, which he did on the half hour. The knocks are very loud, as can be heard from the one trailing sound I’ve left in. I also snipped out several minutes of conversation between Phil and Matt. The ADKs seem to have led to more frequent calling and may have provoked some double knocks, something we may address in a future post.
Edited to add: On further review, there does not appear be a correlation between ADKs and more frequent calling. Clips like the one posted below can be deceptive. One kent-like call that overlaps with a knock has been deleted. There is also one possible knock in response. Caution, ADKs have not been completely spliced out, and they are loud. See bottom of page for brief clip and sonogram.*
Between 6:12 and 6:25 on the last long recording made that morning, there are five calls of differing durations and volumes, followed by what may be a double knock. Similarly, at the end of the full clip, starting at 14:14, 3 calls are bracketed by some potentially interesting knocks, 2 before and 1 or 2 after.
The first four clips below are shorter, amplified extracts on which the calls can be heard easily.
The first two of these are extracted from the final segment described above and include the interesting, tooting sounds and possible knocks.
The third clip includes multiple calls over 2 minutes and nine seconds, along with a wide variety of other sounds.
The fourth is four minutes long (pardon the airplane noise) and should provide additional context while also revealing some of the variations among the calls.
For those, like me, who don’t have professional sonogram software, I recommend using Sonic Visualizer – an easy to use, free program that enables you to watch the sonogram as you listen.
And for those who are unfamiliar with avian bioacoustics, this is a great place to start. I’m on a very steep learning curve myself and am prepared to stand corrected about any misstatements in this post.
Many of the sounds are audible on built-in computer speakers, but playback through headphones, earbuds, or external speakers is highly recommended.
I think these calls were likely made by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. My perspective is based in part on the fact that I have spent all or part of nearly 40 days in close proximity to where the calls were recorded, starting in 2014. A considerable amount of this time was spent sitting quietly, and the total person hours spent in the area is well into the hundreds. We have had occasional kent-like calls, possible double knocks, and possible sightings over the years, but nothing approaching what transpired on the 15th.
Matt spent the morning of the 16th in the same location and did not hear any of the sounds, and Patricia and I spent 4 mornings and one afternoon there between the 23rd and 31st and heard no similar calls. I think this militates strongly against the idea that the source of the sounds is a common resident of the area.
Three alternative hypotheses have been suggested.
On the morning of the 15th, Phil proposed that the sounds might be tree squeaks. There appear to be multiple tree squeaks on the recording, some with similar pitches, but they bear little resemblance to the kent-like calls on the sonogram or to the ear. In addition, the calls sometimes come singly, sometimes in groups, and they vary in pitch, volume, and duration and seem to occur independent of wind velocity (on the 11th we noted that there was no wind.)
The first sound, at just after 4 seconds on the second clip, seems ambiguous. The sonogram is somewhat similar to the kent-like sounds, but the duration is very short, and it has a creaky quality. It’s also associated with the two creaky sounds that follow. These can be heard frequently over the course of the morning, and their appearance on the sonogram is nearly uniform.
One reviewer proposed Wild Turkey and Blue Jay as possible sources. I think turkey can be ruled out due to the absence of other turkey-like sounds associated with these very persistent calls.
Blue Jay strikes me as a more plausible alternative. Blue Jays can be heard at numerous times on Matt’s recordings. And Blue Jays are known to make kent-like calls, some of them very similar to known Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds. This is likely not mimicry, since the most similar recorded calls I know of were obtained in upstate New York. The recordist noted the similarity. On the sonogram, the resemblance between these calls and either known Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds or Matt’s recording is not as strong as it might seem to the ear. While they share a strong third partial, the Blue Jay fundamental is higher and some of the higher partials are considerably stronger.
It’s also important to note that on the Cornell Blue Jay recording, the kent-like calls are intermixed with typical Blue Jay vocalizations. Over the three hours of Matt’s recording, kent-like calls occur during periods when Blue Jays are vocalizing and during periods when Blue Jays are silent.
Some of the kent-like calls have harmonics consistent with Cornell’s recorded playbacks of Singer Tract calls at 145 meters. Many are lower in pitch. Most have a considerably longer duration, although to my untrained eye/ear, some seem close to the 80-100 ms duration on the Cornell recording. More on duration below.
On March 28, I did some playback of Singer Tract calls using an iPhone and a bluetooth speaker. Patricia recorded them on a Roland Edirol R09HR digital recorder. I’m including the recording and the sonogram for comparison. Like Matt’s recordings, the second partial is strong throughout, and the 1st, 3rd, and 4th appear to be weaker than for the Blue Jay shown above.
At various points, Phil also experimented with doing playback, using calls recorded in 2010 at the old Project Coyote site. (He also played back several other species – Red-bellied, Golden-fronted, and, possibly, Gila Woodpecker to gauge Red-bellied response, and Eastern Towhee out of personal interest.) Examples of putative ivorybill playbacks can be heard over the first 3 minutes of the fourth long clip posted above and also during the first part of the fifth. These sounds are longer but similar in tonal quality to the lower pitched calls. Their harmonic structure is different, however, with a fundamental at around 800 hz, a second partial at around 1600, and a fairly strong higher partial at approximately 5000 hz., and should be readily identifiable on the sonogram.
Phil’s playbacks do not seem to have provoked any kent-like replies. Blue Jays can be heard during the same time frame, but it’s not immediately apparent whether the recorded Blue Jay calls are responses or merely contemporaneous vocalizations. This segment includes some Blue Jay vocalizations.
With regard to Blue Jays and the numerous kent like calls heard from March 11, 12, and 15: to reiterate, many hours have been spent in this vicinity, with close attention being paid to kent-like sounds. These are heard infrequently and never before in such quantity or over such an extended period. If Blue Jays in the area were making these sounds, we almost certainly would have heard and recorded many of them over the years. In addition, both Steve Pagans and Matt Courtman are experienced and skilled ear birders and neither thinks these are Blue Jay calls.
It’s also worth pointing out that another potential confusion call can be heard on the recordings – White-breasted Nuthatch. The sound is similar but much weaker, as should be clear from the amplified March 15 excerpt. On the sonogram, just below the amplified recording, the calls show up very faintly, with dominant frequencies of around 2200-2400 hz and a relatively strong partial at 1700-1800.
I encourage people to listen through and draw their own conclusions. Input from those with expertise is welcome.
While I can’t say if any of these calls are a perfect match for the Allen and Kellogg recordings (some may be), many of them are close on the sonogram and similar to the ear. It’s important to bear in mind that the Singer Tract birds were likely agitated when those recordings were made, even though Tanner described some them as being good examples of kents. It’s also important to read Tanner’s descriptions carefully, though as is so often the case, his writing can be opaque. Perhaps his most important observation was that “all of the notes have the same nasal, trumpet-like quality.”
According to Tanner, “The notes of the nuthatches are the only bird calls I know that sound like the voice of an ivorybill; the Ivory-bill’s calls are much longer and pitched higher than the calls of a White-breasted Nuthatch, are more in the range of a Red-breasted Nuthatch.” (Emphasis added.) By contrast, Hasbrouck, writing in the 1890’s, described it as being “exactly like the note of the White-breasted Nuthatch” only much louder and stronger.
Tanner’s reference to Red-breasted Nuthatches has always confused me. I’m very much in Hasbrouck’s camp; I think the Singer Tract kents sound far more akin to White-breasted than Red-breasted Nuthatch. Either way, most of the Allen and Kellogg kents are lower pitched than typical White-breasted Nuthatch calls, as are the ones on Matt’s recording. In addition, the Allen and Kellogg kents seem to be of similar in duration to typical nuthatch calls, rather than longer or “much longer”. This too suggests that they are not typical but are more rapid and perhaps higher pitched due to agitation. Tanner wrote further, “[t]he kent note, given in monotone or infrequently, is the ordinary call note. When the bird is disturbed, the pitch of the kent rises, and it is repeated more rapidly, frequently doubled, kent-kent, with the second note lower. The prolonged and slurring, kient-kient-kient call I always heard when two or more birds were together.” This call was never recorded.
According to Allen and Kellogg, “kenting varied a great deal” and a male bird called “loudly and deliberately”, again suggesting that many calls were of longer duration than those on the recording. Tanner’s notes also point to this variability. At one point, he wrote of “1 and 2 syllable yaps”; he has the Mack’s Bayou bird (whose voice he claimed he could recognize) making a “kient-kient” and also transliterated calls with “keent keent” and “yeenh yeenh” (Bales). These renderings all suggest a more drawn out call than those on the Allen and Kellogg recordings. George Miksch Sutton described the Singer Tract birds’ calls as, “strange, bleat like, not quite sharp enough for a woodpecker’s cry. It was slightly nasal in quality and it sounded to me like ‘Gip!’, with a hard g“. Sutton’s description also suggests that many kents had a fairly long duration.
Edited to add: similarly, several observers (Audubon, Beyer, Hoyt) described ivorybill calls as “plaintive”; this too seems to imply calls of longer duration than what’s heard on the Singer Tract recordings.
Given the resemblance to the Singer Tract recordings and the lack of plausible alternatives, I posit that these calls are at worst highly suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
*Possible knock and kent-like calls temporally associated with ADK series. Caution remnant ADKs are loud.
Note: this is a very image-heavy post, and most of them appear ‘below the fold’.
Although we faced significant challenges during this trip, it was nonetheless a very productive one. I was joined by John Henry, the photographer who was with me when I recorded kent-like calls in March 2013. Work obligations kept Frank Wiley out of the field, except on February 24th. A flight delay and 1:20 am arrival at my hotel in New Orleans on the morning of the 20th limited my field time to a couple of hours on that day. I had planned to get in a final half day on the 25th, but wintry precipitation prevented it. Weather conditions were a challenge throughout – skies were consistently cloudy and dark; there was occasional rain; and temperatures fluctuated from the 70s on Friday and Saturday to near or below freezing on Monday and Tuesday.
On the afternoon of the 20th, John Henry and I went to the eastern sector, the most easily accessible part of our search area. This is the vicinity where a visiting biologist, Frank, and I heard double knocks during my last visit, and where we have found a significant amount of feeding sign since 2012. I found some fairly impressive, extensive, and recent bark scaling high on the trunk of a fairly distant tree. I was unable to examine it up close, but from a distance it appeared to be consistent with what I think is likely, if not diagnostic, ivorybill work.
On a non-ivorybill related note, the feral hog population seems to be increasing in our area, and they do enormous damage to the habitat, probably not in way that impacts the ivorybills we believe to be present, but their impact on forest ecology is likely severe. While they are hunted by some in the area, and don’t seem to be nearly as abundant as they are in Congaree National Park, for example, they are still a severe problem.
Edited to add: This poor photograph of large, relatively slow moving terrestrial mammals, the best of several taken at less than 100 yards, illustrates just how difficult it is to obtain good pictures in this environment.
On the 21st, John Henry and I went into the habitat on through the northwest corner. This is an area of fairly recent blowdown, several deep, meandering sloughs, and dense blackberry thickets, making it incredibly difficult to explore. On more than one occasion, we had to retrace our steps and find a different route. I estimate that we were able to cover a quarter mile per hour. Traversing this area is hard on body, boots, and clothing, and it’s very difficult to pay attention to anything except the next step. We finally reached the site of the target tree featured in Frank’s Pros and Cons of Trail Cams and where I recorded a possible DK in response or reaction to an ADK. We decided to do a double knock series. Following Frank’s lead, I did a little pounding on the log before doing any DKs. Then I did a DK (I wasn’t recording, as I was using an external microphone mounted on my camera and figured I’d turn it on when I finished the series). Within approximately 10 seconds, there were 3 extremely loud single knocks that came from east-southeast of us. I’d estimate they were spaced about a half second apart and were no more than a couple of hundred yards away. Nothing else happened in response to the series. Although they didn’t have the resonance of typical woodpecker drumming, they didn’t sound like branches breaking, gunshots, or industrial sounds. There were no hunters in the immediate vicinity, no vehicles parked along the access road on our way in and out of the area, and we heard nothing remotely similar during the rest of the day.
On the 22nd, Frank and I made a pilgrimage to meet J.J. Kuhn’s daughter (known to us as Mrs. Edith) who had honored us with an invitation. We spent a delightful afternoon with her and her daughter, son, and son-in-law. They regaled us with many stories about Kuhn’s life, before, during, and after his time with Tanner. As readers know, we see Kuhn as the true master at finding ivorybills. Mrs. Edith is writing a biography of her father, so we’ll leave it to her to tell the story. During our absence, John Henry visited the northern sector and reported hearing a double knock late in the afternoon. He also spoke to two local hunters who claimed to have seen ivorybills. The elder of the two men said he hadn’t seen any recently but had seen a pair 15 years ago in the area that’s discussed in the first and last paragraphs of my previous trip report. This is the third local person to have claimed a sighting in that general vicinity.
The other person’s claim was of a sighting at the south end of what I refer to as the northern sector, so John and I decided to explore that area (which had not been visited) on the 23rd. As is so often the case, travel was complicated by deep, meandering sloughs, although it was nowhere near as difficult as what we encountered on the 21st. We did not have any possible auditory or visual encounters, but I did find one very impressive looking cavity (although not a fresh one) and a downed sweet gum with very extensive and fairly recent bark scaling.
This type of work is similar to work found last year. and while it doesn’t exactly meet the criteria I’ve laid out previously for what’s diagnostic, I strongly suspect that it is Ivory-billed Woodpecker work, beyond the physical capacity of a PIWO. The bark was tight and difficult to impossible to remove without an implement.
Frank joined us on the 24th, and we entered the eastern sector farther north. The hike in at this location is long and difficult, but our efforts were rewarded, and we gained quite a few new insights. Once we were well into the bottomland area, we experimented with doing some playbacks. Frank played some Pileated Woodpecker calls and drums, which stirred up a good deal of activity. One Pileated flew in silently, and several others called with the rapid, “cackle” call and drummed in the distance. He then switched over to playing the Singer Tract recordings, and two more Pileateds flew in to the trees just overhead. They drummed and did the “wok” call, apparently in direct response to the recording. It is at least intriguing that playback of ivorybill calls would produce such a response from Pileateds.
We packed up and headed deeper into the habitat and found a sweet gum with three large, oval shaped cavities.
About a hundred yards away, I came across another downed sweet gum with extensive and suggestive scaling and large bark chips underneath; one of the chips, shown below, appears to have strike marks that are suggestive of IBWO, similar to the ones discussed in this post. I failed to get clear photographs showing the extent of the work on this downed tree, partly due to angle and lighting and partly due to the events discussed below.
There was a nearby hickory snag that had been heavily scaled in the manner that I think is diagnostic, although not recently.
John had moved some distance away while Frank and I examined the tree, and I started taking pictures. As we were doing so, we heard two distinct double knocks in close succession, roughly from the south. This was at approximately 11:15 AM. We remained in place for 30-45 minutes at which time we played back the Singer Tract recordings. John had moved closer to us. Within 30 seconds to a minute of the playback, Frank and I heard a kent-like call. We disagreed about the direction. Frank had it from the Northwest, and I thought it was from the West. Between 30 seconds and one minute later, a large black bird flew in from the west at about 85 yards. My view was fully obstructed, but Frank saw it for several seconds before it took off, at which point John saw it but could not distinguish any field marks.
We proceeded through some very impressive habitat and found some additional scaling in the vicinity, some on a hanging limb and some more on a downed sweet gum. I have now found five downed sweet gums with this type of extensive work in the past year and nothing similar on other species (I did find similar but much less extensive scaling on a downed persimmon, an uncommon species in our area.) This may be significant
The quantity of suggestive and recent bark scaling I found on this trip relative to time spent was remarkably high, as was the possible encounter rate.
I hope to return the search area in about a month and may do one or two posts on other subjects before then. Stay tuned.
Frank Wiley and I have spent the past four days in our search area, beginning on Thanksgiving morning. Before getting into the details, it merits noting that this weekend is the probably the peak of deer season in Louisiana. On Thanksgiving, there were perhaps fifteen or twenty people hunting on the edges of the habitat corridor. We encountered a single person in a tree stand that day, at the edge of the potential habitat. The number of hunters dwindled over the weekend, and on Sunday morning, we heard only one or two distant gunshots and saw a lone pickup truck parked along the parish road, nowhere near the bottomlands where we’re focused. On Thursday, we visited the southern sector, where we’ve spent the most time and have had the most encounters, calling it a day in late morning for Thanksgiving. At dinner, a long-time acquaintance of Frank’s described seeing IBWOs at a location about 10 miles from our search area from which we’ve had another credible-seeming report. We spent Friday through Sunday in the northern sector, which contains some extraordinary habitat, much of it old growth or nearly so. In this sector, sweet gums and oaks of 3-4’ diameter at breast height are not uncommon, and larger trees, like the one pictured, can be found from time to time.
Travel in the northern sector is extremely challenging due to blowdowns and deeply incised sloughs. On Saturday, it took almost the entire day to cover a total of three miles. One impressive feature of the area is the presence of large patches of cane that reaches as much as 15’ in some places. In some parts of the forest, cane is the main component of the understory.
It appears that some places within the northern sector have not been visited by people for several decades. In one apparent old growth area, the only litter we found was a Schlitz beer can and a 16 ounce glass soda bottle, both of which date to the 1980s. There were no shotgun shells or other signs of human presence to be found. Approximately 1/4 mile south we did find a hunter’s flagging that was several years old. This is difficult and seldom visited territory.
At 8:40 on Thursday morning, we heard some distant, intriguing kent-like calls. There were, however, several Blue Jays calling much closer to our location. We then visited the tree shown on the Project Coyote homepage that we found in May 2013. The decay is progressing, and there are many new insect exit tunnels through the remaining bark. It seems significant and mysterious to us that there is no sign of further woodpecker foraging of any kind on the tree. This tree is in within a known Pileated Woodpecker home range, and we believe that if the work were that of a Pileated there would have been multiple return visits by now.
Old feeding sign that has the appearance of the work we believe to be diagnostic is abundant in the northern sector, but we did not find anything that appeared to be fresh. We suspect this may be at least in part a seasonal factor and that scaling of bark is a more central feeding strategy during mating season and until young have fledged. Nonetheless, we were impressed by the abundance of feeding sign. These are several examples. We found the excavation in the last image to be somewhat different from typical Pileated Woodpecker work and therefore somewhat intriguing, although we suspect it was done after the bark had been removed. The wood showed no signs of rot.
We did not hear anything intriguing on Friday, but at 1 pm on Saturday, deep into the remote, untraveled area, we heard two ambient double knocks. The first of these was perhaps the closest to recorded Campephilus DKs I’ve ever heard in the field. Frank heard an additional DK or two that I missed. We then got two or three single knocks in response to a series of ADKs (anthropogenic double knocks). These knocks appeared to come from two sources, moving from slightly northwest of our location toward the south. On our way out of the area, we found an old snag with an intriguing cavity, as well as one being used by a sub-adult Red-headed Woodpecker. We returned on Sunday morning to place a game camera on the tree. At approximately 8:15 am, prior to setting up the camera, we did an ADK series (this within 200-300 yards of where we heard the DKs the afternoon before). We had several knocks, both single and double, in apparent response.
As peak search season approaches, we’re encouraged to have three distinct but connected areas where we’ve found suggestive feeding sign and have had putative encounters. While there have been no sightings in the northern sector, the contact rate is extraordinary, as is the abundance of feeding sign. To be continued . . .
In a 1936 letter to James Tanner before Tanner began his survey of possible ivorybill habitat in the southeast, Herbert Stoddard wrote, “The area where they (Ivory-billed Woodpeckers) may occur at present is simply tremendous, not restricted as many believe.” Stoddard continued, “. . . if I had the rest of my life for the purpose, I doubt I could cover adequately half the ground I now think worth investigating. When I say adequately I have in mind five days I spent looking especially for these birds with men such as Bob Allen and Alex Sprunt on an area of some ten thousand acres known to be frequented by several pairs of these birds without seeing one. Of course this was due to the element of luck, as others have gone in the same area for a few hours and seen one or two. But it indicates the time one would have to spend in these great river valleys to really be reasonably sure that the birds were absent or even extremely rare therein.” Tanner was one person, and he clearly didn’t have the time to devote to the thorough survey Stoddard suggested, but the later record suggests that he failed even more deeply to take Stoddard’s words to heart. Stoddard’s perspective leaves room for the possibility that Tanner grossly underestimated the ivorybill population in his monograph, something that might lead to very different projections about the likelihood of survival today. It also sheds additional light on the difficulties in searching for ivorybills and on what appear to be some significant blindspots in Tanner’s thinking about the species.
I recently wrote a Facebook post in which I stated Tanner had a “hard time” finding Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. A very prominent American birder and ivorybill skeptic promptly shot back asking for citations, which I provided; I wouldn’t play along with the snarky response, but the exchange gave me the impetus to write this post. To most birders, Tanner is a kind of heroic figure, a pioneer ornithologist, and the author of the only in-depth, definitive study of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird that, in Tanner’s telling (and even more so in the retelling), was a super specialist that depended on virgin forest for its survival. Tanner is also rightly seen as having played a central role in the development of modern environmentalism, fighting to save the Singer Tract itself and later helping to create Congaree National Park, one of the few remaining substantial old growth stands in the south.
Those who are more deeply steeped in ivorybill lore are likely to have a somewhat different perspective, even as they admire Tanner’s good qualities. In later years, Tanner became increasingly dogmatic about ivorybill habitat requirements and was usually harshly dismissive of reports from others – including John Dennis in Texas and Agey and Heinzmann in Florida. (This dismissiveness began to take hold in the early 1950s.) By no later than 1985, and probably much earlier than that, Tanner had become convinced the ivorybill was extinct, a conviction that he usually leavened with the statement that he’d love to be proven wrong. Ivorybill aficionados may also raise questions about the 1930s surveys he conducted in the southeast, and the rapidity with which he dismissed almost every place he visited as being unsuitable, sometimes based on a visit lasting a day or two. Most of these visits were made outside of breeding season, at times when finding ivorybills was considerably more difficult.
Tanner may have been right to dismiss many of these areas, but the possibility that he might have missed several populations cannot be ruled out, especially in light of the letter from Stoddard, an established ornithologist with first-hand knowledge of the species. At minimum, Stoddard’s letter put Tanner on notice that ivorybills could be very difficult to find.
Were preconceived beliefs driving Tanner from 1937-1939; was he being cavalier in his dismissals; or was he simply doing his best to accomplish what Stoddard said would take a lifetime in a few weeks spread over three years? It was probably all of the above, but whatever the reason, his mindset became an even bigger problem as time went on, leading him to foment the false impression that ivorybills should be easy to find, a notion that informed the views of my interlocutor on Facebook and of many those who believe the species is extinct.
The fact is that when Tanner was in the Singer Tract, the only birds he could find on a regular basis were the “John’s Bayou Family”, the group first studied in 1935. Their nesting and roosting grounds were approximately 1 mile from Sharkey Road. From 1935-1939, the birds nested in the same general vicinity. Three of the four nests were in very close proximity to one another, and the greatest distance between any two nest sites was 3/4 of a mile. Despite this clustering, it took Tanner five days to find a nest in 1939, when he didn’t have J.J. Kuhn (who had been forced out of his job as Singer Tract Warden) to assist him.
While Tanner paid respect to and credited Kuhn, the passage of time has made it increasingly clear that he downplayed the degree to which he depended on Kuhn to find ivorybills. Kuhn had been observing the birds for several years before the 1935 expedition (which also took several days to find ivorybills), and it’s reasonable to infer that the John’s Bayou family was already somewhat habituated to human presence by 1935. Certainly after ’35, they were accustomed to human activity in the immediate vicinity of their nest sites.
The only other ivorybill Tanner saw was one he named Mack’s Bayou Pete, presumably a bird hatched in 1935 from a nest that Kuhn found. As with the John’s Bayou pair, this bird was found within a home range that had been roughly delineated in 1935; Tanner believed he could recognize Pete’s voice, but the bird was far more frequently heard than seen.
Edited to Add: I’ve been reminded that the 1935 Mack’s Bayou Nest failed, and that Pete more likely fledged in 1937. The fate of the adult Mack’s Bayou pair is unknown.
Tanner continued to correspond with informants in the Singer Tract until 1948 or ’49 and was advised that one or two birds remained until that time. As Tanner’s temporal distance from his experiences in the Singer Tract grew, so did the distortions in his memory. These distortions are perhaps most dramatically illustrated in an article he wrote entitled “A Forest Alive”, which was published posthumously in Birdwatch (2001), a British magazine. Prominent ivorybill skeptic Martin Collinson mentioned the article and quoted it at some length in a 2007 blog post:
Collinson concluded his post with this observation: “As others have pointed out… you can only rationalise the failure of the current searches if you don’t include the words ‘active and noisy’, ‘called frequently’ and ‘easier to see and follow’, in your dataset.”
Of course, Tanner’s observations applied only to the John’s Bayou birds studied in close proximity to a nest. More importantly, Tanner’s recollection was incomplete and inaccurate, and he corrected it in another, humbler, posthumous piece that appeared in Birdwatcher’s Digest (2000) under the title “A Postscript on Ivorybills”. Tanner began by observing that, “Like everyone else’s memory, mine forgets the annoying and unpleasant things and remembers the pleasing; the mosquitoes go but the birdsong remains. Mine is also likely to forget the important and regular events and retain the trivial and unusual.”
The article makes it clear that finding even the John’s Bayou birds (which had a known territory and roosting ground) could be difficult and was even harder outside of nesting season. Tanner concluded with this reminiscence: “Hunting in other areas of the Singer Tract for ivorybills was even more difficult and discouraging. My journal is full of such comments as ‘saw old sign, lots of impenetrable vines, and no ivorybills.’ The only other ivorybill we ever found outside of the one nesting pair and their offspring was a single male that we dubbed Mack’s Bayou Pete because of the area he usually inhabited. He was hard to find and once found was soon lost . . . ” And to reiterate, Mack’s Bayou Pete’s home range was at least something of a known quantity.
By 1985, Tanner was advising the US Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the ivorybill as extinct. He gave the following reasons, to paraphrase:
1) The reports have been unconfirmed and they often describe behavior that is characteristic of Pileateds (flushing from stumps and logs).
Tanner described this as being rare in ivorybills, which may or may not be true, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Allen and Kellogg observed a female feeding on the ground. Moreover, not all reports involved this behavior.
2) There’s so much recreational use of areas where ivorybills used to be present that people should be hearing and seeing them, and there are no extensive areas of former IBWO habitat that are remote and unvisited.
What’s omitted from this analysis is the fact that the beginning of nesting season and the end of deer season are roughly congruent, at least in Louisiana. This means that there’s actually very little human traffic in many prime nesting areas during the times when birds are most active and vocal. And of course, the John’s Bayou area was not particularly remote, although other parts of the Singer Tract were considerably more difficult to reach.
3) Ivorybills are fairly conspicuous birds that, “if present . . . are not hard to find. Furthermore, the feeding sign they made (scaling bark from extensive areas of not long dead limbs and trees) could be easily recognized as a clue to their presence.”
With regard to the feeding sign, I have to wonder what Tanner would say about the sign we’ve found that appears to match this description perfectly. With regard to being easy to find, Tanner’s field notes and his reminiscence in “A Postscript . . .” make it clear that ivorybills were extremely difficult to find, except in extraordinary circumstances – in close proximity to a nest and perhaps with a good deal of habituation to human presence.
Tanner’s story is amazing. His monograph is seminal though not gospel. The in-depth examination of his work in Stephen Lyn Bales’s Ghost Birds is essential reading. Many of his later pronouncements, however, have done a disservice and continue to sow confusion more than two decades after his death.
I’m indebted to Fredrik Bryntesson for sharing Herbert Stoddard’s 1936 letter and reminding me of Tanner’s missive to USFWS. This piece is informed by years of discussion with Frank Wiley. He also made a number of constructive suggestions about the specific content. Direct descendants excepted, Frank was undoubtedly J.J. Kuhn’s greatest admirer.
There may be some value in considering the distribution of the particular type of suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker foraging sign that I’ve discussed in my recent posts. For the purposes of this analysis, I will limit myself to one very narrow category of bark scaling: extensive work done on the boles of live or recently dead trees (species undetermined in some instances; at least one identified as hickory.) Bark has been tight when examination is possible, and large exit tunnels are abundant. The appearance of the work is consistent – no underlying excavation, no sign of scaling in layers, clean edges.
Two of the trees are in the southwestern section of our search area. This is the general area where I’ve had most of my auditory encounters, although it’s also the area where I’ve spent the most time.
Three of the trees are to the northeast of this pair; two of these were in an inaccessible location and were photographed at a distance of about 40 yards. While they could not be examined for bark tightness, the appearance of the work was consistent with the other examples included in this summary.
Two of the trees are to the east of a parish road (this includes the one discussed in my November update.)
One tree is in the northernmost area we’ve visited and where we’ve spent the least time. Auditory contacts in this area have only involved one source.
The as-the-crow-flies distances involved strike me as being potentially significant. The shortest distance between any two trees is about a quarter mile. The two southwestern area clusters are about half a mile apart at the closest point. From the easternmost tree in these two clusters to the examples east of the parish road, the distance is ~1.35 miles and hence about 2 miles from the westernmost trees. The area to the north is about 2 miles northwest of the easternmost scaling and about 2.8 miles north of the southwesternmost tree.
In 2012, there was a cluster of scaling between approximately .5 miles farther south. The two series of kent-like calls involving two sources heard and recorded in March 2013 came from even farther south.
The distances are much greater than would be expected if a lone pair of Pileateds were engaging in anomalous feeding behavior (there would probably have to be at least three pairs of PIWOs involved.) They’re roughly consistent with the home range Tanner gave for the Singer Tract pairs.