I returned to the search area last week and spent as much time as I could in the field. The trip was generally uneventful, and conditions – strong winds, rain, and high water – limited my field time. Woodpeckers are getting quieter generally; full leaf out, heat (temperatures in the high 80s on the 26th, 27th, and 28th), and abundant mosquitoes make things even more difficult at this time of year; nevertheless, I’m planning one more trip before summer.
On the 26th, I hiked to hickory stub that currently has two cameras trained on it, as one camera needed securing. There were no signs of woodpecker activity on the stub. This beautiful Great Egret in a beautiful spot was a highlight. There were Little Blue Herons in the vicinity too, but I couldn’t get a clear shot, too much mud and intervening vegetation.
On the 27th, I arrived at the “listening point” (where the March recordings were made) shortly after sunrise. I opted to sit quietly, rather than doing playback or ADKs. I did not see or hear anything.
I met up with Steve Pagans at around 10 am. Since water levels were low, we were able to get closer to the snag with the cavity that I found last month. I spotted a second cavity higher on the stub, on the opposite side.
These cavities are large, similar in size, shape, and unusual appearance. While I suspect they are no longer active roosts, we will put a camera on the snag in June, if it’s feasible to do so. The nest John Dennis found in Cuba appeared to have two entrance holes, although Dennis thought one might be too small.
On the hike out, I spotted this wolf spider with her young on her back.
On the 29th, Steve and I visited one of the less accessible parts of the search area. It is an impressive patch of forest, with some oaks and sweet gums approaching or surpassing 5′ DBH. The sweet gum below is probably the largest single trunked gum we’ve found.
Reminiscent of the Singer Tract.
Predicted wind speeds were 15-20 mph, and the gusts were undoubtedly stronger, so birds were not very active. The gusts were often unnerving, and a couple of large limbs fell, uncomfortably close to us, while we were stopped for lunch.
The forecast for the 30th was for even stronger winds, with thunderstorms in the afternoon. We decided to play it safe and stay out of the woods. Steve went home, and I spent part of the day driving scouting a large patch of nearby forest by car, but I wasn’t able to reach the bottomland area that had intrigued me on Google Earth.
The rains didn’t arrive until evening, but they were very heavy, with 3-4″ overnight. Thunderstorms continued until mid-morning on the 1st, so I didn’t venture out until about 10:30. Conditions were cool and cloudy, and everything was soaking wet. My movements were limited by high water levels; these continued to rise during the four hours I spent in the field. Avian activity was again minimal. Coming across this rattlesnake, the third or fourth I’ve found over the years, was the day’s highlight.
On May 2nd, my last field day, I spent the early morning trying to get to the hickory stub and trail cams. Water levels were too high, so I returned to my car and drove to a more accessible location. While I have been concentrating on it less this season, there have been a number of possible contacts in this area, and we have found abundant sweet gum scaling there every year. As has been discussed in several recent posts, classic, ‘Tanneresque’ high branch scaling on freshly dead sweet gums is not necessarily inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker.
Still, I found some very dramatic work on the dead fork of a dying gum. Phil and I first found this tree in February, but most of the scaling has taken place since then. Of particular note were the enormous bark chips found at the base, again all removed since the end of January. My hat, which is shown for scale, is 12.5″ x 12″. Note that this scaling involves some of the largest limbs. Since some gum balls are still attached to the dead limbs, I think it’s safe to assume that the bark remains relatively tight; the scaling also looks generally clean, something that I find suggestive of ivorybill. To the best of my recollection, the bark chips are the largest I’ve ever found from sweet gum limbs.
Later that morning, I found a mildly intriguing cavity in a small sweet gum (~18″ DBH). While it’s almost surely PIWO, I’m including it because the shape and skewed angle are somewhat interesting and also to illustrate that even smaller trees can host substantial cavities. The original image was badly backlit, so I’ve brightened it and rendered it in black and white to make the cavity easier to see. Referencing Dennis again, he estimated the diameter of his Cuban nest tree at 12″. While DNA evidence suggests the Cuban IBWO is/was a different species, more closely related to the Imperial than to the US IBWO, the conditions under which Dennis found a breeding pair seem relevant to the survival of the North American species, and the ‘old growth specialist’ caricature:
There was a sprinkling of deciduous trees, some quite large. Although this region had been heavily logged and burned over as well, growth was quite luxuriant in spots. A watercourse, as well as the generally rugged terrain, had prevented a clean sweep of all the timber. The pine trees, on the whole, were limited to less than five inches in diameter.
There may be more on this in an upcoming post.
Longtime readers of the blog have probably noticed the donate button and the advertising that now appears on the site. Project Coyote has been mostly self-funded from the start, except for a few donations from anonymous individuals and the Rapides Wildlife Association. Some used equipment has been passed on to us by other groups of searchers. I’ve long believed that we’d be able to document ivorybill presence (or go a long way toward ruling it out) with more consistent coverage in the area and a relatively modest budget.
At this point, remote recording units and a couple of additional cameras are at the top of the wish list. Ultimately, I’d love to be able to cover costs for our core group and to provide funding for one or two people to be in the area steadily, at least during February, March, and April. I can dream . . . Anyway, your contributions can help make some of this possible.
Before Frank’s passing, I had decided to ‘retire’ from active searching after this season, for a number of reasons – the sense that I had nothing further to say about feeding sign and the fact that I did not personally see or hear anything strongly suggestive of ivorybill presence in the 2015-2016 season among them. The lack of recent work on hickories was particularly discouraging.
Things started to change when Frank was in the hospital. It became clear that our search was important not only to Frank but also to his family and friends. A number of long-time, mostly quiet, enthusiasts and supporters (including Matt Courtman who had visited the area with Frank some years ago) reached out and encouraged me to continue and even to intensify the effort.
Shortly thereafter, Phil Vanbergen found some recent scaling of the kind that I think is diagnostic for ivorybill on two hickories, though it turned out the work was not as fresh as initially suspected. The trail cam capture of a PIWO removing a strip of bark from one of the trees led me to begin my first March trip in a somewhat pessimistic frame of mind. It didn’t take long for that to change – another ride on what I’ve taken to calling the IBWO-llercoaster.
I arrived in the search area on March 9 and met up with two out-of-state birders with whom Frank and I had been corresponding for some time. I showed them around the search area. They were impressed by the habitat, but we did not see or hear anything significant. On the morning of the 10th, I sent an email to some of the team expressing my frustration over not having had a “compelling recent encounter” and stating that my possible October sighting didn’t meet that standard (even now, I don’t think it compares to the March recordings.)
I was on my own on the 10th and had a slightly less discouraging day; I got my first opportunity to examine the scaled hickories Phil had found. This strengthened my suspicion that the recent PIWO work was “wake feeding”. Later, I met Matt for dinner and a strategy session.
Everything changed on the 11th. In addition to satisfying myself that the extensive scaling on the hickories was at least several months old and that the recent Pileated activity was likely secondary scaling (based primarily on the small bark chips); over the course of the day, we deployed three of our four trail cameras.
Even more importantly, we had auditory encounters in both the morning and the afternoon. Here is my write up from that day, with a few redactions.
At about 10:15, we were in close proximity to where we’ve had several possible contacts, most recently when I was out with Frank in October. We’d just deployed a second trail cam, and Matt had gone about 50 yards north and west of Phil and me. He texted and asked if he could do some DKs (he’s using two wooden blocks that he knocks together.) He did several, no particular pattern, mixed ASKs in with the ADKs.
I did not take notes, and my memory of the exact sequence is weak, but I heard 5-6 DKs and SKs coming from the east in response. If I remember correctly, there was at least some interplay between the ADKs and the DKs, meaning that there were a couple, and then a pause, then Matt DK’ed and there were replies. Matt said he heard 4-5, and I think Phil said he heard 3-4.
Whether or not I’m misremembering, it was far and away the most compelling series of responses I’ve ever heard, and I’ve done hundreds of ADK sessions. **** this was similar to what you encountered on your first trip, in the same general vicinity, but a lot more dramatic. In addition, there was no ambient foraging, and other than the responses, all we got was one PIWO drum from a different direction. Phil said that one of the DKs was very similar to the Pale-billed DKs he heard in Costa Rica last summer.
For the kents, we were at a different location a few miles away; the time was approximately 2:45 pm. Phil and Matt heard a number of calls, of which I only heard two. Of the two I heard, the first was on the low-pitched side, I’d say close to the pitch of the what Tanner called “conversational” calls on the Singer Tract recordings or what Frank and I called the “wonka wonkas”; it had a trumpet-like quality, maybe more than I’d expect for an IBWO, but still in the ballpark. The second was higher pitched and more tooty/reedy, very close to the Singer Tract recordings. The wind was dead calm for the second call, so it was not a tree squeak. In both cases, the calls came from the East.
. . .
So there we are. Quite a day. Now, if we could only find out what’s making the sounds and what’s knocking the bark off the hickories at the outset.
For those who missed it, here’s Phil’s recording of two of those calls – headphones or good speakers recommended. We did not record the knocks we heard in the morning.
On the 12th, Steve Pagans, Matt, and I returned to the location and heard 1 ambient DK and 2 SKs, at approximately 1:55 pm.
These sounds came from roughly the same direction as the calls we’d heard the day before. The possible DK was not as loud as the SKs, or as yesterday’s knocks, but it was distinct. Matt did some ADKs. There was a Red-bellied Woodpecker foraging to the south of the direction of the knocks. Matt’s ADKs seemed to induce it to bang more frequently and forcefully, but we didn’t hear any distinctly IBWO sounding knocks in response. Steve and I heard a single possible kent from the same direction as the possible SKs and DK. It was faint. Steve heard it better than I did and thought it was good; Matt didn’t hear it all. This was probably due to how we were positioned in terms of proximity to the sound.
Under normal circumstances I’d label this episode as a fairly weak possible, marginally worthy of mention on the blog. But given the location, it seems more significant.
The 13th was also eventful. Matt and I opted to return to the area where we’d heard the knocks on the morning of the 11th and give the other location a rest. Here’s my write up of the morning’s possible auditory encounter.
We decided to do a mix of playback and DKs at 9:40 AM. I did about a minute and a half of playback, using the iBird app (3 rounds – 28 seconds of Kents, “conversational” calls, and tapping). Matt followed with perhaps a minute of knocking wood blocks together. Over the course of the following five minutes, we had several knocks. Initially, Matt heard a single that I think I missed. It was followed by a very loud knock coming from the East. It was VERY loud and clear, what Frank would have described as some banging on a tree with a baseball bat. Shortly thereafter, another sound came from my left, roughly north of us. Matt heard it as a single, but I heard it as a double, with the second to my ears perhaps the closest thing to what Tanner described as an echo of the first I’ve ever heard. After that, we heard another loud single roughly from the southwest. The last was more distant and somewhat less striking.
The first single knock and the one I heard as a double were astonishing. There’s no doubt in my mind or his that these were neither mechanical sounds nor foraging. I am kicking myself hard for not having my recorder running; I’ve gotten too jaded about auditory encounters, and it’s a little tough to manage both recording and generating sounds.
A little later, I found a dying chestnut oak with some mildly intriguing feeding sign. There were some huge, thick bark chips on the ground and this, more than the appearance of the work on the tree, struck me as potentially suggestive; this is the first interesting work I’ve found on an oak in several years.
Matt and I returned to this location on the morning of the 14th. Matt did ADK series on the half hour until shortly before noon. It was a cold and windy morning, uncomfortably so. We heard nothing of interest.
On the 15th, I headed for New Orleans and my flight the following morning. Phil and Matt returned to the woods and captured numerous calls between 7 and 11 am. When I heard the recordings I cleared the decks and made arrangements to return as soon as I possibly could.
Patricia and I were back in the woods by lunchtime on the 23rd. Louis Shackleton – a good friend, professional photographer, and birder who happened to be in Louisiana – joined us on the 24th. We didn’t see or hear anything of interest and left early ahead of predicted heavy rains.
At shortly after 11:00 am on the 25th, Patricia and I heard some possible double knocks in apparent response to some very aggressive knocking on my part; two of these knocks came from roughly north and one from the east (the same direction from which the March 15th calls were coming). I’m still reviewing the audio from this trip and may have additional material to post in the future.
I went out alone on the 26th, returning to the same vicinity, and did not see or hear anything interesting.
We were rained out on the 27th. On the 28th, I found a large cavity not far from where the calls were recorded. It does not appear to be fresh enough to be a recent nest, but we plan to target it with a trail cam in the event that it’s being used as a roost. This find illustrates how difficult it is to spot cavities in our search area – six people had spent the better part of multiple days in the immediate vicinity before I noticed it, and the snag is in plain view.
More storms came through on the night of the 28th, and the next morning Patricia and I decided to take a break from the “hot zone” and instead visited the area where Phil found the recently scaled hickories and where Matt, Phil, and I had heard knocks on the 11th and 13th. We found that one of Phil’s scaled hickories had lost its top, which gave me a chance to examine one of the scaled areas up close. As expected, the wood was somewhat punky, and and the bark was fairly easy to remove by hand.
We also discovered that the top of one of our target hickories had been blown off. The tree shows signs of beetle infestation, which gives us reason to hope that it will be visited by woodpeckers before too long.
It was interesting to get a close look at this freshly fallen top and examine how hickory bark separates from the trunk under these circumstances. While it seems to come free fairly easily in very large strips, the bark is extraordinarily tough and strong. When fresh, it’s flexible but very hard to break; doing so requires twisting, and it won’t fracture. Within about 48 hours the piece I collected had dried out and become surprisingly hard. This further reinforced my view that Pileated Woodpeckers are not anatomically equipped to scale large chunks of bark from live or freshly dead hickories.
It was a beautiful day in the woods, and some of the other highlights included recently hatched Wood Ducklings, a posing Yellow-crowned Night Heron, and the first ‘gator (a small one) I’ve ever seen in the area.
The next morning, I returned and redeployed a second camera, which had been trained on another nearby hickory, to the one with the downed top so that we can cover the entire stub.
We spent the morning of the 31st in the area where the calls were recorded before catching an afternoon flight. We did not note any interesting sounds while in the field, but after listening through Patricia’s recordings, I noted the possible double knock discussed in the previous post.
I’m planning two more trips before summer. I anticipate that we’ll have all cams deployed and have high hopes for the hickory stub.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d throw in some additional images that may help to convey what a special and magnificent place this is.
I’m still in mourning and adjusting to the loss of my friend. Thanks to all who have expressed appreciation for our work and a desire for it to continue. I’m sure Frank would have felt the same, and with that in mind, this will be the first of two or three installments discussing Pileated Woodpecker work on sweet gums that we’ve recently documented.
After my December trip, Phil Vanbergen and John Williams retrieved the trail cam we had deployed on December 21. They took the camera to Frank’s house, reviewed the card, and found that two Pileateds had visited the downed tree on the 22nd and had scaled some bark near the base of a medium to large limb. Phil, who has spent time with me in the field and who has paid close attention to my approach to analyzing feeding sign, immediately suspected Pileated for this work, based on the appearance of the scaling and the characteristics of the bark chips.
Rather than extract the images at that time, Frank and Phil opted to redeploy the camera. Although I had not yet seen the frames, many of my last communications with Frank, both on the phone and via email, touched on this subject. He was tickled by the fact that we’d anticipated and documented scaling activity on an untouched limb and was eager to get back out and see for himself. Sadly, that was not to be.
Phil and I retrieved the trail camera on January 28. I had visited the site on the 26th and had noted some additional scaling consistent with what I’d expect for Pileated Woodpecker, although with some bark chips on the larger side. As it happened, the second round of scaling had taken place approximately three hours earlier, five weeks to the day after the first.
In both instances, it appears that almost all the scaling was done by a female, although the image quality is too poor for me to be 100% certain. In both cases, the bird spent approximately 15 minutes on the trunk. It seems that squirrels (seen briefly at the beginning of the January series) are responsible for the modest quantity of scaling on the upper, less vertically oriented, part of the limb; this was my instinct at the time, and the idea is supported by the footage. The full time lapse sequences are at the bottom of the page. Phil extracted both sequences, and Steve Pagans created a slower version of the January 26th clip. The first four photos in the tiled mosaic series below were taken by Phil Vanbergen.
I’ll go into more detail in subsequent posts, but for now, I have a few observations.
- This work has a distinctive appearance, what I’ve called a layered look to the edges, that is consistent with what I’ve previously hypothesized for Pileated.
- While some of the bark chips are on the large side for what I have ascribed to Pileated, none are anywhere near as large as the larger ones that that we’ve ascribed to ivorybill. In addition, the chips found at this location and at another where I suspect the source is PIWO, seem to be less uniformly large in size and sometimes show signs of being taken off in layers, which matches what’s visible on the limbs.
- The tree in question was no more than six months dead, and the bark at the edges of the scaled area remained tight; however, dormant sweet gum bark is in the midrange of tightness relative to other hardwood species.
- This is a decay class that Tanner associated with ivorybills not PIWOs, but it’s clear that Pileateds can and do scale very recently dead sweet gum limbs, at least in mature bottomland forests.
- Tanner’s photographs provide little guidance in terms of differentiating between Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on high branches. I suspect he thought of his monograph as more epitaph than guide to identifying feeding sign. Nevertheless, his descriptions offer some clues. “Scaling, the Ivory-bill works steadily, removing all the bark for quite an area; one may work at a spot for an hour or more.” And for Pileateds, “What scaling Pileateds were observed to do was mostly on loose bark and was never as extensive or as cleanly done as the work of the ivorybills.
To conclude this installment, we already suspected that Pileateds can and do scale freshly dead sweet gums before the bark has loosened; these images show them doing it in a way that is inefficient and neither ‘extensive’ nor ‘clean’. The total surface area scaled over approximately 30 minutes is modest compared to scaling we suspect to have been done by ivorybills. In addition, PIWO work has some characteristics that may be recognizable upon close examination of the affected limbs and bark chips. The fact that these characteristics can be seen on medium-sized sweet gum limbs, with their relatively thin and only moderately tight bark, suggests that it should be even more evident on larger limbs, boles, and other tighter barked species. More on this and on bark chips in subsequent posts.
Part 1 of this report is here.
Patricia opted to take the day off on the 19th, so I went out on my own and covered a lot of territory. I had been thinking hard about the hickories and the fact that, in virtually all cases, we’ve seen indications that bark is removed from these trees and stubs within a very brief period or perhaps in a single visit and that other woodpeckers don’t seem to begin working heavily on these trees for extended periods, sometimes for years. Except for changes in color due to exposure to the elements, some of the scaled surfaces we associate with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers can retain their distinctive appearance for at least three years and more likely five or more.
Steve Pagans later explained that this is due in large part to hardening by compression; hickory wood is hard and dense to begin with, and when a tree or stub is leaning, the wood that’s absorbing more weight becomes even denser, harder, and more impervious to rot. Thus, on many of these trees, Pileated Woodpeckers will have worked on the rotting side, sometimes extensively, while the compressed side remains very hard and virtually untouched by woodpeckers.
I examined and marked as many of these trees as I could over the remainder of the trip. Unfortunately, we did not find any of this scaling in the 2015-2016 season. Trying to find more of it this year and trying to find a way to identify potential target trees before they’re scaled will be priorities for me.
I plan to write about this work on hickories and what I think it suggests in an upcoming post. For now, suffice it to say that these particular snags and stubs are a kind of twofer having the decayed substrate that’s preferred by Pileateds and and the hard wood that, following Tanner, is preferred or used exclusively by ivorybills. As noted elsewhere, some bark on these snags and stubs can remain tight for years, and on one of the trees I examined, it was still difficult to remove, even when it had reached a point at which some of it would crumble to powder when it was being pulled off. More importantly, the harder surfaces show modest expansion of exit tunnels and targeted digging work that appear to be associated with the initial scaling (as in the hickory on the homepage and the one in Steve’s photo at the end of this post, both of which were very freshly scaled and alive when found) and little or no other work for a period of years, even when there are signs of infestation by multiple insect species (based on the presence of exit tunnels that vary greatly in size and shape). I’ve included multiple examples, long shots and details, to illustrate.
On the 20th, Patricia, Steve, Phil, and I went to Sector 2 together. We went through the area where I recorded calls in 2013 and where we found concentrations of scaling in spring 2012 and during the 2012-13 season. There has been none since in this little patch. We found no recent looking bark scaling in the morning (as it turned out, we missed a group of three sweet gums with high branch work perhaps a quarter mile to the northeast of this area, see below.) One odd highlight was coming across a patch of forest floor with many of these beautiful ice formations that had formed around the stems of a couple of species of plant.
At a little before noon, Steve opted to turn back; we had already covered 2.3 miles. Before we went our separate ways, we all speculated on and were baffled as to what might have damaged this sweet gum. The wounds seem to have been caused by a scrape, but there were no downed trees or tops anywhere in the immediate vicinity.
Phil, Patricia, and I proceeded another half mile farther north, reaching a hickory stub that I found in the spring of 2013, shown below. The stub was still standing, and the areas with putative ivorybill work had lost more bark but showed no signs of further woodpecker activity. The presence of a click beetle in this 2013 photo suggests that parts of the tree were already starting to rot even then.
We found two sweet gums with extensive scaling on large branches within 30 yards of this snag. Some of the work was recent. This is something that we’re finding repeatedly; even within clusters, the interesting feeding sign often seems to appear in tighter groupings involving two or more trees. I’ll provide a possible explanation in my next post.
We found a particularly unusual bark chip at the base of the tree on the left. While it comes from a relatively small branch, the way it was removed may be significant. Over 1/3 of the chip is cylindrical encompassing almost the entire circumference of the limb; it was not pecked off piece by piece; instead, it appears to have been loosened by several blows and then pried free. The bark is hard, suggesting it was tightly attached; it was moist and contained a good deal of frass when found. The piece is very large, approximately 13″ long and nearly 7″ in circumference.
On the return trip, we found a small group of three sweet gum snags, somewhat on the longer dead side. All three had recent to fresh scaling, and there were very large bark slabs at the bases of two of them. These slabs of bark were dense and hard, suggesting that they were tightly adhering when stripped.
We came across a massive relict cypress on the way back. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this tree, but it never fails to take my breath away.
On the morning of December 21st, Phil and I went to Sector 1, and Patricia and Steve went to Sector 3. We decided not to deploy a camera on the downed top we had found on the 16th. We have two functioning cameras at the moment, and it seemed more prudent to deploy them on untouched substrates. We didn’t find any new scaling or a substitute target, so we decided to head for Sector 3 where I had a couple of targets in mind.
As we were walking to the car, I got a text from Patricia saying that she and Steve had just had a possible auditory encounter. Steve is a dedicated birder with very good hearing and excellent ear-birding skills. Patricia has limited experience, but she is a retired opera singer with a good general ear. Here are their descriptions of the morning’s events.
Steve: At about 9:10 am, Patricia and I were in the bottomland hardwood area in Sector 3. The weather was overcast and cold without any wind – very good conditions to hear bird calls. We had walked southward for about a quarter of a mile in the bottomland area when we had decided to do some DKs. Actually it was Patricia’s idea to do some DKs, and we proceeded to find a small American Holly that was the right size to cut two sticks for knocking.
Patricia: I thought it would be a good location, as I remembered Frank, Steve, Mark and I had done them at the same location a few years back. I remember the fallen tree we all sat on for lunch. Steve had sardines! And where Frank sat down at the base of a tree and started to snore. When I mentioned to Mark that Frank was sleeping, Frank retorted “I’m not asleep”
Steve: The location is one where we could see for a distance fairly well. When we started the DKs, we did not keep up with how many were done or how long we did them, but I think it was for about 10 minutes. We made an effort to keep watch for an incoming IBWO that would be responding to the DKs, but we were probably not as diligent as we could have been. At a point we had engaged in some conversation. I was sitting on a sweetgum log and Patricia standing about six feet away. My right side was facing south. Patricia was talking when all of a sudden I heard what sounded like at least two distinct calls from my right. The calls sounded like textbook calls of the IBWO – a bit like a toy horn was being blown. I know White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatch calls very well and what I heard did not sound like either of those birds. I immediately put up my left hand to stop Patricia from talking and pointed with my right hand toward the south. I told her what I had heard while we both strained to hear any more calls. There were no more calls. Also, we did not see the bird. It is highly likely that we did not spend enough time watching and listening for the bird after I had heard it call. It is hard to say how close the bird might have been to our location because I don’t know how far their call can be heard.
Patricia: I think I did about 10 DKs, perhaps 15-30 seconds apart. When I didn’t hear anything interesting,I joined Steve, who was about 20 yards away. We started talking, and I was responding to something he said when his hands went up and his eyes widened. He whispered, “Did you hear that? Kent calls?” I shook my head no. We listened for a while, but probably no longer than 5 minutes.
Steve suggested we do another round of DKs to see if we could call in whatever made the sound again. I asked him to do the next round, as I my hands were stinging and sore; plus I wanted to hear them from someone with more experience. I think that, should someone have an auditory encounter, another person should take their place during a second round of DKs.
I stayed where I was standing when Steve heard the kents but was facing directly south. After 3 or 4 DKs, I heard something similar in cadence, but it had a sharper, crisper quality to it (similar to recorded Campephilus double knocks). It came roughly from the southwest. By the time Steve joined me later, I had convinced myself that it was caused by the logging that we heard going on in the distance, also to the southwest. If I mentioned hearing the DK to Steve, I probably downplayed it, blaming the logging or a falling limb; the winds were very calm at the time, and I didn’t hear any similar sounds from the logging that morning.
I have not spent much time in the field and am reluctant to place too much weight on my observations. I’d much prefer the IBWO (should it be out there) land on my shoulder “Sonny Boy” style and leave behind a fine DNA sample, after I manage to take a series of selfies!
Don’t we all . . . or at least that we could call them in like Barred Owls.
We met up with Patricia and Steve, and Phil set up the cams; one is currently aimed at a sweet gum stub we targeted last year before losing a camera to flooding. There is some fresh woodpecker work, I suspect Hairy, on the stub, so this may be a good time to target it. The other cam is trained on both a downed sweet gum top and a longer dead snag. Both are within the area where we’ve had multiple possible encounters recently, not far from the heavy concentration of sign found last spring.
Toward the end of the day, Phil went to do an evening stakeout in sector 1; Patricia went with him, while I took Steve a little farther north to show him a couple of the hickory stubs. In this location as well, there were a couple of recently scaled sweet gums in within 20-30 yards of the older hickories, which were similarly about 20-30 yards apart. We also examined one of the hickories Steve photographed in 2013; it was alive at the time. This one had decayed somewhat more rapidly than many of the others I’ve found, but it’s at a lower elevation relative to the nearest water body.
Steve remarked that he’s never seen feeding sign like this anywhere else, and he has spent countless professional hours in bottomland hardwood forests.
Frank, Phil, and John Williams will be in the search area over the next few days, so there may be another report coming soon, in addition to the post I’m planning on hickories and foraging behavior.
On this trip, I was joined by Patricia Johnson (my wife) who was making her first visit to our search area in over two years. Phil Vanbergen was along on Friday, when a classmate of his, Jeremy Irion, spent also spent the day with us. Steve Pagans, retired forester at D’Arbonne National Wildlife Refuge, was very active in our efforts until he was sidelined with back trouble. He too made his first visit in over two years on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s great to have Steve along for his birding skills and knowledge of this habitat type. Phil returned on Tuesday and Wednesday, and spent Thursday in the woods on his own. Frank Wiley was unable to get out this time around.
Prior to our departure, rain was predicted for three of our planned field days, but as it turned out, the weather was generally tolerable, if cold at times; Saturday was the only day when conditions, high winds and predicted thunderstorms, kept us away. Patricia and I took that day as an opportunity to visit Tensas National Wildlife Refuge (on the site of the Singer Tract) and Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge. More on these visits below.
Although I didn’t have any possible encounters (Steve and Patricia’s will be discussed in Part 2), the trip was an incredibly productive one for me. We found a good deal of recent feeding sign. I also took the opportunity to look at over 10 hickories that have been scaled within the last several years. This is the type of work I think is most compelling for ivorybill.
I got what I think are some important new insights and some ideas about how whatever is stripping bark is behaving over time; these merit a separate post that will likely follow Part 2 of the trip report; I also anticipate writing an addendum to the feeding sign page I added recently. I hope these insights can inform our strategies going forward. It’s especially helpful to get fresh perspectives, so I’m grateful to Phil, Steve, and Patricia. Each in their own way helped me think a little more deeply about my observations; a conversation I had with Frank after a long day in the field was similarly helpful.
The groups of images in this post are in “tiled mosaic” format. Clicking on any single image will enable you to scroll through the group and enlarge the individual photographs if you choose to.
We met Phil on the edge of what we call Sector 1 at 6:45 am on the 16th. The weather was cloudy, cold, and windy; later in the day, the thermometer soared to nearly seventy, but the skies remained a wintry gray, less than ideal conditions for finding feeding sign or observing birds. Nevertheless we did find some recent work on both standing and downed sweetgums and on a broken hickory limb, all of this in an area where we’ve found an abundance of scaling every search season. None of this work is in the category I find most compelling; the hickory limb is probably most interesting due to the characteristics of hickory bark and the very large bark chip we found below the limb. Given what we’ve observed on hickory boles, this may be good target tree for later in the season.
The scaling on the downed limb has some features that might point toward Pileated, especially the layered appearance at the lower right and the patchiness of the work on the smaller limb. Conversely, the shredding of the cambium on the stub is consistent with what Edith Kuhn Whitehead told us her father associated with ivorybills.
Phil and I considered aiming a trail cam at the downed limbs but decided the work was not quite interesting enough.
The weather forecast for the 17th was ominous, with winds upwards of 20 mph and thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. Patricia and I thought we might be able to spend a couple of hours in Sector 1, but when we reached the trailhead we found a truck parked where we were planning to walk in. Given the bad weather and the presence of hunters, we decided to head straight for Tensas, a pilgrimage I’d been wanting to make for some time.
The drive took a couple of hours, and our Wayz app sent us on a couple of roads that dead-ended in bean fields, but we finally made it, only to find the visitor center closed for the weekend.
We took a walk on the boardwalk behind the headquarters and found a dead tree that had been almost completely stripped of bark, large soft slabs of which were lying around the base. I’m posting a photograph to illustrate how difficult it can be to explain what we’re finding to those who haven’t seen it firsthand. I doubt there are ivorybills in Tensas, but if I found this work in our area, I wouldn’t suspect ivorybill. The remaining adhering bark is loose and decaying; the large slabs we found on the ground were soft and pliable. The tree in the background has a little bit of scaling on it too, but it is in an advanced state of decay, and the bark has not been removed from large, contiguous areas.
As we drove around Tensas, we did note occasional instances of high branch scaling, but nothing remotely suggestive. Again I’m again including these examples in hopes of providing more clarity with regard to the kinds of feeding sign I find suggestive for ivorybill; this work doesn’t qualify; it is on very small, longer dead limbs; it does not involve large, contiguous areas; nor does it reach the bole or larger parts of the limbs.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the refuge from the road, stopping at Africa Lake, on the West side of the Tensas River, and then drove Sharkey Road, stopping for a somber moment on the bridge over John’s Bayou. I’m facing south in the picture below; Tanner would have walked north to the core of the home range. There are strips of maturing woods along the banks of the bayou but bean fields to the east and west. Tensas is big, extensively wooded, and an impressive restoration effort is under way, but the visit left me saddened, with a more visceral sense of what was lost when the Singer Tract was logged.
From Tensas, we went to Bayou Cocodrie, a nearly 15,000 acre refuge that’s part of a large, east-central Louisiana potential habitat complex. While the corridors are not uninterrupted, they encompass many thousands of acres of maturing forest, from D’Arbonne and Tensas National Wildlife Refuges to Raccourci Island and Tunica Hills. There’s some connectivity with the Atchafalaya Basin as well. Bayou Cocodrie is fairly isolated and hard to reach (Wayz was unhelpful again); it includes a small (775 acre) stand of old growth hardwoods (the Fisher Tract), and there may be a good deal more surrounding forest that’s suitable for ivorybills. I met a professional hunting guide a couple of years ago, and he claimed to have had an encounter there. We’re planning to visit Bayou Cocodrie and see the Fisher Tract and surrounding areas on my next visit.
Patricia and I were on our own on the 18th, which was a much colder, clearer day after some early morning clouds broke up. We spent the early part of the day in the northeastern part of Sector 1 and didn’t find anything of interest. We went to the scaling concentration in Sector 3 in the latter part of the morning and stayed in the area until about 3 pm.
I didn’t notice any new scaling worth mentioning, but we found a limb that had fallen and broken apart in the storms that had raged through the night before. The scaling had been done before the branch fell, and except for one targeted dig, there was no associated excavation. While some of the bark had loosened, it was tight (impossible to remove without an implement) on the edges. I’ve included several images because they help illustrate the difference between the very extensive scaling we’re finding in our area and what’s common elsewhere (as shown in some of the Tensas photos). Patricia is 5’9″.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
This was an eventful trip, with an extraordinary amount of activity on the first four days – including a possible sighting and several possible auditory encounters – and none at all on the last two. I was alone on October 13th, 17th, and 18th; Frank joined me from the 14th-16th. Conditions were generally good – light winds (strongest gust, 20 MPH, was on the 13th) and sunny or partly cloudy skies. Daytime highs were in the upper 80s-low 90s, with uncomfortably high humidity on 17th and 18th. Notwithstanding the recent flooding in Louisiana, the forest floor was dry and water levels were lower than I’ve ever seen, making it much easier to reach less accessible areas.
I found very little fresh scaling, although a tree on which we had a trail cam appeared to have been worked on quite extensively sometime after my last visit in late May. The card probably contains imagery through June and possibly into July. Unfortunately, it may have been corrupted; Frank is working on retrieving the data. If I were superstitious, I’d point to this as another case of “the curse of the ivorybill”. That aside, the paucity of fresh scaling (only a few trees with small chips consistent with PIWO work at the bases) supports the idea that bark scaling has a seasonal component that is related to breeding. This is implicit in Tanner, the limited data on ivorybill stomach contents, and in several previous posts (links).
I am somewhat hesitant to mention and describe my possible sighting and some of the other possible encounters this trip but have decided that it’s better to be comprehensive and transparent. Of all the events of the past several days, I think the double knocks Frank and I heard on Saturday were the most compelling. While my views on the IBWOs persistence are unchanged, my pessimism about obtaining conclusive documentation has grown. I may have more to say about this in a future post.
And with that, here’s the day-by-day log.
I arrived in Sector 3 at sunrise on Thursday morning and got to the ‘hot zone’ as quickly as I could.
The small pond with several scaled trees, discussed in this post, was completely dry, enabling me to look at some of the downed wood that had been in or under water on previous visits. I found a large and very interesting cavity in some blowdown. Both the shape and size are unusual and more consistent with IBWO than PIWO. (My iPhone 7 Plus’s dimensions are 6.23”x3.07”)
I went a little farther south to the trail cam and noted that one of the target trees had been more extensively scaled since my last visit in May. The work is on the bole of this less than 1’ DBH sweet gum that had been damaged by a falling limb and has recently succumbed (photo below). There were large chips on the ground, but they did not appear to be fresh. If the scaling was done in June, as I suspect, we hope to have captured the source.
I hunkered down and watched the trees for some time, seeing and hearing nothing of interest. When the sun was above the tree line, I ventured south and east, thinking I’d take advantage of the low water and explore some unvisited areas.
I had a possible sighting at about 9:25. I was walking south and turned to my right, looking across a clearing to a large snag that I estimated to be approximately 200 yards away (paced off at over 170 steps and later rangefindered at 160 yards). The snag in question is very close to where Frank had a sighting in March.
I texted my wife with a description that I fleshed out in an email that evening, bracketed remarks have been added for clarification.
“I saw a brilliant flash of white as a woodpecker flew up onto the tree [this was a dorsal view.] I reached for my binoculars not my camera; I think because the distance was so great. I got the bins on the bird and got them focused as it took off. I didn’t get anything like a good look, but again saw brilliant white wings with a little black. I also had the distinct impression that the bird was much too large to be a RHWO. But it was a fleeting glimpse (or better two fleeting glimpses).
I did some playback of PIWO and IBWO and had no responses.
I . . . went to the snag. There is a RHWO roost at the very top, and I saw one juvenile and another RHWO but didn’t see the head [and could not determine whether it was a juvenile or an adult]. Though RHWOs were present, seeing them at this close range made me feel even more strongly that the bird I spotted was much bigger. I can’t fully rule out RHWO, but I also find it hard to imagine that I would have been able to get any details at all such a distance unless the bird was large.” Snag where I had the possible sighting. The bird landed on and took off from the stub at center. A Red-headed Woodpecker cavity is at the top of the left stub. My view was dorsal and from below, so the white was clearly on the trailing edges of the wings, ruling out Pileated.
This was my first possible sighting in almost three years. I was disoriented and shaken by it, as I have been with my handful of other possibles. And since it was not a good look, I can’t help but doubt myself.
In reply to my emailed description, Bob Ford had this to say:
“My ‘for what it’s worth’, I had a similar sighting once and paced it off to the same distance, then found Red-headed Woodpeckers and watched them at around that distance (maybe a little closer). Yes, can’t rule out red-headed but they look pretty small at that distance.”
As it turned out, Frank and I were able to spend some time observing Red-headed Woodpeckers in an open area at 50-100 yards. This was on Sunday morning at approximately the same time and under lighting conditions that were, if anything, somewhat brighter than those on Thursday. These observations led me to lean somewhat more strongly toward Ivory-billed Woodpecker. While the white rump of the Red-headed was easily visible at these distances, the white on the wings at a similar angle of view appears a lot less extensive and vivid than what I saw, and Red-headeds indeed look quite small.
I was able to capture a female Pileated and a sub-adult Red-headed in several frames. I’ve included a couple of the images here, both because they illustrate the size differential and because the posture of the Pileated is very similar to the posture of the bird in one of our old trail cam photos; the angle of view is different; nevertheless, it seems relevant with regard to neck length. The snag was less than fifty yards away. The first photo in the series shows the entire area. Frank measured the distance to the distant snag at right as 100 yards; the snag in the second and third images is at the left edge of the frame in the first.
On Friday morning, Frank and I had hoped to return to the ‘hot zone’, but when we arrived another vehicle was parked at the end of the road, presumably a squirrel hunter. To avoid contact with others, we went to Sector 2 but found another vehicle parked where we were hoping to hike in. We opted to hike into Sector 3 from the south, a part of the area that we visit less frequently and that’s harder to traverse when water levels are high.
I did not note the time, but I’d estimate that it was between 9:00 and 10:00. Frank did a series of double knocks, and shortly afterwards, I heard two single knocks (Frank heard one) and then a possible distant double knock that we both heard. Later on, farther north and closer to the ‘hot zone’, he did another series, and there was a loud, close single knock, followed by what may be the longest and most agitated-sounding Pileated calling I’ve ever heard. We both found these knocks somewhat intriguing, but neither one of us thought they were compelling.
On Saturday, there were no vehicles at the trailhead, so we were able to return to the ‘hot zone’. At a little after 9:00 am, we were approaching the northernmost edge when we heard 5 double knocks from two sources to the west of us. I estimated the distance at over 200 yards, but Frank put it somewhat closer, perhaps 150. We both agreed they sounded very good for Campephilus; Frank thinks some of the best ever; he wrote: “. . . three of the first five, early on, were very crisp, clean, and woody; among the best I’ve heard.”
We stopped and waited, and heard nothing. Frank did an ADK series and got no response. About fifteen minutes later, I did another series, and this time, I heard 2-4 more double knocks. Frank was applying insect repellant, the reason for my uncertainty about the number of knocks I heard. He only heard one. We sat for another 20 minutes or so, and, after hearing nothing, proceeded south to the scaling concentration. When we reached the pond with the downed cavity, we heard another DK from the south, at fairly close range.
From there, I took Frank to where I was standing when I had the possible sighting, and he measured the distance. We then went on to explore some previously unvisited places, finding some possible cavities and starts and a little bit of older feeding sign. This part of our search area is difficult to reach and navigate unless conditions are extremely dry, and we suspect it may be where roosts are located at present. If we can visit and explore it when leaves are down, we will be able to do a more intensive search for potential roosts. This is a difficult undertaking, especially given that the big trees are more than 100’ tall.
On Sunday, we went to Sector 2, the easily accessible part of which has seen a major increase in human activity and four-wheeler use over the last three years. This is the area where the tree on the homepage is located. Because waters were so low were able to get to parts of this sector that we haven’t visited in a couple of seasons due to changes in hydrology caused by beavers and and human traffic.
I was sad to discover that what I called the kissing trees, my favorites, have separated.
At 11:30, about 4 miles in, Frank nearly stepped on this canebrake rattler, only the third one I’ve ever seen.
A few minutes later, a series of approximately a dozen calls from two or three sources caught our ears. We agreed on the following details: they sounded more like “yips” than “kents” (I didn’t consciously remember that Allen and Kellogg described some ivorybill calls as “yips”); they were all single notes with no variations in pitch, perhaps not as rich sounding and higher pitched than the Singer Tract recordings, but with something of their toy horn quality; the first calls came from the east and northeast, and with movement northwestward and away from us. A Downy Woodpecker called shortly afterwards; I mentioned to Frank (and he agreed) that the “yips” had a similar quality to the Downy’s “Pik”, what I’d describe in retrospect as their brevity and emphasis.
After the calls subsided, we proceeded north for another hour or so, before looping south and west. At approximately 2 PM and at about the same latititude, I heard three more calls that were more kent-like. Frank missed them; while I suspect they came from Blue Jays, I’m including them for the sake of completeness.
On the 17th, I explored parts of Sector 1 I haven’t visited before but did not see or hear anything suggestive of ivorybills. The same was true on the 18th, when I returned to the ‘hot zone’.
I don’t anticipate returning to Louisiana until sometime in December but may do another post or two between now and then.
I don’t expect to return to our search area until sometime this fall, but I hope that my schedule will allow me to spend a lot more time in the field next season. Overall, this was a challenging week due to high temperatures and severe back pain that troubled me from the end of the first day on. Nonetheless, it was a productive trip, and weather conditions were generally tolerable – hot and humid but not unbearably so, with daytime temperatures mostly in the high 80s. Woodpeckers, except for Red-bellieds, were generally quiet and unobtrusive. The only Pileateds I saw were responding to playbacks, and while I didn’t keep count, I’d estimate I heard their vocalizations an average of 2 or 3 times a day.
In contrast to winter and early spring, the woods are filled with other sounds – songbirds, frogs, cicadas, squirrels – making it much harder to separate signal from noise. Green frog calls can sound a little like double knocks at a distance, especially if you’re walking, and the squirrel calls in this recording were intriguing enough to capture, as only the somewhat kent-like sounds were audible to me in the field, something for other searchers to bear in mind.
I had a 6 am flight out of JFK. After arriving in New Orleans, I met Frank Wiley for coffee and then drove to his house, changed clothes and got to the search area at a little after 2 pm. The area I visited is the one closest to a parish road. This is a part of the southern sector in which we’ve consistently found feeding sign since 2012 and where I found a number of recently scaled trees in March of this year. Despite full leaf out, I was able to find quite a few more recently scaled trees in the general vicinity of those discussed in the most recent trip report.
Unfortunately, and perhaps because my attention was on looking for feeding sign, I got somewhat turned around and wandered considerably farther south than I had intended, running the risk not only of trespassing but also of getting stranded in the woods. I noticed this at about 6 pm. Fortunately, I wasn’t too far from the road, just well south of where I wanted to be. It took me a half hour to reach the road (at which point I noticed my back was hurting badly) and another ten minutes or so to get to the car. I didn’t sleep much or well that night, despite having been awake since 3:30 am.
My back continued to bother me, so I tried to take it easy by spending the morning in the most accessible part of the search area. I found a few additional scaled trees, some with old work and excavation that seems consistent with what Tanner described, others with scaling that looked fresh.
Travis Lux, a radio freelancer working on an ivorybill story, spent the morning in the field with me. (Most days this week I could only manage being out from around 6 am – 1 pm.) We visited the northern sector. I did not find any new feeding trees.
We passed the large downed limb where we had a camera trap for some time, and there has been no fresh work on it since the flooding in March. And only a small quantity of bark has been removed since the camera was deployed.
This may be significant, since it seems likely that common animals with small home ranges would return repeatedly to the same feeding spot. In the case of this limb, it seems to have been scaled by something unknown, prior to our camera deployment and again a little over a month later. Squirrels, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers were captured or seen on the target limbs, but they did no scaling. As I’ve mentioned previously, in most instances, we’re finding that trees are visited by whatever’s scaling them once or sporadically over a period of months.
We continued southward into the area discussed in the last trip report; we’ve found feeding sign regularly in this small area every season since 2013-2014. I did not find any new feeding trees: however, there was additional scaling on a couple of the trees found in recent trips, most notably the large dying sweet gum below (the next to last image in the post). I’m hoping that Frank will be able to train a camera on this treetop once our old Reconyxes have been repaired. The resolution on our other cameras is too poor to aim them so high; the same may be true of the Reconyx cams, but the quality is somewhat better.
We did a stake out in the area for a couple of hours but did not see or hear anything of interest. On the way out, I noticed that one of our suspected feeding trees had some very fresh scaling on it. This is a small tree with thin bark, and the chips were mostly very small. I do not suspect this to be ivorybill work and have a hunch that it was done by a Hairy, taking advantage of scaling that had been begun by another species.
I returned to the part our search area that’s most readily accessible from the road, so I was in the woods before sunrise. I found a few additional recently scaled trees, some with very large chips at the base. One of these was heavily scaled on the bole as well as on the branches, and although the bark was loose in some spots; it was tight in others. The presence of twigs and small branches suggests that it had died fairly recently, even though there were signs of Pileated Woodpecker excavation on decaying parts of the bole.
Phil and Eric Vanbergen joined me, and we returned to the area I’d visited the day before, again getting into the woods early. We found a six more scaled trees, took GPS points, and measurements. The trees were all live or fairly freshly dead. All were sweet gums, as has been the case for virtually all trees found this season (with two possible exceptions, one of which is shown in the May 22nd entry). Diameters of the trees measured were 14.7”, 19”, 21”, 25.1”, 26.2”, and 27”
Four of the six trees listed above were found in pairs, about 5’ apart in one instance and 20’ apart in the other. In the case of one pair, a long dead sweet gum and a live hickory within 30’ also showed some older scaling. Most of this work was recent but not fresh. We found large chips at the base of the pair of trees that are 5’ feet apart; these were probably a few months old.
While I did not keep count, and we only took coordinates for a few of the trees found this time around, I’d estimate I found a total of 15-18 recently scaled sweet gums in and around the southern concentration described in the last trip report.
The Vanbergens were along again. It’s refreshing to spend time in the woods with young people (Phil’s in college and Eric’s in high school) who know and love nature, something that seems to interest fewer and fewer people in their age group. They have suggested some interesting strategies for searching, and I’m looking forward to their participation next season.
We went to the northern area, arriving at the scaling concentration at around 7:30. We staked out feeding trees until around 10 with no results.
Here are some of Eric’s wonderful photos: cottonmouth, pale lobelia, bark scaling, swamp milkweed, and another cottonmouth. He identified the plants.
After that we headed further south to an area they hadn’t visited before. We found a little bit of fairly recent scaling on a dead hickory about 20 yards from where I found a heavily scaled hickory in 2013. The scaling is not extensive; it’s clearly targeted at larger Cerambycids, but given the small patches, Hairy Woodpecker is a distinct possibility. I was unable to find any fresh chips, so the work is probably several months old.
I returned to the northern area alone and spent the morning staking out the same large feeding tree. I watched Red-bellied Woodpeckers flying to and from the tree sporadically, usually spending very brief periods pecking and gleaning on both scaled and unscaled areas and drumming from time to time. At 7:30, the male landed at the top of scaled stub and called. The female arrived; they copulated, and she flew off. He departed a few seconds later. At 8:30, I recorded the squirrel calls, and at 10:35, one of the RBWOs landed near the top of the scaled stub, peered around at me, and eventually started to drum. I called it a day shortly after noon. Here’s another image of the sweet gum top I was staking out, to give a sense of how extensively scaled it is in the crown.
I hiked out, following a rather circuitous route. A few hundred yards from the concentration, I found a recently dead sweet gum with a few small scaled patches but no extensive work. I think this is another indication that this scaling is not being done by a common, evenly distributed species. Work tends to appear in bunches, with scattered sporadic examples elsewhere, but in the two areas discussed in this post, bark scaling on deciduous trees has been abundant in concentrated locations, over several years, and is much harder to find and scattered outside of these “hot zones”.
On the 24th, I drove to New Orleans, stopping in Lafayette for lunch and ivorybill talk with Wylie Barrow and Tommy Michot.
I realize this has been a very image-heavy post. I sometimes think it’s hard to convey the quantity and unusual nature of the bark scaling we’re finding in this area and hope this does a somewhat more effective job at making it clear than some previous efforts.
That’s all for this season. I’ll be doing some additional posts on old material as well as one on foraging sign concentrations and tree species in the weeks ahead. I may also upload a lot more images of feeding sign to Flickr for those (if any) who haven’t seen enough of it. And of course, if there’s anything to report from Louisiana, you’ll read it here. I hope that the insights and data that have emerged this season will guide us next year.