The first trip of the season was relatively uneventful, although we heard possible single and double knocks on Thursday morning and afternoon. Unusually heavy hunting activity and bad weather kept us out of the field on Saturday the 22nd and most of the Sunday the 23rd. Peggy Rardin Shrum joined me from Tuesday through Friday. Tommy Michot was with us Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and Steve Pagans joined us Wednesday through Friday.
Tommy has been very good at encouraging us all to do more stopping and listening. My focus on looking for feeding sign has probably led me to do more walking than I should. We’ve also started experimenting with playback of a couple of the March calls, cleaned up, amplified and looped by Phil Vanbergen and would like to offer it other searchers for their use. Feel free to email me for an MP3 if you’re unable to pull it from the site.
The amplification and cleaning up highlights the differences between many of our sounds and those recorded in the Singer Tract (though I still think the species involved is the same). Agitation and disturbance may account for the shorter, sharper sound of the John’s Bayou calls, and as has been discussed in prior posts, written descriptions of the calls, including Tanner’s, point to a good deal of variation.
We observed that playback of these calls often provoked responses from woodpeckers of all kinds at close to the same level as Barred Owl playbacks, though this was impressionistic not quantified. Crows and raptors sometimes seemed to react as well. I played around with some other sounds chosen more or less at random – Goldfinch, Blue Jay, Ring-billed Gull, Black-backed Woodpecker. None of these seemed to have much effect, though the Black-backed did appear to evoke a smaller number of woodpecker reactions.
Water levels were low enough to enable us to get into some of the less accessible areas, but the need to deal with our trail cams prevented us from spending a lot of time exploring. There were no indications of woodpecker activity on the target trees, and we continue to have problems with camera malfunctions. Two of the four we had deployed seem to have failed since June; one of these may have been damaged by a tree fall, but both cams have the same issue – shutting down after booting up. We’re trying to identify the glitch and determine whether the cameras are reparable.
Tuesday, October 17
We visited the northern sector to check on our two northernmost camera deployments. The first of these (now discontinued) was a standing hickory with signs of insect damage. Tommy and Phil Vanbergen had changed out the batteries in August, and 64% of the charge remained. The second target is a hickory about 200 yards away that had lost its top in a spring storm and an adjoining beech that had also been damaged. Since August, a large hickory had fallen, bringing down a number of limbs from other trees in the process and perhaps damaging the camera without hitting directly. In addition, a large fallen oak limb obscured most of the trunk of the main target. We pulled the camera when we discovered the apparent malfunction. On the return hike, we headed east to a part of the area I had not previously explored and that has had little coverage.
Wednesday, October 18
On the morning of the 18th, I stopped for breakfast at the place closest to our search area. Early on weekday mornings, it’s a hangout for law enforcement officers and older folks, as well as various people passing through on their way to work. A sheriff’s deputy and a couple of older men had been in the place on Tuesday, discussing local history. All three were familiar faces, as no doubt, I was to them.
For the first time, this particular bunch engaged me in conversation, asking whether I was hunting. I said no, I was looking for birds and taking pictures. They asked what ‘what kind of birds’, and I said woodpeckers. “What kind of woodpeckers?” “Rare ones”, I replied. They initially thought I was referring to “itty bitty ones”, Red-cockadeds, but I explained that I meant big woodpeckers. “You mean those Indian Hens” (meaning Pileated), one asked. I told them what I was looking for was similar but not the same and took the opportunity to show them pictures from my iBird Pro app.
The Deputy Sheriff and one of the men recognized the Pileated but said they’d never seen an ivorybill. The third guy pointed to the ivorybill image, and said, “I used to see them when I was hunting over on . . . but I gave up hunting seven years ago.” This is the second or third local claim I’ve heard from this area, which is several miles away from the focus of our efforts across a major highway. It looks decent on Google Earth. While I’ve been wary of engaging in too much conversation with locals, it sometimes provides interesting intel, and this evolved organically; I didn’t reveal our location; and I hope it won’t result in too much gossip.
I met up with Tommy and Peggy, and we went to the southern sector to check on the other camera deployment (another tall hickory stub) to discover that one of the two cameras had failed in the same manner as the one at the northern location. We changed the batteries on the functioning camera and pulled the malfunctioning one. We met up with Steve, who had arrived later and followed another route, in the early afternoon and hiked out with him.
Thursday, October 19th
Peggy, Tommy, and I devoted the morning in the northern sector, exploring the less-visited eastern side. At approximately 8:35 we did a series of double knocks, which did not produce any immediate responses. We remained in place, and shortly before 9, we heard several single and double knocks from south of our location. We were not recording at the time, and I considered them to be moderate possibles. We met up with Steve, who had been some distance north of us, about an hour later; he had heard our ADKs but not the apparent responses.
In late morning, we headed west and moved the functioning trail cam to the nearby hickory/beech blowdown. This is where Peggy, Tommy, Phil, and I had heard some knocks in June. It took a group effort, but we were able to move the large oak limb that was obstructing the view of the hickory bole. We redeployed the camera, trained on the bole. Given the season, it seems unlikely that this stub will be scaled in the next several months, but I anticipate leaving these camera traps in place for an extended period.
We stayed in this spot for lunch and did a little more exploring in the immediate vicinity before heading back toward the trailhead in the early afternoon. At approximately 2 pm, as we were approaching the spot where the March recordings were made, we heard several ambient knocks, also moderate possibles, but were unable to generate any responses.
There was more shooting than usual in the area during this trip and there were distant industrial noises from time to time. These were all easy to distinguish from the possible SKs and DKs.
Friday, October 20th
Peggy, Steve, and I returned to the same vicinity and spent our time in the less visited eastern half, some of which was familiar to Steve. In addition to be being hard to reach, the terrain in this area is difficult, making it more difficult to explore.
We did not see or hear anything of note, although I found some suggestive older scaling on boles – one example on a sweet gum and one on the dead side of a still live hickory. I’d estimate that this work is at least a year old. The hickory work is of the kind I think may be diagnostic for ivorybill, and the sweet gum work is interesting for being on the bole and also for apparent large exit tunnels. I also find the excavation on the hickory to be of potential interest. The wood does not appear to be soft, and the digging does not look like typical Pileated Woodpecker work. In a couple of instances, Tanner mentioned how Ivory-billed Woodpecker work resembles that of the Red-bellied Woodpecker except for appearing to have been done by a larger animal. This hickory excavation may fall into that category.
Saturday, October 21
I met Peggy at the breakfast place, which was unusually busy and filled with hunters. It became clear that I had not picked the best time to be in Louisiana, as this was a big hunting weekend. In addition, the weather forecast called for heavy rain by late morning. Peggy had a long drive ahead, and we agreed that there would be little point in going into the field. She left for home, and I opted to drive around, specifically to see if I could find any easy access point for searching in the vicinity that local people had mentioned and also to scout other nearby areas for potential. I had very limited success, getting a look at part of the bottom, which looked like it might have potential at a cursory glance.
The rains came on Saturday night and continued through Sunday morning.
Sunday, October 22
The rains kept me out of the field until noon, at which time I went to the eastern sector and and spent about three wet and unpleasant hours there. It rained sporadically, avian activity was generally low, and visibility was poor due to cloud cover. I didn’t see or hear anything of interest.
On Monday, I awoke to an email with a very detailed account of a sighting by someone I’ve known for several years. I may devote my next trip to following up on this report and to looking at areas in another part of the state. In any event, the next post will likely be the final in the series that this one has interrupted.
This most recent trip was very snakey, meaning I nearly stepped on several – cottonmouths and timber rattlesnakes. In all my years of searching, I’ve seen six rattlers, three on the most recent trip.
Rather than do a day by day log, I’m just going to post the highlights this time. I took few photos, mostly of reptiles.
I made this trip with absolutely no expectations, given the time of year, although I had hopes that one of our target trees might have been hit. As is so often the case, my hopes went unfulfilled, even as my expectations were exceeded.
I was joined by wildlife biologists Tommy Michot and Peggy Shrum for the entire trip. Phil Vanbergen came along on Saturday. Phil has heard Pale-billed Woodpecker double knocks, and Peggy has heard numerous Campephilus DKs while doing fieldwork in South America.
There was no fresh work on the hickories we have targeted, but we are reviewing the trail cam photos nonetheless. We found another hickory that recently lost its top and have targeted it, along with a nearby hickory and a beech, with our remaining trail cam. The cavities discussed in an earlier post are currently obscured by foliage.
We had possible auditory encounters, all knocks, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and while I would label most of what we heard as “weak possibles”, the Thursday knocks were within one of our “hot zones”, not far from where the March recordings were made. The Friday knocks were in a different area, one we visit infrequently. In most instances, these knocks were heard by one or the other of us, but on Friday, we had some instances where two or all three of us heard them. And all of the Friday knocks were heard in the same general area over a couple of hours.
The Saturday knocks were a lot more interesting. Here’s a detailed description:
Tommy, Peggy, Phil, and went to deploy the trail camera. Peggy has heard many Campephilus DKs in South America, and Phil has heard them in Costa Rica. We heard a possible ambient knock (I can’t be sure if it was an SK or DK) while walking; it was quite loud, but we initially dismissed it as a gunshot. About an hour later, after deploying a trail cam, we set up and did a series of Barred Owl playbacks followed by a DK series. I turned off the recorder after about 15 minutes, but we remained in the area, talking quietly. At 28 minutes after the DK series, we heard a loud SK followed by an apparent DK 5-10 seconds later. We considered and ruled out gunshots (absolutely impossible given the context) and tree fall (light winds, no rain since Tuesday, no rustling of leaves or other accompanying sounds, length of the interval between the first single knock and the subsequent double). Both Phil and Peggy thought it was very good for Campephilus. The source of the knocks was close, probably no more than 200-300 yards away.
About three minutes later, Phil and I heard another more distant DK; we both thought it was quite good, but Peggy and Tommy missed it. My recorder was running at this time, but it did not capture the sound.
After discussing it, none of us felt a gunshot was likely for the earlier knock, since there was no other shooting all day; it seemed to have been fairly close; in June, the only hunting in the area is for hogs, and it is infrequent; the road is quite a distance away; and we hadn’t seen another vehicle in the area all week.
I’m looking forward to returning in October and hope to have enough material for a couple of posts before then. I’m also delighted to have Peggy on board as part of the team; she brings a lot to the table. I’m hoping that coming seasons will involve an expanded team and a more concerted effort, so that we can obtain something conclusive or rule out ivorybill. My only regret about this most recent trip is that I didn’t harvest more chanterelles and didn’t start collecting them until our last day in the field. They were everywhere, and they are delicious.
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.