I was very sad to learn that Bob Russell, Retired US Fish and Wildlife Service, died suddenly this week. Bob’s name (Rob on Facebook) will be familiar to most ivorybill searchers; he was involved in the events in Arkansas in the earliest days, and he developed one of the first lists of promising search locations, all this back in the ‘aughts.
I first met him in Minneapolis in 2009 or 2010, and he was the first real pro to befriend me, introducing Patricia and me to Jim Williams a Minneapolis journalist and searcher, and ornithologist Jim Fitzpatrick who had one of the Arkansas sightings. That meal was an important moment in my evolution. Beyond that, Bob’s generosity and support will always mean a lot.
Bob had a whole network of sources for ivorybill information that I hope will not be lost with his passing. He had been involved with Project Coyote/Prinicipalis for years, playing a more active role this season. I’m glad he had a couple of auditory encounters in the search area, but I’m so sad he won’t have the chance to be with us when and if we succeed. He will be missed.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has published a decision that the ivorybill should be listed as “Presumed Extinct”. As a result, I believe the formal delisting process will begin and will provide details about that process and how to respond when I have more information.
I won’t engage with the document in depth, at this time, but I think it’s a shoddy piece of work, clearly driven by political not scientific considerations. (Even the photo credit at the top of the document is erroneous.)
There’s a good chance this decision, and perhaps many others, would not survive a legal challenge should one be brought. Among the many problems with it, the arbitrary shift to a burden of “conclusive proof” is novel, and it imposes a thoroughly, slippery, circular standard. The existence of a controversy makes it self-evident that conclusive proof has not been obtained. And that’s the authors’ dodge.
My own submission, which argued that the evidence obtained amounts to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, was misleadingly cited to support this “conclusive proof” standard. This intellectually dishonest sleight-of-hand is tantamount to an admission that a new and unscientific standard, higher than beyond a reasonable doubt, is being applied.
I suspect that the Service will end up regretting this decision, and perhaps many others that are part of this massive, politically-driven push for delisting. Indeed, it appears to have been based on a quota imposed by higher-ups. Regardless of one’s views on the ivorybill, this document is part of a broader assault on the Endangered Species Act.
We will press on. Computer analysis of the audio we collected this spring is gearing up; I’m very excited about that based on my very limited review of a few deployments. While we’ve hit a few technical bumps in the DNA analysis, we expect those to be resolved before too long. We have several samples from both cavities and foraging sign, as well as samples from at least one known Pileated roost. We are also making plans for next year.
Jay’s post on Lazarus species is being reconsidered and may be revised and reposted in future.
WWNO just ran a long story on our search effort. You can listen at the link (recommended) and/or read the text. I’ll share some thoughts about it below, but first a brief update.
As April came to an end, Steve Latta, Jay Tischendorf, Tommy Michot, Phil Vanbergen, and I collected the AudioMoths that had been deployed in early March, completing the effort for the season. Jay, Tommy, and Mike Weeks will be returning to attempt some more DNA collection, and Tommy, Mike, and Phil will continue to service the trail cams. But the bulk of the work has come to an end.
We plan to get an earlier start next winter. And on the technical end, the lab is continuing to tweak the software and refine the machine learning; this has taken took a little longer than anticipated. Similarly, the DNA testing protocols are being refined. I don’t have a time frame for when detailed results will be available and can’t offer any information on if, when, and how results will be presented. But work is ongoing, and for next season, we hope that we’ll be able to turn the audio results around rapidly and get actionable information that will lead us to nesting or roosting sites.
To expand on something that’s mentioned near the end of the WWNO piece, I can say that I’ve cursorily reviewed perhaps .5% of the total audio, (from 3 or 4 of the first round deployments, February – early March). Most of this review involved scrolling through sonograms and listening when it seemed appropriate (meaning I likely missed a lot). It gave me greater appreciation for the technical challenges and the potential for false positives, especially when two or three potential confusion species are vocalizing simultaneously. While I have not heard extended bouts of kent-like calls at close range, I have heard more than enough suggestive sounds, both calls and double knocks, to be encouraged.
Changes to Project Coyote are in the works. Among these is a name change, to Project Principalis – to avoid confusion; I hope retaining “Project” will be enough of a reminder of Frank Wiley and the early days of our partnership. But there’s an existing NGO known as Project Coyote that focuses on actual coyotes, so the change is overdue.
It’s also likely that the blog will move to a different site and take on a somewhat different form. In the interim, there will probably be a guest post on Lazarus species by Jay Tischendorf, sometime in the next few weeks, and perhaps another one from me to detail the changes once they’re finalized. These plans are tentative at the moment. Stay tuned.
Hearing the WWNO story was a little disorienting. I’ve done a lot of media over the years, mostly unrelated to the ivorybill. I’ve never been the subject of such an in-depth profile. And I didn’t expect to be so much the focus. This is all about the ivorybill and the habitat, and while I won’t pretend to be above wanting acknowledgement for all my hard work, I am not the story.
I was disappointed that Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman, who made the March 2017 recordings and played a major part in bucking me up when my spirits were at their lowest, were not mentioned by name. I pushed for their inclusion as best I could.
Travis Lux, the reporter, first approached me about doing a story on Project Coyote back in 2015. He was just starting his career in radio and was planning to pitch the piece as a freelancer. Travis landed a job in Texas, continued to follow the blog but had otherwise been out of touch until he heard about the AudioMoth deployments, by which time he had returned to Louisiana. When he reached out to me in February, I think we both assumed that the focus of the story would be on the current effort. Apparently, the interest was there for a longer piece.
Listening to it was weird. I think it was the first time I’ve heard Frank’s voice since he died, at least in more than a very brief snippet. That jarring moment aside, four year seems like a lifetime. My thinking about the ivorybill and many of my perspectives have evolved since 2015. Today, I’d be a lot less excited about the bark scaling that’s a focus in the first part of the story than I was then. I’ve refined my scaling hypothesis considerably due to things I learned that year and later. I’ve also gotten more jaded, so I don’t think I’d be quite as overflowing with optimism.
The experience was a little like watching a movie based on a beloved book. The story wasn’t told in quite the way I would have liked; topics that seem important to me were glossed over; but I don’t see it through the eyes of an outsider. Taking that perspective as best I can, I think it was a well-constructed and illuminating piece. I hope you enjoy it too.
Here’s a gallery of photos from the recent trip.
Since we’re now involved in a formal scientific study, I will refrain from posting about possible encounters until the end of the season. Similarly, we will refrain from using attraction methods (playbacks, kent-imitations, ADKs) while the study is ongoing. We will have a steady presence in the area but will endeavor to tread lightly.
The work on deploying the AudioMoth units began on the evening of Thursday, February 7, with an instructional session led by Tessa Rhinehart of the Kitzes Lab. In the course of this session, we decided on protocols for the deployment period to insure that there’s no confusion about the data collected.
The next morning was training day. We set out to do our first round of deployments, with rotating groups of two learning the process. I was a little unnerved when it took us most of the day to hit eight deployment points. Fortunately, the pace picked up considerably over the course of the week.
On Saturday we broke up into teams of two. A journalist joined Steve Latta and me to observe and record the deployment process. This is someone who had interviewed Frank and me and spent time in the field with us a few years ago. News of the ARU deployment renewed his interest in the story, and if all goes well his report will be airing soon. Stay tuned.
Thanks to Tessa Rhinehart – for her clear instructions, for wrangling us all, for braving the challenging conditions. Thanks also to Steve Latta, Matt Courtman, Mike Weeks, Tommy Michot, Phil Vanbergen, and Patricia Johnson for all their efforts. We covered a lot of ground and worked hard to get the job done by mid-day Wednesday. Deployments are effectively completed for the season, with units to be swapped out for review. We have opted not to spread the recording units as thinly as we had originally planned.
I had one especially interesting find, a form of foraging sign I have only seen once before, in a cluster in 2015. It’s unusual, distinctive, and though it’s somewhat outside the category I’ve suggested may be diagnostic, I think it’s likely ivorybill work and have some hope we’ll be able to resolve that question once and for all.
I found a sweet gum limb standing, embedded in the ground. It had fallen recently, as dead leaves and balls were attached; the bark was very tight; and the wood was hard, showing no signs of rot. I found a small cluster of similar work in 2015 (scroll down in both linked posts), but this type of of feeding sign is extremely unusual for the area, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.
In 2015, I was able to identify an invasive ambrosia beetle (a tiny Scolytid) as the source of the infestation. Sweet gum is one of the main host species, and infestation, which can kill limbs and saplings but not larger trees, has become increasingly common
The chunks of bark on the ground included the largest ones I’ve ever seen from a sweet gum, the one Steve is holding below, in particular. We have documented Pileateds removing bark from sweet gums, but never in pieces approaching this size or as extensively when bark is thick and tight. While this type of work is somewhat different from what I’ve hypothesized may be diagnostic for ivorybill, I suspect that IBWO is responsible for it. We’re hoping to be able to test the samples Steve collected for DNA, so stay tuned for that.
The only close-up of ivorybill excavation is in Tanner’s dissertation, showing some small holes in a hackberry. I see a similarity between that work and some of these digs.
I found one especially intriguing older cavity in a sweet gum snag this trip. The shape is unusual; it seems to be an expanded knothole. The same appears to have been true of the 1935 nest cavity. The fact that this cavity is surrounded by a scaled area makes it especially interesting, though it may well be disused.
Brief Update on Another Area
Before meeting up with the team on February 7th, I spent the morning of the 6th in the vicinity of the Saucier sighting. It seemed a fitting way to remember Frank, a year and a day after his passing. As has been the case in a number of prior visits, large cavities and bark scaling are easy to find, though the scaling was not as suggestive as the best examples from our main search area.
I’m planning another post related to trail cam deployments before long.
Exciting news on the search front, and we’re indebted to Matt Courtman for making this happen. It is a dream come true for me, and I hope it will represent a major breakthrough in the search effort.
This post is going live on the second anniversary of Frank Wiley’s passing. I imagine that he would be as thrilled as I am about this new development.
Matt recently reached out to the National Aviary, which is collaborating with the Kitzes Lab at the University of Pittsburgh on a variety of acoustic monitoring studies. As a result of Matt’s efforts, Pitt and the Aviary will be supplying us with 200 remote recording units, as well as technical support and processing of the data collected.
The technology has advanced considerably since the organized ivorybill searches in the early 2000s.
We plan to start deploying the units toward the end of the week, with the hope that we’ll be able to home in on potential nest/roost sites in our primary search area. Barring that, we hope the data collected will at minimum provide insight into the movements of putative ivorybills in the area. In addition, we’ll be deploying units in a number of other Louisiana locations.
In other acoustical news, Guy Luneau, whose acute hearing and outstanding ear-birding ability continue to impress, listened to the compilation clip discussed in the previous post and heard something that, to the best of my knowledge, everyone had missed. I know I had.
There are two calls toward the end of that clip (at around 2:25) that sound very similar to the “wonka-wonkas” or “wonks” (as Guy calls them to make it clear the sounds are single syllables) calls from the ’35 recordings. They’re soft, the first softer than the second, but they can be heard on headphones and both show up on the sonogram, the first very faintly. They occur approximately 3 seconds into this 16 second clip.
I’ve extracted a relevant segment and created a sonogram using Sonic Visualizer. I have also included a bit of a sonogram from the Singer Tract showing both kents and wonka-wonkas. (The relevant segments can be found at 0:57 and 3:14 on the Allen and Kellogg recordings.) Note the smaller harmonic interval (distance between each horizontal line) in the wonkas as compared to the kents. Also note that the wonkas frequently came in pairs, with the first note considerably shorter than the second.
The two calls are at the left of the screen cap. The similar harmonic structure suggests to me that the source is the same creature. I think it also tends to further support the suggestion that these calls were made by ivorybills and tends to exclude other species.
I had reason to listen to this clip yesterday and realized that I’ve not previously posted it. It includes amplified selections, greatest hits, from the March 2017 recordings – numerous calls and some knocks, including several in apparent response to Matt’s banging with wooden blocks. At this point, I’m not even sure who made it, probably Steve Pagans. In any case, it’s worth a listen, especially if you haven’t heard the recordings before. Headphones aren’t a must, but they’ll help.
The calls are not a perfect match for the known ivorybill sounds recorded in the Singer Tract, but they are similar in many ways. They are also consistent with historical descriptions of ivorybill calls. They do not seem to match any known North American animal. The fact that the suggestive calls and knocks occurred during the same event lends further weight to the idea that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are the source of the sounds (which seemed to come from more than one source).
Similar sounds are heard rarely in the area, and we have recorded some. The events of mid-March were unique, however, in that the calls were heard in the same location on multiple days, and on the morning of March 15, they continued for hours and numbered in the hundreds. Since that time Matt recorded three calls in April 2018 and Guy, Jay, and I heard similar sounds on New Year’s Day this year.
We are gearing up for a more intensive search effort as the season heads toward its peak. More about that in upcoming reports, so stay tuned.
This trip had its ups and downs, including a couple of possible encounters on New Year’s day (discussed below). Weather and accompanying high water posed major problems. Flooding was unprecedented in my experience, and much of the core search area was inaccessible. With three inches of rain predicted for my last two field days, I cut my stay short and went to New Orleans to avoid possible flooding, catch up on some work, and for a little R&R (and chaos).
There were also technical problems – trouble navigating a new camera and my recording device (a replacement for one lost in the field last trip). I’ve included a few of my own photos, though they are not up to my usual standard for posting. The vast majority are courtesy of Erik Hendrickson.
I was in the field from December 29-January 1, as was Jay Tischendorf. Erik arrived the day before and remained until January 4. We were joined by our newest team members – MW, Louisiana-based photographer, who has been doing great work surveying the area and surroundings, developing a more comprehensive picture than I have been able to manage, and Guy Luneau, who arrived on December 31 and was making his first visit to the search area. Guy is a very accomplished birder with great hearing and a deep knowledge of bird calls, especially those of the southeastern US.
It was unnerving to discover that some upland areas have been marked for logging, down to the very edge of the core search area, and within perhaps fifty yards of the location where the March 2017 recordings were made.
High water was a major obstacle. On New Year’s day, Guy and I wore chest waders, but it became apparent, within about 20 yards after leaving the uplands, that water would be over our heads in some of the sloughs. I’ve never seen conditions like this in the area. Click on an image in the gallery to see them the full-size photos.
On Saturday, December 29, Jay, Erik, MW and I tried to reach the northern group of trail cams. After entering the bottoms, crossing on the log shown above, we were able to reach the northernmost of the cameras but were unable to go more than about 100 yards beyond it. I’ve reviewed the card; there was no new woodpecker activity and a couple of very brief squirrel visits to the scaled patches. There was no observable change to those surfaces.
On the 30th, seeking higher, dryer ground, we visited an upland area in the floodplain of a small stream. This is a patch I’ve wanted to explore for some time, since our logging history map shows an entry date of 1910. As is the case in areas where pine has been cut, stumps from the pre-chainsaw era were scattered around. The forest is not terribly impressive, probably due to soil conditions. There were few dead and dying hardwoods, but we saw several patches of recently dead and debarked pines.
MW departed and Guy Luneau joined us on the morning of New Year’s Eve. We tried an alternate route to the unserviced northern cams. This required a much longer traverse of upland areas, including a large parcel marked for cutting (the blue tagging on the trees shown above is one boundary of the area to be logged). Unlike the other plot, where the larger trees are being taken, this appeared to be more of a thinning operation. It is still unnerving, and there seems to have been an uptick in logging operations in areas that I believed to be protected.
When we got to the bottomland, near the location of the March 2017 recordings, we found it completely flooded and were unable to enter, let alone get anywhere near the cameras. Although we’ve been careful to deploy cameras near head height whenever possible, I suspect that we’ve lost several, possibly as many as 6 of our 8 functioning units, to the flooding. Team members will be returning to check on the cameras within the next couple of weeks.
All the excitement took place on New Year’s Day. There had been a little break in the rain, and we hoped to reach the southern cluster of trail cameras. It soon became clear that this would be impossible. In the southern area, the bottom is considerably wider than where the other cameras are deployed. Here too, water reached the edge of the uplands, and the first slough, which can usually be crossed in ankle-high boots, was completely out of its banks, with water crotch deep approximately 20 yards from where the edge should have been. We messed around on the edges of the bottoms for a while, but found no entry points. At a little after ten, we decided to do a double knock series.
As was the case for most of the trip, woodpecker activity was lower than normal, and double knocks were less productive of responses from other species than is usually the case. As a result, I did a fairly aggressive series over a five minute period. About 15 minutes after I finished, Erik and I, who were standing and positioned somewhat closer to the sound, heard a distinct single knock – clearly a blow to a woody substrate and not an industrial sound or gunshot – at an estimated distance of 300 yards. (I said 300 yards or more; Erik said 300.) The sound was isolated and not associated with foraging knocks or other woodpecker drums. Unfortunately, I thought my recorder was running at the time, but such was not the case.
Stymied at this location, we returned to our vehicles to see if we might be able to reach the bottoms by a different route. We were able to do so, and to walk along a higher stream bank, penetrating a mile or so into the core habitat before an uncrossable slough blocked our progress. At around 1:30 pm, we were walking downstream on the bank, when Guy stopped us, having heard some interesting calls. Jay heard them next, a little less well. I was the last in our party to hear them, and they were at the very edge of my hearing.
We attempted some Blue Jay playbacks and also some playbacks of the March 2017 recordings (using an iPhone without external speaker). Neither produced a response. And we noted no Blue Jays calling at the time.
In the discussion that followed, it became clear that two sources were involved. Guy said that, while they did not sound like the Singer Tract kents, they were somewhat similar to the calls we recorded in March 2017 and were unlike any Blue Jay he had ever heard. Jay agreed that they did not sound like a Blue Jay. I thought I noted what I describe as a creaky quality that I associate with Blue Jays, but I heard the calls least well, can’t be sure, and trust Guy’s ear more than my own. Regardless, the descriptions of the calls are what I find most interesting.
On the spot, Jay gave “Yamp-Yamp-Yamp” as a transliteration of the sounds. This transliteration appears in the literature and is rather obscure. While it is mentioned by Steinberg, Jay was unaware of that reference or its source, George Lowery, who used it in his Louisiana Birds, now out-of-print.
More on “Yamp” as a transliteration below. Suffice it to say that the variability among transliterations and descriptions of ivorybill sounds, including but not limited to “kent” and “yamp”, is indicative of a considerably broader range in pitch and duration than the Singer Tract recordings and the strict parameters used by Cornell in Arkansas would suggest.
Guy, too, used a variant of “yamp” to describe the sounds, as shown in these excerpts from his field notes:
The documentation that I wrote down for myself on what we heard on the afternoon of 1/1/19 was “a whining, nasal, rising yaaAMP, yaaAMP, yaaAMP, yaaAMP.” I think in my renditions on-the-spot I was verbalizing “waaANK, waaANK,…”.
“Nasal” was my own word, not having remembered (or known) anyone having used the term in days gone by in reference to ivorybill calls. I am curious as to whether any of our forebears have also described a rising inflection in any ivorybill calls. The kents I heard from the Arkansas bird in October 2005 did not have a rising inflection. They were the sharp single kents and a few double kents (the doubles being HIGH-low) with a tin trumpet quality, distinctly different from what we heard on 1/1/19.
I have never heard before in my life what we heard on that afternoon. There were no archival matches. I think you could probably tell by my expression and reaction that I was stumped in North America for the first time in a very very long time. A couple decades, I’d say.
I’m aware of a reference to Lester Short using “yamp” in discussions about the Cuban ivorybill, but as far as I know, the published references all come from Lowery’s Singer Tract observations. Interestingly, Frank used it too, in our first email exchange.
Here are several descriptions from Lowery:
“The birds were feeding energetically on dead stumps and low trees, and were calling frequently with their peculiar, nasal, rather high-pitched yaamp-yaamp until finally disturbed, after which they retreated to the taller timber and were lost from sight.”
John S. Campbell, J. J. Kuhn, George H. Lowery Sr., George H. Lowery, Jr., “Bird-Lore’s thirty-fourth Christmas census (Tallulah, La.).” Bird-Lore 36 (1934): 55.
Through the woods came the loud clear, high-pitched, “yaamp-yaamp,” unmistakably the call notes of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Its notes are clear and distinct, and yet rather plaintive. They may be heard at a considerable distance, perhaps a half mile, and have been likened to the false high notes of a clarinet or a ten-penny horn. From my experience I would not say that the notes are repeated any definite number of times in succession. As mentioned before, the notes can be described as a monosyllabic “yaamp-yaamp” with a decided nasal twang.
George Lowery, Jr., “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana.” The Proceedings of the Louisiana Academy of Sciences 2, (1935): 84-86.
. . . our ears strained for only one sound – the high-pitched, nasal yamp, yamp, or as some people interpret it, kent, kent of an ivorybill.
(3) a high-pitched nasal call note that may be described as yamp, yamp, yamp instead of a flicker like, deep voiced, cuck, cuck, cuck.
George Lowery, Jr., Louisiana Birds (1955), 415-419.
I don’t think Frank had read Steinberg when he wrote this in fall 2008, and I’m almost certain he was unfamiliar with Lowery’s book, which was long out of print by then. Frank was a musician and had an excellent ear.
Odd you should mention “yank”…Sounded more like “yamp” to me…very first sighting in 93-94 bird made noise like that twice. When told that to ******** LA Natural Heritage Foundation, he said not IBWO and bye now….Have heard similar sounds in HZ…Have some recorded…Will not make you listen unless you ask;-)…
Frank Wiley, October 2008.
I don’t recall what became of those recordings but it’s intriguing that this little-known transliteration has been used more than once to describe sounds heard in Louisiana.
I’ve heard many stories like Frank’s. He was remained annoyed by his treatment over the “93-’94” bird and talked about it often. The incident illustrates how easy it is for local reports to die in desk drawers and how only a limited number of them reach those who keep track of such things. Several years after Frank sent that email, we met the official; he had no memory of the incident.
It’s always encouraging to have possible auditory contacts, which are infrequent but which often seem to come in clusters. Nevertheless, I’ve become somewhat jaded and tend to minimize their importance. Guy and Jay (for whom it was the first possible encounter) were a lot more excited than I, but for my part, I can safely say that I always enter the habitat with some hope but very low expectations. Every possible encounter is a surprise.
Finally, here are some of Erik’s pictures from the trip, and three of mine, including his first Red-cockaded Woodpecker captures.
Wishing everyone happy holidays and the best for 2019. While the blog has been quiet for a couple of months, the effort continues. A number of items are in the works, and I hope to have news about them in the coming months. And of course, I hope to be able to report on new encounters and new data. My long promised discussion of evidence and the standards applied to the ivorybill is still very much on my mind, but I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to tackle it here; the subject is complicated.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d repost the final section of a trip report posted in late winter 2016, for the benefit of new readers and those who might have missed it then. In retrospect, I buried some very important material at the end of a long post dealing with other matters. I think this content deserves more attention, since it is definitive with regard to conditions in the Singer Tract when Tanner was conducting his study and is more useful in that regard than either Tanner’s statements or Richard Pough’s report, which took issue with some of those statements and perhaps overstated the case in the other direction.
The next morning, I drove to the Wetlands and Aquatic Research Center (formerly the National Wetlands Research Center) in Lafayette and met with Wylie Barrow, Heather Baldwin, Tommy Michot, and Philip and Eric Vanbergen. (Two young enthusiasts who will be helping us out.) Frank joined us briefly, and then Wylie, Tommy, the Vanbergens, and I went out to lunch. It was an exciting and thought-provoking day, and the Research Center is an incredible facility. Wylie and Heather shared their comprehensive and in-depth analysis of conditions in the Singer Tract in Tanner’s day. They’ve amassed an array of materials encompassing land records, Civil War era maps, and stereographic aerial photographs. Their research far surpasses my own speculative effort. It covers the finest details – roads, improved and unimproved, snag densities, tree mortality, conditions around roost and nest sites, as well as conditions in other locations where ivorybills were seen. Tom Foti has done complementary research on hydrology, soils, and vegetation.
Their presentation convinced me that I’ve been too hard on Tanner in some respects. There was a little more old growth in the Singer Tract than I had inferred from the Pough report and some of the historical documents. Nonetheless, the characterization of the Tract as a whole as “virgin” forest is somewhat misleading, since over a quarter of it was second growth, and some of it fairly young. Heather and Wylie have graciously given me permission to summarize some of their findings.
When Tanner began his study, 72% of the Singer Tract was old growth. (Tanner estimated it at over 80%.) Logging in 1938 reduced that percentage to 67%. The ridges, which Tanner deemed to be the best ivorybill habitat, were actually the least likely areas to be old growth. (Tom Foti’s analysis also points to a preference for higher, drier locations.) The regrowth percentages for each landform in Tanner’s day are as follows:
Low ridge (23%)
Total on ridges (32%)
Low flat (4%)
Cypress brake (4.5%)
For the most part, the second growth forests were not particularly old, as has been suggested in previous posts. According to Heather, most of these areas only started to regrow in the 1880s and 1890s, “due to consecutive depressions and low cotton prices”. Thus, parts of the Singer Tract were relatively young second growth, and this included one of the ivorybill home ranges and one that Tanner deemed to be “best” – Mack’s Bayou.
The nature of the habitat in the Mack’s Bayou area is immediately apparent from the 1938 aerial photos, which suggest forest conditions that are present in many parts of Louisiana today. Nevertheless, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers nested there in 1934 and 1935, at minimum, and did so successfully at least once. This fact alone refutes the idea that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are old growth dependent. Heather informs me that there was an abundance of dead and dying trees on the eastern side of the Mack’s Bayou range, due to a fire caused by logging activities. In any event, the home range Tanner delineated in this primarily second growth area is no larger than the home range he delineated around John’s Bayou, which had more mature forest. In fact, the area he designated as “best” for ivorybills around Mack’s Bayou was slightly smaller than its older equivalent near John’s Bayou.
Tanner knew that a significant portion of the Mack’s Bayou home range was not old growth, since his 1941 map shows “old fields” in the heart of it. He seems to have been unaware of the resurgence of cotton growing during the 1870s and 1880s, so he may have overestimated the age of the forest on that basis. I can’t help but wonder if he glossed over the conditions in the Mack’s Bayou range in part for the sake of protecting the Singer Tract and (as Heather suggested) in part based on what he deemed to be best for the birds from a conservation standpoint, an approach that later ossified into a categorical set of beliefs about old-growth dependence.
As I and others have been arguing for years, extensive forest cover, sufficient dead and dying wood, and enough large trees for roosting and nesting are probably the main requirements, even if old growth or near-old growth conditions are optimal.
I’ve gone through some additional cards and have some more data on squirrels from the deployment that had squirrel captures earlier this spring. As with the results for Pileated Woodpeckers foraging on hickories, I think this tends to exclude squirrels as the source of extensive scaling on standing mature boles. That will be the subject of the next post, which should be up within a week. In the interim, here’s the October trip report I’ve been promising.
We had no possible encounters and found little suggestive feeding sign this time around.
I spent the first two days with Matt Courtman (and his brother on the second day) in the vicinity of last November’s Saucier sighting. The first day was rainy enough to depress avian activity but not quite enough to keep us indoors. The ground was wet but mostly not unbearably muddy.
The second day, we found a scaled sugarberry (Celtis laevigata). Tanner called this species hackberry, which is the common name, but it’s not to be confused with the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), which is found farther north. Despite the appearance, the tree was either barely alive or very recently dead, since leaves were still visible on the upper branches.
Sugarberry bark is thin, and it can fracture and break off in large chunks. Pileated Woodpecker is a possibility for this type of scaling, but it is interesting nonetheless, and it strongly resembles ivorybill work on a sugarberry (mislabeled as a “gum”) photographed by Allen and Kellogg in the Singer Tract.
There were also horizontal bill marks on the surface of the wood. These were interesting and perhaps suggestive; these superficial scratches are the only horizontal markings on sapwood that I think may be suggestive of ivorybill.
There is so much potential habitat in this area that I’m unsure how to go about searching it, given our small team and limited time and resources.
I spent the balance of my time in our main search area. Tommy Michot and our new team member (I hope to include some of his photographs in a future post) joined me for part of the trip. Because we now have 8 functioning trail cams in the field, much of my time is devoted to servicing the cameras and changing cards.
On the last day, Matt, Lauren (his wife), and I explored a very narrow corridor of near old-growth forest that stretches for several miles to the east of the main search area. We also spoke to someone who had ivorybill sightings, though not recent ones, in the area discussed in this post.
We found more fresh beaver sign than I’m used to. The tree shown is an ash, uncommon in our search area.
It was a very snaky trip. I had a few near misses with cottonmouths. A coral snake was a major highlight, spotted and avoided on the road by the new Coyote. I was even able to capture it briefly on video before it buried itself.
We saw turtles too.
And all the rain meant fungi were plentiful (including a meal’s worth of chanterelles, not shown but brought home and enjoyed).
There was plenty of woodpecker activity, though it was sporadic, and there was not much drumming. It’s always tough to get good pictures with leaves on the trees, but this Red-headed Woodpecker was cooperative.
In all my years of searching, I had never found the remains of a Pileated Woodpecker until the trip before this one. It’s a little unnerving for this to happen back to back. I also found Red-shouldered Hawk remains (though not in the same vicinity). I worry that these birds may have been shot, though there’s no evidence for it. The remains, feathers and a few bones, were on top of a log, suggesting that a raccoon was the last creature involved.
One of our trail cams was hit by a falling limb, and was aiming skyward when found. It appears to be functioning and has been re-aimed at the target tree (where there was an intriguing capture in the summer of 2017).
We didn’t find much interesting scaling, although some of the work we found was on oaks, which is rare.
I don’t know the tree species, and Pileated Woodpecker is a possible source, but the work below is unusual. Edith Kuhn Whitehead once told Frank that cambium shredding, possibly like that shown, is suggestive of ivorybill; however, I only heard this second-hand and am not clear about what she meant.
The sunrise on my last field day was spectacular.
Stay tuned for squirrels . . .
I’m making another departure from my posting schedule for reasons that I hope will be self-evident. This is the strongest statement of my views I’ve made to date; I’m calling it as I see it based on this new way of looking at the photographs. As always, click on the images for better viewing.
A Louisiana photographer (and new Project Coyote member) who has been following our efforts, reached out to me in response to the recent trail cam capture and alerted me to a feature in Photoshop. This feature makes it possible to stack two images and subtract the identical pixels, leaving the differences between the two images visible in the new composite.
I understand that this is sometimes referred to as subtracting and sometimes as ghosting. Given my limited knowledge and skill set when it comes to image processing, this was a revelation. The method is described between minutes 1 and 2 of this YouTube video. (The rest of the segment pertains to image stacking for landscape photography and is not relevant to this discussion.)
He sent me three examples – the recent capture, the neckbird, and a pair of photographs showing what Frank Wiley had identified as a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight. I didn’t get any new insights from the last of these; the results for the most recent capture were interesting and possibly significant; the neckbird was a revelation, eliminating any lingering misgivings I had about the image and convincing me (at least) beyond a reasonable doubt that it shows an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
Bear in mind that the images discussed below are among a handful of captures (out of well over a million images obtained since 2009) that we’ve found to be suggestive or better. (At the 20 second interval used on our current cameras, a single month’s 12 hour-a-day deployment will produce over 60,000 images; the Reconyx cams had a 30 second interval, but that’s still over 40,000 per camera per month.) So it’s not as if we’re finding possible ivorybills everywhere, let alone frequently.
I recently started using a different, ostensibly more user-friendly, image-processing program, Luminar, and I found that it has the same capacity. I tried it on the other oft-discussed trail cam capture with the same revelatory result, although in that case, I did not have access to both unprocessed originals and had to use one cropped image and another that had been cropped and lightly processed for brightness and contrast. I don’t think this impacted the results. I used Luminar to process all the images discussed below.
Immediately below is the original “Neckbird” capture and an enhanced crop, followed by the processed image, showing the difference between this frame and the one before it. Next is a detail, showing the ‘ghost’ outlines of the image that appeared in the original. (Note that a second bird may be present in the form of a bill protruding from the lower cavity in the snag at right, as discussed in this post.)
For me, the most startling result is that the bird looks even more serpentine and elongated in this iteration. This is mostly because the lower third of the body (apparently including part of the tail) is better resolved and distinguishable from surrounding objects. What I had thought was a patch of white near the base of the bird, just above the lower diagonal branch, turns out to have been a leaf. I think this longer, leaner profile is inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker and consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and not just because of the neck, the feature that was most suggestive to many who viewed the original capture. I’ve seen a lot of Pileateds and have looked at countless images online, and nothing about this better-resolved silhouette suggests Pileated. The remnant clips from the 1935 Ivory-billed Woodpecker film may be illuminating in terms of neck and body shape.
The silhouette in the November 30, 2009 capture, which was the first suggestive image we made public, is not as compelling as the one in the image shown above, but the capture shows three apparent ivorybill field marks – a black crest, white on the lower part of the bird, and a large, light-colored bill. In this case, the processing provides additional information about these apparent field marks. The bird also appears to be larger than a Pileated Woodpecker. The basics of all these issues are addressed in Frank’s original discussion of this capture.
To reiterate, I am not in possession of the original frame that follows the capture. It was probably lost after Frank’s passing, so I used two crops for the first composite, one showing the suspected ivorybill and the other, the subsequent frame. The crop of the empty frame was otherwise unaltered, but the one with the bird had the brightness and contrast adjusted. The output differed slightly between the “difference” version and the “subtraction” version, something I did not observe when working with unprocessed images. The difference, however, appears to be limited to background features and not the bird.
Remember that this capture was obtained from a spot where I’d had a sighting of a large woodpecker with a lot of white on the wings on the 25th . Both Frank and I heard the wingbeats, which were loud and distinctive. This was a rare instance in which a bird appeared to have been brought in by a double knock series. We’d also had an auditory encounter about 300 yards away on the morning of the 24th, while staking out the cavities in the willows shown above.
The first image shown below is the original capture with the red box around the bird. The crops appear as a pair of images. The first shows the bird, and the second is the subsequent frame with the bird absent. Those are followed by the difference and subtraction composites. More discussion after the images.
As I read this imagery, I think it suggests that the apparent white saddle is part of the bird, not light leaking through or an intervening object; indeed, the intervening branch is revealed in the ghosted images, with the body of the bird still visible behind it. That said, this may be the most ambiguous aspect. The treatment also highlights the presence of the crest and shows it is part of the bird; there is no red in the original; if any red were present, it should be at least faintly visible at this range and under these conditions. This interpretation is based both on the color in the background and on a Pileated captured perhaps six feet farther from the camera during this deployment (in an overexposed image included in Frank’s original analysis).
Most important of all is the fact that both the difference and subtracted versions confirm that the apparent very large bill (which appears to be light-colored in the original picture) is indeed a bill and not some other object. Even allowing for some motion blur, the bill is disproportionately large and therefore inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker. Indeed, all discernible features in this photograph are consistent with female Ivory-billed Woodpecker and nothing else. I have always believed this picture showed an ivorybill. Based on these composites, I am now firmly convinced that it does.
I also tried creating a composite combining the capture, which was taken in the late afternoon of November 30, 2009, with another frame taken in late morning on the following day. The results are somewhat less distinct but the same elements are still apparent.
Finally, I tried this approach with the images discussed in the previous post. The results of this effort were somewhat less satisfactory. I assume because the originals are lower resolution and therefore contain fewer pixels. Lighting conditions may also be a factor.
This capture offers a lot less to work with. The Reconyx jpegs are 2048 x 1536 or 3 megapixels, while the Plotwatchers are 1280 x 720 or less than 1 megapixel.
I was unable to find additional specifications for the Reconyx cams, but the folks at Day 6 Outdoors were kind enough to provide them for the Plotwatcher. Per Day 6, the sensor is .25″ (which is smaller than most cell phone cameras); the focal length is 3.5 mm (which I think translates to the equivalent of an ~20 mm lens on a full frame or 35 mm film camera); and the aperture is f/2.6 (apparently the equivalent of ~f/16).
Nevertheless, I experimented with using both the original captures and versions enlarged using Topaz A.I. Gigapixel. I applied the same process to the squirrel capture from a few weeks earlier, which was taken under better lighting conditions. The relevant images and discussion are below, starting with an enhanced version of the original capture with an arrow pointing to the object of interest. Remember that the silhouette that resembles the head and neck of a woodpecker is background vegetation. The object of interest is the small bit of black and white below it.
As mentioned, I’m less confident about interpreting the results for this image, since so much less detail can be gleaned. Unlike the other captures, the subtraction or ghosting does not reveal a clear outline, and aspects of the object which are distinct when moving from frame to frame are obscured in this treatment. Also note the near absence of difference between the preceding and following frames.
In the enhanced iteration, a little more of the outline of the putative IBWO may be visible. I suspect that the reason the white saddle does not appear uniform in this one is due to pixels and that the dark patch below the bright white band is consistent between images because the foreground and background pixels match, not because they’re the same. This explains why the bottom part of the saddle, where the wings meet, is also white. In other words, these are the places where the object was in front of darker pixels. That’s my guess based on shifting back and forth between the relevant frame and the ones before and after. In addition, the white dots above the “saddle” may represent dorsal stripes.
Things change slightly when using imagery from different days. I’m only using the enhanced versions here, but they again strongly suggest that the white saddle is part of the object, not the background. The second frame is the one that follows the squirrel capture discussed below.
The squirrel capture may provide some additional insights into the process’s limitations with lower resolution images. The squirrel, which is clearly visible in the original image, shows up as a narrow strip that’s easily missed if you don’t know it’s there. The second version is a composite using images processed through Gigapixel A.I.
Weather and lighting conditions differed considerably between the two days in question. The camera was pointed in an approximately easterly direction, probably more ENE or NNE; lighting conditions may account for the fact that this image is a little lighter and some small differences are more apparent from this pair of captures. The weather at the nearest station at the time of the squirrel capture was fair with little to no wind; whereas the weather for the putative ivorybill capture, which was taken in the afternoon, was intermittently stormy with winds probably around 10 mph. Under stormy conditions with foliage moving in the wind, there should be more variation between images, not less, so available light seems a likely factor perhaps in combination with number of pixels.
Thus, I’m not sure how much this process adds when it comes to interpreting the most recent capture and how useful it might be with others from Plotwatcher trail cams. (The two older images were taken with a color Reconyx.) But I hope that the cameras are now deployed in such a way that enhancement and differentiating won’t be necessary.
While the approach does not reveal much when it comes to the new image, I think it is dispositive with regard to the old ones. Of course, I make no claims to expertise in forensic image analysis or the technical aspects of image processing, so I am open to being corrected if any aspects of my analysis are flawed.
Like most searchers, I have tended to focus on whether the evidence is sufficient and have seldom thought about what obtaining conclusive documentation might imply. If the two images from the old search area are ivorybills, a number of questions emerge. So let’s assume (or assume arguendo if you are unpersuaded) that these images indeed show Ivory-billed Woodpeckers:
As an initial observation, if I am right about the two captures, I think it becomes overwhelmingly likely that the apparent bill protruding from the cavity in the background of the neckbird image also belongs to an ivorybill, so it seems probable that least two birds were present in the area in 2009-2010. This is consistent with what six of us heard during an auditory encounter in January 2010. One of Frank’s sightings involved three birds. (He was accompanied by the landowners’ teenaged grandsons at the time.) This sighting suggests that breeding might have taken place in the area.
The habitat in the immediate vicinity of the camera trap deployments is not what has been thought of as having much potential; the quality is even lower than I realized at the time. I knew a lot less about forest ecology and conditions in 2009, and while I certainly recognized the habitat as not “optimal” back then, I think I overestimated and perhaps romanticized the overall quality.
Both captures come from within 50 yards of a bean field. The woods in the immediate vicinity did have a number of large trees, and there are good sized cypresses in the area, but the parcel and the neighboring ones (including the one that was clearcut) are not particularly old. Back then someone indicated they’d been cut in the early 1960s.
The site of the earlier trail cam pic and our November auditory encounter is .6 miles from a large parcel of state land that has some very mature forest and inaccessible areas. (The location of my November sighting and the second trail cam capture is approximately 300 yards farther east, away from the public land.) Several other large parcels of public land are within a few miles of the area, so it’s not exactly a suburban backyard. Nevertheless, it’s a far cry from the Singer Tract or our current search area for that matter.
It seems to me that if one accepts that a pair of ivorybills was present in this location in 2009, there’s no basis for doubting the landowner’s claim that birds had been present and using the area for a decade or so. It also supports the idea that audio obtained there included ivorybill kents and double knocks, which tends to validate audio captured elsewhere – Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and our current search area.
How does/would the confirmation of ivorybill survival, especially in such ostensibly low quality habitat, impact the assessment of other reports?
Why is that ivorybills are being reported in so many different places over the last two decades? Is it just more publicity, or is something else going on?
Why aren’t there more reports from the public and from experienced birders?
Why are they so hard to document? Even if you read the Project Coyote trail cam captures in the most liberal possible way, there are no more than a handful of images that I think of as likely, out of well over 1,000,000.
Where does one look for them, especially if they are using habitat always thought of as unsuitable?
What is suitable habitat?
What kind of population is out there and how has it sustained itself for so long?
I’m sure there are more, and I don’t have good answers for most. I think the technical limitations of trail cams, scarcity, and wariness (even run-of-the-mill or somewhat overdeveloped wariness) are probably adequate to explain many of the documentation issues but perhaps not the relative paucity of sightings.
I hope to return to my planned posting schedule with the post on range in a week or two and the one on evidence a couple of weeks after that; however, I’ve been looking at composites created from the Reconyx images discussed here. I think the results illuminating with respect to size. This post is already long, so rather than include them here, I will likely do a follow-up examining those images before turning to more general ivorybill-related topics.