A Guide to The National Aviary’s Project Principalis Pages

Here are the links to the current relevant pages on the National Aviary website. There will likely be updates in the future. The preprint represents a very limited selection of the evidence gathered. These pages, and especially the sightings and sounds, bring the science to life.

About Project Principalis

Notes from the field, including sightings



Dr. Jay Tischendorf’s Article “The Lazarus Species”

Natural History


Tanner’s Study

Range and Distribution: This page and the links below may be revised in future, the first two because the ideas are evolving and/or there is new information.

Bark Scaling

Ivorybill Publications

Preprint Available: Multiple Lines of Evidence indicate the survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana

An announcement from the National Aviary and Project Principalis:

The National Aviary, along with Project Principalis, is delighted to announce that we have made available to the public the results to date of our search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. A paper titled, “Multiple lines of evidence indicate survival of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana” co-authored by Steven Latta, Mark Michaels, and eight other Project Principalis members and collaborators, can be viewed here. (Supplementary materials are at the upper right.) People who have been close to the search know that this is the result of many years of effort by Project Coyote, followed by several more years of intensive field work by the National Aviary and Project Principalis.

More details are available on the National Aviary’s Project Principalis pages, and there should be some updates soon.

A personal note: Frank Wiley and I met in 2008 and shared a vision. We were about as different as could be culturally, but we found common ground in the ivorybill. Most of all, we both recognized J.J. Kuhn’s importance in the saga and tried to figure out what Kuhn knew. Frank befriended Edith Kuhn Whitehead and made it possible for me to meet her in person shortly before her death. He cared deeply about nature and was generous in helping kids with an interest. He educated me too. He drove me crazy sometimes, and I’m sure the reverse is true. We loved each other like brothers. I wish he were here for this.

It has been a long, hard struggle to reach this point. and I don’t know how things will develop from here. The preprint is already making an impact. I hope it changes the discourse.

This is not a peer-reviewed publication. The peer review process is protracted, and we deemed it better to make these findings public now. It affords an opportunity to receive constructive, scientific feedback while adding to the record. We hope the process will strengthen the paper. The work is ongoing.

In Memory of Bob Russell

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.

Bits ‘n’ Pieces Part 1 – Louisiana Conservationist

I’ve been reviewing copies of Louisiana Conservationist (formerly Louisiana Conservation Review), the official publication of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (formerly the Department of Conservation). Copies of the magazine, which is in the public domain, can be found in the Louisiana Digital Library. In the course of my research, I found one real gem and a couple of interesting pieces of less significance.

The gem is the initial report on the 1932 Singer Tract rediscovery and T. Gilbert Pearson’s visit to the area. Pearson was the first professional ornithologist to observe the Singer Tract birds. I’ve written previously about Pearson’s visit and have referenced newspaper accounts of his observations. At the time, I was focused on feeding sign and the statement about feeding on rotting stumps. As a result, I overlooked the important fact that Pearson had been searching for ivorybills to no avail since 1891; this highlights the difficulty in finding ivorybills, even during the era of relentless collecting.

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The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: Rare Bird Considered Extinct – Found in Louisiana, Margaret A. Coogan, July 1932, Louisiana Conservation Review

The newspaper articles were somewhat less detailed than Coogan’s account, which includes some interesting tidbits. It seems likely that Pearson himself provided the information to Coogan, either directly or via Armand Daspit. There’s an inaccuracy; the mention of carpenter ants as prey is not supported by the literature.* The only record of nesting in pines is in Thompson (1885), a record that Tanner deemed “questionable”.

Edited to add: Hasbrouck (1891) included a second-hand claim of a nest in pine from northwest Alabama. Tanner accepted the report but possibly not the claim of a nest, as the latter is not mentioned in the monograph.

Somewhat more interesting is the observation, “Occasionally it feeds on the ground like a Flicker”.  In 1937, Allen and Kellogg would publish a paper describing their 1924 observation of a female ivorybill foraging on the ground and “hopping like a Flicker”. It’s possible that Pearson was aware of this observation, and the reference to scaling the bark of dead pines suggests this is so. (There were no pines in the Singer Tract.) At the same time it’s also possible that Pearson observed the Singer Tract birds foraging on the ground or described foraging behavior based on general knowledge of how ivorybills in Florida, where he grew up, typically fed.

The other interesting tidbits from Louisiana Conservationist pertain to possible ivorybill sightings in the 1950s. Both items (letters from readers and responses from state officials) are certainly questionable, but they also point to the way Pileated Woodpecker became the default, even when the description was inconsistent with PIWO.

The first is interesting for its location. Urania, Louisiana is southwest of the Singer Tract and is relatively close to the Project Coyote search areas. It was founded by Harry Hardtner in the 1890s and is considered the birthplace of conservation and reforestation in Louisiana. The image that prompted the letter is included for reference.

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The second letter is peculiar, but the description is considerably more suggestive of ivorybill than Pileated – like a Red-headed Woodpecker but the size of a chicken.

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There’s one additional tidbit that doesn’t pertain to Louisiana. In the past, I’ve wondered about record committee submissions and how many there may have been over the years. A divided Arkansas committee accepted the Big Woods report (a fact that’s often glossed over in the literature), while the Florida committee rejected the Auburn reports. Other than these submissions, I was aware of one from Texas, from out of range and in unlikely habitat. I recently ran across another, from Florida, also rejected but interesting nonetheless. Here it is, for what it’s worth:

Ivory-billed woodpecker, Campephilus principalis.
FOSRC 2011-852. This bird was described from an observation in suburban St. Augustine, St. Johns Co., on 13 April 2011. Although the observation included key characters of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, such as a white bill and white pattern on the back while perched, the observation was at a distance of 30 m and made without binoculars. It is the Committee’s opinion that the only acceptable submissions of this species would be those with verifiable evidence (e.g, identifiable photographs or video). The recent controversy over video recordings, audio recordings, and sightings in Arkansas (Sibley et al. 2006) and Florida (FOSRC #06-610, Kratter 2008) calls into question whether the species may have persisted into the twenty-first century.

More soon.

*Ants are described as a prey species in Bendire (1895), but this is based on a misreading of Thompson (1885). Allen and Kellogg (1937) mention an observation involving suspected feeding on ants but found no ants or termites when they examined the substrate. The closest thing to evidence for ants as prey involves a Cuban Ivory-billed Woodpecker with a hugely overgrown bill that was observed feeding on arboreal termites – a species not native to the continental United States. It was observed and collected by Gundlach in 1843 and was also being fed grubs by its companions. Jackson speculates that this might have been a young adult bird, but given the extent of the hypertrophy, this strikes me as being somewhat unlikely. I’ll opt for the altruistic possibility that Jackson also posits. (Jackson 2004).

Go Read Bill Pulliam’s Blog While You Can

I had been planning to do a post with various ivorybill related tidbits in anticipation of the search season, which begins next month. That will be coming in a week or so, but I want to say a little more about Bill Pulliam first (beyond his Luneau video analyses, which I think should be dispositive). This decision was inspired in part by one of our advisors who pointed similarities between what Bill observed in Tennessee and what we’re seeing in Louisiana. While the physical characteristics of our old search area seem to have more in common with Moss Island, Tennessee than where we’re currently focused, Bill’s perspectives are relevant to both.

Edited to add: Moss Island is a small wildlife management area encompassing 3400 acres. I’m not sure what percentage is mature bottomland hardwood forest, but there are a variety of other habitat types. Compared to our search areas it is relatively isolated and distant from other large tracts of forest.

As an aside, Cyberthrush also has a post honoring Bill with a link to an eBird tribute.

With comments included, Bill’s series of posts on Moss Island runs to nearly 54,000 words. There’s no telling how long this series will remain readily accessible online, and indeed some of the images and sound files are no longer available. The entire series is worth reading and saving if you’re seriously interested in the ivorybill. It starts here.

On re-reading the posts for the first time in eight years, I’m struck by how much Bill influenced me without my recognizing it and/or how much the evolution of my understanding between  2009 and today is congruent with the ideas he expressed just as I was getting more deeply involved in searching.

Like Bill, I suspect that the near extirpation and revival of the beaver may be central to the ivorybill’s decline and survival (more about this in my next post). Like Bill, I think that Tanner’s model failed to account for environmental changes that had taken place in the preceding centuries. Like Bill, I think that if the ivorybill survived, it had to have adapted in ways that are inconsistent with Tanner’s a priori assumption that the species is old-growth dependent.

Bill was tough-minded and opinionated. There were times when I thought he considered me a somewhat annoying amateur. While we hadn’t communicated about it in recent years, he took a dim view of my efforts to make sense of feeding sign in the early days. Most of our correspondence took place in the 2000s, while he was still actively blogging about the ivorybill. After that, I sought his input sparingly.

My last exchange of emails with him pertained to the March recordings. Without quoting him directly, I think it’s fair to say he thought the calls were likely or more than likely Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He also thought it unlikely that birds were resident in our search area, based on the pattern of potential encounters, the paucity of strong sightings, and lack of conclusive evidence. I’m not sure I agree; I wish there had been a chance to explore this topic in more depth and that he’d been able to see our search area for himself. Nonetheless, his perspective has led me to consider that other nearby forested areas deserve more attention than we’ve given them to date.

I’ll conclude with three paragraphs from his final post in the Moss Island series. It’s as true today as it was in November 2009 (though I suspect nesting may take place in fragmented second growth, as in our old search area). I hope it inspires you to read the rest. More from me soon.

How does this relate to Moss Island? By Cornell standards, our habitat is unsuitable. Hence, our encounters are largely dismissed out of hand. By doing so, the Cornell approach has painted themselves into a rather nasty corner. The logic is simple. To all appearances, we have Campephilus-like double knocks that are at least as good as what has been heard in the “core habitat” such as Big Woods and Congaree. If one claims that in “core habitat” these represent evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, but in “marginal” or “unsuitable” habitat they provide no evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, one has committed a logical no-no of the first magnitude. If the same sounds come from places where you have concluded that Ivorybills are not going to be, then you should conclude that these sounds have no relevance to Ivorybills anywhere. Conversely, if you feel these sounds are evidence of the possible presence of Ivorybills in South Carolina or Arkansas, then you must also accept that they would be evidence of the same in Tennessee, Illinois, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. You can’t have it both ways.

Anyone who seriously considers that Ivorybills might still persist, and that double knocks and other soft evidence have a relevance to indicating their possible presence, should accept that the evidence in total suggests their habitat requirements might be broader than has been assumed by Cornell et al. I’m not suggesting they will nest in fragmented second growth, or even use it as a full-time habitat; but there are ample indications that if these sort of encounters mean anything anywhere then the birds indeed are using fragmented “marginal” habitats for at least parts of their life history. These habitats are hugely more extensive than the “core” habitats, hence this possibility raises all sorts of further hypothetical possibilities for the natural history, survival, and conservation of the species, all of them positive. In the alternative philosophy to Cornell’s, you search where you have learned of rumors, whispers, or credible declarations that something of interest might have been seen or heard there. This of course requires a lot of judgement, and eventually everyone will draw the line somewhere; I’d not put much stock in reports from western Kansas, for example — although good double knocks in Nebraska or Vermont would settle a lot about what they might mean in Arkansas! But until and unless we actually find some reproducible birds and determine what their 21st Century habitat use patterns really are, minds should be kept open.

You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species. You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species. 




Feeding Sign: Further Reflections and Clarifications

I’ve created a page that expands on this post and should provide a good introduction to our thinking about the three most intriguing types of feeding sign, with images from the second and third categories. Think of this post as the shorter version.

Over the years, I have written a great deal about bark scaling and the types of work I think are diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker; however, I don’t feel that I’ve been effective enough at conveying the nuances of what I look for in situ. I’m going to try a somewhat different approach using images that have been posted previously. I will be focusing on the category of bark scaling that I think is most compelling for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I hope that the tiled mosaic layout will make it easier to get my points across.

The scaling I find most compelling for ivorybill is on hickories, mostly or all bitternut hickories (Carya cordiformis).  This work represents a relatively small subset of the suspected ivorybill feeding sign we’ve found, as would be expected given that under 10% of trees in the area are hickories. It is not the type of foraging sign that Tanner emphasized, and I’m not suggesting that scaling on boles is the ivorybill’s predominant foraging strategy. I emphasize this work because it has a distinctive appearance, one that differs dramatically from presumed Pileated Woodpecker foraging sign on the same species.

The above images show presumed Pileated Woodpecker work on a recently dead bitternut hickory found last February. It seems reasonable to infer that this is Pileated work because of its extensiveness and the abundance of fresh chips at the base of the snag, suggesting the work was recent and was done by a large woodpecker. Some readers might be inclined to think of this as “scaling”, when in fact it is shallow excavation. The small size of the chips and the fact that some of the chips are sapwood, not bark, support this idea. Contrast the roughened appearance of the sapwood with the clean bark removal in the images below. Also contrast the extensiveness; while the work shown above involves fairly large areas, it pales in comparison to the very extensive scaling shown below.

Edited to add: I think squirrels can also be ruled out for this work due to the involvement of the sapwood, apparent bill marks, and the presence of insect tunnels.

I think that all of the images immediately above show Ivory-billed Woodpecker work, most of it fresh. The similarity in general appearance from tree to tree should be self-evident. This type of scaling can be found from within approximately one foot off the ground to the upper parts of boles. Large Cerambycid exit tunnels are visible in the sapwood. Bark chips, when found, were large, and the only hints of excavation involved targeted digging to expand the exit tunnels. It’s worth noting that the Hairy Woodpecker in the trail cam photo above spent several minutes removing a quarter-sized piece of bark. The Pileated Woodpecker also spent several minutes on the tree; it pecked and gleaned and looked around but did no excavating or scaling.

Bitternut hickory wood is “hard and durable” and the bark is hard and “much tighter than on most other hickories.” The bark is sometimes described as being thin, but this appears to apply to young trees only. On mature boles, it can be .5″ thick or more.

Due to these qualities, the decay process for hickory snags is often more gradual than for other species, especially in higher and dryer areas. This means that the wood can stay hard and the bark remain tight for as long as three years; such is the case with the tree shown in the penultimate image above. This has enabled me to do periodic checks on some of the snags, and in most instances, they have shown little or no indication of further woodpecker work for extended periods, until the wood starts to soften and excavation becomes easier. Whatever is doing this work seems to be hitting the trees once or twice without returning or, less frequently, to be making visits several months apart. I think this suggests a thinly distributed, wide-ranging species as the culprit, and in my experience, Pileated Woodpeckers tend to return to feeding trees on a regular basis.

In my view, this very specific type of work is diagnostic for ivorybill and is beyond the physical capacity of the Pileated Woodpecker. I’d suggest that similar appearing work on other tree species should be considered strongly suggestive. When it comes to the high branch work that Tanner emphasized, it is more difficult to rule out Pileated Woodpecker. As discussed in several recent posts, this type of foraging was the predominant one during breeding season and immediately after fledging young, at least for the John’s Bayou family group. Thus, for work higher on trees, where bark is thinner and tightness cannot be assessed, abundance is likely a key indicator. From this perspective, it may be significant that our friends the Carlisles who are searching in the Pascagoula area have found only two sweet gums with work that I consider to be intriguing and consistent with what’s described in the literature. By contrast, I found over 50 such trees in our area in the 2015-2016 season alone. Whether or not there are ivorybills in the Pascagoula, the difference between the Carlisles’ observations and ours is dramatic and suggests that something unusual is going on in the Project Coyote search area.


Scaling and Squirrels, Part 3, A Closer Look at Surfaces and Edges

The first two installments in this series, which was inspired by the discovery that squirrels are doing some of the bark scaling in our search area, are here and here. This installment will consider the appearance of the scaling itself, and the next will focus on pieces of bark; “chips” no longer feels sufficient to describe the spectrum of what we’ve found, and using more specific terminology may shed more light on what we think is diagnostic and why.

I’ll begin with the work we are now presuming to have been done by squirrels. In retrospect, it’s easy for me to understand why I was fooled by this bark stripping. I was not seriously considering mammals as a source due in part to the extent of some of the work involved; I never saw incisor marks on the wood, something that’s often described as being an important indicator; similarly, I have been unable to find these marks in the photographs I’ve taken of stripping that we now presume to have been done by squirrels.


Tanner’s Plate 8, “Ivory-bill feeding sign on slender limb. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

In addition, I was somewhat misled by Plate 8 and the description of what Kuhn thought was diagnostic that his daughter shared with us. (Scroll down in this post to see where my thinking went astray.) It’s my current view that Plate 8 could conceivably be squirrel work. Tanner doesn’t state that he actually observed an ivorybill doing the scaling.

Between 1937 and 1939, Tanner observed actual scaling a total of 73 times, but it’s not clear how many instances he might have photographed. In hindsight, the scaling in Plate 8 is not particularly impressive; the scaled patch is relatively small; the bark is thin and the hanging pieces may be an indication of removal by gnawing rather than bill strikes. Adhering bits of shredded bark and cambium are evident in some of the work we believe to be squirrel, including on the tree where we captured a squirrel stripping bark (albeit much smaller ones in that case).


Small bits of bark and cambium adhering to downed sweet gum limb after presumed scaling by squirrels.

In fact, I think one of the keys to recognizing that squirrels are likely responsible for removing bark is a ragged, shredded, or chewed up appearance to the bark and cambium, as in the examples below.




The information we got from Mrs. Edith notwithstanding, I am going to examine the edges of scaled areas more carefully and be sure they are for the most part cleanly incised. This is one of the main criteria for ascribing the work to ivorybills (although by no means all Campephilus scaling falls into this category, and some can have ragged edges). As I’ll be discussing in the next post, I think that bark chip characteristics provide an even better diagnostic.

Now let’s turn to targeted digging and the similarities between what we’re finding and the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. In some of my previous posts on bark scaling I’ve mentioned “little or no damage to the underlying wood”. “Little” is the operative word here. In most if not all of the examples of scaling associated with large Cerambycid exit tunnels that we’ve been able to examine up close, there are also indications of targeted digging, and we have seen similar targeted digging on some of the higher branch work we’ve found. Targeted digging involves the expansion of individual exit tunnels in varying degrees. This can range from what appears to be little more than probing with the bill to deeper and wider excavations, but this excavation is incidental to the scaling, whereas in Pileated Woodpeckers, scaling on tight barked-trees is typically incidental to excavation.

A magnificent series of photographs by Luiz Vassoler posted to the Flickr Campephilus group, showing a Crimson-crested Woodpecker scaling and doing targeted digging, is illustrative (scroll through to your right for the whole series). This is not to suggest that other woodpeckers can’t or don’t dig for larvae in a targeted way, only it’s more suggestive evidence for the presence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker in our search area, given the context and what’s known about the foraging behavior of  its congeners.

I’ll keep commentary to a minimum and post some examples from our area (the seven photos immediately below) and then links to work done by other Campephilus woodpeckers.







Pale-billed (on palm):There’s no scaling here, but the exit tunnels have been expanded vertically, and the expansions resemble some of the rectangular ones above.

Pale-billed (at nest): Very targeted digging and slight expansion of some exit tunnels.

Pale-billed: On a scaled surface, some tunnels expanded.

Robust: I’m including this almost as much for how well it shows Campephilus foot structure and the rotation of the fourth toe and hallux.

Cream-backed: Somewhat more aggressive expansion of tunnels on longer dead wood.

Red-necked: Targeted digging to the right of the bird.

Crimson-crested: Elongated dig into exit tunnel.

Crimson-crested: another great shot of the Campephilus foot. Targeted dig at bottom of scaled area.

Crimson-crested: Video showing targeted digging on an unscaled area.

Magellanic: are the most Dryocopus-like in the genus in terms of foraging behavior. Note their smaller bills and relatively shorter necks. They seem to spend a lot more time feeding near the ground and excavating large foraging pits than the other species, but they too do a considerable amount of targeted digging.

Magellanic: The appearance of the scaling here is strikingly similar to what we think is diagnostic for ivorybill. The tunnel at bottom right has been expanded, likely with the tip of the bill. It looks as though there is more targeted digging above and to the left.

The two images below, showing targeted excavations on small limbs, associated with extensive scaling on young, freshly ambrosia beetle-killed sweet gums, bear a striking similarity to work by Crimson-crested  (the long furrows in particular) and Magellanic Woodpeckers.





One final and more speculative observation that might be of interest to other searchers. I had dismissed this work on a live maple as likely pileated because it is generalized digging, not scaling. After going through so many images of Campephilus foraging sign, I’m a little more intrigued by it, as I see similarities to sign like this and this. Like some of the work on ambrosia beetle-killed sweet gums, this almost looks like a hatchet had been taken to the tree; the wood was not at all punky; and red maple at 950 on the Janka hardness scale, while not nearly as hard as bitternut hickory (1500), is harder than sweet gum (850). While I’m not proposing this as a diagnostic, it may be more interesting than I initially thought.

Maple 1

Unusual excavation on live maple


More on Scaling and Squirrels, Part 1

This is will be the first in a series of 3-4 posts. The subject is multifaceted and subtle. Nuances can be hard to convey in words and accompanying illustrations; it’s easier to do in talks, with bark chips in hand to provide a more visceral sense of what’s being described. Still, it seems important to make the effort.

I realize now while my initial approach to evaluating feeding sign was rigorous, I grew somewhat lackadasical and overconfident. I also got distracted by the abundant scaling on downed sweet gums we started finding a year or so ago. I’m now confident that squirrels did much of this scaling, but the same does not apply to most of the other work we’ve found over the years.

Even before we discovered that squirrels were scaling bark on downed sweet gums (and quite possibly on standing trees as well), I was contemplating a post that broke down the bark scaling we’re finding into several categories. I was aware of having gotten away from the criteria I had laid out in the past and was feeling a desire to be more specific. That seems like a good place to begin, before delving too deeply into the nuances of distinguishing between squirrel and putative ivorybill work.

The following are the different types of interesting feeding sign we’re finding. Bear in mind that this pertains only to hardwoods that appear to be alive or recently dead and are known or suspected to have tight bark, except in cases where work appears to be old but still has characteristics that suggest it was done when bark was tight. The types of sign are ranked in the order of what I think is the likelihood that most or all of it is being left by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, although the gap among categories 1-4 is small. (Frank would reverse categories 1 and 2.)

  1. Scaling on standing boles, low enough on the trunk to be examined up close. This includes both standing trees and ones with tops broken off. The sapwood of trees in this category has multiple large exit tunnels. The most prevalent species in this category is bitternut hickory, which has very thick, dense, tight bark, but we’ve also found it on sweet gums and oaks. This scaling is extensive and has a distinctive pattern that’s immediately recognizable in the field, an almost jagged appearance, although the actual edges are curved. The tree on the homepage is one example, and the image below illustrates how even when the scaling is not recent, this distinctive appearance remains. Bark chips are easiest to find for this type of work.

    Old scaling on hickory, 2015

    Old scaling on hickory, 2015. Note the exit tunnels and the absence of other woodpecker work, save for a small dig near the top of the scaled area.

  2. Scaling on standing boles, low enough on the trunk to be examined up close. Few or no large exit tunnels but signs of insect infestation under the bark. Superficial bill marks may be evident in the remaining cambium or on the surface of the sapwood. Tree species in this category include sweetgums and oaks. Chips are similarly easy to find.IMG_0144Lateral strike marks in the cambium
  3. Scaling that has the appearance of the work in category 1 but that cannot be examined up close. No possibility of examining bark chips.Hickory3
  4. Scaling higher on boles and lower branches of standing trees where exit tunnels may be visible, but close examination is not possible. In some cases, these trees are seen at a distance, across water bodies, so there’s no opportunity to look for chips. As is the case in categories 1 and 2, older scaling may go untouched by woodpeckers for extended periods. The first example below is recent; the second is probably more than two years old.


    Top of scaled hickory.


    Older scaling on dead top with exit tunnels.


  5. Scaling on higher branches of standing trees. Since these are often seen at some distance and in poor lighting conditions, it can also be more difficult to assess the freshness of the work, and the nature of infestation. Bark chips are usually much harder to find under these circumstances. Squirrels typically girdle limbs and often scale on the undersides of large, higher branches. Thus, when larger branches are at less than approximately a 70 degree angle, work on the underside may indicate a squirrel as the source, while the presence of extensive scaling limited to the upper side may be strongly suggestive of or diagnostic for woodpecker.BigSGLimb
  6. Scaling on downed trees or limbs that are at least in part more than 4’ from the ground.Detail of scaling on downed sweet gum.
  7. Scaling on downed trees and limbs that are mostly or all horizontal and less than 4’ from the ground.

    Work now suspected to squirrel on downed sweet gum.

    Work now suspected to be squirrel on downed sweet gum.


    Suspected Pileated Woodpecker work on same downed sweet gum

There’s an additional category that is somewhat different from the others. This involves work we’ve found on freshly dead, small sweet gums (>1’ dbh) with evidence of ambrosia beetle infestation. These trees have been stripped of bark, with some accompanying signs of excavation, ranging from targeted digging that resembles the work of Magellanic Woodpeckers (as on the left branch below) to the appearance of having been attacked with a hatchet. We think this work has strong potential for ivorybills, since we’ve found only three examples of it, in close proximity, and in an area with an abundance of other suggestive sign.HackedUpGum

It’s important to point out that when I use the word “scaling”, I am referring only to the clean removal of bark with little or no damage to underlying sapwood. While I have been quite adamant about this as a characteristic, some elaboration is probably in order, as my statements were made in reaction to woodpecker work that was often described as “scaling” in the early search years but was really bark removal in conjunction with excavation, something that’s typical of Pileated Woodpeckers. There still seems to be a good deal of misunderstanding on this subject, and the distinction is not always easy to communicate.

On close examination of some scaled areas, especially in category 1 but also in others, there are signs of targeted digging (but not deep or extensive excavation). This can range from a very slight expansion of an exit tunnel, apparently by probing with the tip of the bill, to what may be a harder strike or two, to a somewhat deeper but still targeted dig into the sapwood. Since many other species of woodpecker are capable of doing such targeted digging, I only consider this aspect when it’s in association with extensive, contiguous removal of bark. This will be explored in more depth in the next post in the series.

In category 1, known ivorybill prey species have been found under the bark or on the scaled surface of two trees. When exit tunnels are found on these trees in this category, they are consistent with infestation by large Cerambycid beetle larvae. I hypothesize that these trees are being scaled when the gregarious larvae have dug their exit tunnels but have not yet sealed their pupation chambers. This would be the stage at which they are most nutritious and most easily accessible for a species of woodpecker adapted to bark scaling, but the opportunity exists only within a very narrow time frame.

For several trees in categories 1 and 2, camera deployments of 2-4 months duration produced no return visits or evidence of what was doing the scaling; in a couple of cases Pileated Woodpeckers were photographed on the target trees for fairly protracted periods. In one, the pileated removed a few small pieces of bark, and in the other it appeared to do a little pecking and gleaning but did not remove any bark. We have revisited several of the other trees over periods ranging from months to two and a half years. One tree in category 2 (no tunnels) had a return visit approximately four months after the first one, when the bark was still tight. Several others, both with and without tunnels and including one first found in June of 2013 and re-examined during my last trip, had no obvious new scaling and little or no excavation of any kind, despite being in a more advanced state of decay

It’s also important to note that we have reason to believe that at least some of the work in all categories is being done by woodpeckers. For example, on the downed sweet gum shown above to illustrate category 7, found in November, there is obvious woodpecker work (likely Pileated) on the bole and apparent squirrel work on the upper limbs. Similarly we suspect woodpeckers did the scaling on the larger downed sweet gum (category 5) – mostly scaled higher but with some work within 4’ of the ground. I found this tree in May 2014, approximately 50 yards from the site of where we captured the squirrel stripping bark; while I do not recall looking for or examining bark chips, the edges of the scaled areas appear chiseled rather than gnawed, and the scaling on some of the higher limbs is on the upper side only.

The next post on this topic will examined the targeted expansion of exit tunnels and will revisit the similarities between what we’re finding and the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. The following one will focus on bark chips and distinguishing between signs of gnawing and signs of scaling.

Squirrels Stripping Bark

I thought it was important to post the following advance of writing a comprehensive trip report.

On arriving in the search area last week, I found fresh scaling on a downed, recently dead sweet gum. The tree was relatively small, with a DBH of under two feet, and was alongside one of the roads that pass through our search area. There was fresh work on it on subsequent days. I staked it out on Thursday and saw nothing. We placed one of our game cams on it on Friday and retrieved it late Saturday. The trail cam photos showed a squirrel removing the bark fairly extensively. These images are currently in the game cam’s proprietary format, and we’ll post them in the near future.

As is the case with many of these blowdowns, there was also work in the tops that looked very consistent with Tanner’s descriptions of ivorybill scaling, although only on the upper sides of the limbs and branches. What this tells us is that we have to think squirrels are likely responsible for scaling on downed sweet gums and that all possible sign on downed wood should be looked at with a jaundiced eye. It also means that my previous foraging preference analysis has to be revised; we’ve taken that page private at least for the time being.


Scaled area on bole of downed sweet gum. A squirrel expanded this considerably, working from left to right, toward the base.

I did not collect any chips that are unquestionably the work of a squirrel, but I did gather several that I presume to be. They measure:






and thus are all considerably longer than they are wide, stripped with the grain rather than scaled. The edges that go across the grain have a ragged appearance, and since the tree was not mature, the bark is thin and brittle compared to the bark of the mature downed top discussed below.

It’s odd that we only started finding this type of work in abundance in the past year; it doesn’t exactly match the diagnostic criteria I’d articulated earlier, but it comes close in some respects. It has been an unfortunate distraction, since the work on downed trees is much easier to find and photograph than work on the boles or upper branches of standing ones.

There was a little bit of fresh work on the downed sweet gum top found in April, but it was not extensive enough even to show up in the game cam images. There were a few chips on the ground, more like strips than chips, actually, 6′ to 8′ inches long and no more than an inch across at the largest. We’ve had numerous images of squirrels on that top but none showing them scaling bark for a period of more than two months. We got numerous images of squirrels again this time, and also a pair of Pileateds, with a Downy or Hairy (we didn’t examine the frames very closely) literally trailing the PIWOs up the trunk. In any event, there was no way to tell what did the little bit of scaling, or what did the scaling on the upper part of the downed top or the left fork, which had been almost entirely stripped before we got the camera on it. I lean toward this little bit of new  work was done by the Pileateds, but either way the chips don’t have the characteristics I associate with suspected ivorybill chips.

I had been planning to do a post refining and being more explicit about the different types of work I’d been ascribing to ivorybills. I still plan to go ahead with this project but will have to do so informed by this new information. I expect to write something later this month, after I’ve posted the trip report.

While squirrels cannot be ruled out for some of the work we’re finding, it seems unlikely that squirrels are doing all of it, especially on the boles of dense-barked, mature trees (like the hickory on the homepage and most of the others shown here) that have numerous cerambycid exit tunnels and on those that are not quite so freshly dead (and therefore don’t offer as much nutritional value). We monitored the tree on the homepage for several months and had no evidence of squirrels removing bark.

Some preliminary thoughts on what I think remains likely ivorybill work:

The chips shown in the bark chip gallery are mostly as large as or larger than an adult man’s hands. Chip size, shape, and density are probably factors that need to be looked at very closely, and perhaps the contrast between a very ragged, gnawed appearance and a cleaner one with apparent bill strikes is another key aspect.

This smashed sapling was clearly not worked on by squirrels, and the little patches of targeted digging on the small limb are highly reminiscent of Magellanic sign I’ve seen in several photographs:


If you zoom in on the image below, you can see that a woodpecker was involved because the tunnels have been expanded slightly and there’s one Magelllanic-looking dig on the smaller limb. This one also has some superficial scratches that could be from a bill:


This work on a dead oak from the old search area remains interesting, because the bark chips were huge (one as big as my forearm) and due to the apparent lateral bill strikes that were evident when additional bark as stripped several months later:


This little, dead gum (not oak, I think), because there are apparent bill strikes in the cambium and other obvious signs of lateral blows.

When it comes to high branch scaling, squirrels can do extensive damage, as in this example on a sugar maple. At the same time, some of the high branch work we’re finding shows clear signs of insect infestation and woodpecker involvement, as in this downed sweet gum limb I found on Saturday. The scaling took place before it fell.


In next example, although the scaling has a little bit of the layered appearance we’ve suggested is more characteristic of Pileateds, it’s clear that woodpeckers are involved, since there are a few places where what we presume to be insect tunnels have been expanded.


There’s also this one, which I initially thought could be due to natural sloughing, but how would sloughed bark fall at an upwards angle?swgumbole

While I was initially disappointed by this new data point, not only because it compels me not only to reexamine certain aspects of my hypothesis but also because it eliminates the types of targets we’ve thought most promising in terms of obtaining clear trail cam photos, I recognize that this is part of the process. It’s an opportunity to refine the hypothesis and a reminder to observe carefully. Ultimately, I think there’s more room for confusion between squirrel work and what I take to be IBWO work. We can’t help but wonder whether Tanner himself might have been fooled in some instances.

The Pros and Cons of Trail Cams

Frank wrote this up and asked me to post it.

Recently, we’ve received several messages, and another blogger has mentioned the use of game cameras – also referred to as trail cams, or camera traps – as aids in searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. We’ve been deploying trail cams since early 2009, and have had some intriguing “hits”. They have been useful in many ways, and we have learned a lot about the feeding habits of other woodpeckers – specifically, Pileated, Hairy, and Red-bellied – that were useful in giving Mark insights into the type of feeding sign that we have come to believe is most likely diagnostic for ivorybills. In dozens of deployments, and hundreds of hours of searching with boots on the ground, and sometimes in the water, we have NEVER observed a woodpecker performing the type of scaling that we have come to suspect is diagnostic.

While trail cams are a valuable tool in our arsenal, they are, by no means infallible. There are many pitfalls involved in their use. Firstly, they are not designed to capture birds – in fact many common species of birds are almost unidentifiable in the images. Birds do not set off the motion triggers that these cameras use, and why should they? The cameras are designed for use along trails and adjacent to food plots used by larger mammals – usually whitetail deer. I have tested the Reconyx “Hyperfire” cameras that we use, and even a large Wild Turkey at fairly close range will not trigger one, even at its most sensitive setting, while a relatively small (terrier size) dog will trigger one from a distance of twenty-five or more yards. The manufacturer has indicated to me that there is “something about the way birds reflect light in the visible and infrared spectrum” that makes the cameras’ triggering units unable to “see” them.

As a result, ivorybill hunters must find a camera that will operate in time lapse mode. For all their disadvantages (3.1 megapixels, low resolution among them) the Reconyx cameras offer the best time lapse mode available at an affordable price. This, in and of itself, though, becomes a handicap, as the card for each camera must be programmed, using a proprietary program provided by Reconyx, on a PC. One programs the card, inserts it into the camera, and hopes for the best – there is no way to check and see if the card/camera combination is functioning properly. This has led to many wasted deployments. Additionally, there is the problem of how often should the camera take a photo vs. storage capacity of the card. The cams are designed for 8 gig cards, sometimes they will function with a 16 gig card, but will universally malfunction with a 32 gig card. 8 gigs is usually enough for a ten-day deployment with the camera time constrained to take a photo every twenty seconds for ten hours a day – you do get to select the hours of operation though. While every twenty seconds would seem to be quite often (and a full 8 gig card will store upwards of thirty thousand images), perform a little test for yourself. Go out to your favorite birdwatching location and see how long a bird – any arboreal non-raptor species – stays in one location for twenty or more seconds. Captures of birds on game cams are a relatively rare event – I have looked at nearly a million Reconyx photographs and have picked up birds of any kind in perhaps a thousand images – identifiable birds in maybe two hundred.

The very first thing that has to be done when using game cams is to select a location where you suspect an ivorybill is likely to show up. This could be a tree with scaled bark and other indications that an ivorybill has visited it, or a cavity with features that seem to match photographs of known ivorybill cavities. Both of these are, at best, iffy propositions. One has to find the tree, geotag it (you do have a good GPS unit, right?) then return to the location – often several miles of hiking through some pretty rough and secluded forest, carrying the camera and its mounting system – which weighs around ten pounds. Then the camera and mount have to be positioned to get the target near the center of the frame, which gets easier with practice, and the camera and mount hidden and intervening vegetation trimmed so as not to interfere with the line-of-sight. Once all this has been done the camera can be turned on, armed, and left to do its thing.

Assuming that everything up to this point has been done perfectly, in ten days or so, it’s time to change cards, or retrieve the cam. Now one is faced with the daunting prospect of going through some thirty-thousand photos looking for anything “interesting”. Often, several days of images will pass without a single “hit” of any kind. It’s often a relief to spot even a small woodpecker or squirrel, to remind one that the target is part of a living ecosystem.

The series shown here is exceptional in terms of quantity of images, quality, and our ability to place the camera. (It may be significant for what it doesn’t show, a Pileated doing the type of scaling we think is diagnostic.) Even so, it was not possible to cover the entire target tree.

As I stated earlier, these cameras, within their limitations, are useful tools, but for my money, nothing really beats the good old MK I MOD I human eyeball. But at this point, that’s just not enough …

In addition to the suggestive photos we’ve already posted, we recently obtained some pictures at the site where last week’s double knock was recorded. Because we find some of these pictures intriguing but inconclusive, we have deployed two cameras in hopes that the double placement will yield an identifiable photograph. The first picture, taken under good lighting conditions, clearly shows a Red-headed Woodpecker (there is a roost at the very top of the snag); the others are ambiguous. We are posting them unedited and leave it to you to speculate about what they may be. We recognize that none of these are of anywhere near good enough quality to be identifiable as ivorybills, but we are doing some further analysis to get a clearer sense of scale. The camera placement is 85’ from the tree; the branches behind the tree are an additional 15” away. My preliminary estimate of the diameter of the tree just above the jug handle on the right is approximately 18”.

I have taken careful measurements using a camera with known lens settings and a rangefinder – when the weather is more congenial, I will make comparison shots at the exact measured ranges. This should give a margin of error of ~1″ or less.


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