Updated – Emerald Ash Borers and Blonding: A Large Body of Bark Scaling Evidence Tends to Rule Out Pileated Woodpecker as The Source of Scaling on HickoriesPosted: July 11, 2018
A couple of initial housekeeping notes: I still plan to do a second, more conceptual post on ivorybill evidence, one on historic range, and possibly another on non-IBWO trail cam imagery. Look for those over the course of the summer. I thought this subject should take precedence and have changed plans accordingly. The photographs (other than my own), which I’m including in the largest possible sizes, are courtesy of bugwood.org (under a Creative Commons License) and Patowmack the trickster.
Thanks to John Kearvell for inspiring me to pursue this subject.
The emerald ash borer or EAB (Agrilus planipennis) is an invasive Buprestid beetle. The first known North American outbreak was near Detroit, Michigan in 2002. Since that time, the species has spread to 33 states and three Canadian provinces.
Bark scaling, especially by Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), is one reliable indicator of EAB infestation, and Pileated Woodpecker populations appear to increase as a result of outbreaks. Thus, there is now a large body of data on bark scaling that was not previously available for comparison with suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) work.
All of the numerous examples of white or green ash (Fraxinus americana or pennsylvanica) scaling by Pileated Woodpeckers (and presumably smaller woodpecker species as well) found online show “blonding” or removal of bark in layers. This may be due to anatomical limitations that preclude Pileated Woodpeckers from removing thick, tight bark in large pieces. Suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on hickories – which have harder, tougher, tighter bark than ash – shows no trace of blonding or gradual removal. I think this excludes Pileated Woodpecker as the source of the hickory scaling.
Introduction: The Emerald Ash Borer
EABs are believed to have arrived in North America in packing materials. The first outbreak began near Detroit in 2002, and the species has spread rapidly since then, decimating native ashes wherever it goes. All indications are that this invasive insect will have an impact akin to that of Dutch elm disease or chestnut blight, concerted quarantine efforts notwithstanding. Because EABs were a recent arrival and had not been well-studied during the first decade of the 2000s, their relevance to the issue of bark scaling does not appear to have been recognized by the formal searches that were conducted during that period.
While the invasion’s impact has already been devastating, EAB larvae are attractive to woodpeckers, especially Pileated Woodpeckers (Koenig and Liebhold, 2017), and bark scaling is one of the most obvious symptoms of infestation. (This attractiveness may have future implications for any surviving ivorybills as the EAB expands its range.)
Unlike many bole dwelling Cerambycidae, such as Hesperandra polita, which spend the bulk of their lifecycle in the heartwood and do minimal damage to the cambium, EAB larvae live, feed, and pupate just beneath the bark, eventually destroying the cambium. This causes the bark to fracture and sometimes to slough off by itself. In the very dramatic example shown below, I suspect that woodpeckers were involved in most, if not all, of the bark removal but only reached the sapwood well after the bark had started to loosen, fracture, and perhaps fall off on its own. Nevertheless, there are still signs of layered removal on the edges of the scaled/sloughed area.
When I started researching this subject, I was unaware that the term blonding had been applied to woodpecker work in pursuit of EABs, but it has become a widely-used (and apt) descriptive. It refers to the appearance of ash trees or parts thereof, after woodpeckers have started removing the outer bark in pursuit of EAB larvae and pupae. The process of reaching the sapwood appears to be a slow one, and after examining hundreds of images showing of bark scaling on ash trees, I have been unable to find a single example that was devoid of blonding, even when very extensive work was involved.
Patowmack the Trickster’s photo is the most extensive example of apparent Pileated Woodpecker scaling on an EAB infested tree that I’ve been able to find. The tree appears to be fairly long dead – based on the extent of the superficial excavation (tunnels are no longer distinct), the apparent fracture in the trunk at the center of the frame, and on the apparent separation of the bark from the sapwood that’s most distinct on the lower right edge of the scaled surface. While the extent of this work is impressive, I’d suspect PIWO even in potential ivorybill habitat – based on the appearance of the surface, the state of decay and seeming looseness of the bark, and the blonding, which is most evident at the top and at the lower left.
While smaller woodpeckers are responsible for some ash blonding, Pileated Woodpeckers are likely the primary source, especially when the work is as extensive as in the examples shown above. Images of Pileated Woodpeckers on blonded surfaces are considerably easier to find than ones involving other species. This brief video catches a PIWO in the act, on an extensively blonded tree, and points to the difficulty PIWOs face when scaling tight, thick bark.
Blonding on Other Tree Species
I have found blonding or its equivalent on a number of other tree species, so it is not exclusively related to any characteristics of ash bark. Rather, I think it is a function of Pileated Woodpecker anatomy. I have seen this on limbs, including sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) limbs, in our search area and have described it as a “layered” appearance.
It may be possible for Pileated Woodpeckers to remove tight bark from small to medium branches without leaving traces of blonding, especially if the bark is weakened or it comes from a species (like sweet gum) that is relatively soft and thin. Removing thick bark from mature boles is something else again, and I suspect that even when bark has loosened considerably, traces of blonding will often be visible when the work is done by Pileated Woodpeckers.
I have found one extreme example of suspected, extensive PIWO blonding on a bole in Louisiana. I think the tree involved is a sweet gum, but if it is an ash, it would be from a location well outside the range of the EAB today, let alone in 2011 when the tree was found. While blonding is easily visible on the trunk, it can also be recognized by examining bark chips.
I have seen the equivalent of blonding on loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) in the southeast and on softwoods in Westchester County, New York. The bark of most conifers is weaker and less tightly adhering than that of most hardwoods, and it typically becomes easy to scale far more rapidly. This is why I long since abandoned the idea that softwood scaling might be suggestive of ivorybill, unless it involves extensive work on multiple large trees.
I have also found it on live and dead hardwoods in Westchester County, NY. The first pair of images below, which I’ve posted previously, shows fresh, known Pileated Woodpecker work on a Norway maple (Acer platanoides) in my yard. (I saw the bird.) The second pair is from a local park. The snag, which I believe is a large sassafras (Sassafras albidum), appeared to be fairly long dead.
Ash Bark v. Hickory Bark
Ash bark resembles that of bitternut and pignut hickories (Carya cordifromis and Carya glabra), so much so that an arborist mistook the pignut that grows outside my office window for an ash and advised me to monitor it for EABs. Testing bark hardness with a fingernail is one way to avoid confusion. Ash bark feels corky, whereas hickory bark is extremely hard. Last year, I wrote an in-depth post on the characteristics of hickory bark and the reasons it is exceptionally difficult to remove. I won’t recapitulate it here, except to say that hickory bark is considerably harder and stronger than that of virtually any other genus. It is also tighter when trees are dormant or dead, as these reposted tables suggest.
The values shown are for shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), which is slightly stronger, tougher and tighter than bitternut or pignut. While white and green ash bark is considerably stronger and tougher than sweet gum and white ash bark is harder to remove from dead trees, neither species comes close to hickory in any category, except bark tightness when sap is flowing.
I suspect that the extreme strength and toughness of bitternut and pignut hickory bark renders it impervious to blonding. Certain pignuts may be a partial exception, as the outermost bark layer on that species is sometimes slightly subject to flaking. I removed the outer layer of bark from the pignut hickory mentioned above to illustrate; the inner layer is very hard and tight.
Our observations thus far suggest that Pileated Woodpeckers can excavate through hickory bark, leaving behind small pieces, and can remove narrow strips of hickory bark from already scaled areas.
We have found nothing to indicate that Pileateds can go straight from outer bark to sapwood and remove the hand-sized chunks we’ve found under the scaled hickories in the search area.
All of this strongly supports the hypothesis that Pileated Woodpeckers are incapable of scaling hickories in the manner that I believe to be characteristic of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I’d further argue that the absence of blonding on boles of any hardwood species may be suggestive of ivorybill, provided the bark is thick (over ~.5″) and tight. This is not to suggest that ivorybill work never shows traces of blonding. Though the image quality is poor, Tanner’s Plate 8 may show it.
Something similar to blonding is visible in examples of scaling by other Campephilus species. Thus, an absence of blonding on scaled hickory boles may be a basis for rejecting Pileated altogether and may be suggestive of ivorybill when other tree species are involved.
On a recent visit to a park in Orange County, New York, I found many EAB infested, blonded ash trees. I only had my iPhone with me, but I took some close ups and one shot of the chips on the ground. I also collected some chips and photographed them at home. One of these chips was particularly interesting; while it include some of the outer bark, most of it was from an intermediate layer, further illustrating how the bark is flaked off and that multiple events of stripping are involved before the cambium is exposed.
Evidence collected by Project Coyote in two parts of Louisiana from 2009-2018 should, on its own, suffice to justify maintaining the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s current listing as an extant, endangered species in the United States. Others may differ, but I think the totality of the evidence does even more, making a compelling case that the species persists in more than one Louisiana location.
This will be a two part post. The initial impetus for writing it was a conversation I had with Erik Hendrickson about how the scientific, birding, and legal approaches to evidence seem to differ. That will be the main focus of Part 2. As for Part 1, after talking to Erik, I realized that I’d never done a single post aggregating the evidence we’ve obtained over the years, so when it was announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be conducting a status review for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the need for writing this up became more urgent. That’s the primary focus of Part 1, but some of what I’m planning for Part 2 will be foreshadowed in this lengthy treatment.
There is a strong tendency to privilege visual evidence over other forms – audio and circumstantial. I’m inclined to think that our audio evidence is the most compelling material overall; as regular readers know, I also think circumstantial evidence, feeding sign in particular, is very important. But the structure of this post will track conventional attitudes, starting with visual material followed by a discussion of sound recordings and auditory encounters, and concluding with more circumstantial forms of evidence.
Project Coyote has been focused on two areas in Central and East-central Louisiana. I found what I call the “old” search area after reading a newspaper account of a local landowner’s efforts to get his reports taken seriously. This is the landowner who sketched corrections to the Louisiana Hunting Guide’s ivorybill illustrations and who showed Frank Wiley (my late collaborator) bark scaling when he visited the area.
To be clear about what he was trying to show in the corrections: the gentleman died before I had a chance to meet him, but as Frank told me after his August 2009 interview, all of the corrections are in red ink, so the intent was not to put a male crest on a female bird; it was to show the female’s crest as more erect and recurved than the drawing and indicate that the male’s crest also is more erect and prominent (less Pileated-like) than the game guide representation. Also note the drawings at top right, in which he compared IBWO and PIWO wings, implying that the wings in the game guide image are a little too rounded.
What’s most salient about these observations is not whether they are perfectly accurate, although they do seem to reflect some little-known nuances, it’s that the landowner had enough claimed observations of male and female ivorybills to recognize subtle differences and to distinguish them from Pileateds. In addition, he was offended by the treatment he received when he tried to alert the authorities. I have personal knowledge about this last aspect based on conversations with family members who wanted to see him vindicated.
He was certainly convincing enough for Frank to start visiting the property on a weekly basis during the summer of 2009. Thus, Project Coyote was born.
The landowner’s reports go back to the 1990s. (The linked post includes audio from 2009). There are several medium to large state WMAs and National Wildlife Refuges in fairly close proximity to the site. We heard additional claims from residents of the area while we were focused there.
Putative ivorybill activity on the property seems to have diminished or ended altogether after an adjoining parcel was logged in late fall 2010. As a result, we gradually shifted our attention to the new search area.
The old search area received minimal attention during the post-Arkansas period; some peripheral Ivory-billed Woodpecker-related research was conducted in the general vicinity, but there was no formal, funded search effort. Nor was it visited by Cornell’s Mobile Search Team, although Martjan Lammertink did spend several days on site, after the logging.
Similarly, our “new” search area was entirely off the radar. It doesn’t show up on anyone’s list of promising locations, notwithstanding the fact that it is in one of the most sparsely populated, heavily forested parts of the state. There’s also a long history of local reports. Most of the claims seem to have been fairly recent, but some go back to the late 1990s.
And these are only the claims I know about . . .
For reasons that I hope will become clear, I have not kept track of all our possible sightings since 2009 and have not always mentioned them in blog posts. Nevertheless, I’ll begin with sightings. Over the years, Frank had more possibles and reported having better views than anyone else. I’m probably second, with approximately six since 2009, but unfortunately no good looks. Steve Pagans has had several possibles; a few visitors have also made claims.
While this is largely a subject for the next post, it’s well-known that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, at least when the source is an untrained observer. Nevertheless, eyewitness testimony is central to many a criminal trial, and it has a strong impact on jurors. There seems to be a parallel with respect to the ivorybill. Accounts of possible sightings tend to attract more interest than many more substantive and important posts.
Thus my Sunset Sighting post, which is not quite two months old, has had approximately 800 pages views, but my March 18, 2017 post entitled, Numerous Kent-like Calls Recorded on March 11 and 15, 2017 received a total of 744 views last year. Similarly, the post on Joseph Saucier’s October 2017 sighting and our follow-up visit to that location, Change of Pace Change of Place, posted in late November, received 804 page views, the second highest total for the year, (well behind the announcement of Frank’s passing).
According to a survey conducted in the aftermath of the Arkansas controversy, “[R]espondents were most confident in the sightings, less confident in the Luneau video and recordings of double-knocks and kent calls, and least confident in the FishCrow video.” The discrepancy was strongest for the “Definitely of IBWO” category, where 22 people listed sightings as conclusive, compared to 10 for the Luneau video, 9 for kent calls, 8 for double knocks, and 4 for the first Fishcrow video. (PDF) The Great Ivory-billed Woodpecker Debate: Perceptions of the Evidence. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259337980_The_Great_Ivory-billed_Woodpecker_Debate_Perceptions_of_the_Evidence[accessed Jun 28 2018].
So sightings have an almost irresistible appeal; in some cases, there’s good reason to credit them, but it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, to determine what’s trustworthy and what isn’t. And there are many kinds of chaff – wishful thinking, self-delusion, ignorance, mistake, and deception to name the most obvious.
I’ve retrospectively rejected a couple of my possible sightings (and almost did so with the recent “Wooden Wings” incident), partly because I’m disposed to look for reasons to doubt myself and partly because I realized that I was in some way primed in a couple of those instances; for example, in one case, I’d been looking at specimens the day before. In the absence of a good look, I think it’s better to err on the side of self-skepticism.
When it comes to claims from others, it’s impossible to know with certainty what someone else saw, even when reports are accompanied by detailed sketches and field notes, as is the case with several of Frank’s sightings. I was with him for one, on April 3, 2015, when he made notes (available at the link) and a sketch (at my urging). I have no doubt that he was convinced he saw an ivorybill, as he was visibly shaken immediately afterwards and was very slow to regain his composure.
But I really like corroboration, and to the best of my recollection, Frank and I had two possible two-person sightings in all our time together – the first was in the old search area, the day after an auditory encounter and a week before a suggestive trail cam capture was obtained, effectively from the same spot. I consider this my strongest possible sighting.
The second was much weaker, a flyover with two birds seen in silhouette within 15-20 minutes of an ADK series. (Three of my possible sightings, two of which Frank also saw, have been associated with ADKs.) We did not think much of this possible at the time but could not explain it away entirely. I should add that Frank had several other two or more person sightings, but I was not present for those.
With regard to the local reports, I’m always mindful of the possibility that I’m being played, especially as an obvious northerner in rural Louisiana, but I don’t think that has ever happened. It’s still necessary to listen closely and ask the right questions. Pileated, Red-headed, and even Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be confusing for non-birders. I’m more likely to credit accounts from people who make it clear they know Pileateds and know the difference (like the landowner in the old search area) or from people who say they thought the ‘ones with the white backs are the males’ and the ‘ones with the black backs are the females’. I’ve heard this only a couple of times. But I like it best when we get ivorybill claims from different, unconnected people referencing the same location; this has happened in the vicinity of the current search area.
To conclude, members of our group have had multiple sightings of varying quality, in two different Louisiana locations since 2009. In addition, there have been multiple claims from locals in both areas.
One final note, relevant to the USFWS review: I am aware of a number of additional post-2009 claims from Louisiana (and a few from other states). In a couple of cases, Frank interviewed the people involved and found them to be credible. A cellphone video was obtained in one instance; the observers’ excitement over apparently seeing a pair of ivorybills is evident, but the quality of the video is extremely poor. In the other case, two people saw the bird and one provided a highly detailed description and sketch. There’s also Joseph Saucier’s report from last fall; our follow-up suggested that much of the habitat in this large expanse of forest was likely suitable, and Matt Courtman, who is an excellent birder, heard what he thought was a very good double knock on one of his follow-up visits.
I recently posted a couple of Frank’s 2009 sightings and accompanying photographs that hadn’t been made public previously. These are the only photographs associated with possible sightings that we have obtained. Full details are available at the link; rather than recapitulate them here, I’ll focus on trail cam photos, including several that have been discussed previously plus a few intriguing ones from the old search area that have not been posted previously.
These are the images I think are most strongly suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker and for which I am unaware of a strong counterargument.
The first two have been discussed repeatedly at length in a number of other posts. Both are from the old search area; the first was taken in August 2009 and the second, which appears to show a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker, was taken in late November, a week after the sighting discussed in the previous section.
To reiterate a couple of points about the August 2009 image: in the original photograph, there appears to be some red in the crest (though it’s not positioned right for either PIWO or IBWO). Careful review and image enhancement made it clear to me that the red is an artifact and the crest is black. In addition, as shown in the enhanced detail, there appears to be a large, light-colored bill protruding from a cavity in the background. This apparent bill is absent from captures obtained on other days. It changes position in the two frames where it is visible, suggesting it is attached to something within the cavity. (Unfortunately, the other frames from that morning have long since been lost.)
The image of a bird in flight, from the new search area, is more problematic, as it is not demonstrably a woodpecker. The still above includes an inserted Imperial Woodpecker for comparison, with motion blur reduction applied to the bird captured by the trail cam. One prominent birder stated that it is a Blue Jay, but as discussed in the original post, the bird is behind the snag and appears to be as large as or larger than a Pileated Woodpecker captured on the trunk.
Although we’ve determined that one of the initially intriguing images from that deployment shows a Red-headed Woodpecker, a few others remain interesting.
There’s an additional image from the spring of 2010 (old search area) that has always intrigued me, though I never had a chance to examine the original. I think it shows a large woodpecker, with a black crest, high on a honey locust. If it were a Pileated, male or female, I’d expect some red to be visible in the crest, even under these conditions.
Finally, there are a couple of additional trail cam captures from the old search area that I have not posted previously. By now, the original sequences are lost, and I’ve long since forgotten any details or discussion we might have had when Frank sent me the images. While they are far from conclusive, I think they are interesting enough to post in this context. At minimum, they further illustrate the challenges associated with obtaining definitive trail cam imagery.
Note: If you listen to the recordings below with headphones (recommended) be aware that some have loud sounds, clarinet toots and ADKs, in the foreground. This applies to the clip from March 2013 that I recorded and to many of Matt and Phil’s recordings from March 2017.
Possible auditory encounters far outnumber possible sightings, and over the years we have made numerous recordings of putative kents and double knocks (more than once in combination, which should add to their evidentiary value). Some visitors have been rewarded by hearing something within a day or two of arriving, and this has been true in both search areas, although others have been less fortunate, and I heard nothing suggestive during the most recent field season (though Matt Courtman recorded three possible calls in April of this year).
I will not be including all the audio evidence we’ve obtained, just some of the material I think is most significant. Some of the putative kent calls that have been recorded over the years may be Blue Jays; it has been suggested that Matt’s calls from this spring are too low pitched for ivorybill and might be from a heron, though I think they come from the same source. Regardless, many of the calls are simply inconsistent with any known bird species, are fairly close to the Singer Tract recordings harmonically, and are perfectly consistent with written descriptions of Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds.
One of the most dramatic encounters involving both apparent kents and double knocks was from the old search area. It seemed to have been triggered by banging from the tin roof of an old deer stand. Six people were present, and much of the incident was recorded. There were apparently two birds involved. More details are in this post, and here is Frank’s 58 minute recording:
Extracts from the encounter and other material recorded in person and on remote units in the old search area and environs, as well as sonograms, can be found here, via the Wayback Machine. Some of the Wayback Machine links are not functioning, and the material posted there includes a couple of double knocks; here are several of the recorded kent-like calls:
Note that the fundamental frequencies on many, but not all, of these calls are in the 900-925 hz range, higher than the Singer Tract recordings and possibly consistent with Blue Jay. But in the second clip above, the fundamentals of both the lower calls at the beginning and the higher calls at the end appear to be a little over 800 hz., and during the extended encounter mentioned above, the calls went on for a prolonged period without the source revealing itself as a Blue Jay, which would be typical if the animal were indeed a jay.
The same applies to calls I heard and recorded in the new search area on the morning and afternoon of March 2, 2013. The morning calls went on for ~20 minutes. I did not think they were Blue Jays in the field.
We have recorded apparent double knocks in apparent reaction to ADKs and to Barred Owl calls and sometimes in contexts where the trigger is unclear, as in this example from an October 2015 post written by Frank:
“Bob and I continued upstream for another half mile, located a nice spot with a good view, and I performed an ADK series, followed about ten minutes later by a series of electronic playbacks of Singer Tract ivorybill calls. Shortly thereafter, Bob heard a double rap drum, that was captured on my digital recorder. I personally don’t believe that the drum was a direct response to my ADKs as there was at least a fifteen minute interval after the last of the ADK/playback series.
The double rap is not “perfect” in that the “intra-knock interval” is about .05 seconds longer than the “ideal” – based on averages of the intervals of other Campephilus drums – but it sounds very good.”
The 15 minute interval between ADK/playback and apparent response is similar to the lag time that has been observed in other Campephilus woodpeckers responding to ADKs; it may be worth distinguishing between a slower ‘response’ and a more immediate ‘reaction’ in this context. (M. Lammertink, pers. comm.)
In my view, the audio recorded by Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman in March 2017 is compelling, perhaps the most compelling evidence we’ve obtained. On the morning of March 15, they recorded over 200 calls, along with a number of possible double knocks, over an approximately three hour period. The calls have lower fundamental frequencies than many of those in earlier recordings; these frequencies are considerably lower than any kent-like Blue Jay calls I’ve been able to locate online. Other suggestions have included, Red-breasted Nuthatch (too high) and Wild Turkey (no typical Turkey vocalizations were recorded that morning).
Overall, the calls appear to be inconsistent with any other known species of bird, mammal, or amphibian. Their association with Campephilus-like double knocks strengthens the argument for Ivory-billed Woodpecker as the source. As far as I know, the sheer number of recorded calls is unprecedented for a single incident in the post-Singer Tract era.
I was lucky enough to hear a couple of the calls on March 11, the day Phil first captured them, along with a couple more and some knocks at the same location on the following day. I’ve blogged about these recordings at length in multiple posts; I won’t repeat all that material here, but the discussions are worth reading. I will repost some of the original recordings and enhanced versions.
Here is the first recording Phil made, one clip with the calls isolated and one with our talk and reactions. It may be difficult to hear the calls without headphones.
Here are some brief extracts from Phil’s March 15 recordings:
Here are some from Matt’s:
In the interest of brevity, I encourage readers to visit this post for in depth analysis, various extracts, and amplified versions that highlight the calls and some of the knocks. As always, it helps to listen through headphones.
Indirect Evidence: Bark Scaling, Bark Chips, and Cavities
I’ve discussed my bark scaling hypothesis – that a certain type or types of scaling may be diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker – multiple times over the years. As explored in a couple of recent posts, we are in the process of testing it. I won’t recapitulate the hypothesis here except to say that I remain convinced that neither Pileated Woodpeckers nor squirrels are physically capable of removing hickory bark in the manner we’ve found in the new search area. There may be other diagnostic characteristics, but my main focus is now on the hickories, since the work on that species is the most extreme outlier. Below are some dramatic examples of bark scaling (plus one image of interesting feeding sign on a sweet gum sapling that had been stripped of bark) on hickories, oaks, and sweet gums from both search areas.
For Tanner, bark scaling was one of the strongest indicators of ivorybill presence, even though he accepted some reports from trusted sources in areas where he found no scaling. The absence of scaling (along with poor habitat “quality”) was one of his main reasons for dismissing reports during his 1930s survey and rejecting the ones from the Big Thicket in the 1960s. He also doubted reports from the Chipola and Apalachicola area in 1950 based on finding no cavities or scaling during a 4 day visit. He concluded his notes on the trip by stating:
Conclusion: No I-b now in Chipola R. and neighboring Apalach R. swamps. Many of Kelso’s reports are mistaken, – not deliberately false, but due to ignorance and wishful thinking. There appear to be contradictions in some of his stories. I could not get any clear statement of what Ivory-bills sound like from him. He said that the local name of I-b was “Saddleback”, – which appears good but in many ways odd. Also “Van Dyke”! There certainly is no fresh sign in any area we visited indicating that the birds are present. The only possibility is that of scaling on pine; this may be solved by watching Pileateds in the pine woods.
(F. Bryntesson, pers. comm.)
While I think it’s possible, indeed likely, that some of the work Tanner ascribed to ivorybills was done by Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels, there’s no question that an abundance of bark scaling is relevant in assessing possible ivorybill presence in a given area.
Based on visits, some lasting a week or more, to suspected ivorybill haunts in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana and on information provided by other searchers and people who have spent years in southeastern forests, I feel safe in saying that the quantity and quality of bark scaling found in both search areas is unusual. We also found an abundance of scaling in the area where Mr. Saucier had his sighting last year, something that I think lends added credibility to his report.
In the past, many in the searcher community speculated that lateral groves or bill marks in the cambium or sapwood might be suggestive, but this view has fallen out of favor; much of what was thought to be “scaling” in these instances was in fact shallow excavation with associated bark removal. We found one example of superficial lateral marks in 2013 that continues to intrigue me, although the snag in question is a young sweet gum that could easily have been stripped by a squirrel or Pileated Woodpecker.
The edges of the scaled area may tell more of a story, especially in conjunction with any bark chips found on the ground. On the trees shown above, damage to the still-adhering bark suggests that lateral blows were integral to the scaling. This would be expected if the source were a Campephilus woodpecker.
An abundance of large, hard, thick bark chips (or chunks) around the base of a tree is also a likely indicator. Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels seem to remove bark in smaller pieces and in strips. Additionally, when squirrels are involved and the bark has been recently removed, it’s likely that there will be a lot of smaller debris in the mix, since squirrels have to gnaw their way through the bark. Some of the chips we found in the old search area seem to have bill marks consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
The bills of specimens, at least, seem to fit perfectly into indentations in the chips, but Pileated Woodpecker bills seem to be too small. The larger chips shown below are suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker from a variety of species – oak, hickory, sweet gum, sugarberry, and honey locust. The specimen shots are with a honey locust chip from the old search area. The first few images show squirrel and Pileated woodpecker leavings for comparison.
Cavities are vexing. I’ve become convinced that there’s no bright line for distinguishing Pileated from Ivory-billed Woodpecker, notwithstanding the dimensions Cornell gave for “large” PIWO (3.5″ x 3.7″) versus “small” IBWO (4.0″ x 5.0″). The small ivorybill sample was limited to nest holes, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of oddly shaped and large holes being used by Pileated Woodpeckers. Thus, while I keep my eyes open for cavities, I don’t think there’s a reliable way to determine which species is responsible for creating or using large, irregularly shaped cavities, although extensive bark scaling on the tree may be indicator.
It has been a challenge to find cavities of any kind in our current search area, probably due in part to the high canopy. We did find a cluster of interesting cavities in what I call the northern sector in the 2014-2015 season. This cluster was in the vicinity where we’ve found an abundance of scaling over the years and where Phil and Matt made the recordings last year. Below are some of the most interesting cavities we’ve found in the two search areas. Cavities were much easier to find when we followed up on the Saucier sighting, but I’ve omitted those from this document.
In conclusion, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persist in Louisiana. It is self-evident that none of this evidence rises to the level of proof required for establishing beyond all doubt that the species has survived, but I think the case for persistence is a compelling one, without regard to evidence obtained in other areas since 2005.
Stay tuned for a more theoretical discussion of evidence, proof, and professional approaches thereto.
Thanks to Wylie Barrow, Fredrik Bryntesson, Patricia Johnson, Tommy Michot, Steve Pagans, and Phil Vanbergen for their input. Some photos by Steve Pagans and Erik Hendrickson.
I wanted to let regular readers know that I recently completed my final visit to the search area for the season. I am in the process of reviewing trail cam cards and am planning a couple of posts on the results from two of them. The first of these will also include a very limited trip report.
There were no captures of possible ivorybills from these two deployments, but I think the posts will be of interest. They will be password protected pending review, but I will make them public as soon as possible. Expect the first within a week or so.
This approach has confused several readers in the past. Unfortunately, it is the most efficient way to get my colleagues’ pre-publication feedback. My apologies in advance.
Think of this as a prologue to some upcoming posts on evidence – including a more structured discussion of the evidence we’ve obtained over the years and my take on broader issues of evidence and the ivorybill controversy. Look for those at the end of this month and in July. There’s likely to be a trip report posted before then. I’m also planning a postscript to the Bits ‘n’ Pieces series that summarizes my thoughts in a more organized fashion. That will come sometime this summer. In addition, we will have trail cam imagery from seven deployments (plus unreviewed imagery from five cards) to examine over the summer. We’ll be adding an eighth camera later this month, targeting some scaling Tommy found last month. As discussed previously, we plan to leave these cameras in place for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, I thought I’d share the details about and accompanying photographs related to two sightings Frank had in the old search area during the summer and fall of 2009, before my first visit. But first, I’d like to share a trail cam image from the location and deployment where we obtained a suggestive trail cam image a week after I had a possible sighting. With the passage of time, I had forgotten that the landowner’s grandsons (who are mentioned in one set of Frank’s notes) had reported seeing an ivorybill in the same immediate vicinity on the morning when Frank and I had an auditory encounter, and the day before my possible sighting.
This image below was captured in 2009, the day after the one mentioned above that we published years ago. The bird is in flight, just below the fork and to the left of the scaled trunk. I’ll leave it to readers to evaluate; I don’t know what it is, but I think the wing pattern is intriguing. You can click on this image (and the others) to view them in a larger format.
With regard to trail cam photos, this is a processed detail from another image from 2009 that Frank liked for ivorybill and that he may have posted on ibwo.net back in 2009 or 2010. I was initially intrigued by this image but was eventually convinced that it shows a Pileated Woodpecker with somewhat worn feathers and that the apparent long tail is due to the posture of the bird. It was a rare time when Frank and I agreed to disagree about an ivorybill related matter. I remain convinced the bird is a Pileated and won’t be including this in my planned discussion of our evidence, but I’m posting it here because Frank had such a strong opinion about it.
In summer and fall 2009, before my first visit to the property, Frank had two sightings in the course of which he obtained several photographs. These images are inconclusive at best, and the late Bill Pulliam had a critical take on the two Frank took during the first encounter. I’ll include the bulk of Bill’s analysis below; his commentary notwithstanding, I think these images are worthy of posting now. In retrospect, they are among the very few such images that have been obtained in conjunction with a sighting and with accompanying field notes. The context in which they were obtained, in a small area where there were multiple sightings and auditory encounters by multiple people over a period of six months, gives these notes and images added weight, in my view. I’m grateful to Amanda Wiley Legendre for giving me the go-ahead to post this material. All photos and field notes are by Frank Wiley
Here are screen caps of Frank’s handwritten notes (with a minor redaction to protect location information). The photographs follow.
Bill Pulliam compared the images with others showing the background without the bird present. This is what he had to say:
First Image: I’m actually having a very hard time making sense of this one. What I get as bird is the three large white areas, the small black spot between them, and a reddish or yellowish mass to the lower left. From the context of the two images thus would seem to be a side view of a bird flying to the left and somewhat away. At a glance it almost looks like a bird with a white body, white wings, dark on the breast, and rusty red head. In the absence of any other information, I would think it is some sort of duck except I’m not sure how to make the colors match up. The reddish blob to the left really does look like the head of a duck flying to the left.
I can’t reconcile this with a woodpecker of any kind, or with the description you provided. It might be a molting young little blue heron or white ibis, I suppose. It really kinda looks like a canvasback, except this is august, right? Even if I disregard the red head, I don’t see how to line it up sensibly.
Second Image: This one is even more problematic. There are the two white arcs that look like wings, but then there is a long narrow dark extension to their left. This time the foreground object comes out to be: I don’t know WHAT this might be. If I disregard the long thing to the left it might be something with white wings, but it’s hard to say more than that.
In summary — I can’t make sense of these objects to have any idea what to call them; the first one is not easy to reconcile with Ivorybill, the second is just hard to say anything about. Given that they are actually the same object, I’m still at a loss.
Sorry, not what you want to hear, but it’s what I come up with. Bill
In reading Bill’s comments for the first time in years, nearly a decade after he wrote them, I’m struck more by how perplexing he found the images to be than by his coming up with something I didn’t want to hear. I am also struck the level of detail in Frank’s description, which I also hadn’t looked at since he wrote it or shortly thereafter.
It’s worth bearing in mind that these photographs were taken with a mid-range, consumer 2008 DSLR with a very modest burst mode. It’s to Frank’s immense credit that he got any pictures at all under the circumstances; the same goes double for the next series.
This is Frank’s account of his November 8, 2009 sighting, which he wrote up in Word, again with a few redactions unrelated to the substance of the report. This was approximately a half mile from the camera trap location. Note that I don’t have copies of all the images Frank used in the figures below, so I’ve taken screen captures from the Word document. The images I do have are reproduced in full size at bottom.
Figure 1: Overview map of sighting area
On 11-08-09, Frank Wiley at approximately 7:30am CST was on speakerphone with Mark Michaels of New York. During the time we were on the phone I was approximately 1000 yards Southwest of the location shown in Figure 1 above. During that time while I had Mark on speakerphone, he heard several possible double raps (though over the phone he could not separate the individual raps), and at least one very loud single rap that he remarked upon as being very distinct and woody. These sound detections were quite loud to me, as the observer on the scene, and were obviously loud enough to be picked up at a considerable distance by the speakerphone microphone in my Blackberry. I had my Sony IC recorder running nearby at the time, but have not yet reviewed the recording to determine which (if any) of the putative sound detections it may have picked up.
During the time we were connected, Mark was able to make out calls of Pileated Woodpeckers, a Yellow Shafted Flicker, and Red Bellied Woodpeckers, as well as numerous other bird calls. Additionally, I identified by sight a number of other woodpeckers including 2 Downy Woodpeckers, a Yellow Shafted Flicker, numerous Red Bellied Woodpeckers, numerous Pileated Woodpeckers, 1 Hairy Woodpecker and a pair of Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers. Photos of all (time and date tagged) are available for review, except no photo of the Yellow Shafted Flicker.
Note: I do not have copies of the photos or the audio recording referenced above.
At one point, I stated to Mark that I was possibly being approached by an ivorybill. A black and white bird with the apparent giss of a large woodpecker was approaching my position. Before the bird reached me, it was mobbed by a small (3 or 4 birds) murder of crows, and fled to the North. The unknown woodpecker appeared slightly larger than a Pileated, but was slimmer in profile with seemingly longer wings. Its flight did not undulate as a Pileated normally would. I cannot ascribe any field marks to this bird that would definitively identify it as a Pileated or any other species of large woodpecker, so obviously, Pileated Woodpecker cannot be ruled out in this instance.
After the forest quieted down, I got off the phone with Mark, and staked out a small finger lake in the area for a couple of hours. Woodpecker activity remained higher than usual in the area, especially the Red Bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. During this time, I heard some loud “hammering” that had a pop…POP-pop sequence coming from across the lake, at a distance I would estimate to be greater than 150 yds.
Slightly before noon I walked out of the forest to the home of a member of the family, that owns this tract of forest. I visited with him and his wife until their son M (14) and nephew B (14) returned from their morning squirrel hunt. As I planned to deploy a game camera, and having had one stolen a couple of weeks before, the boys had hooked a trailer to their ATV, and were hauling a caving ladder so I could strap the camera to a tree 10-12 feet off the ground to deter theft and meddling.
We were on the ATV (B riding on the trailer, M driving, and I was riding behind him) and headed to the spot where I planned to deploy the camera (in the forest approximately 100 yds West of the tree circled in Figure 1). Immediately after crossing the slough shown on the Southern portion of the map, B began pounding my back and shouting “There goes the bird!”
Though young, B and M have spent their lives in the woods. They have keen eyesight, and are becoming quite adept at identification of the larger birds common to the area by sight and sound. I have repeatedly tested them with Pileated visual and auditory contacts with “Is THAT the bird?” and they never claim that a Pileated is “the bird.” “The bird” we are discussing is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
M and I looked in the direction (North/Northeast). B was pointing and sighted the bird at approximately 275 yards, flying just above the canopy West to East. The bird did not “swoop” or “undulate” in the manner of most woodpeckers, and displayed distinct white plumage on both the dorsal and ventral secondary flight feathers. The bird’s giss was more slender, and longer, with a longer seeming tail than a normal Pileated. I quickly raised my camera and snapped off three quick shots. While the bird was definitely in the frame, I had bumped my focusing dial, and it was not focused at infinity for the zoom setting. Upon review, these three frames reveal nothing but blur, but have been retained for my records. This occurred at 1:38pm CST (2:38pm CDT on the camera). The bird then banked to its left (North) and disappeared from view.
M restarted the ATV and began moving North, when approximately 1 minute later, B shouted “There’s one on the side of that tree!” indicating a large pecan in the Northwest corner of the clearing. Both M and I looked up as three large black and white woodpeckers with trailing white secondary dorsal flight feathers flushed from the side of the tree. I am quite sure of our identification of these birds as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
Even though the range was extreme (later measured at approximately 225 yards), I raised my camera again (prefocused to infinity this time) and got off four shots of a bird fleeing to our left (West). These photos, Figures 2 thru 9, appear below. Figure 2, 3, 4, and 5 are the pictures as seen in the original file reduced for insertion into this document. Figure 6, 7, 8, and 9 are cropped and zoomed at the same pixel rate and resized for insertion into this document. In my opinion, except for the long tail, and odd wing shape, Figures 6 and 7 look somewhat like a crow. Figure 8 is apparently a large woodpecker with wings in a “tucked” position. Figure 9 is the same bird with the wings in an upward position. In both Figure 8 and 9, a long, substantial bill appears to be present. In Figure 9, the bird’s right wing shows possible white along the trailing edge in the location of the secondary flight feathers.
Again, the fact that he was able to get any photographs at all is a reflection of Frank’s skills, which he had honed as a hunter. And while these photographs are inconclusive, the description of what he observed lends them considerable weight in my view.
Here are the frames that I still have on my computer. A couple are processed and cropped somewhat differently. One includes an annotation that Frank omitted from the report, highlighting an American Robin to provide a sense of scale. It may be helpful to examine these higher resolution versions.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my request for comments about the blog and its future. It’s very gratifying to have received such positive feedback and to know that my work is appreciated. With that in mind, the comments and emails have convinced me that I shouldn’t make any major changes, even if it would have been wiser to have deliberated more before posting and amending the recent post about a possible sighting.
Apologies to those who were unable to view this post due to the temporary password protection while it was being reviewed.
As mentioned previously, we currently have six cameras aimed at potential feeding trees. Tommy Michot will be deploying the seventh (on the tree discussed below) in the near future. This will put us at or near what I consider full capacity in terms of servicing the cameras and reviewing the imagery. Since Frank’s death, the task of reviewing images and working with the cameras had fallen almost entirely on Phil Vanbergen’s shoulders, and we’ve only changed cards when there’s been evidence of woodpecker activity on the target tree but have otherwise allowed them to overwrite. Recently, several people have volunteered to review the imagery, and Tommy and I have gotten a better handle on deploying the cameras. Thus, we’ll be able to shift to replacing the cards every few months and (hopefully) reviewing all the images we capture.
On the last trip, Tommy and I found recent bark scaling on a sweet gum stub, and although the bark was loose, we decided to move one of our cameras and target the stub.
The camera had previously been aimed at a hickory that lost its top in a storm last year, a location where Peggy, Phil, Tommy, and I heard a double knock last year. For some reason, the overwrite function failed, so the card was full when Tommy and I redeployed the camera. I brought it home to review. I found some interesting imagery that I’ll share and discuss. I think that at least one of the frames is suggestive of ivorybill, although it is far from conclusive, and no one I’ve shared it with is nearly as interested by it as I am. Regardless, I’m now convinced it’s a good idea to check every card and am very glad that Geoffrey McMullan encouraged this approach.
First a few comments on trail cams, which will update some of Frank’s observations from this post on the subject written in January 2015.
Our trail cams are made by Day 6 Outdoors. The Plot Watcher Pro is the only dedicated time-lapse mass market trail camera. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and inexpensive compared to Reconyx, the second best time-lapse option. The accompanying software makes it possible to step through the captures frame by frame or to view them as video at various speeds. (Our time lapse interval is 20 seconds.) This simplifies the reviewing process, at some cost to image quality, although this has always been a problem with trail cams.
Trail cam sensors are relatively low resolution; only in the last year or so have 20 megapixel cams gone on the market, and many brands are in the 10-12 MP range. The bigger problem is that these cameras are designed to photograph terrestrial creatures, mostly large mammals and Wild Turkeys. It’s also almost impossible to avoid backlighting over the course of an entire day. Thus, unless the subject is at fairly close range, the chances of getting an identifiable image are greatly reduced, as will become clear from the examples below. So let’s look at some of the captures. I used Let’s Enhance, an internet based, automated image enhancement program.
The card ran from January 24 – May 1, and I worked my way backwards. During that time, there was one clearly identifiable woodpecker capture – a PIWO that spent under 40 seconds on the target hickory.
Note that WordPress has changed the way photographs are presented, at least in the format I’m using. To enlarge the images in this section, click on the image, and it will appear in a separate frame. There’s an option to see the full-sized image at the lower right. You can further enlarge the full-sized images by using the cursor.
The first large woodpecker capture was on March 16. The bird, which is not clearly identifiable, was present from ~3:25-3:46 pm, though it was not visible in all frames. I’ve included a QuickTime video covering the entire period (and about 10 additional minutes), along with a few enhanced screen caps with a box around the bird, which first appears on the right fork of the beech tree to the left of the target, then flies to a high branch in the background and moves around before disappearing.
The next series that interested me is from the morning of March 9. A bird in flight is visible in one frame captured at 8:22 am. It appears near the beginning of this 50 frame QuickTime animation.
This is an enhanced JPEG of the relevant frame with a box around the object of interest.
While others disagree, I think the object in the box is the upper (dorsal) surface of a bird’s wing. (One reviewer suggested it could be a squirrel’s tail.) There is nothing to suggest the bird in question is a woodpecker (if it’s a bird at all, which it appears to be based on the time lapse). To my eyes, however, it has a pattern of black and white that is consistent with the wing of an ivorybill, if the white is on the trailing edge. Given the distance from the camera and the extent of the white on the wing, I’m confident it is not a Red-headed Woodpecker. I’m also confident that this is actually an object, based on a review of the surrounding frames and on experimenting with color, exposure, and white balance. I’ve included a few examples, in a tiled mosaic to illustrate. Again, click on the individual images to embiggen.
A third frame that I found somewhat less interesting was captured on the morning of February 16th. I’m less intrigued by this image. It has been suggested that it might show a Pileated Woodpecker wing or a Red-headed Woodpecker on the target tree. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think it may show a woodpecker with a lot of white on one of the smaller trees behind and to the right of the target (which would make it too large to be a Red-headed Woodpecker). I suspect that the bright patch of white on the bird is an artifact, since it matches some of the highly reflective leaves below and to the right.
Regardless of whether any of these captures involves an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and despite the problems with image quality (which I hope are even more apparent to readers of this post), the images highlight the importance of reviewing all cards and having as many cameras functioning as is possible. I’m hopeful that this more extensive coverage, which is at or near the maximum that’s practical for us, will be productive in the future and may solve the mystery of what’s doing the initial scaling on the hickories. But as I noted recently, this will require patience, and it may take a few years.
Regarding the Blog
To follow up on some comments I made in the previous post, I’m still reflecting on where to take the blog in the future and am interested in hearing from readers about their reasons for visiting, as well as what they find most helpful or enjoyable to read.
When I first started blogging in 2013, I had a few purposes in mind. Foremost among them were replacing the original Project Coyote website, which had not been operational for a couple of years, and inspiring hope in other searchers and the general public. At the time, the organized, well-funded searches had long since wound down, leaving the field to handful of independents, most of whom were searching quietly.
In the intervening five years, readership has grown, approaching 40,000 unique visits and 110,000 page views at the time of writing. My reasons for blogging have also evolved over time. When Frank Wiley was alive, he was happy to have me play the more public role, while he stayed mostly in the background. Between 2013 and Frank’s passing, Project Coyote was mostly Frank, Steve Pagans, and me; we had a number of friends, advisors, and visitors to the search area, but their active involvement in planning, strategizing, and on the ground activities was limited. During this period, the blog became a place for me to share trip reports, including details of possible sightings, and to work through my thinking on various aspects of ivorybill history, behavior, and ecology.
The blog came to play another role for me – reward for an effort that has been expensive, lonely, and sometimes thankless. I enjoy watching the traffic spike when I post something, especially about suggestive material and possible encounters. (At the same time, I sometimes get a little frustrated when it appears that people visit the site and don’t read the material or listen to the audio that’s posted; this seems to happen often according to the analytics.) I think that some of my initial haste in posting about the possible sighting was influenced by this reward (while my haste in posting my subsequent misgivings was driven by an exaggerated sense of responsibility). This is true even though Project Coyote has become a true team effort, and I can get great support and insight from my trusted collaborators.
I don’t think posting in haste is salutary, and in retrospect, it probably would have been better to take a long pause to consider and consult with the rest of the team. Even then, I suspect it might have been better to refrain from posting altogether. (Since the post is already up, some additional discussion follows below.)
The bottom line is I’m not sure if there’s value in posting additional trip reports, possible sightings, and suggestive but inconclusive data or if it would be better to circulate this material privately. I’m open to persuasion in either direction.
The Possible “Wooden Wings” Sighting on April 27, 2018
In retrospect, the main reason I started to question myself about the April 27th sighting was my failure to see any white on the wings, something that started to nag at me the following day, even before I found a Pileated Woodpecker roosting in the immediate vicinity. Of course, had the bird in question been a PIWO, some white should have been visible if lighting conditions and sightlines had allowed for it. One advisor asked if the bird could have been a Wood Duck or a Hooded Merganser. I think this is unlikely for a few reasons.*
I saw neither Wood Ducks nor Hooded Mergansers (the latter are not common in the core search area) during this trip. There were small stubs and a broken limb on the back side of the tree, poor perches, but no cavities, and my impression at the time was that the bird was a woodpecker that had landed briefly and then flown from mid-bole on the larger cypress in the photograph below. The bird flew away and to the left over the clearcut and then apparently returned, within a minute, to one of the two trees in the background farther to the left. I thought it was into the one farther in the background, a hickory, not the closer tree where a Pileated went to roost, approximately 20 minutes earlier, on the 29th.
One final comment on the sound of the wingbeats: I’m not familiar with Ruffed Grouse wingbeat sounds, which Tanner suggested were similar, and have not seen a Ruffed Grouse in the field since I was a kid. They’re rare in my county, and I suspect the numbers have declined based on the lack of recent eBird records. All are from before 2000. I listened to a couple of recordings of Ruffed Grouse wingbeats, and while memory can be tricky, I think there’s a similarity between them and what I heard on April 27 and in November 2009.
I should also point out that Tommy Michot and/or I staked out the area through the morning of May 3rd. Pileateds were heard but not seen in the vicinity of the possible sighting or using the sycamore roost during that period.
While my initial certainty about the sighting has diminished, I am still hard pressed to explain it as anything other than Ivory-billed Woodpecker. But there is room for uncertainty, so the sighting must remain a possible. My life list will have to wait.
One final note, I did not see or hear anything else suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker on this trip, except for a couple of possible double knocks in response to Barred Owl playback on the 27th, earlier in the day and several miles away from the location of the possible sighting.
I’ll have another post soon on our plans for the immediate future and some additional images from the most recent trip.
*Edited to Add: Unfortunately my recording device (probably the microphone) malfunctioned last trip. There’s nothing on any of the tracks. Thus, my dictated observations on the night of the possible sighting went unrecorded as did any ambient sounds. Because I’m confident in the accuracy of my initial write up, as I had given brief oral descriptions of the incident to Matt and Patricia but had not consulted anyone or looked at any descriptive materials.
Update 2, May 2, 2018: I have always made being forthright with my readers a priority. I chose to revert this post to draft in order to pause and reflect. Based on recent events and the prematurity of the post and first update, I think some changes in my approach to blogging are in order, something I will address in a future post.
I have decided to restore the initial post and the first update to public view because I owe it to my readers and think it’s the right thing to do.
As several people have pointed out, I was too hasty in “accepting” that whatever I saw on April 27 was a Pileated Woodpecker. My description of what I heard and saw on April 27th was inconsistent with Pileated, and I stand by the description. My observations of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost on the 28th differed from what I heard and saw on the 27th. From an email sent early in the morning on the 29th:
A PIWO came in, overhead, either silently or very soft wingbeats when it landed. It drummed a couple of times and went to roost about 20 minutes before sunset but continued tapping from inside the cavity for about five minutes. (The bird on the 27th had come in no more than 2 minutes before sunset.) I hope to have gotten some decent photos. All PIWO sounds in the area stopped ~8 minutes prior to sunset.
It strikes me this morning that this behavior was somewhat different than the other bird’s; last night’s PIWO must have seen me, but my presence didn’t prevent it from coming very close and going directly to the roost. The other bird appeared to have been spooked by my presence.
Here’s what I know: I am confident I heard the wing sounds, as described, and am personally convinced that what I saw was a large woodpecker. I’m also confident I saw a PIWO going to roost near where the other event took place, on the following night, approximately 20 minutes earlier relative to sunset. I have the pictures to prove that. The rest is inference.
It’s easy (for me at least) to get overly enthusiastic about possible encounters; its also easy for me to turn around and look for ways to discount or discredit them in my own mind. To some degree, this is a good thing and probably comes with the territory, unless you’re delusional or prone to self-inflation. Still, there are points at which enthusiasm and skepticism become unhealthy. This applies to personal enthusiasm, self-skepticism, and to the way others respond to ivorybill claims. The Internet environment feeds unhealthy responses.
Regardless of anything else, this was a productive trip. We have six cameras deployed (thanks to Erik, Geoffrey, and Jay for contributing a new cam each) – five on hickories, either recently dead or in decline, and one a big sweet gum stub, three years dead, with some very recent bark scaling and signs of beetle infestation, in an earlier stage of decay than the Singer Tract tree where Pearson observed ivorybills feeding in the early 1930s. While this work could well be something other than ivorybill, and the bark is loose, it seems worth watching for a while.
I have been monitoring this stub since the top came down; in fact, we deployed a camera there in the spring of 2015, only to lose it to flooding. (The new deployment is higher on a nearby tree.) This suggests that our main strategy for camera trap placement – finding potential feeding trees and stubs in advance of any large woodpecker activity requires a multi-year commitment.
Even in this impatient world, patience is a virtue.
Update, April 30, 2018: Based on an observation last night of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost in the sycamore cavity shown below and an exploration of the clearcut area this afternoon, I strongly suspect the bird I saw on the 27th was also a Pileated Woodpecker. I still have trouble squaring what I heard and saw with Pileated, but the circumstances suggest that’s what it was. I’m opting to leave the content up, with this correction, in the interest of transparency. I will undoubtedly have more to say on this in the near future. Accepting that the bird in question was a Pileated Woodpecker in no way affects my view that the sounds Matt recorded in March and the ones Matt and Phil recorded in March 2017 were made by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
Original Post: I initially planned on including this sighting in a complete trip report but have decided to write it up and post it now as a kind of dispatch from the field. I may include some further commentary and imagery when I post the full report sometime within the next couple of weeks.
I expect this post will attract a number of new readers, so I want to preface the account with a few comments. Friends, associates, and many regular readers probably know that I’ve had a handful of possible sightings over the past 11 years, a total of seven, if memory serves. This over many hundreds of hours in the field. With the exception of the November 2009 sighting in the location where a suggestive trail cam photo was obtained a week later, I have not had a high level of confidence in these possibles and have rejected two of them as the product of wishful thinking. Last night’s experience was altogether different, even when compared to the 2009 possible, as was my reaction to it.
Here’s what I wrote to my inner circle approximately one hour after the sighting. I have made a few minor edits for clarity and to protect the location and have added revisions/corrections/additional comments in bold italics:
I’ve already shared this with Matt and Patricia, and I dictated the details into my recording device (which has been a little buggy) immediately after the incident. I haven’t listened yet, and this will include some additional details. (Any substantive differences between the recorded comments and the contents included here will be addressed in the full trip report, though I don’t anticipate there being any.)
I arrived at the spot where Matt made the recordings last month at approximately 6:40 PM (I was in the area before sunrise too). I sat facing WSW; the area directly across the water from me was recently clearcut. There are trees along the bank with an open expanse behind. Sunset was at ***. The events described took place between 2 minutes before and three minutes after sunset, by which time I had pretty much given up hope that anything interesting would happen.
There were two cypress trees across the water from me; one perhaps 1’ DBH and the other over 2’. I did not consciously register a bird flying in to the larger cypress, but I suspect I sensed it. (In retrospect, I wonder if I unconsciously heard it flying in, as my focus for the evening was on listening.) In any event, my first conscious observation was of a large woodpecker taking off from the backside of the tree. My impression was that it had flown in and took off almost immediately on seeing me. I was able to hear the wingbeats, which sounded stiff and wooden, not muffled and whooshing like the PIWOs I’ve heard. (I’ve only heard PIWO wingbeats when birds were directly overhead or when I’ve flushed them at very close range.) I was looking more or less directly into the remaining sunlight (the sun had long since gone below the tree line), and the light was very low, so I could only see a silhouette. The wings were long and narrow, and the overall GISS (General Impression, Size, and Shape) was not PIWO. After several flaps, the bird went into a glide, and I lost sight of it very soon thereafter. I’d estimate I had eyes on it for 2-3 seconds.
I continued to watch the area when what I took to be the same bird flew in to some hardwoods perhaps 20 yards SSW and 10 yards inland from the cypresses. I heard the wingbeats again but could not locate the bird in the trees; darkness was falling rapidly. I made a split second decision to try some Pileated playback to see whether it would provoke a response. PIWOs had been calling and drumming until a few minutes before this incident. I did several rounds of playback using the iBird Pro app and got no response or visible reaction. At this point, I checked the time, and it was three minutes past sunset.
FWIW, I find this sighting more personally compelling for IBWO than any of my previous possibles, including the one in the old search area where we got the trail cam photo a week later. (As implied by the updates, my view on this has shifted – as I not only heard wingbeats but saw white on the wings and the suggestive trail cam image obtained a week later adds support; there’s a closer temporal association than there is with the recordings Matt obtained just over a month before.) Some of this is gut feeling, but the wingbeats (audible at 30-50 yards) wing and body shape, the glide, and the lack of response to PIWO playback (though the hour was late), all contribute to my interpretation. Would I bet my life that this was an ivory bill? No. Will I add IBWO to my life list? I’m not sure, but I’m closer to doing so than I ever have been.
So there it is. I’m going back to the same vicinity tomorrow morning, though I may go to the edge of the clear cut.
The cavity in the attached image may also be of interest. It is likely fairly fresh, as Matt would likely have seen it last month had it been there then. I staked it out this morning and nothing emerged. It is southeast of where I was stationed.
I returned to the area this morning and found an additional interesting cavity in a sycamore about twenty yards south of the oak and hickory where I last saw the bird.
It was either not used overnight or had been vacated by the time I arrived, as I had encountered an almost uncanny delay that caused me to miss the sunrise. I reached the end of a long gravel road, about a quarter mile from my planned stakeout spot and ran into a turkey hunter. As so often happens, a conversation ensued, and to my astonishment, he told me his name was Kuhn. I asked if he was related to the Tallulah Kuhns, and indeed he was; he was far from home himself, and we were nowhere near Tallulah. He had known his cousin (not sure what degree) Edith Whitehead and was aware of her father’s work on pecan agronomy and hybridization, though he knew nothing of the ivorybill and his relative’s central role in the story. What an extraordinary (almost in the Sagan sense) coincidence.
A final note, while I saw no field marks, the wingbeats are an acoustic equivalent. As Fredrik Bryntesson reminded me, Tanner wrote about the sound very explicitly. I knew this in general terms, of course, but the actual language took me a little by surprise:
A description of the wing sounds is found in Tanner’s monograph, p. 58: “The wing-feathers of Ivory-bills are stiff and hard, thus making their flight noisy. In the initial flight, when the wings are beaten particularly hard, they make quite a loud, wooden, fluttering sound, so much so that I often nicknamed the birds ‘wooden-wings’; it is the loudest wing-sound I have ever heard from any bird of that size excepting the grouse. At times when the birds happened to swoop past me, I heard a pronounced swishing whistle.”
I’ll leave it there for now.