A Look Back and a Look Ahead: Project Coyote on WWNO, Season’s End, and Future Plans

WWNO just ran a long story on our search effort. You can listen at the link (recommended) and/or read the text. I’ll share some thoughts about it below, but first a brief update.

As April came to an end, Steve Latta, Jay Tischendorf, Tommy Michot, Phil Vanbergen, and I collected the AudioMoths that had been deployed in early March, completing the effort for the season. Jay, Tommy, and Mike Weeks will be returning to attempt some more DNA collection, and Tommy, Mike, and Phil will continue to service the trail cams. But the bulk of the work has come to an end.

We plan to get an earlier start next winter. And on the technical end, the lab is continuing to tweak the software and refine the machine learning; this has taken took a little longer than anticipated. Similarly, the DNA testing protocols are being refined. I don’t have a time frame for when detailed results will be available and can’t offer any information on if, when, and how results will be presented. But work is ongoing, and for next season, we hope that we’ll be able to turn the audio results around rapidly and get actionable information that will lead us to nesting or roosting sites.

To expand on something that’s mentioned near the end of the WWNO piece, I can say that I’ve cursorily reviewed perhaps .5% of the total audio, (from 3 or 4 of the first round deployments, February – early March). Most of this review involved scrolling through sonograms and listening when it seemed appropriate (meaning I likely missed a lot). It gave me greater appreciation for the technical challenges and the potential for false positives, especially when two or three potential confusion species are vocalizing simultaneously. While I have not heard extended bouts of kent-like calls at close range, I have heard more than enough suggestive sounds, both calls and double knocks, to be encouraged.

Changes to Project Coyote are in the works. Among these is a name change, to Project Principalis – to avoid confusion; I hope retaining “Project” will be enough of a reminder of Frank Wiley and the early days of our partnership. But there’s an existing NGO known as Project Coyote that focuses on actual coyotes, so the change is overdue.

It’s also likely that the blog will move to a different site and take on a somewhat different form. In the interim, there will probably be a guest post on Lazarus species by Jay Tischendorf, sometime in the next few weeks, and perhaps another one from me to detail the changes once they’re finalized. These plans are tentative at the moment. Stay tuned.

Hearing the WWNO story was a little disorienting. I’ve done a lot of media over the years, mostly unrelated to the ivorybill. I’ve never been the subject of such an in-depth profile. And I didn’t expect to be so much the focus. This is all about the ivorybill and the habitat, and while I won’t pretend to be above wanting acknowledgement for all my hard work, I am not the story.

I was disappointed that Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman, who made the March 2017 recordings and played a major part in bucking me up when my spirits were at their lowest, were not mentioned by name. I pushed for their inclusion as best I could.

Travis Lux, the reporter, first approached me about doing a story on Project Coyote back in 2015. He was just starting his career in radio and was planning to pitch the piece as a freelancer. Travis landed a job in Texas, continued to follow the blog but had otherwise been out of touch until he heard about the AudioMoth deployments, by which time he had returned to Louisiana. When he reached out to me in February, I think we both assumed that the focus of the story would be on the current effort. Apparently, the interest was there for a longer piece.

Listening to it was weird. I think it was the first time I’ve heard Frank’s voice since he died, at least in more than a very brief snippet. That jarring moment aside, four year seems like a lifetime. My thinking about the ivorybill and many of my perspectives have evolved since 2015. Today, I’d be a lot less excited about the bark scaling that’s a focus in the first part of the story than I was then. I’ve refined my scaling hypothesis considerably due to things I learned that year and later. I’ve also gotten more jaded, so I don’t think I’d be quite as overflowing with optimism.

The experience was a little like watching a movie based on a beloved book. The story wasn’t told in quite the way I would have liked; topics that seem important to me were glossed over; but I don’t see it through the eyes of an outsider. Taking that perspective as best I can, I think it was a well-constructed and illuminating piece. I hope you enjoy it too.

Here’s a gallery of photos from the recent trip.


Trip Report: February 2019, Multiple Units Deployed

Since we’re now involved in a formal scientific study, I will refrain from posting about possible encounters until the end of the season. Similarly, we will refrain from using attraction methods (playbacks, kent-imitations, ADKs) while the study is ongoing. We will have a steady presence in the area but will endeavor to tread lightly.

The work on deploying the AudioMoth units began on the evening of Thursday, February 7, with an instructional session led by Tessa Rhinehart of the Kitzes Lab. In the course of this session, we decided on protocols for the deployment period to insure that there’s no confusion about the data collected.

The next morning was training day. We set out to do our first round of deployments, with rotating groups of two learning the process. I was a little unnerved when it took us most of the day to hit eight deployment points. Fortunately, the pace picked up considerably over the course of the week.

On Saturday we broke up into teams of two. A journalist joined Steve Latta and me to observe and record the deployment process. This is someone who had interviewed Frank and me and spent time in the field with us a few years ago. News of the ARU deployment renewed his interest in the story, and if all goes well his report will be airing soon. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Tessa Rhinehart – for her clear instructions, for wrangling us all, for braving the challenging conditions. Thanks also to Steve Latta, Matt Courtman, Mike Weeks, Tommy Michot, Phil Vanbergen, and Patricia Johnson for all their efforts. We covered a lot of ground and worked hard to get the job done by mid-day Wednesday. Deployments are effectively completed for the season, with units to be swapped out for review. We have opted not to spread the recording units as thinly as we had originally planned.

I had one especially interesting find, a form of foraging sign I have only seen once before, in a cluster in 2015. It’s unusual, distinctive, and though it’s somewhat outside the category I’ve suggested may be diagnostic, I think it’s likely ivorybill work and have some hope we’ll be able to resolve that question once and for all.

I found a sweet gum limb standing, embedded in the ground. It had fallen recently, as dead leaves and balls were attached; the bark was very tight; and the wood was hard, showing no signs of rot. I found a small cluster of similar work in 2015 (scroll down in both linked posts), but this type of of feeding sign is extremely unusual for the area, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

In 2015, I was able to identify an invasive ambrosia beetle (a tiny Scolytid) as the source of the infestation. Sweet gum is one of the main host species, and infestation, which can kill limbs and saplings but not larger trees, has become increasingly common

The chunks of bark on the ground included the largest ones I’ve ever seen from a sweet gum, the one Steve is holding below, in particular. We have documented Pileateds removing bark from sweet gums, but never in pieces approaching this size or as extensively when bark is thick and tight. While this type of work is somewhat different from what I’ve hypothesized may be diagnostic for ivorybill, I suspect that IBWO is responsible for it. We’re hoping to be able to test the samples Steve collected for DNA, so stay tuned for that.

The only close-up of ivorybill excavation is in Tanner’s dissertation, showing some small holes in a hackberry. I see a similarity between that work and some of these digs.

Ivorybill excavation in a sugar berry, from Tanner’s dissertation. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

I found one especially intriguing older cavity in a sweet gum snag this trip. The shape is unusual; it seems to be an expanded knothole. The same appears to have been true of the 1935 nest cavity. The fact that this cavity is surrounded by a scaled area makes it especially interesting, though it may well be disused.

Unusual cavity in sweet gum, with scaling.

Brief Update on Another Area

Before meeting up with the team on February 7th, I spent the morning of the 6th in the vicinity of the Saucier sighting. It seemed a fitting way to remember Frank, a year and a day after his passing. As has been the case in a number of prior visits, large cavities and bark scaling are easy to find, though the scaling was not as suggestive as the best examples from our main search area.

I’m planning another post related to trail cam deployments before long.

An Exciting New Search Strategy and Two Newly Noted Calls from March 2017

Exciting news on the search front, and we’re indebted to Matt Courtman for making this happen. It is a dream come true for me, and I hope it will represent a major breakthrough in the search effort.

This post is going live on the second anniversary of Frank Wiley’s passing. I imagine that he would be as thrilled as I am about this new development.

 Matt recently reached out to the National Aviary, which is collaborating with the Kitzes Lab at the University of Pittsburgh on a variety of acoustic monitoring studies. As a result of Matt’s efforts, Pitt and the Aviary will be supplying us with 200 remote recording units, as well as technical support and processing of the data collected.

The technology has advanced considerably since the organized ivorybill searches in the early 2000s.

We plan to start deploying the units toward the end of the week, with the hope that we’ll be able to home in on potential nest/roost sites in our primary search area. Barring that, we hope the data collected will at minimum provide insight into the movements of putative ivorybills in the area. In addition, we’ll be deploying units in a number of other Louisiana locations.

In other acoustical news, Guy Luneau, whose acute hearing and outstanding ear-birding ability continue to impress, listened to the compilation clip discussed in the previous post and heard something that, to the best of my knowledge, everyone had missed. I know I had.

There are two calls toward the end of that clip (at around 2:25) that sound very similar to the “wonka-wonkas” or “wonks” (as Guy calls them to make it clear the sounds are single syllables) calls from the ’35 recordings. They’re soft, the first softer than the second, but they can be heard on headphones and both show up on the sonogram, the first very faintly. They occur approximately 3 seconds into this 16 second clip.

Several kent-like calls and two lower-pitched notes suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker

I’ve extracted a relevant segment and created a sonogram using Sonic Visualizer. I have also included a bit of a sonogram from the Singer Tract showing both kents and wonka-wonkas. (The relevant segments can be found at 0:57 and 3:14 on the Allen and Kellogg recordings.) Note the smaller harmonic interval (distance between each horizontal line) in the wonkas as compared to the kents. Also note that the wonkas frequently came in pairs, with the first note considerably shorter than the second.

The two calls are at the left of the screen cap. The similar harmonic structure suggests to me that the source is the same creature. I think it also tends to further support the suggestion that these calls were made by ivorybills and tends to exclude other species.

Spectrogram showing two lower-pitched calls suggestive of the Singer Tract “wonka-wonka” calls at far left. Kent-like calls are visible farther to the right.
Sonogram of a segment from 1935 showing wonka-wonka calls on the left and kents on the right.

Brief Update and A March 2017 Compilation

Compilation of Calls and Knocks from Matt’s March 2017 Recording

I had reason to listen to this clip yesterday and realized that I’ve not previously posted it. It includes amplified selections, greatest hits, from the March 2017 recordings – numerous calls and some knocks, including several in apparent response to Matt’s banging with wooden blocks. At this point, I’m not even sure who made it, probably Steve Pagans. In any case, it’s worth a listen, especially if you haven’t heard the recordings before. Headphones aren’t a must, but they’ll help.

The calls are not a perfect match for the known ivorybill sounds recorded in the Singer Tract, but they are similar in many ways. They are also consistent with historical descriptions of ivorybill calls. They do not seem to match any known North American animal. The fact that the suggestive calls and knocks occurred during the same event lends further weight to the idea that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are the source of the sounds (which seemed to come from more than one source).

Similar sounds are heard rarely in the area, and we have recorded some. The events of mid-March were unique, however, in that the calls were heard in the same location on multiple days, and on the morning of March 15, they continued for hours and numbered in the hundreds. Since that time Matt recorded three calls in April 2018 and Guy, Jay, and I heard similar sounds on New Year’s Day this year.

We are gearing up for a more intensive search effort as the season heads toward its peak. More about that in upcoming reports, so stay tuned.

Yamp-Yamp-Yamp: Trip Report, 12/28/18-1/4/19 (Approximately)

This trip had its ups and downs, including a couple of possible encounters on New Year’s day (discussed below). Weather and accompanying high water posed major problems. Flooding was unprecedented in my experience, and much of the core search area was inaccessible. With three inches of rain predicted for my last two field days, I cut my stay short and went to New Orleans to avoid possible flooding, catch up on some work, and for a little R&R (and chaos).

There were also technical problems – trouble navigating a new camera and my recording device (a replacement for one lost in the field last trip). I’ve included a few of my own photos, though they are not up to my usual standard for posting. The vast majority are courtesy of Erik Hendrickson.

I was in the field from December 29-January 1, as was Jay Tischendorf. Erik arrived the day before and remained until January 4. We were joined by our newest team members – MW, Louisiana-based photographer, who has been doing great work surveying the area and surroundings, developing a more comprehensive picture than I have been able to manage, and Guy Luneau, who arrived on December 31 and was making his first visit to the search area. Guy is a very accomplished birder with great hearing and a deep knowledge of bird calls, especially those of the southeastern US.

It was unnerving to discover that some upland areas have been marked for logging, down to the very edge of the core search area, and within perhaps fifty yards of the location where the March 2017 recordings were made.

Border of upland area marked for logging
27″ DBH pine marked for cutting.

High water was a major obstacle. On New Year’s day, Guy and I wore chest waders, but it became apparent, within about 20 yards after leaving the uplands, that water would be over our heads in some of the sloughs. I’ve never seen conditions like this in the area. Click on an image in the gallery to see them the full-size photos.

On Saturday, December 29, Jay, Erik, MW and I tried to reach the northern group of trail cams. After entering the bottoms, crossing on the log shown above, we were able to reach the northernmost of the cameras but were unable to go more than about 100 yards beyond it. I’ve reviewed the card; there was no new woodpecker activity and a couple of very brief squirrel visits to the scaled patches. There was no observable change to those surfaces.

On the 30th, seeking higher, dryer ground, we visited an upland area in the floodplain of a small stream. This is a patch I’ve wanted to explore for some time, since our logging history map shows an entry date of 1910. As is the case in areas where pine has been cut, stumps from the pre-chainsaw era were scattered around. The forest is not terribly impressive, probably due to soil conditions. There were few dead and dying hardwoods, but we saw several patches of recently dead and debarked pines.

MW departed and Guy Luneau joined us on the morning of New Year’s Eve. We tried an alternate route to the unserviced northern cams. This required a much longer traverse of upland areas, including a large parcel marked for cutting (the blue tagging on the trees shown above is one boundary of the area to be logged). Unlike the other plot, where the larger trees are being taken, this appeared to be more of a thinning operation. It is still unnerving, and there seems to have been an uptick in logging operations in areas that I believed to be protected.

When we got to the bottomland, near the location of the March 2017 recordings, we found it completely flooded and were unable to enter, let alone get anywhere near the cameras. Although we’ve been careful to deploy cameras near head height whenever possible, I suspect that we’ve lost several, possibly as many as 6 of our 8 functioning units, to the flooding. Team members will be returning to check on the cameras within the next couple of weeks.

All the excitement took place on New Year’s Day. There had been a little break in the rain, and we hoped to reach the southern cluster of trail cameras. It soon became clear that this would be impossible. In the southern area, the bottom is considerably wider than where the other cameras are deployed. Here too, water reached the edge of the uplands, and the first slough, which can usually be crossed in ankle-high boots, was completely out of its banks, with water crotch deep approximately 20 yards from where the edge should have been. We messed around on the edges of the bottoms for a while, but found no entry points. At a little after ten, we decided to do a double knock series.

As was the case for most of the trip, woodpecker activity was lower than normal, and double knocks were less productive of responses from other species than is usually the case. As a result, I did a fairly aggressive series over a five minute period. About 15 minutes after I finished, Erik and I, who were standing and positioned somewhat closer to the sound, heard a distinct single knock – clearly a blow to a woody substrate and not an industrial sound or gunshot – at an estimated distance of 300 yards. (I said 300 yards or more; Erik said 300.) The sound was isolated and not associated with foraging knocks or other woodpecker drums. Unfortunately, I thought my recorder was running at the time, but such was not the case.

Stymied at this location, we returned to our vehicles to see if we might be able to reach the bottoms by a different route. We were able to do so, and to walk along a higher stream bank, penetrating a mile or so into the core habitat before an uncrossable slough blocked our progress. At around 1:30 pm, we were walking downstream on the bank, when Guy stopped us, having heard some interesting calls. Jay heard them next, a little less well. I was the last in our party to hear them, and they were at the very edge of my hearing.

We attempted some Blue Jay playbacks and also some playbacks of the March 2017 recordings (using an iPhone without external speaker). Neither produced a response. And we noted no Blue Jays calling at the time.

In the discussion that followed, it became clear that two sources were involved. Guy said that, while they did not sound like the Singer Tract kents, they were somewhat similar to the calls we recorded in March 2017 and were unlike any Blue Jay he had ever heard. Jay agreed that they did not sound like a Blue Jay. I thought I noted what I describe as a creaky quality that I associate with Blue Jays, but I heard the calls least well, can’t be sure, and trust Guy’s ear more than my own. Regardless, the descriptions of the calls are what I find most interesting.

On the spot, Jay gave “Yamp-Yamp-Yamp” as a transliteration of the sounds. This transliteration appears in the literature and is rather obscure. While it is mentioned by Steinberg, Jay was unaware of that reference or its source, George Lowery, who used it in his Louisiana Birds, now out-of-print.

More on “Yamp” as a transliteration below. Suffice it to say that the variability among transliterations and descriptions of ivorybill sounds, including but not limited to “kent” and “yamp”, is indicative of a considerably broader range in pitch and duration than the Singer Tract recordings and the strict parameters used by Cornell in Arkansas would suggest.

Guy, too, used a variant of “yamp” to describe the sounds, as shown in these excerpts from his field notes:

The documentation that I wrote down for myself on what we heard on the afternoon of 1/1/19 was “a whining, nasal, rising yaaAMP, yaaAMP, yaaAMP, yaaAMP.”  I think in my renditions on-the-spot I was verbalizing “waaANK, waaANK,…”.  

Nasal” was my own word, not having remembered (or known) anyone having used the term in days gone by in reference to ivorybill calls. I am curious as to whether any of our forebears have also described a rising inflection in any ivorybill calls. The kents I heard from the Arkansas bird in October 2005 did not have a rising inflection.  They were the sharp single kents and a few double kents (the doubles being HIGH-low) with a tin trumpet quality, distinctly different from what we heard on 1/1/19.

I have never heard before in my life what we heard on that afternoon.  There were no archival matches.  I think you could probably tell by my expression and reaction that I was stumped in North America for the first time in a very very long time. A couple decades, I’d say.

I’m aware of a reference to Lester Short using “yamp” in discussions about the Cuban ivorybill, but as far as I know, the published references all come from Lowery’s Singer Tract observations. Interestingly, Frank used it too, in our first email exchange.

Here are several descriptions from Lowery:

    “The birds were feeding energetically on dead stumps and low trees, and were calling frequently with their peculiar, nasal, rather high-pitched yaamp-yaamp until finally disturbed, after which they retreated to the taller timber and were lost from sight.”

 John S. Campbell, J. J. Kuhn, George H. Lowery Sr., George H. Lowery, Jr., “Bird-Lore’s thirty-fourth Christmas census (Tallulah, La.).” Bird-Lore 36 (1934): 55. 

Through the woods came the loud clear, high-pitched, “yaamp-yaamp,” unmistakably the call notes of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Its notes are clear and distinct, and yet rather plaintive. They may be heard at a considerable distance, perhaps a half mile, and have been likened to the false high notes of a clarinet or a ten-penny horn. From my experience I would not say that the notes are repeated any definite number of times in succession. As mentioned before, the notes can be described as a monosyllabic “yaamp-yaamp” with a decided nasal twang.

George Lowery, Jr., “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana.” The Proceedings of the Louisiana Academy of Sciences 2, (1935): 84-86.

. . . our ears strained for only one sound – the high-pitched, nasal yamp, yamp, or as some people interpret it, kent, kent of an ivorybill.

(3) a high-pitched nasal call note that may be described as yamp, yamp, yamp instead of a flicker like, deep voiced, cuck, cuck, cuck.

George Lowery, Jr., Louisiana Birds (1955), 415-419.

I don’t think Frank had read Steinberg when he wrote this in fall 2008, and I’m almost certain he was unfamiliar with Lowery’s book, which was long out of print by then. Frank was a musician and had an excellent ear.

Odd you should mention “yank”…Sounded more like “yamp” to me…very first sighting in 93-94 bird made noise like that twice. When told that to ******** LA Natural Heritage Foundation, he said not IBWO and bye now….Have heard similar sounds in HZ…Have some recorded…Will not make you listen unless you ask;-)…

Frank Wiley, October 2008.

I don’t recall what became of those recordings but it’s intriguing that this little-known transliteration has been used more than once to describe sounds heard in Louisiana.

I’ve heard many stories like Frank’s. He was remained annoyed by his treatment over the “93-’94” bird and talked about it often. The incident illustrates how easy it is for local reports to die in desk drawers and how only a limited number of them reach those who keep track of such things. Several years after Frank sent that email, we met the official; he had no memory of the incident.

It’s always encouraging to have possible auditory contacts, which are infrequent but which often seem to come in clusters. Nevertheless, I’ve become somewhat jaded and tend to minimize their importance. Guy and Jay (for whom it was the first possible encounter) were a lot more excited than I, but for my part, I can safely say that I always enter the habitat with some hope but very low expectations. Every possible encounter is a surprise.

Finally, here are some of Erik’s pictures from the trip, and three of mine, including his first Red-cockaded Woodpecker captures.

Season’s Greetings and Singer Tract Conditions Revisited

Wishing everyone happy holidays and the best for 2019. While the blog has been quiet for a couple of months, the effort continues. A number of items are in the works, and I hope to have news about them in the coming months. And of course, I hope to be able to report on new encounters and new data. My long promised discussion of evidence and the standards applied to the ivorybill is still very much on my mind, but I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to tackle it here; the subject is complicated.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d repost the final section of a trip report posted in late winter 2016, for the benefit of new readers and those who might have missed it then. In retrospect, I buried some very important material at the end of a long post dealing with other matters. I think this content deserves more attention, since it is definitive with regard to conditions in the Singer Tract when Tanner was conducting his study and is more useful in that regard than either Tanner’s statements or Richard Pough’s report, which took issue with some of those statements and perhaps overstated the case in the other direction.

The next morning, I drove to the Wetlands and Aquatic Research Center (formerly the National Wetlands Research Center) in Lafayette and met with Wylie Barrow, Heather Baldwin, Tommy Michot, and Philip and Eric Vanbergen. (Two young enthusiasts who will be helping us out.) Frank joined us briefly, and then Wylie, Tommy, the Vanbergens, and I went out to lunch. It was an exciting and thought-provoking day, and the Research Center is an incredible facility. Wylie and Heather shared their comprehensive and in-depth analysis of conditions in the Singer Tract in Tanner’s day. They’ve amassed an array of materials encompassing land records, Civil War era maps, and stereographic aerial photographs. Their research far surpasses my own speculative effort. It covers the finest details – roads, improved and unimproved, snag densities, tree mortality, conditions around roost and nest sites, as well as conditions in other locations where ivorybills were seen. Tom Foti has done complementary research on hydrology, soils, and vegetation.

Their presentation convinced me that I’ve been too hard on Tanner in some respects. There was a little more old growth in the Singer Tract than I had inferred from the Pough report and some of the historical documents. Nonetheless, the characterization of the Tract as a whole as “virgin” forest is somewhat misleading, since over a quarter of it was second growth, and some of it fairly young. Heather and Wylie have graciously given me permission to summarize some of their findings.

When Tanner began his study, 72% of the Singer Tract was old growth. (Tanner estimated it at over 80%.) Logging in 1938 reduced that percentage to 67%. The ridges, which Tanner deemed to be the best ivorybill habitat, were actually the least likely areas to be old growth. (Tom Foti’s analysis also points to a preference for higher, drier locations.) The regrowth percentages for each landform in Tanner’s day are as follows:

Ridge (43%)

Low ridge (23%)

Total on ridges (32%)

Flat (9%)

Low flat (4%)

Cypress brake (4.5%)

For the most part, the second growth forests were not particularly old, as has been suggested in previous posts. According to Heather, most of these areas only started to regrow in the 1880s and 1890s, “due to consecutive depressions and low cotton prices”. Thus, parts of the Singer Tract were relatively young second growth, and this included one of the ivorybill home ranges and one that Tanner deemed to be “best” – Mack’s Bayou.

The nature of the habitat in the Mack’s Bayou area is immediately apparent from the 1938 aerial photos, which suggest forest conditions that are present in many parts of Louisiana today. Nevertheless, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers nested there in 1934 and 1935, at minimum, and did so successfully at least once. This fact alone refutes the idea that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are old growth dependent. Heather informs me that there was an abundance of dead and dying trees on the eastern side of the Mack’s Bayou range, due to a fire caused by logging activities. In any event, the home range Tanner delineated in this primarily second growth area is no larger than the home range he delineated around John’s Bayou, which had more mature forest. In fact, the area he designated as “best” for ivorybills around Mack’s Bayou was slightly smaller than its older equivalent near John’s Bayou.

Tanner knew that a significant portion of the Mack’s Bayou home range was not old growth, since his 1941 map shows “old fields” in the heart of it. He seems to have been unaware of the resurgence of cotton growing during the 1870s and 1880s, so he may have overestimated the age of the forest on that basis. I can’t help but wonder if he glossed over the conditions in the Mack’s Bayou range in part for the sake of protecting the Singer Tract and (as Heather suggested) in part based on what he deemed to be best for the birds from a conservation standpoint, an approach that later ossified into a categorical set of beliefs about old-growth dependence.

As I and others have been arguing for years, extensive forest cover, sufficient dead and dying wood, and enough large trees for roosting and nesting are probably the main requirements, even if old growth or near-old growth conditions are optimal.


Trip Report: October 17-22, 2018

I’ve gone through some additional cards and have some more data on squirrels from the deployment that had squirrel captures earlier this spring. As with the results for Pileated Woodpeckers foraging on hickories, I think this tends to exclude squirrels as the source of extensive scaling on standing mature boles. That will be the subject of the next post, which should be up within a week. In the interim, here’s the October trip report I’ve been promising.

We had no possible encounters and found little suggestive feeding sign this time around.

I spent the first two days with Matt Courtman (and his brother on the second day) in the vicinity of last November’s Saucier sighting. The first day was rainy enough to depress avian activity but not quite enough to keep us indoors. The ground was wet but mostly not unbearably muddy.


The second day, we found a scaled sugarberry (Celtis laevigata). Tanner called this species hackberry, which is the common name, but it’s not to be confused with the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), which is found farther north. Despite the appearance, the tree was either barely alive or very recently dead, since leaves were still visible on the upper branches.


Sugarberry bark is thin, and it can fracture and break off in large chunks. Pileated Woodpecker is a possibility for this type of scaling, but it is interesting nonetheless, and it strongly resembles ivorybill work on a sugarberry (mislabeled as a “gum”) photographed by Allen and Kellogg in the Singer Tract.




Bark scaling on sugarberry. Hand-colored photo by Arthur A. Allen.Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

There were also horizontal bill marks on the surface of the wood. These were interesting and perhaps suggestive; these superficial scratches are the only horizontal markings on sapwood that I think may be suggestive of ivorybill.


There is so much potential habitat in this area that I’m unsure how to go about searching it, given our small team and limited time and resources.

I spent the balance of my time in our main search area. Tommy Michot and our new team member (I hope to include some of his photographs in a future post) joined me for part of the trip. Because we now have 8 functioning trail cams in the field, much of my time is devoted to servicing the cameras and changing cards.

On the last day, Matt, Lauren (his wife), and I explored a very narrow corridor of near old-growth forest that stretches for several miles to the east of the main search area. We also spoke to someone who had ivorybill sightings, though not recent ones, in the area discussed in this post.

We found more fresh beaver sign than I’m used to. The tree shown is an ash, uncommon in our search area.


It was a very snaky trip. I had a few near misses with cottonmouths. A coral snake was a major highlight, spotted and avoided on the road by the new Coyote. I was even able to capture it briefly on video before it buried itself.



We saw turtles too.


And all the rain meant fungi were plentiful (including a meal’s worth of chanterelles, not shown but brought home and enjoyed).


There was plenty of woodpecker activity, though it was sporadic, and there was not much drumming. It’s always tough to get good pictures with leaves on the trees, but this Red-headed Woodpecker was cooperative.


In all my years of searching, I had never found the remains of a Pileated Woodpecker until the trip before this one. It’s a little unnerving for this to happen back to back. I also found Red-shouldered Hawk remains (though not in the same vicinity). I worry that these birds may have been shot, though there’s no evidence for it. The remains, feathers and a few bones, were on top of a log, suggesting that a raccoon was the last creature involved.



One of our trail cams was hit by a falling limb, and was aiming skyward when found. It appears to be functioning and has been re-aimed at the target tree (where there was an intriguing capture in the summer of 2017).


We didn’t find much interesting scaling, although some of the work we found was on oaks, which is rare.




I don’t know the tree species, and Pileated Woodpecker is a possible source, but the work below is unusual. Edith Kuhn Whitehead once told Frank that cambium shredding, possibly like that shown, is suggestive of ivorybill; however, I only heard this second-hand and am not clear about what she meant.


The sunrise on my last field day was spectacular.


Stay tuned for squirrels . . .


Trail Cam Captures Redux: Beyond (My) Reasonable Doubt

I’m making another departure from my posting schedule for reasons that I hope will be self-evident. This is the strongest statement of my views I’ve made to date; I’m calling it as I see it based on this new way of looking at the photographs.  As always, click on the images for better viewing.

A Louisiana photographer (and new Project Coyote member) who has been following our efforts, reached out to me in response to the recent trail cam capture and alerted me to a feature in Photoshop. This feature makes it possible to stack two images and subtract the identical pixels, leaving the differences between the two images visible in the new composite.

I understand that this is sometimes referred to as subtracting and sometimes as ghosting. Given my limited knowledge and skill set when it comes to image processing, this was a revelation. The method is described between minutes 1 and 2 of this YouTube video. (The rest of the segment pertains to image stacking for landscape photography and is not relevant to this discussion.)

He sent me three examples – the recent capture, the neckbird, and a pair of photographs showing what Frank Wiley had identified as a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight. I didn’t get any new insights from the last of these; the results for the most recent capture were interesting and possibly significant; the neckbird was a revelation, eliminating any lingering misgivings I had about the image and convincing me (at least) beyond a reasonable doubt that it shows an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Bear in mind that the images discussed below are among a handful of captures (out of well over a million images obtained since 2009) that we’ve found to be suggestive or better. (At the 20 second interval used on our current cameras, a single month’s 12 hour-a-day deployment will produce over 60,000 images; the Reconyx cams had a 30 second interval, but that’s still over 40,000 per camera per month.)  So it’s not as if we’re finding possible ivorybills everywhere, let alone frequently.

I recently started using a different, ostensibly more user-friendly, image-processing program, Luminar, and I found that it has the same capacity. I tried it on the other oft-discussed trail cam capture with the same revelatory result, although in that case, I did not have access to both unprocessed originals and had to use one cropped image and another that had been cropped and lightly processed for brightness and contrast. I don’t think this impacted the results. I used Luminar to process all the images discussed below.

Immediately below is the original “Neckbird” capture and an enhanced crop, followed by the processed image, showing the difference between this frame and the one before it. Next is a detail, showing the ‘ghost’ outlines of the image that appeared in the original. (Note that a second bird may be present in the form of a bill protruding from the lower cavity in the snag at right, as discussed in this post.)








For me, the most startling result is that the bird looks even more serpentine and elongated in this iteration. This is mostly because the lower third of the body (apparently including part of the tail) is better resolved and distinguishable from surrounding objects. What I had thought was a patch of white near the base of the bird, just above the lower diagonal branch, turns out to have been a leaf. I think this longer, leaner profile is inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker and consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and not just because of the neck, the feature that was most suggestive to many who viewed the original capture. I’ve seen a lot of Pileateds and have looked at countless images online, and nothing about this better-resolved silhouette suggests Pileated. The remnant clips from the 1935 Ivory-billed Woodpecker film may be illuminating in terms of neck and body shape.

The silhouette in the November 30, 2009 capture, which was the first suggestive image we made public, is not as compelling as the one in the image shown above, but the capture shows three apparent ivorybill field marks – a black crest, white on the lower part of the bird, and a large, light-colored bill. In this case, the processing provides additional information about these apparent field marks. The bird also appears to be larger than a Pileated Woodpecker. The basics of all these issues are addressed in Frank’s original discussion of this capture.

To reiterate, I am not in possession of the original frame that follows the capture. It was probably lost after Frank’s passing, so I used two crops for the first composite, one showing the suspected ivorybill and the other, the subsequent frame. The crop of the empty frame was otherwise unaltered, but the one with the bird had the brightness and contrast adjusted. The output differed slightly between the “difference” version and the “subtraction” version, something I did not observe when working with unprocessed images. The difference, however, appears to be limited to background features and not the bird.

Remember that this capture was obtained from a spot where I’d had a sighting of a large woodpecker with a lot of white on the wings on the 25th . Both Frank and I heard the wingbeats, which were loud and distinctive. This was a rare instance in which a bird appeared to have been brought in by a double knock series. We’d also had an auditory encounter about 300 yards away on the morning of the 24th, while staking out the cavities in the willows shown above.

The first image shown below is the original capture with the red box around the bird. The crops appear as a pair of images. The first shows the bird, and the second is the subsequent frame with the bird absent. Those are followed by the difference and subtraction composites. More discussion after the images.






As I read this imagery, I think it suggests that the apparent white saddle is part of the bird, not light leaking through or an intervening object; indeed, the intervening branch is revealed in the ghosted images, with the body of the bird still visible behind it. That said, this may be the most ambiguous aspect. The treatment also highlights the presence of the crest and shows it is part of the bird; there is no red in the original; if any red were present, it should be at least faintly visible at this range and under these conditions. This interpretation is based both on the color in the background and on a Pileated captured perhaps six feet farther from the camera during this deployment (in an overexposed image included in Frank’s original analysis).

Most important of all is the fact that both the difference and subtracted versions confirm that the apparent very large bill (which appears to be light-colored in the original picture) is indeed a bill and not some other object. Even allowing for some motion blur, the bill is disproportionately large and therefore inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker. Indeed, all discernible features in this photograph are consistent with female Ivory-billed Woodpecker and nothing else. I have always believed this picture showed an ivorybill. Based on these composites, I am now firmly convinced that it does.

I also tried creating a composite combining the capture, which was taken in the late afternoon of November 30, 2009, with another frame taken in late morning on the following day. The results are somewhat less distinct but the same elements are still apparent.


Finally, I tried this approach with the images discussed in the previous post. The results of this effort were somewhat less satisfactory. I assume because the originals are lower resolution and therefore contain fewer pixels. Lighting conditions may also be a factor.

This capture offers a lot less to work with. The Reconyx jpegs are 2048 x 1536 or 3 megapixels, while the Plotwatchers are 1280 x 720 or less than 1 megapixel.

I was unable to find additional specifications for the Reconyx cams, but the folks at Day 6 Outdoors were kind enough to provide them for the Plotwatcher. Per Day 6, the sensor is .25″ (which is smaller than most cell phone cameras); the focal length is 3.5 mm (which I think translates to the equivalent of an ~20 mm lens on a full frame or 35 mm film camera); and the aperture is f/2.6 (apparently the equivalent of ~f/16).

Nevertheless, I experimented with using both the original captures and versions enlarged using Topaz A.I. Gigapixel. I applied the same process to the squirrel capture from a few weeks earlier, which was taken under better lighting conditions. The relevant images and discussion are below, starting with an enhanced version of the original capture with an arrow pointing to the object of interest. Remember that the silhouette that resembles the head and neck of a woodpecker is background vegetation. The object of interest is the small bit of black and white below it.


As mentioned, I’m less confident about interpreting the results for this image, since so much less detail can be gleaned. Unlike the other captures, the subtraction or ghosting does not reveal a clear outline, and aspects of the object which are distinct when moving from frame to frame are obscured in this treatment. Also note the near absence of difference between the preceding and following frames.

In the enhanced iteration, a little more of the outline of the putative IBWO may be visible. I suspect that the reason the white saddle does not appear uniform in this one is due to pixels and that the dark patch below the bright white band is consistent between images because the foreground and background pixels match, not because they’re the same. This explains why the bottom part of the saddle, where the wings meet, is also white. In other words, these are the places where the object was in front of darker pixels. That’s my guess based on shifting back and forth between the relevant frame and the ones before and after. In addition, the white dots above the “saddle” may represent dorsal stripes.

Things change slightly when using imagery from different days. I’m only using the enhanced versions here, but they again strongly suggest that the white saddle is part of the object, not the background. The second frame is the one that follows the squirrel capture discussed below.


The squirrel capture may provide some additional insights into the process’s limitations with lower resolution images. The squirrel, which is clearly visible in the original image, shows up as a narrow strip that’s easily missed if you don’t know it’s there. The second version is a composite using images processed through Gigapixel A.I.



Weather and lighting conditions differed considerably between the two days in question. The camera was pointed in an approximately easterly direction, probably more ENE or NNE; lighting conditions may account for the fact that this image is a little lighter and some small differences are more apparent from this pair of captures. The weather at the nearest station at the time of the squirrel capture was fair with little to no wind; whereas the weather for the putative ivorybill capture, which was taken in the afternoon, was intermittently stormy with winds probably around 10 mph. Under stormy conditions with foliage moving in the wind, there should be more variation between images, not less, so available light seems a likely factor perhaps in combination with number of pixels.

Thus, I’m not sure how much this process adds when it comes to interpreting the most recent capture and how useful it might be with others from Plotwatcher trail cams. (The two older images were taken with a color Reconyx.) But I hope that the cameras are now deployed in such a way that enhancement and differentiating won’t be necessary.

While the approach does not reveal much when it comes to the new image, I think it is dispositive with regard to the old ones. Of course, I make no claims to expertise in forensic image analysis or the technical aspects of image processing, so I am open to being corrected if any aspects of my analysis are flawed.

Like most searchers, I have tended to focus on whether the evidence is sufficient and have seldom thought about what obtaining conclusive documentation might imply. If the two images from the old search area are ivorybills, a number of questions emerge. So let’s assume (or assume arguendo if you are unpersuaded) that these images indeed show Ivory-billed Woodpeckers:

As an initial observation, if I am right about the two captures, I think it becomes overwhelmingly likely that the apparent bill protruding from the cavity in the background of the neckbird image  also belongs to an ivorybill, so it seems probable that least two birds were present in the area in 2009-2010. This is consistent with what six of us heard during an auditory encounter in January 2010. One of Frank’s sightings involved three birds. (He was accompanied by the landowners’ teenaged grandsons at the time.) This sighting suggests that breeding might have taken place in the area.

The habitat in the immediate vicinity of the camera trap deployments is not what has been thought of as having much potential; the quality is even lower than I realized at the time. I knew a lot less about forest ecology and conditions in 2009, and while I certainly recognized the habitat as not “optimal” back then, I think I overestimated and perhaps romanticized the overall quality.

Both captures come from within 50 yards of a bean field. The woods in the immediate vicinity did have a number of large trees, and there are good sized cypresses in the area, but the parcel and the neighboring ones (including the one that was clearcut) are not particularly old. Back then someone indicated they’d been cut in the early 1960s.

The site of the earlier trail cam pic and our November auditory encounter is .6 miles from a large parcel of state land that has some very mature forest and inaccessible areas. (The location of my November sighting and the second trail cam capture is approximately 300 yards farther east, away from the public land.) Several other large parcels of public land are within a few miles of the area, so it’s not exactly a suburban backyard. Nevertheless, it’s a far cry from the Singer Tract or our current search area for that matter.

It seems to me that if one accepts that a pair of ivorybills was present in this location in 2009, there’s no basis for doubting the landowner’s claim that birds had been present and using the area for a decade or so. It also supports the idea that audio obtained there included ivorybill kents and double knocks, which tends to validate audio captured elsewhere – Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and our current search area.

How does/would the confirmation of ivorybill survival, especially in such ostensibly low quality habitat, impact the assessment of other reports?

Why is that ivorybills are being reported in so many different places over the last two decades? Is it just more publicity, or is something else going on?

Why aren’t there more reports from the public and from experienced birders?

Why are they so hard to document?  Even if you read the Project Coyote trail cam captures in the most liberal possible way, there are no more than a handful of images that I think of as likely, out of well over 1,000,000.

Where does one look for them, especially if they are using habitat always thought of as unsuitable?

What is suitable habitat?

What kind of population is out there and how has it sustained itself for so long?

I’m sure there are more, and I don’t have good answers for most. I think the technical limitations of trail cams, scarcity, and wariness (even run-of-the-mill or somewhat overdeveloped wariness) are probably adequate to explain many of the documentation issues but perhaps not the relative paucity of sightings.

I hope to return to my planned posting schedule with the post on range in a week or two and the one on evidence a couple of weeks after that; however, I’ve been looking at composites created from the Reconyx images discussed here. I think the results illuminating with respect to size. This post is already long, so rather than include them here, I will likely do a follow-up examining those images before turning to more general ivorybill-related topics.


A Tantalizing Trail Cam Capture

Best laid plans . . . I’m pushing back the posts on historic range and evidence but hope to get to them soon.

In going through some of the remaining unexamined images from past trail cam deployments, Geoffrey McMullan came across an intriguing image. He sent me the file for the entire day without indicating where the image was located or what interested him about it. Reviewing cards is challenging; it’s tedious, while demanding focus and attention to very subtle changes. It can be easy to overlook hits of any kind. Nevertheless, this particular frame leapt out at me immediately, even though the object involved is indistinct and is only present in a single frame (more on that later).

I’ll begin by sharing and discussing the image, before and after stills, a time lapse video, and some additional captures comparing other animals with what’s shown in the frame. I’ll follow that with some of the discussion that has taken place among the active searchers in our group and some of the biologists who are advising us. Matt Courtman suggested that everyone on our email list give three reasons they like the image for ivorybill and three counterarguments. Not everyone followed the suggested format, but I’ll draw on those emails as well. I’m hoping this will give you some insights into our process and also give you some additional ways of looking at the image, which I believe to be a picture an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, even as I recognize that it isn’t nearly good enough to stand as proof.

I’ve done my best to present this material in a clear and careful manner. This is not an image that lends itself to immediate, easy interpretation, as some of the discussion reveals. At the same time, a lot can be gleaned from a close, careful look at the raw image, and the preceding and following frames. The various enhancements and comparison captures provide additional context.

A further caveat: I write this blog to maintain a log of our efforts and to share our results with readers on an ongoing basis, in an honest and transparent manner. As with any scientific endeavor, our search is in a constant state of flux. Everything is subject to change and reappraisal based on the evidence. We offer this image with that as background. Most of us believe subjectively that we have found an area that is used by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, at least periodically. We all recognize that we do not have enough objective “proof” to “convince” third-parties that this is so. The subject image, so far, is just an intriguing part of the mosaic. It’s up to you to decide whether it moves the needle toward “proof” in your mind.

The image was captured on July 12, 2017. The target tree is a hickory that lost its top in a storm in March of that year. And we’ve had a camera aimed at it ever since. This is in area where we’ve found extensive scaling on hickories over the years and where we’ve had a number of auditory encounters. It is within the same contiguous forested area, several miles from the site of the March 2017 recordings. While squirrels are frequently captured on the target stub, there have been few woodpecker hits, and there was no obvious foraging sign on the trunk when I last visited in June.

Perhaps the most informative way to view the image is to step through the time lapse video frame by frame and compare the before, during, and after images. (You may have to download the clip to do this.) This will help clarify what’s object and what’s background. If you’re having trouble downloading the clip (and associated comparison clip), contact me, and I will share the files via Dropbox. I encourage you to click on the individual still frames to see larger, zoomable versions.

Here are two versions the relevant capture, one in its original, unprocessed form and another with a Luminar vividness filter applied, sandwiched between unprocessed captures from 20 seconds before and 20 seconds after. The arrow is pointed at the object of interest.













Here’s the time lapse video clip.




Here is a version of the still, resized using Topaz A.I. Gigapixel, an automated, artificial intelligence-based, image enhancement program. Following that are two enhancements, and a detail therefrom, made using another processor, Let’s Enhance. Both of these programs are automated, so except for selecting enlargement percentage and general processing parameters, I had no influence on the resulting images. Note that the prominent silhouette, which suggests a woodpecker’s head and neck, is blurred, background foliage, not part of the object. Assuming that the object itself is an ivorybill, I think the capture suggests the bird is angled slightly away from the camera, with head and neck inclined to the right.




Edited to add: A significant number of readers have misinterpreted the image, despite my explanation. To reiterate, the somewhat woodpecker head and neck-ish silhouette is background vegetation. The object’s head and neck are not visible. This detail, scaled up as much as possible, should be helpful, despite the loss of resolution.

Detail of Enhanced Detail 7:12:17_output (1)


Next are a squirrel and a presumed Red-bellied Woodpecker (9-11″ including head and tail) captured on a different day. They are included for scale. Both are a little lower on the trunk and are therefore closer to the camera. The captures are followed by a 50-frame Quicktime clip showing both the smaller woodpecker (suspected RBWO) and some squirrel activity. The comparison suggests that the object, which appears to be perched in typical woodpecker fashion, is too big to be a Red-headed Woodpecker (8.3-9.8″ including head and tail) and is slightly larger and more substantial than the head and body of an Eastern gray squirrel (9.1-12″). No tail, head, or neck is discernible, so the size of the object is in the appropriate range for an ivorybill body. (Total length is given as 19-21″ with tail at 5.5-6.7″ and bill at 2.3-2.9″) More discussion, including my responses (in italics) to some questions and comments (in bold and italics), is below.





An ornithologist wrote:

. . . I have tried every possible way to call that something other than ibwo but I can’t make it into anything else. The general impression of size and shape and even posture / body position relative to the tree is spot on.

And then in response to my explanation about the foliage that had caused some confusion:

I was seeing body only, folded wings white patch.

Early on, I had the following exchange with another biologist and ivorybill researcher:

Interesting. First, as I said before, I am no expert on trail cam photos like these. It looks like a black and white object for sure, with white on the bottom, but to my eye it is not possible to determine what kind of object it is. For sure, a bird would make a lot of sense. And if it is a bird, given the location, and pose on the trunk, a woodpecker would make a lot of sense. I am not sure if I see white at the top of the object as well?

How big is the tree that the object is sitting on, and is that scaling on the other side of the tree or remnants from when a branch that broke off? Have you seen bark scaling in that neighborhood?

I replied:

I’m pretty sure that it’s a bird and therefore a woodpecker. 

I think I see a white saddle and possibly a dorsal stripe. I also think it is too big to be a Red-headed, based on the squirrel and on a smaller woodpecker that’s on the trunk in another frame from another day; I’ll have to find that image.

The tree is a large hickory stub. What looks like scaling is where bark came off when the top fell. It is in an area that has had a good concentration of hickory scaling over the years.

If you have software that enables you to step through it frame by frame, the movie clip can be very informative. Flip Player is an easy one to use.

The response:

Thanks. I just looked at the entire series step by step with Quicktime and it is very intriguing. One question: could some of the white (or all of it) actually be sky in the background? The other frames show sky in the same location. I am not saying that it is, just trying to rule out possibilities.

My answer (another person raised a similar question):

I don’t think so. To my eyes, it’s pretty clear that the white is on an intervening object. I think the white on the object actually covers some of the dark area (as well as the lighter patch) behind it in the preceding and following frames.

And the conclusion:

Good. It is a very intriguing picture.

There was also this exchange with a consulting biologist:

Thanks Mark, well at least I see something here that should be encouraging to all.
Still, I’ve seen reconyx images of what ended up being squirrels that really had me going, where white seemed to be in the “right” places, but then a subsequent image would show a clear squirrel.  Those were black-and-white images and this of course is color, but unfortunately only one image in this series shows something.  
Thanks for sharing as always,

I replied:

If it’s okay with you, I may include a version of the comment in the blog, anonymously of course. 

One quick response, there are lots of captures of squirrels on the stub, but none from that day, based on several runs through the footage. In my experience, it’s extremely rare to see a squirrel in a single frame (20 second intervals) and not in any others. Also, none of the squirrel hits look remotely similar or show black and white coloration. I’ve now viewed several hundred thousand frames from these cameras. 

I can’t prove a negative, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that it’s not a squirrel.

Similarly, and while no one has raised it, I think partially leucistic PIWO can be rejected; I’ve spent a lot of time in the area and have never seen one, and all PIWOs captured on this trail cam and others nearby have been normal.

The rejoinder:

Sure, no problem.  But let me add the following.  

What are the chances of a large woodpecker kind of critter showing up all of sudden in one frame and no sign that it either flew in or left or was in view beyond the one frame 20 seconds or anytime later.  

An alternative could be some other sort of critter ( apparently larger than gray squirrel, perhaps fox squirrel, possibly raccoon) that worked up from the ground up the tree and then went back down out of view of the reconciliation.

As you said can’t be sure this is even a woodpecker or any other bird.

Beyond all that, still “interesting” but how many times…

I had one point of disagreement:

I mostly agree – with one quibble. It’s not unusual for birds to show up in a single frame and no others (the probable RBWO in the other clip, for example); it’s much rarer and (more difficult) for mammals to do so.

My bad for not deploying the camera closer to the target; in my own defense, I’ve only just started to get a handle on how to work with the cams. It was not my department until recently. I was a little concerned about distance with this deployment but not concerned enough . . . some auspicious timing here, since the image turned up while Tommy was servicing the cams.
Going forward, anything larger than a DOWO that turns up on target trees (though not in the background or flying by) should be identifiable.

My correspondent recognized the quibble as a fair point, and it bears repeating that there have been very few woodpecker hits on this tree, probably because it is very recently dead. This exchange also led me to suspect that some of my colleagues were thinking the background foliage was part of the object in question. The discussion ended with this observation:

You are right Mark, I was interpeting the background veg as looking like the neck and head, which really made me wonder why so faded. However, now we have a frame 33 of the Luneau Video situation.

Anyway, thanks for the re-orientation.

Another member of the group also mentioned Luneau, and the similarity is striking, although there’s no accompanying video, and this single capture seems to show more than the Luneau frame.

This exchange with another advisor came soon thereafter, although the initial comments were made based on thinking the foliage artifact was part of the object. My answers came after the clarification, and I’ve deleted the comments that pertain only to the foliage:
Positive impressions –

1) first the obvious, I can’t tell much from the original picture other than it is long and somewhat “thin” relative to more stocky animals. Based on the zoomed in picture, however, it is a live bird; I can see no way it was photo shopped or that it was placed there as a wooden (or otherwise) replicate. I think it is easy to dismiss any attempt at faking it.

Definitely no fakery here 😉

2) The zoomed in image is impressive, it certainly appears to have a white back (which is a slightly different color than the white of the sky next to it) and I see what appears to be two white stripes on the back as well. The comparison of a probable RBWO on the same tree is noteworthy and clearly shows the relative size of the bird in question.

I think the size comparison stands regardless.

Negative concerns –

1) Any of the above positive impressions may be a function of zooming in well beyond the camera’s ability to correctly interpret what’s really there.

Actually, I think that it’s somewhat more compelling unaltered, if you can toggle.

3) The only one frame concern ****** brought up . . . . . . while I don’t think this is a squirrel or mammal of any kind and I’m not at all concerned about this particular series (see below), I am puzzled that the bird in question would not have shown itself on other occasions as well. Are there any pictures of this tree with a PIWO on it? How many pictures (days) do you have images from this camera on this tree? Is the primary foraging area on the other side of the tree? I’m assuming you have several days in not a few weeks worth of pictures on this tree (?)

The camera has been there for over a year, and I’ve gone through countless images. No other suggestive hits. Lots of squirrels. I don’t recall specific PIWO hits on the target tree, although there may have been some, and I’m sure there were at least a few from the deployment. This is one of the targets that has no scaling on it as yet; visits from woodpeckers have been few. As with the RBWO, I suspect birds may be hitting the tree in an exploratory manner at this point and are not staying long.

Just FYI . . . .This is [not far] from where we saw the bird that I ended up thinking was a RHWO and that you weren’t quite so quick to give up on, closer to where I had the long neck and tail silhouette sighting after some ADKs.

An additional note about not concerned about this series and only one frame . . . . .I feel strongly that IBWOs are incredibly wary, much more than we have been assuming them to be. And as any resident bird, it knows its territory very well and that anything “new” or different in that territory could spook it. I hunt as you know, and can vouch that turkeys and waterfowl are often that way . . .one thing out of place from the normal and they leave . . . 

With that said, I wouldn’t be surprised, if this is an extremely wary IBW, that it knew something was not quite the same in the area and stayed on the far side of the tree on purpose  . . .  Even as I type it and re-read it, it sounds a little crazy but since I know about that level of wariness in other species I take it seriously. I know the discussions about wariness and “Tanner’s birds” etc but not sure birds now would act the same way as birds 60 – 80 years ago. If they are that wary, then that also has implications to where the camera is moved. It has to be close enough for a good picture but far hidden well enough to not spook the bird. (If you talk to Tommy or others about new deployment of the camera, my thoughts about how the wariness of this bird is pretty well known and doesn’t have to be anonymous).

I’ve wondered about this myself, and it seems like a pitfall when it comes to putting cameras very close to target trees. With time, however, I suspect birds would become habituated. It’s always a trade-off with these cams, and unfortunately, they have to be placed quite close to the targets.

Thanks for keeping me in the loop Mark – all in all, this has the most “real” field marks and most potential of anything I’ve seen.

I really do think it’s an IBWO . . . it’s at least more cause for optimism and grounds for staying with the trail cam strategy. As I’ve said, I think we’re finally in a position to do it right.

Here’s the response:

Thanks for more clarification Mark – yes I did toggle back and forth, now that I’m not so worried about what I thought was head, neck and bill, the unaltered is more intriguing.

Good to know its been there a year, I agree that birds will get used to it being there over time. The picture has July 17 2017 along the bottom, is that correct or is it July 2018?

I also forgot that this was a tree that you were interested in before any scaling started . . . .that’s pretty exciting and would explain my other concerns about infrequent use and no PIWO use. Pretty exciting in that (if a 2018 picture) the best is yet to come for woodpeckers. Regardless of IBWO, keeping a camera on this tree and having a sequence that shows which woodpeckers use tree, when and how (assuming there are differences based on tightness of bark etc) would be cool from that area.

Frankly, as I was looking at the picture(s), I thought a few times “Damn, I think he got it” . . . . . . Thanks again,

I replied:

The picture is indeed from 2017. But there’s no scaling on it as yet, so it’s worth staying with.

I hope these exchanges help to illustrate some additional challenges related to trail cams, while revealing something about the review process. I think the object in question is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker; so do some of my associates. It’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but it is an encouraging and suggestive piece of evidence.


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 Hickories

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 (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.)

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Table from “A decade of emerald ash borer effects on regional woodpecker and nuthatch populations”, Koenig, W.D. & Liebhold, A.M. Biol Invasions (2017) 19: 2029.

Unlike many bole dwelling Cerambycidae, such as Hesperandra politawhich 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.


EAB Larvae. Photo by Kenneth R. Law, USDA APHIS PPQ,



Tunnels and bark fracturing caused by EAB infestation. Photo by Joseph OBrien, USDA Forest Service,


Entire cambium destroyed by feeding. Photo by Daniel Herms, The Ohio State University,


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.


Art Wagner, USDA – APHIS, Damage resulting from woodpeckers searching for a meal on an infested tree


Kenneth R. Law, USDA APHIS PPQ, Heavily infested Ash tree with Emerald Ash Borer and woodpecker activity in evidence. Some galleries exposed.


Kenneth R. Law, USDA APHIS PPQ,


Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Outer bark removed by woodpecker activity


Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service,



Dramatic example of presumed Pileated Woodpecker foraging in pursuit of emerald ash borers. Note remaining traces of blonding on the edges and blonding on trees in the background. Credit: Patowmack the Trickster

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.


Known Pileated Woodpecker scaling on a medium-sized sweet gum limb with evidence of layered bark removal or blonding.

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.


Loblolly Pine with blonding, South Carolina 2011


Blonding on dead softwood, Westchester County, NY, 2011

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.


Detail of the hickory shown on the home page. Note the absence of blonding on the edges. Also note possible superficial bill marks on the lower right, a detail I had missed, and the targeted digging into the exit tunnels.


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.