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.
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’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.
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:
If it’s okay with you, I may include a version of the comment in the blog, anonymously of course.
I can’t prove a negative, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that it’s not a squirrel.
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 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.
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,
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.
On October 22nd, I received an email reporting a recent ivorybill sighting in eastern Louisiana. I found the report convincing for its high level of detail and decided to devote my next trip to following up on it. The source was Joseph Tyler Saucier, a pastor, avid hunter, and Louisiana native whom I’ve known virtually since early 2014, when he wrote and expressed his interest in Project Coyote. We exchanged a few emails at that time, but he was in more frequent contact with Frank. I have no doubt about his honesty.
When I asked him if I could post his entire report, with location details redacted, he courageously volunteered to attach his name to the sighting. In addition to the initial report, I’m including some further comments he made when I shared my impressions of the area and asked if I could include his description in the post. His words should speak for themselves.
I was a friend of Frank and talked to him on a few occasions about my own experiences with the IBWO. I saw a lone male when I was about 14 years old on my grandfathers property in West Central Louisiana. After many years of searching without success, I became a IBWO agnostic/ skeptic. I’m an avid hunter and the last two years I had pretty much given up on even thinking about the bird. Saturday morning that changed. I went on a annual squirrel hunting trip over the weekend . . . the birds presence there it never crossed my mind. On Saturday at approximately 9:30 am I was in pursuit of a squirrel . . . in a section of large trees. I saw through some brush a black animal with white stripes slowly making its way up the truck of a large tree. My first thought, was it was a black squirrel with white marks on it which would be the kill of a lifetime. I had killed a black squirrel the previous afternoon. My second thought, as the animal became more visible was that it was a skunk with white stripes somehow climbing up the bottom of the tree. Then suddenly, the bird came into better view and into the sunlight. I first noticed that it wasn’t climbing the tree slowly but was hoping or bobbing up the tree. I noticed the two clear stripes coming down from the neck to the lower back. When I reached for my phone in my front pocket the bird quickly turned its head in my direction. At that moment, I noticed the most startling thing I’ve ever seen. The bill on the bird was solid white. The sun illuminated its radiance as it stuck out against the dark bark of the tree. I noticed a black underdeveloped crest. Judging by the size and underdevelopment of the crest it was a fledgling. Suddenly, the bird flew to my right then ascended upwards and swung to my left where the bird was met in the air by a larger woodpecker without any red on its crest. The soaring birds quickly were no longer visible. I did not get the best view of them flying off because I was obstructed by trees and brush. I believe once again and have no doubt about what I saw. I know I won’t be taken seriously but do you think I should contact anyone . . . about this sighting?
Thank you for your steadfastness and detailed report. I wish I could have gone assisted you guys on the search. Unfortunately, a number of things required my attention. Mark you can use my name or report as you wish. I’m certain that I viewed at least one IBWO. I’ve typically hunted once or twice a week for about 17 years and I see Pileated Woodpeckers nearly every outing. I know the difference. A large Woodpecker with two white stripes, a long ivory bill, and a solid black crest stood out. Certainly, some will roll their eyes or be dismissive of my sighting. I’ve simply shared what I saw and the experience itself helped heal this doubting Thomas.
Steve Pagans and I visited the vicinity between November 16-21, spending a total of five days in the field and covering just over 23 miles. We had no possible sightings but heard what I’d describe as a weak possible single knock on the afternoon of the 21st. Because we were talking at the time, and there were some hunters in the vicinity, gunshot is a distinct possibility. I did not find the kinds of feeding sign I’ve suggested may be diagnostic for ivorybill; however, we did find several concentrations of bark scaling involving a variety of tree species. I usually post my trip reports as day-by-day logs, but since this involves a new area, I’ll take a different approach to summarizing our observations.
The area is part of a large parcel of bottomland hardwoods, much of it maturing second growth. Forest composition more closely resembles the old Project Coyote search area than the new one; Nuttall oaks, honey locusts, and pecans, which are absent from the new search area, are abundant. Overall, the forest is more mature than in the old search area, with many trees between 2′-3′ DBH, and some oaks and gums exceeding that in the most mature sections.
I have the impression that the harvest of cypresses from the area was limited. We only saw a couple of old stumps, and many seemingly healthy, large trees can be found, including the largest ones I’ve ever seen.
The woods are breathtakingly beautiful, and if ivorybills have persisted, I think the habitat is adequate to support them.
Woodpeckers and Nuthatches
Pileateds, Red-bellieds, Hairies, Downies, Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were abundant, and impressionistically, there were many more Sapsuckers than in the current Project Coyote search area. By contrast, Red-headed Woodpeckers were scarce; we only heard three over five days. We encountered no White-breated Nuthatches (which are very common in our current search area) or Red-breasted Nuthatches and got no responses to playbacks of both species. Playback of the (putative ivorybill) March calls sometimes provoked apparent reactions from Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers and from Red-shouldered Hawks.
Finding cavities can be challenging, especially when the canopy is high, leaves have not all fallen, and the mid-story is thick. In addition, Pileated Woodpecker cavities vary considerably, and there are no data on the dimensions of ivorybill roosts. All we know is that ivorybill nests tend to be larger and more irregularly shaped than Pileated nests. It seems reasonable to infer that the same would apply to roosts. While cavities may not be strong indicators of presence, it’s still worth looking for outliers. We found two on this trip, one in a honey locust (which has harder wood than most oak species) and one in an American elm.
As noted, we did not find any feeding sign that matches the diagnostic criteria I’ve hypothesized for ivorybill work. We did, however, find a decent quantity of bark scaling. Our field impression was that bark scaling was not as abundant as it is in our main search area, but on reviewing the photographs I took over five days, I’m doubting that impression.
We found bark scaling, some fresh some older, on a number of species – honey locust, sweet gum, red maple, persimmon (old and not photographed), and sassafras (not photographed and consistent with PIWO scaling on the species that I’ve found locally). The bark of small red maples is easy to scale, so this work too could well be Pileated.
In the area where we found the cavity in a honey locust, there appeared to have been a substantial die-off of that species, and several snags had scaling on the upper branches and boles. Honey locust bark is very hard and tight when the tree is alive and shortly after death, but it softens, loosens and becomes easy to remove, as was the case of the snag shown below. Examination revealed that the snag shown below was infested with termites, making PIWO the likely culprit, at least with regard to the most recent work.
There was scaling, both old and new, on a number of recently dead honey locusts in the vicinity.
The bark remained hard and very tight on the recently downed locust shown below; however, the appearance and extent of the scaling are suggestive of Pileated. Squirrel is also possible, although there were signs of insect infestation.
Sweet gum scaling was also abundant. Most of it was on higher branches and involved small limbs. The largest limb is shown in the first image below. Most of the chips were small, and all of the work strikes me as being within the range of what’s physically possible for Pileated. There was a time when some of this work would have excited me more. Nevertheless, the fact that bark scaling is abundant in the area is encouraging, since Pileated Woodpeckers scale bark relatively infrequently. In addition, scaling is likely to be less abundant at this time of year, when other food sources are readily available.
I always enjoy including herp photos when the opportunity presents itself. Steve nearly stepped on the rattlesnake, the biggest I’ve ever seen. I was glad to be wearing snake boots. The eastern ribbon and garter were mesmerizing.
Some Closing Thoughts
The forest is extensive. We focused on the vicinity of Joseph’s sighting, coming in from several different directions. Many acres remain to be explored. We found little beaver sign but understand that beavers are abundant in nearby, much less accessible patches of similarly mature forest. Hunters frequent the area, but as in many other patches of potential ivorybill habitat, signs of human activity – litter, shotgun shells, flagging – diminish the farther one goes from existing ATV trails.
While Steve and I didn’t see or hear anything strongly suggestive of ivorybill, I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the habitat. I came away convinced that this area merits further attention, and that would be the case even without Joseph’s report. There is far more such habitat in Louisiana than most casual followers of the ivorybill saga imagine, and while I plan to remain focused on the current Project Coyote search area, I will do my best to give this area the attention it deserves.