Trip Report, March 5-17, 2019


The following trip report is mostly extracted from a post for members of the search team.

I was in the field from March 5-17; others were around before and after. Thanks to the whole team and a couple of guests for their hard work and contributions in the field this trip. We completed the swap out of recording devices in three days, which left a lot of field time afterwards. We were very fortunate in that only one unit was tampered with and only a couple malfunctioned. This is a very low rate of loss for these units.

We continue to have possible encounters in the area, perhaps at a higher rate than in past seasons, though the number of potential observers and time spent in the area has increased this year. And we have gotten some very preliminary results from the first round of deployments.

In addition to the audio deployments, we’re focused on obtaining DNA this season and have been refining the protocol for doing so. On this trip we collected samples from a couple of different forms of feeding sign, one I think is more promising than the other.

Here’s the basic protocol: collect a small quantity of material from places where a woodpecker’s tongue may have been; place it in a vial containing buffer and seal. With luck, genetic material can be obtained from these surfaces, and we can rule in or rule out ivorybill as the source of some kinds of feeding sign.

We also plan to collect samples from the most promising cavities. And are evaluating them following Cornell’s criteria. Cavities are graded:

A: very large cavity in size range of IBWO with irregular oval or rectangular shape (4.0–4.75in [10.2–12.1cm] wide and 5.0– 5.75in [12.7–14.6cm] tall);

B:  cavity larger than typical PIWO cavity but shape is fairly regular, nearly perfect round or oval; or, cavity of irregular shape and within upper size range for PIWO, and lower size range for IBWO (3.5in x 3.7in or [8.8cm x 9.5cm] large PIWO and 4.0in x 5.0in [10.1cm x 12.8cm] small IBWO);

C:  cavity of fairly regular shape, nearly perfect oval or round, in the upper size range for PIWO and lower size range for IBWO. Same dimensions as for B.

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Ivory-billed Woodpecker Cavity (1935 Nest)
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Typical Pileated Woodpecker Cavity

Here are some promising cavities (I’d grade all of them A or high B) I found last trip, plus some we know are being used by other species. I found more cavities this trip than I ever have in the past, mostly because I was paying attention. There’ll be some explanation in the captions. The truth is, no one really knows about cavities; I’ve seen a lot of variation in what PIWOs do; so a lot of this is speculation. I do think scaling or suggestive feeding sign on a tree with a cavity in it may be an indicator, including that the cavity is a former nest.

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Promising cavity, apparently recent

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Promising cavity with a little fresh scaling; however, there were Wood Ducks perched in this tree, which suggests that it may no longer be active.


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Cavities are harder to spot after leaf out. This one looks fairly fresh.

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Older large cavity in cypress stub.

It can be a tough call. The first pair of cavities shown below is being used (and was likely excavated by) Red-bellied Woodpeckers. The size is deceptively large, but the small diameter of the high limb is an indicator.

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The intriguing cavity below was being used as a PIWO roost but would probably have been graded A for its large size and irregular shape. There’s a second, possibly connected, cavity slightly higher and to the the left. Both are oddly shaped. The snag is severely decayed. But again, we have very limited information, so there’s no way to know whether IBWOs might avoid badly decayed snags.

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Regarding feeding sign, extensive scaling on boles, especially of mature trees with tight bark, seems likeliest for Ivory-billed Woodpecker work. Hickories are the highest priority within this category, and we have only found a few such trees over the years. Extensively scaled sweet gums, like the one shown, are worth noting too. A second category, involving smaller sweet gums and branches, is also intriguing. Ambrosia beetles are the prey species involved in this work, which involves extensive stripping and targeted digs into the insect chambers.

In all cases, it’s important to distinguish scaling from shallow excavation with associated bark removal.

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Suspected IBWO hickory chips

The appearance of this work is distinctive. The bark is removed cleanly, and there’s almost no damage to the underlying wood, except for expansion of the exit tunnels on the surface. We hope that DNA can be extracted from these tunnels and that the scaling shown in the first image is fresh enough to be a good candidate. Based on the life-cycle of the beetles involved, I suspect this work is likelier to be found in the latter part of spring and through summer, but keep your eyes open anyway.

We’re finding that Pileateds also feed on hickories and begin by removing bark. They go about it in a different way, however, excavating through the bark and into the sapwood. The appearance of Pileated work on hickories is similar but somewhat different. It tends to be patchier, without less extensive and contiguous bark removal. The chips are smaller, a mix of bark and sapwood, and the appearance of the wood in the areas where bark has been removed is distinctly different, as in the images below.

Extensive scaling on boles of other species is also noteworthy and may have DNA collection potential. There’s more room for overlap between what IBWO and what PIWO might be able to do, since the properties of hickory bark are unique. Look for extensiveness, large to enormous chips, and lack of damage to the underlying wood.

The final category involves sweet gum saplings and small to medium-sized limbs. I have found this distinctive appearing work in only two years, in a small cluster in 2015 and in a single example this season. The bark is extensively, indeed almost entirely, stripped. Chips on the ground should be large. Leaves should be still attached. The beetles’ brood chambers should have been vigorously attacked, and you may see superficial horizontal scratches in the sapwood (not the deeper grooves that used to be mistakenly ascribed to IBWO).

This was a longer trip than usual, and I was wiped out when I got home. We will be returning at the end of April to collect the units. This will mark the end of the deployments for this season, though we will continue to work with the trail cams, with a couple transferred to new locations. I’m hoping to have a guest post from a team member before the next 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.


Feeding Sign, Foraging Preferences, and Prey Species: Some Observations and Speculation

Frank and a visiting ornithologist spent this past weekend in our search area. I’m eager to read and will be posting Frank’s report before long. For now, suffice it to say they set up three trail cams, one on the snag where we captured the image discussed here and here and one on this downed sweet gum top found in April:Big Limb

It most likely fell on April 19th. When I found it a couple of days later, it had fresh green leaves attached and no sign of insect infestation. Since then it has been partially scaled. This is an important data point, as we know the scaling took place within five and a half months of death, and Tanner documented the IBWO’s preference for freshly dead wood. We hope there will be a return visit soon.

They also placed a camera on an even more recently fallen water oak, something that started me thinking about possible patterns in the feeding sign we’re finding.

I’ve counted the examples of feeding sign from our current search area I’ve posted on the blog (which is by no means all the suggestive work we’ve found but is generally the most impressive), and the results for sweet gums are interesting, especially in light of Tanner’s observations suggesting an IBWO preference for sweet gums. Our results also suggest a preference for hickory. (Hickories were scarce in the Singer Tract, and apparently the species present in our area were not present there.) In both cases, the frequency with which we’re finding scaling seems to exceed the relative abundance of either type of tree, although we have not made formal counts. This sign was found between the spring of 2012 and the Spring of 2015, except for the downed top pictured above, which was scaled a little later.

The tally includes a couple of examples of work that falls short of what we consider to be diagnostic for IBWO. It also includes the small sweet gum snag that looks like it was attacked with a hatchet.

HackedGum2

While there seemed to be a preference for sweet gums prior to the 2014-2015 season, the preference was considerably more pronounced this year when the abundance of fresh scaling on sweet gums in a relatively small area was astonishing. Here’s the multi-year breakdown:

Sweet gum:                       25

Hickory:                             10

Presumed sweet gum:        6 (One example possibly PIWO)

Oak species:                       3

Willow oak:                          2

Unknown:                            1

Maple:                                  1 (Possibly PIWO)

Ivorybills fed on sweet gums in 42.6% of Tanner’s observations, scaling in 40 instances and digging in 3. Sweet gums made up 20.8% of the forest composition in Tanner’s study area. Next on Tanner’s list of preferred foraging trees were Nuttall’s oaks. By contrast, Pileateds “appeared to have no preference for any species of tree.” Tanner observed PIWOs feeding on sweet gums on fourteen occasions; nine involved digging and five involved scaling. He further noted, “What scaling Pileateds were observed to do was mostly on loose bark and was never as extensive or cleanly done as the work of the Ivory-bills.”

On a more speculative note, I think I’ve been able to identify one species of beetle that’s infesting the sweet gums, including the small one shown above. They’re an invasive, the granulate (formerly Asian) ambrosia beetle Xylosandrus crassiuculus (or another closely related invasive). Ambrosia beetles are tiny, but they are gregarious, with adult females creating chambers and tending broods of larvae in the sapwood. They can kill small trees but also infest larger ones. They have a relatively short life-cycle, and one source suggests they can produce 3 or 4 broods a season in the deep south. It’s worth repeating that I’ve seen signs of ambrosia beetle infestation elsewhere in Louisiana (near our old search area and in upland hardwood forest adjacent to our current one) but did not find work suggestive of ivorybills in either place.

We’ve found known IBWO prey species in our search area, on trees that we suspect were fed on by ivorybills. We also suspect that, contrary to Tanner, they may feed on darkling beetles. Could they also be feeding on an invasive species? We can see no reason to suspect otherwise and will continue our investigations with this in mind. I plan to return to Louisiana Thanksgiving week.