The Choctawhatchee: A Detour

I’m still planning a post on historic range and one on questions of evidence but thought I’d take this brief detour first. Tommy Michot is braving the Louisiana summer to change batteries and cards and to deploy an additional trail cam. We’re trying to service the cameras and replace the cards on a bimonthly basis. If there’s anything noteworthy on the cards, I’ll adjust my posting schedule accordingly. Look for the historic range post within a couple of weeks and the one on evidence a few weeks after that, before the start of search season in October.

This is the first time I’ve devoted an entire post to someone else’s effort. Though I’ve received a number of other intriguing reports, I’ve chosen to write about this one for a couple of reasons. First, I want to counteract the oft-repeated notion that reports have dried up in areas where intensive searches have taken place. Second, the searcher in question has found intriguing feeding sign as recently as 2017. The images included in this post are among the most suggestive I’ve seen from outside our search areas and tick most of my Ivory-billed Woodpecker boxes. I use the word ‘among’ advisedly here, since virtually all the feeding sign imagery that I’ve found intriguing comes from the Choctawhatchee, including the images showing extensive work on this page from the site devoted to the Auburn search.

The source of the report is an experienced birder and photographer named Rick Sellers. He has generously agreed to my posting this and allowed me to include some of his photographs. His first sighting was in 2012, approximately four years after organized searching came to end in the area and approximately seven miles downstream from Auburn’s ‘hot zone’. Rick shared the details with his family members and with Geoff Hill at the time and posted his email to his family on ibwo.net in March, 2014:

2/26/12
No doubt about it! While in the swamp today, I heard a large woodpecker hammering in the direction of a stand of slash pines at the edge of the swamp. I headed that way and just as I entered the clearing I saw the silhouette of a large dark bird leaving a tall tree on the other side of the stand of pines. I couldn’t ID it because the overcast sky was too bright. All I saw was the dark silhouette against the sky but the bird was clearly larger than a pileated woodpecker and flew loon-like, not undulating like a pileated. There had been a fire in recent years in this area and about 50% of the pines were dead showing extensive bark scaling, diagnostic of ivorybill foraging. Lamenting the fact that I had been unable to ID the big bird, I decided to stake out the pine stand, hoping that an ivorybill would return to feed. I found a secluded spot on the edge of the pines next to the swamp, sat down and ate lunch. I sat there for about 45 minutes and then as I was feeling rather drowsy, lay back with my head on my daypack. I was about to doze off when I heard, “kent-kent” coming from the swamp to my right, no more than 100 feet away! Thinking I must have been dreaming, I sat up and listened intently. Then I heard it again, “kent-kent-kent…..kent-kent! Over the next 3 or 4 minutes, I clearly heard 15-20 kents, some louder than others, that sounded exactly like Dan Mennill’s recordings from 2007. There was no doubt in my mind that I was hearing at least one, if not two, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers! Then as suddenly as they started, the kents stopped. I waited about 5 minutes before moving and then walked into the swamp in the direction of the kents. Unfortunately, I neither saw nor heard anything more as I walked around the area from whence the kents came. I plan to go back tomorrow bright and early and stake out the pines again. (end of email)

Since that encounter, I have been back to the Choctawhatchee at least 10 times for a week at a time. I have hiked and kayaked many miles but have had no more encounters. I am not discouraged, though. Just that one encounter is enough to keep me going until I can get the video or photo of the bird.

Rick informs me that he has had one possible sighting since the time he posted – a large woodpecker showing a lot of white – but that his confidence level is only around 50%.

Rick suspects that the birds do much of their feeding in upland pines outside the floodplain, which is where he had his sighting. He shared a couple of images from the location of his sighting with the notations showing the bird’s path.

IMG_0084_LIIMG_0086_LI

Some of the scaling in this stand of pines is extensive, but none of it strikes me as being beyond the capacity of a Pileated Woodpecker. On its own, the work shown in these images would be unlikely to pique my interest. But as in our search area, fire killed pines in surrounding uplands are, at least potentially, a major food source.

What really captured my attention were a couple of photographs. I found the first on Rick’s Facebook page. It was taken in 2017. The tree may be a tupelo, but I’m not sure. The bark is thin, and regardless of species, it is undoubtedly weaker and more easily scaled than hickory. There are also some hints of layered removal, akin to blonding. Nevertheless, a number of characteristics suggest Ivory-billed Woodpecker to me – the mostly clean edges, the lack of damage to or excavation of the underlying sapwood, and the targeted expansion of already large exit tunnels. This is unusual work, and it’s what inspired me to reach out to Rick for more information.

17972213_10207057823404529_4531002632479987864_o

Rick subsequently shared images of a scaled spruce pine he found in 2017. And while I’ve generally taken the view that there’s no way to recognize Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on conifers, this sign is strikingly similar to the work on hickories that we’re finding and also to the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. The work is very extensive; there’s virtually no blonding or damage to the sapwood, except for targeted digging around the exit tunnels. It ticks my ivorybill boxes, save for the fact that it’s on a softwood and there was no chance to examine the bark chips. The final image below is a detail from one of our hickories for comparison.

IMGP4333

Except for a passing claim on Facebook about recent ivorybill sightings along the Pea River (a tributary) in Alabama, I’m not aware of other reports of sightings or auditory encounters in the area, but the fact that Rick has continued to find suggestive feeding sign, as recently as last year, suggests to me that the Choctawhatchee merits more attention than it has gotten since Auburn left. Of course, the same is true of many other areas, but this is the only instance where I’ve seen feeding sign that I strongly suspect is the work of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. If I were looking for a place to search, the Choctawhatchee would be at or near the top of my list.


Guest Post: A Respected Birder’s Perspective on a Couple of Images


About our Guest blogger:

Greg Links

1054939

Biggest Week Field Trip Leader 

Greg has lived in and birded Northwest Ohio since the age of 7. He has served as President, Vice President, Field Trips Chairman and Rare Bird Alert Compiler for the Toledo Naturalists’ Association, one of the largest, longest-standing and most respected Ohio nature clubs. A former member of the Ohio Bird Records Committee and author of “The Status of the Birds of Northwest Ohio”, there are few people who know the local birds and birding spots better than Greg. Known for his enthusiasm and high energy, Greg has led successful expeditions to Central and South America, Africa, Mexico and all over the US and Canada, and recently co-founded a small birding tour company. As much as he enjoys traveling for birds, there is nowhere he’d rather be in May than right here in the western Lake Erie region. 

Greg contacted me about two weeks ago and expressed enthusiasm about the material on our website. It was very gratifying to get such a positive response from a birder of his stature. After a couple of additional emails back and forth, we invited Greg to join us the field and to do a guest post on what he finds most intriguing. We’re pleased that he agreed to do both and are looking forward to his visit. Here’s what he has to say, with a couple of parentheticals and links from me:

Like so many birders, I have long been captivated by the mere mention of “Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” As a child, I stared with wonder at the illustrations of the Ivorybill in my Golden guide and Peterson guide. Published in 1966, the Golden Guide said it was “on the verge of extinction…last reported from the deep forests of TX, LA, SC and FL.” This was more than 2 decades after Tanner’s seminal work in Louisiana’s Singer Tract. Since then, “unverified” reports have filtered in from Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and elsewhere. If you are reading this, then you surely have seen photos taken of an East Texas bird, video taken in Arkansas, video taken in Florida and sound recordings of various call notes and knocks from different locations. The people behind many of these aren’t your average backyard feeder watcher. They are scientists, teachers, ornithologists, experienced outdoorspeople whose reputations and even lives would be shaped by their observations. That they would be incapable of using reason and logic over emotion and “want-to” in every single instance seems preposterous to me. The burden of proof for establishing this species’ continued survival has become unimaginably high.

I’m not sure why or when looking for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers became akin to looking for the Loch Ness Monster or Sasquatch.  With 20/20 hindsight, I recall the Gene Sparling sighting of 2004 in Arkansas that turned into the David Luneau video that turned into the Cornell University conservation event of the century and wonder if that had been managed differently, would there be so little attention to the efforts since. In 2006, Geoff Hill and his Auburn group in Florida managed to compile some fascinating and in my opinion, diagnostic evidence of the IBWO’s existence. That evidence received virtually no attention from the so-called experts. For the life of me, I cannot understand why, other than perhaps for fear of misplaced ridicule from colleagues.

As written on the pages of this blog, and according to multiple sources, there have been “controversial” sightings in 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2004, 2005 and 2006. Since 2006, there have been sightings in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Despite my own search efforts here in the US, my only experience with Campephilus woodpeckers is in the New World tropics. I have seen and heard Red-necked, Crimson-crested and Pale-billed Woodpeckers and each and every time I have encountered one, I’ve been taken back to my early days of looking at that Golden Guide, imagining what it would be like to see an Ivorybill.

Undeterred (and/or encouraged!) by events of the past or potential backlash from the present, Project Coyote is undertaking perhaps the most prominent known search today in the United States. There are two pieces I’d like to discuss.

Trail Camera Photo A

 

image002

First, let’s orient ourselves. The positioning of the wings tells us this bird’s head is at the top of the bird and the tail is below (short orange arrow pointing to tail). While I can’t be sure, I believe we are looking at the upperparts of the bird, not the underparts. If true, then we can eliminate Pileated based on the extent and location of the white. Even if we are looking at the underparts, the white on the wing is not consistent with Pileated and is similar to the pattern shown in this photograph of an ivorybill in flight. This leaves us with Red-headed Woodpecker to consider next. The upperparts of Red-headed Woodpecker show white along the trailing edge as this bird does. However, Red-headed Woodpecker also has a white rump that extends to above the tip of the tail. We don’t see that in this image. In addition, the white on a Red-headed Woodpecker’s trailing edge does not extend out to the primary feathers like this bird’s do. What about the structure of this bird? Size is difficult to ascertain from this photo but it certainly appears the bird is flying well behind the tree in the foreground, leaving an impression that its overall size is considerably larger than a Red-headed Woodpecker. The actual shape and length of the wings seem off for a Red-headed Woodpecker; though again, this could be deceiving based on any number of factors. In short, I would expect a Red-headed Woodpecker to show less white in the wings, more white in the rump, shorter, “stumpier” wings (from body to tip of primaries) that are very rounded and blunt at the tips. The tail also looks long for a Red-headed Woodpecker, however it isn’t as pointed as I’d typically expect to see on an Ivory-billed. My conclusion? Interesting, but inconclusive. (This and several other interesting images are discussed here, in Frank Wiley’s post, “The Pros and Cons of Trail Cams”. You can click on individual pictures to enlarge.)

Trail Camera Photo B

 

image001 Once again, let’s orient ourselves to the image before us. This is a large woodpecker that is obviously clinging to the left side of the largest tree in the photo (also taken with a trail camera that was aimed in an area where people had heard single note “kent” calls and double-knocks, consistent with the Campephilus genus). I feel the bird is looking directly away from the camera (others have said they believed the bird was looking directly at the camera). My opinion is that the light color we see in the middle of the bird’s head is not its bill, but rather a leaf from the small branch in the foreground. However, if you look closely, there is a white line that is visible on the bird’s neck (as what an Ivory-billed would show). Could this also be an artifact or twig? Perhaps, but I personally don’t think so. (A processed version of the image, discussed in this post, shows the white line more distinctly and suggests that the apparent red in the crest is an artifact; the raw image and the preceding frame are available there as well. This and another suggestive image were obtained in 2009-2010. More details are here.)

Let’s completely forget about color for a minute and look at shape and structure. First, the overall appearance of this bird looks very long and slender. I have seen hundreds (thousands?) of Pileated Woodpeckers in life and viewed countless photographs online of Pileateds clinging to a tree. Virtually all have had a bulkier look to them.

Even more striking to me is the neck. Specifically, its length and shape strongly suggest Campephilus. Almost every available image of Ivory-billed Woodpecker (as well as many other Campephilus species) shows a long, slender neck much like the bird depicted in this photo. There is a 1937 photo by Tanner of a female Ivory-bill at her nest that even shows a similar neck position. Pileateds simply don’t look like this. In my opinion, the bird shown in this photo is likely an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

I have no doubt that there are a few Ivory-billed Woodpeckers hanging on. The evidence is substantive and recent. I look forward to joining the Project Coyote team in the field soon to help them in their efforts. I applaud them for making their search results public on this blog. When the day does come that the clear images or videos are taken, what then? We’ll cross that bridge when we arrive.