As usual, much of this report will be focused on bark scaling. I found an unprecedented amount of fresh work this trip, a total of 29 trees, all sweet gums. I only counted live and freshly dead trees that appeared to have been scaled within the last year, and probably more recently than that, in most cases. As will be discussed, I was able to ascertain that 11 of these trees had been worked on no earlier than March 15th. I was selective about what I included in the count, relying on my years of experience looking at scaling and how its appearance changes over time and this passage from Tanner for the criteria:
Ivory bill sign shows as bare places on recently dead limbs and trees, where bark has been scaled off clean and to a considerable extent. Pileateds do some scaling too, but it is usually confined to smaller limbs and those longer dead. Freshness of the sign can be judged by any appearance of weathering, which will soon turn bare wood a grayish color. Extensive scaling of the bark from a tree which has died so recently that the bark is still tight, with a brownish or reddish color to the exposed wood showing that the work is fresh, is one good indication of the presence of ivorybills.
We had a number of visitors during my stay. Tom Foti joined me again on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Phil and Eric Vanbergen came along on Friday. I appreciate the Vanbergens’ help in collecting the data I’ll be discussing. It’s great to have such enthusiastic young people involved. Meanwhile, John Williams (Motiheal from ibwo.net) visited and spent four days in the field with Frank. Both John and Frank are planning to provide their own accounts, and those will be posted in the weeks ahead.
A general note about the week, leaf out progressed rapidly, and the change between Sunday the 20th and Saturday the 26th was dramatic. Nonetheless, I was able to find a good deal of feeding sign later in the week.
I arrived on the evening of Saturday, March 19th, and Frank and I spent the 20th in the northern sector. There had been severe flooding in the area earlier in the week; the waters had receded – we suspect by the 15th or 16th and certainly no earlier than the 15th. One of our trail cams, placed about 4’ above the ground, was completely overtopped, ruining the card and probably the camera as well. Such floods are exceedingly rare, perhaps a once in 500 year occurrence in the area. Fortunately, flooding tends to recede rapidly, but crossing both permanent and seasonal water bodies remained a much bigger challenge due to deep water and slick banks. The most stunning aspect of the flooding was the near total scouring of leaf litter in many parts of the search area, leaving bare soil and deposited silt visible. The landscape was transformed, and familiar spots looked radically different.
Frank often describes walking through the forest on dry leaf litter as “walking on cornflakes.” The absence of leaf litter limits the noise made by walking. This may be advantageous between now and late fall. Unfortunately, I anticipate being able to visit the area only once more before summer, probably in June.
The flooding had another benefit this trip. The absence of leaf litter makes it much easier to find fresh bark chips on the ground and to determine with some degree of certainty when scaling has taken place. The flood waters receded no earlier than March 15, so all fresh chips found below trees where the leaf litter had been scoured were no more than a week old.
When we reached the vicinity of the downed top, first discussed here, we heard a loud single knock. Frank’s initial reaction was that it might have been a gunshot, but we both agreed that the sound seemed to have come from a nearby source; we heard no other shots that day and saw only one vehicle, almost 2 miles away. Later in the morning we heard a couple of weak possible double knocks and later a very good sounding one.
We also found a little bit of scaling just north of the northern concentration discussed below. While some of it looked to be quite fresh, we did not find any bark chips.
The scaling in the first of the above photographs is somewhat marginal, as only a single smaller upper limb is involved. While I’m unsure, I don’t think I counted either of these trees, as I only started keeping track later in the week; both examples came from very close to the northern cluster discussed below.
I was on alone on the 20th, and I returned to the same area. I found a good deal more scaling.
In many cases, the scaling shows sign of progressing from treetops down, as Tanner described.
The detail of the small tree, scaled down to where small branches are still in leaf, is at the edge of a small pond around or in which I found five other trees with recent scaling on them, as well as two more with older work (not counted).
There was new work on one of the trees I found last month, the larger one in the background, below. I found several other scaled trees in the immediate vicinity, including the one in the foreground, on which we’ve now deployed a camera, and much of that work was fresh too. I chose a spot for a stakeout and spent about an hour watching the treetops in this area of concentrated work. This location is 140 yards south of the small pond described above and is at the southern boundary of the cluster. During the stakeout, I heard a loud single knock that seemed to have come from the vicinity of the small pond.
As I was leaving, I passed the pond again and found what appeared to be new scaling on one of the trees at its edge. There were fresh chips in floating in the water at the base.
Tom Foti arrived on the morning of the 22nd. We spent the day in the one of the southern areas where we’ve found concentrations of bark scaling in past years and where there have been both possible visual and auditory encounters. We found several scaled trees in this area but did not see or hear anything.
I met up with Tom on the morning of the 23rd; I had decided overnight to be more methodical in my approach to documenting scaling. I’ve been so focused on what might be diagnostic that I haven’t attempted to quantify what I’ve found thus far and haven’t kept detailed location information. Thus, it seems like a good idea to start keeping better track. This should prove useful if we can document that ivorybills are present and that they are responsible for the bark removal.
Tom and I heard 6-8 likely kents at ~9:00 am, this at the downed top where we had the camera, the same location where Frank had his sighting last spring. The calls came from three directions, south, east, and west.
We headed south and met up with Frank and John in the core of the northern concentration, south of the pond. We did an extended playback series; John will have more to say about the specifics in his post. We all heard a nearby double knock during the playback; Tom, John, and I were sitting close together near the speaker and thought it was a single, but Frank, who was positioned closer to the source of the natural sound, called it as a double.
We found some very fresh bark chips (moist with sap) at the base of a 12” DBH dying sweet gum that has areas of scaling high on the bole. The tree (which is shown above) is only a few meters from the one found last month. We’ve deployed a camera aimed at this bole. Given the quantity of activity in the area and the evidence of return visits to feeding trees, we hope to get some hits before long.
We removed a piece of bark from a looser spot on a nearby downed tree (which had been fed on by woodpeckers both before and after it fell). Beneath the bark were Cerambycid larvae, pupae that I also suspect are also Cerambycids, and what I think may be a very young Elaterid larva. We placed some of these larvae and pupae on the piece of bark to illustrate. We suspect that Allen did the same for what became Plate 10 in Tanner.
On the way out and not far from the cluster, I spotted what appears to be the start of a large, irregularly shaped cavity. We’ll monitor this and see whether there’s any further excavation.
It rained heavily on the morning of the 24th. I spent part of the afternoon trying to take measurements but didn’t have much success, since I was using an ordinary tape measure.
On the 25th, Phil and Eric Vanbergen joined me and we took measurements in the two areas where there are concentrations of scaling, finding several more trees in the process. When I got back to Frank’s, the forester’s DBH measuring tape I ordered had arrived, making it possible for me to take measurements on my own.
I spent the 26th measuring suspected feeding trees in the southern area and found several more with recent work on them.
Except for feeding sign, I did not see or hear anything suggestive of ivorybills during my last three days in the area.
Now I’ll turn to some of the data I collected this week.
I counted 29 suspected recent feeding trees in the two areas, 13 in the northern sector and 16 in the southern. I did not count work that appeared to be more than a year old or work that was limited to very small branches.
The areas are 2.05 miles apart. The northern area was logged (probably partially) in 1905, although there may have been some later selective cutting. The southern area was logged in 1935. Forest composition is somewhat different between the two areas, with sweet gums seeming to be less predominant in the southern one. In the southern area, the scaled trees are in a narrow, almost linear strip with an area of .13 square miles/83.2 acres/33.67 hectares. The northern cluster is more compact and polygonal, with a total area of .03 square miles/19.2 acres/7.7 hectares. Within both areas, scaled trees were often found in groups of 2-6 – 11 out of 13 trees in the northern area and 11 out 16 in the southern. (This includes the cluster in and around the pond, which is perhaps 30 meters in diameter, but otherwise applies to trees that I estimated to be 20 meters apart or less.)
Scaled trees ranged from 6.5” dbh to over 5’ (estimated) for a gum with a split trunk, one stem live and the other dead. All but 3 inaccessible trees were measured.
76% of the trees were alive, sometimes just barely, with scaling on dead or nearly dead limbs or boles. There was scaling on live parts of one or possibly two of the trees.
Though we have found scaling on boles of larger trees in the past, all trees scaled on boles were 12” DBH or less. While these measurements may not be meaningful absent a random sampling of trees in each sector for comparison, I thought the numbers might be of some interest even now, especially in light of the recent discussion of Tanner:
This is obviously a very small sample, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless. The three smallest trees in the northern sector were all in or near a pond that appears to have had its outflow blocked in recent years. They probably died due to the change in hydrology. But for that difference, there seems to be an even greater favoring of 25-36” DBH trees than found by Tanner, and this is so even in the less mature southern sector (again without data on overall composition). This year, feeding sign has been found exclusively on sweet gums. We’ve found a few scaled oaks over the years and more bitternut hickories; I suspect the latter are being fed upon at a high rate relative to abundance. We’ve discussed doing some random sampling for tree size and species, but given our limited resources, this may not be worthwhile or feasible at present.
Of course, none of this proves that ivorybills are in our area, but I think it’s another indication that they are. The best-case scenario is that the dramatic increase in scaling this year and in this season is related to there being young in a nest or nests.
I flew into Houston on February 4 and arrived at the search area on the morning of the 5th. Frank’s work schedule had precluded him from returning to the search area during my absence, and he was unable to get time off to join me this trip.
Tommy Michot visited on the February 5th; we went to the northern sector, and passed the downed sweet gum top (actually a limb) found in April of last year. Project Coyote had a camera trained on it for some time but took it down due to equipment failure. The main stem, which reaches from the ground to about 20 feet up, had been scaled extensively, down to the base, over the course of the last month. Some of the work had been done no more than a few days prior to my arrival based on the condition of bark chips found at the base.
We have a camera back on this top but have low expectations, since so much bark has been removed that it makes a much easier target for other species of woodpecker. While I don’t believe in the “curse of the ivorybill”, individuals and small groups of self-funded searchers face enormous obstacles and are dependent on equipment that’s often unreliable.
Tommy and I measured a number of the largest trees in the area, and the biggest oaks and sweet gums are around 4’ DBH, with many more in the 3’ range. Here are some of the highlights: two Nuttall oaks: 137 cm/53.94”, 119 cm/46.85″; swamp chestnut oak 110 cm/43.31” four sweet gums: 124 cm/48.82”, 123 cm/48.43”, 110 cm/43.31″, 109 cm/42.91”.
While ours was not a random sample, this table from a 1986 paper by Tanner (on data collected in the Singer Tract in 1938), is interesting for the sake of comparison.
In his 1944 report on the Singer Tract, Richard Pough described sweet gums in the 5’-6’ DBH range as being characteristic of old growth conditions, and such trees were not uncommon in the 19th century. Impressionistically, at least, most of the ~4’ DBH sweet gums in our area are moribund and are likely to have lost their tops. I know of only one gum that appears to be in the 5′ DBH category. As of 2009, the national champion sweet gum had a DBH of 5’4.6″. The tree below could be close to that.
Many, perhaps most, gums have at least some beaver damage. This may be contributing to the earlier mortality, both by stressing the trees directly and by creating the opportunity for beetles to infest them. I have long suspected that the decline of the beaver could have contributed to the IBWO’s disappearance, since beavers directly damage trees by gnawing and also stress or kill them by altering hydrology.
Beavers were extirpated from much of Louisiana by the early 19th century. As of 1931, populations were restricted to the Amite and Comite rivers in the southeastern corner of the state; they were reintroduced in other areas in 1938 and had established themselves in 21 parishes as of 1951. (Wylie Barrow, pers. comm.) Range expansion continued into the 1990s and after. They’re now considered a pest animal and appear to be found in all parishes. A recent paper suggests that the introduction of beavers into Magellanic Woodpecker habitat may have benefitted that species.
I was on my own on February 6th, and I went and staked out the downed top for the better part of the morning. Nothing landed on it except for a Red-bellied Woodpecker that pecked and gleaned but did not scale bark or do any excavating. At approximately 9:30, I did a very aggressive series of ADKs. I heard a couple of loud single knocks that seemed to come from no more than a couple of hundred yards away and also a possible double knock. These came during a period when I was standing, moving around, and doing the ADKs, so I did not hear them very well. In addition, there were a few distant gunshots within about 15 minutes after the series, so I’m not very confident about what I heard. (These were the only shots heard all day.) I found some scaling the next day a couple of hundred yards away (discussed below). This gives me some reason to think the SKs were a reaction, not shots. Still I’d place these in the weak possible category.
One highlight of the day was watching a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks in the act of mating.
I returned to the same area on the 7th, with two cameras to deploy. One is aimed at a large sweet gum stub, about 20’ tall and well over 3’ DBH that I found last trip. The top had broken off shortly before my arrival. While it’s not discussed in Tanner, T. Gilbert Pearson, who was the first modern ornithologist to observe the Singer Tract IBWOs, described this type of “stump” as one of the species’ preferred feeding sites. This is a tree on which I found high branch scaling last year, before the top broke off. I expect this to be a long-term deployment.
I also redeployed a camera on the downed top, although we’re not very hopeful about that location, since the scaling is so extensive and the bark has been loosened in many of the remaining unscaled areas.
I walked south for a couple of hundred yards and found very fresh, large bark chips at the foot of a live sweet gum (there were two large gums ~3’ dbh about 10’ apart). There was extensive scaling on live or recently dead high branches of one or both of these trees. Because there had been a major rainstorm and accompanying minor flooding a week before and the chips were mud free, I can be sure the scaling took place after the rain, and since Tommy and I had spent considerable time in the area examining some other nearby scaling two days before, I strongly suspect this work was done on the 6th. I can’t help but wonder whether the possible single knocks came from whatever was doing the scaling; that would be consistent with my immediate impression when I heard them, both in terms of distance and direction. Nonetheless, my confidence level about the SKs is low given the gunfire.
I don’t think the scaling and bark chips are consistent with squirrel; the chips are large and thick and do not show signs of having been chewed off; the ones collected weighed over five pounds.
There was a little excavation and exit tunnel expansion (visible in the first image above) associated with the scaling; and it has the generally clean edges and lack of layered, flaked off appearance around the edges or on the chips. The leaves and gumballs are attached on most of the limbs, indicating that they’re alive or very, very recently dead, so the bark is almost certainly tight. This is about as good as it gets when up-close examination is not an option
I met Tom Foti, who came in from Arkansas, on the morning of the 8th. Winds were high, with gusts approaching 50 mph. We decided it would be unsafe to venture into the woods, so we drove around the edges of the search area looking at the surrounding upland forest, much of which is impressive and mature. Tom is very enthusiastic about the area, ivorybills or not, and we’re hopeful that steps will be taken to protect and manage it appropriately. The car ride was a running lesson on southern forest ecosystems, and as I told Tom, I’ll count myself lucky if I retain 10% of what I learned.
The next morning, the winds had dropped enough to make it safe to head for the swamps, and Tom and I visited the southern sector, an area where we haven’t spent much time lately. As mentioned in some previous posts, there has been a significant uptick in four-wheeler activity in the area, and it’s heartbreaking to see the destruction these callous individuals are causing. Fortunately, the damage is almost entirely limited to the periphery, and the deeper parts of the bottom are unscathed. The habitat types here are somewhat different, and the logging date is more recent, but it remains very impressive. We walked a long way and went to places I had never been, including a lower-lying flat with tree species I haven’t noticed elsewhere – shagbark hickory, bitter pecan, and overcup oak.
We saw no recent feeding sign in any of these areas, except for some older work on a small sweet gum that I described as being about a grade B-.
We then looped back along a different track, passing the spot where I recorded calls in March of 2013 and where we’d had a concentration of feeding sign in 2012 and 2013. We found nothing until we reached a location farther north that is within 100-200 yards of the tree shown on the homepage. Tom spotted a group of trees with bark scaling, some on boles and some on branches. Once again, this was not “grade A” work, but the concentration makes it more interesting than if it were one isolated example. We did not find any chips at the base of the snag that had been scaled on the bole, and the high branch work is not as extensive some.
It’s worth pointing out that on many days, I’ll walk for hours and see nothing and then find either a dramatic example of scaling or a small cluster of it. Tom and I had probably walked 3.5 miles or more before finding this little cluster.
I was on my own again on the 9th, and I opted to go on a death march to retrieve a trail cam from a tree deep in the swamp and proceed north from there. The tree is a large blown down sweetgum discussed and shown here. There was some fresh scaling on it that I suspect was done by a Pileated Woodpecker. There are nearly six weeks of images to go through, so it will take some time before we find out if there were any captures.
As on the previous day, I walked for a couple of hours without seeing or hearing anything suggestive until I got to a part of the area we haven’t visited since last year, perhaps a quarter mile south of the southernmost point Tommy and I had reached earlier in the week. I found old sign, some of which was fresh last winter and some of which was older. I then found some fresh work on two trees in close proximity to one another. Some of the scaling was on a downed tree but was clearly done by a woodpecker, with chips and other characteristics that I consider to be suggestive. Since the chips were caked with mud, the scaling was a little over a week old. The other work was on one high branch, but conditions made it impossible to look for chips.
On the return hike, I found what I’m quite sure is Pileated Woodpecker work on a recently dead or dying hickory. Since we’ve found a number of hickories that we suspect have been scaled by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, this was an unusual opportunity to do a direct comparison. In my view the work on hickories is the most compelling for ivorybill due to the density and tightness of the bark and the hardness of the wood. There are pronounced differences in the presumed Pileated and suspected ivorybill work on this species.
The work on the homepage is suspected ivorybill. It is extensive, with huge contiguous areas, perhaps 20% of the entire surface, completely stripped, with evidence of bill strikes targeted at exit tunnels. The Pileated work is spotty by comparison. The bark chunks scaled from the tree on the homepage were large, dense, and thick, and there were no pieces of sapwood among them. By contrast, the suspected Pileated work involves very small pieces of bark that appear to have been removed by digging rather than scaling; there were also a few pieces of punky wood among the chips.
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:
Low ridge (23%)
Total on ridges (32%)
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.
I plan to return to the search area in late March and have another post or two in mind in the interim.
I made the mistake of trying to save on flights (actually paid with miles this trip), flying out of LaGuardia and a change of planes in Dallas. I left New York with a bad cold, and the first leg of the trip was miserable. Little did I know that the second leg would be worse.
At 4:45 pm, fifteen minutes before boarding time in Dallas, my flight to Louisiana was still listed as “on time”, although there had already been a gate change. There were five or six more over the next couple of hours, and American Airlines personnel at the various gates were either willfully dishonest or utterly clueless. The flight finally boarded at around 7 pm. We left the gate and sat on the runway for an extended period. At one point, the pilot announced that some planes were turning back, but that our crew could remain on the runaway until 1:30 am.
The pilot turned out to be wrong, as regulations now forbid planes from sitting on the tarmac for more than 3 hours. Somewhere around 9:30, we headed back to the gate. It took a while to find cooperative personnel, but I was able to rebook my flight for noon the next day. Sick as I was, I opted for a hotel rather than a night on a cot in the airport. I had to eat a room I had booked in Louisiana but used points to get this one. I got there a little before midnight and was in bed around 1 am.
I had planned to spend the 27th in the field, but that wasn’t happening. To the extent possible, I will avoid American Airlines and connecting flights in the future. Fortunately, my cold improved rapidly, and my rental car was a 4-wheel drive, which might have been a serendipitous result of the delay.
On the morning of the 28th, Brian Wiley and I went to an area that’s readily accessible from the road because we had plans to meet Tom Foti a little later in the morning. I spotted the downed sweetgum that we later found was being worked on, at least in part, by squirrels from the road. I found some recent scaling trees in this area, one where we’ve had possible sightings, concentrations of possible feeding sign, and auditory encounters in the past. While I can’t rule out squirrel work as a possibility, both of these trees were standing and somewhat longer dead than the downed trees that we now suspect are mostly being stripped of bark by squirrels; however, there was no way to find bark chips.
We met up with Tom at around 11 am, and we drove a few miles north to a location from which it’s easier to get into the mature bottomland areas. We spent the morning in this vicinity, where we’ve had a good deal of recent activity, but we did not see or hear anything of note.
I met Tom again the next morning, the 29th, and we covered a lot of ground, passing near a tree where we have a camera deployment (although we now suspect that much of the work was done by squirrels). We came upon another freshly stripped, downed sweet gum. Again, I now believe this to be squirrel work. (More on this in an upcoming post, but one indicator may be the presence of bark stripping on the underside of the limb at right.)
Tom headed back to Arkansas, and I headed back to Frank’s house. On the way, I passed the downed sweet gum that’s visible from the road and noted that there was fresh work on it. I went to examine it and noted that there was also some recently deposited scat.
I called Tom, and he turned around and met me. We collected the sample (which has a similar appearance to PIWO scat, although there was no urea, something that might point toward a mammal as the source). Despite the fact that we’ve documented squirrels stripping bark from this location, at over an inch long, this dropping was larger than and doesn’t resemble the images of squirrel scat found online. We are exploring the possibility of doing DNA testing on it . . . a very long shot indeed, but it may be worth a try.
Update, January 18: The consensus is that it’s not worth testing the scat.
Frank joined me on the 30th, along with Wylie Barrow and Tommy Michot, both great field people with a deep knowledge of bottomland forests and birds. They’re featured in Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird as leaders of “Team Elvis” south. It’s really amazing for laypeople like Frank and me to spend time with such experienced field biologists. Wylie probably knows more about the Singer Tract than anyone, and I’m looking forward to studying his materials on that subject. We didn’t see or hear anything of import, but I think it’s fair to say that Wylie and Tommy came away impressed with the habitat and thinking that ivorybill presence is at worst a possibility. Tommy took this photo of me crossing a log. He’s made of stronger stuff than I am and walked right across without hesitating.
I devoted the next day, 12/31, to staking out the downed sweet gum that proved to have been stripped of bark by squirrels. Nothing hit the tree for the entire day; it was cold, damp, and very uncomfortable, actually considerably more difficult than walking miles through the swamps. I did think I heard a single, pretty good double knock at around 3 pm, but I don’t trust that impression, given the fact that I was alone, tired, and hopeful.
On New Year’s Day, I left Frank to stake out the downed gum and went to retrieve a trail cam so we could monitor it remotely. While crossing an area of blowdown, I knocked myself down and nearly out, trying to break off the (not so) rotted limb of a downed tree.
I got the camera and met up with Frank. We then went to a location at the southern end of the search area that I had never visited before. Some of the habitat is very impressive, but there are many more signs of human activity (ATV tracks and empty beer cans in particular) than in some locations. We found some work on a downed sweet gum that we now think is almost certainly squirrel but did not see or hear anything else of interest.
On Saturday, the 2nd, I returned to the location I’d visited with Tom on the 28th; access is easy; it’s familiar; and it’s hard to get lost. I retrieved the card from the camera that’s trained on the downed sweet gum top I found in April. (The camera was unable to read the replacement card, so I ended up pulling it.) We’re unsure about whether the source of the scaling on this top is squirrel, as we’ve photographed them on it repeatedly over the past few months but have not documented them stripping bark. There was a little bit of fresh scaling on the tree (not enough to show up on the trail cam), and we suspect it to be Pileated Woodpecker not squirrel. Frank may replace this camera in the future.
I did not find any fresh feeding sign, but I did come across a sweet gum that had lost its top very recently, within days. I believe this to be a tree on which I photographed recent scaling last spring, and some of the fallen limbs had clearly been stripped before they fell. I found indications that a woodpecker or woodpeckers had worked on this limb at some point, as discussed in the previous post.
Perhaps the most significant event of the day occurred at around 11 am, when I heard an extended series of kent-like calls. At the time, I estimated the calling lasted for about 5 minutes, but I suspect it was closer to 15. These seemed to be coming from 200-300 years away, across a couple of challenging sloughs. There was really no way to try and follow them, especially alone. I did manage to record some of the calls on my DSLR (with no external mic). To my ears, they sounded pretty good, similar to the ones I recorded in March 2013, although they were all single notes, with no descending pairs. Unlike the 2013 calls (which were recorded on a better device at what seemed to be closer range), these came from a single, stationary source, not two moving ones. They were repeated considerably more frequently, and the pitch is slightly higher. Like the 2013 calls, they’re more clarinet than horn-like and don’t resemble the Singer Tract recordings in that regard.
In the attached audio clip (which may have lost some quality being transferred from .m4v to .m4a), the calls come at approximately, 4, 9, 17, 20, 25, 31, 39, 1:20, 1:27, 1:53, 2:07, and 2:17. I got the recorder running fairly late in the incident, and calls in the first minute of the clip are about as numerous as they were in the preceding minutes. They tapered off dramatically before ending at 2:17.
A variety of other birds are vocalizing throughout, including Blue Jays. I think the duration of the possible kents is shorter than the Blue Jay calls, but Blue Jay can’t be ruled out; I’m nowhere near as confident about these as I am about some others I’ve heard and/or recorded, including the 2o13 calls, but am posting them anyway. At around 3:41, Blue Jays start making an unusual call that we hear very frequently in this part of the search area. I do some playbacks of the Singer Tract recordings at around the same time, but there’s no evident response.
Per Frank, the dominant frequency of the calls is 1800 hz, with another bar at 2700. Since the calls are distant and the recording is poor, this might suggest a base frequency of around 900. The structure is more consistent with Blue Jay than known ivorybill. On the other hand, the duration is between Blue Jay and the ivorybills on the Singer Tract recordings. Allowing for attenuation by distance, this makes Blue Jay less likely.
Later that morning I did some additional playback and got apparent responses from Blue Jays and a White-breasted Nuthatch. This is the first time I can recall hearing a WBNU vocalization immediately after an IBWO playback.
On the evening of the 2nd, Frank and I went through the card and found the two sequences of a squirrel removing bark. Seeing the images was a bit of a blow, though not a total surprise; Wylie Barrow had raised this possibility a day or two before. He was the first person ever to make this suggestion; removing bark from hardwoods seems to be a fairly unusual and poorly understood behavior in squirrels; most of the information online suggests that it’s done on standing live trees when food is scarce, not on fallen ones when other food is abundant.
I shared the news with several biologists, and a couple of them pointed out that not all of the work we’ve found fits the squirrel paradigm. In fact, I think most of what we’ve ascribed to ivorybills is inconsistent with squirrel and am in the process of trying to identify some diagnostics. Unfortunately, since we know squirrels are doing at least some of the work on downed trees, an avenue that seemed very promising for camera trap deployment now seems far less so.
I returned home on the 3rd, and to my relief, the trip back was uneventful save for the usual post-holiday chaos at LaGuardia.
I plan to do a series of follow-up posts exploring scaling in more depth within the next week or two. I also hope to be able to provide some stills from the sequences we obtained.
Part 1 is here.
Thursday the 26th was Thanksgiving, and Frank spent the morning cooking. I ventured out alone; I get less comfortable going solo every year. Because I’m not very good with a GPS, I tend to prefer visiting areas I know well or restricting myself to places where I can rely on my sense of direction, compass, and iPhone map to get out safely.
For these reasons, I returned to the area where we had concentrations of scaling in 2012 and 2013, and where I recorded calls and had a possible sighting in 2013. There has been a significant increase in human and porcine activity in this area; both people and hogs are having an impact on the hydrology, and places I know well have changed a lot in less than three years.
I did not see or hear anything of interest – no sign, no calls, no knocks, but this is where access to the bottom is easy. The damage is being done on the periphery, and the core is much harder to reach. (Much of the activity in 2012 and 2013 was remarkably close to the edge.) Most of our attention has been focused elsewhere since 2014, so there’s no telling what might be going on in less accessible parts of this sector.
November 27th was something of a banner day but also a very difficult one. Frank, Brian, and I got to an area that hadn’t been visited before, although we did cross a track that Frank and Bob Ford made back in October. Access to the bottom involves hiking approximately 2 miles, .5 of which is on an old logging road. The rest is cross country and is not easy going, since there are dense pine plantations to traverse. Beyond the pines, there are several sloughs to cross or circumvent, but once you get there, it’s an incredibly beautiful area.
As Mark says, the area is quite beautiful once one has made it into the core. The difficulty in reaching the “core” cannot be overstated. The portion of the hike on the old logging road (actually more of an overgrown trail) is not too difficult, but once committed to crossing terrain, it becomes an entirely different story. We have often remarked on this, but I believe a little more explanation of exactly why the going is so tough will help the reader to better grasp the challenges.
Once the trail is left behind, one has to decide whether to blaze a straight line, or allow the terrain to dictate the direction of travel and work in a general direction. We generally just plow through thicker, younger pines in a straight line. The buffer habitat, which runs to middle aged pine with some oak and hickory scattered about is not too bad for either choice – at first glance. Once into these areas, one finds a lot of blown down timber in various stages of decay, from very recent to several years old. Even on level ground, these blowdowns require going off course, or stepping over. Then there is the occasional blackberry or saw briar patch to contend with.
As one continues to approach the core, the sloughs that Mark mentioned in passing begin to impose obstacles. Many times, to maintain a straight course, we find ourselves crossing the same slough several times. The sloughs are of two types, each presenting a different set of challenges. The first are the tributary sloughs. These are often dry, but are incised into the surrounding terrain, requiring one to find a way into and out of the streambed. The depth of the incision varies from a couple of feet to as much as ten to twelve feet depending on the carrying capacity of the slough, and its proximity to the main stream channel. The second type are the larger cutoff, stillwater sloughs. Once the rains begin in October, these hold water all the time. While only incised a foot or two into the terrain, they can be a couple of feet deep, often just enough to overtop one’s boots. This requires leaving the course line and hunting a place that’s shallow enough to cross – or finding a log to cross on. Waders, except during the wettest, coldest times, are not really practical as they get very hot and uncomfortable on even slightly warm days. Another challenge is the uniformity of the various types of habitat. Without a compass or GPS (I use a very high end Lowrance unit and carry a high quality compass for backup) one can be seduced by the easier walking and just make big circles, not really covering much ground. I’ve lived near, and turkey and deer hunted in this area for much of my life, and a few lucky souls get to spend a night or two in the woods every year.
On this particular day, Friday the 27th, the understory in the portion of the core area we visited was quite thick, unusual in this bottom, where the core areas tend toward an open hardwood gallery forest. The area is just a bit higher in elevation than most of the rest of the core – perfect for native bamboo canebrake. The cane affords a bit of protection for the blackberry briars and other “catchy” vegetation, making traversing even the heart of the bottom in this particular area a difficult proposition. On our way out, we encountered one of the “stillwater” sloughs that I mentioned earlier. Brian and Mark got water in their boots crossing it. I found a downed loblolly that made a pretty good bridge, but the bark was long gone, and the log was unbelievably slippery. I “scooted” across rather than risk a dunking, and strained my wrist in the process. Maybe I should have opted for the wet feet…
At the farthest point from the road, we found a recently downed sweet gum top that had been fairly heavily scaled (more heavily than the similar tree we found on the 24th).
The hanging, shredded bits of cambium on some of the scaled areas appear to be what Edith Kuhn Whitehead said her father considered diagnostic ivorybill sign. This led me to revisit Tanner and look at Plate 8; the images of feeding sign in Tanner are very poorly reproduced, and the originals are not much better. There is a higher quality scan of Plate 8 on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, and after another look, we’re struck by the similarities between that image and a couple of the above details. While Tanner is often opaque about his reasons for selecting images of feeding sign, we suspect Plate 8 was included to illustrate what Mrs. Whitehead described.
We spent over an hour in this location and heard multiple possible kent calls and double knocks. We captured one of the double knocks on Frank’s recorder, but it’s too faint to be analyzable. One of the calls that I heard (but Frank did not) was perhaps the most Singer Tract-like ever to my ears, so much so that I had to ask Frank whether he had done a playback.
On the way out, I spotted some more extensive high branch scaling, apparently on a sweet gum within 25 yards of the downed tree.
Unfortunately, while the location is fairly close to the concentration described on the blog, it’s only reachable as the bird flies. We’d love to put a camera on it, but that’s not possible at this time. And all four cams are deployed in promising locations. We don’t have the time or personnel to handle more than we’ve got.
On Saturday the 28th, we retrieved the card from the camera that’s trained on the downed sweet gum top. It functioned perfectly but produced no hits. We did get some apparent double knocks after a series of ADKs; one was captured on the recorder but again was too faint to be analyzable.
We’d like to address a Facebook comment from a British ornithologist and extinction believer who characterized our inability to obtain something conclusive thus far as “negative evidence”. The fact of the matter is that the negative evidence we’ve obtained relates to Pileated Woodpeckers, not ivorybills.
Pileateds are abundant throughout the area, in the uplands as well as the bottoms. I constantly scan the woods for suggestive scaling. To repeat something I’ve said in a couple of earlier posts, we have seen an abundance the type of work we think is characteristic of ivorybills in our two Louisiana search areas. I have looked at Pileated sign throughout much of that species’ range and have examined countless images of Pileated Woodpecker scaling online. I have not found any examples that match what we take to be ivorybill work. Nor have I ever found any in our search area’s mixed pine-hardwood uplands. In the bottomlands, we’ve found this work scattered throughout the mature forest. We’ve also found clusters of it in several locations. In a couple of places, like the area I visited on Thursday, there have been concentrations of scaling in one or two years and not in others.
This week we got a series of images of a PIWO on both forks of the downed sweet gum top (not retained), where it spent several minutes. It did no scaling. Over the years, we have obtained a few sequences showing the same behavior, including this one. In a single instance, we captured a Pileated scaling a quarter-sized piece of bark, with some difficulty, from our target tree, a freshly dead oak. It did nothing more, and approximately six months elapsed between incidents of major scaling. (The second round happened after we’d removed the trail cam.)
There’s no way to prove a negative, but the evidence we’ve obtained points to something other than Pileated Woodpeckers as the source for the following reasons:
- The scaling is unlike work done by Pileateds elsewhere.
- We have documented Pileateds on heavily scaled trees but have not documented them removing anything but a single small piece of bark.
- The distribution of the scaling in our search area points to something other than Pileated Woodpeckers as the source, since Pileateds are abundant throughout, and the scaling is found only in mature bottomland hardwood areas, not in mixed and hardwood dominant uplands.
- The fact that we’ve found concentrations of scaling in certain areas in one year and not in others suggests that whatever is doing the bulk of it has a home range that’s considerably larger than that of the Pileated Woodpecker.
- Anatomically, bark scaling is an inefficient foraging strategy for Pileated Woodpeckers. It seems unlikely that Pileated Woodpeckers would do so much foraging in such an inefficient manner when other food sources, including insects in rotten wood and (at this time of year) mast, are abundant.
We hope the current camera deployments will solve this mystery of what’s doing this type of work . . . within the next few weeks.
This post will be something of a departure from previous ones in that we’re writing it jointly.
Though we met in 2008 and started calling our effort “Project Coyote” in early 2010, in many ways this week marks the 6th anniversary of our collaboration. It was the first time we visited the old search area together and everything grew from there. We’re an odd couple, with very different cultural backgrounds, personalities, and worldviews. There have been many strange ups and downs over the years but remarkably few major disagreements. One thing we’ve shared from the start is a similar approach to putting the pieces of this puzzle together – trying to glean what knowledge we can from those who were able to find ivorybills in the past, especially J.J. Kuhn. We think we’re on the cusp of obtaining something definitive for reasons that should become clearer in the post, if they aren’t already.
It’s remarkable that we’ve come this far. The obstacles involved in documenting the ivorybill are enormous. We’re just two individuals with limited time and resources searching in a fairly large, remote, and challenging patch. We have a small circle of supporters and trusted people who visit our area when time allows.
There are huge swathes of potential habitat in the southeast that get little human traffic, especially outside of hunting season, and many of these have not even been considered, let alone visited. It’s not uncommon for foreign (and some domestic) ornithologists to assume that conclusive imagery should have been obtained by now, just because it’s the US and birding is popular here and that extinction is likely because several organized searches have failed to come up with something definitive. Many American birders with little knowledge of or experience in the rural South jump to similar conclusions.
The mere fact that there have been formal, funded searches matters very little. The difficulties in obtaining documentation of an extremely rare, wary bird species that requires a large home range in secluded, difficult habitat are monumental. We think that camera traps are the most promising avenue for obtaining something conclusive (as is frequently the case with cryptic animals). The problem has been to place the cameras in a location that birds are likely to visit. This has been our approach from the start, but it’s only now that we think we’ve solved the problem. While we will continue to use other methods and to host visiting biologists and trusted supporters, camera traps will be our primary focus in the coming months.
On November 23, we were joined by Travis Lux, a freelance radio reporter who contacted us a few months ago and who has promised to keep our location confidential. We visited the downed sweet gum top discussed in several previous posts, most recently this one, and were elated to find that there was some new scaling at the top of the snag and decided that we’d return to Frank’s house to review the footage.
As soon as we looked at the data stored on the card, our elation turned to alarm and then almost to despair. Travis had been recording the whole day, and we’re sure this will make for some dramatic radio. Frank will pick up the narrative to explain.
Trying to understand what “goes wrong” with the various types of game cameras is a guessing game. Of the three cameras that we had deployed, two of them – upon reaching the 32 gb storage limit on the cards – began to overwrite the files rather than shut off automatically (as the instructions imply but do not directly state they should). The instruction manual was also misleading about the duration of a deployment based on the delay time set by the user. The instructions implied that a 32 gig card would not be completely full at the end of a 60 day deployment.
In reality, the card filled up after fifteen days. The camera continued to operate, but it overwrote the earliest files with the newest files, rendering the earlier files unrecoverable. With this hard learned bit of knowledge, I increased the time lapse to ten seconds, from five, and cut out about 45 minutes of “on” time at each end of the day.
According to the data gathered thus far and calculating data storage capacity vs. time deployed and time lapse setting, this SHOULD give us about 45 days with 50% battery and a fresh 32 gig card. The reprogrammed camera that we pulled the card on Mark’s last day in the field appeared to bear this finding out.
With very few exceptions, these cameras are manufactured and assembled in The People’s Republic of China. The instructions (and this has been true of several different brands we’ve tried) are generally translated from Cantonese or Mandarin…Poorly. Fractured syntax, and confusing usage of common words often leaves the guy programming the camera guessing what the instructions REALLY mean.
One of the cameras shut itself down for unknown reasons after taking just a few images. When checked, the batteries were still above 90%. I put a new card in it and conducted a 30 minute field test; it seemed to be functioning properly. Of the four cameras and three locations where we now have cams deployed, this one is in what we feel is the least likely to be visited by woodpeckers in the near future. Hopefully, the glitch will not reappear.
To add to Frank’s comments, unless one has well over $1000 to spend per unit, there are major tradeoffs involved in selecting trail cams. The brand we’ve selected stores individual frames as the equivalent of deinterlaced video stills. This allows for greater storage capacity and longer battery life but lower image quality, especially at a distance. Fortunately, all of our current deployments are at close enough range to produce a definitive image or series of images, and we now know that the cameras themselves do not scare off whatever is doing the scaling, something we thought possible in the past.
To return to the main topic, after the initial shock and disappointment wore off, we realized that there had in fact been relatively little scaling, except at the very top of the downed crown. The main trunk is almost untouched, and return visits remain a strong possibility. We have redeployed the camera and will leave it in place indefinitely.
Tuesday the 24th was a more encouraging day. We were joined by Tom Foti, formerly of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Committee and a member of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Team’s Steering Committee. Tom is perhaps the foremost expert on bottomland hardwood ecology. He was very impressed with the habitat. He jokingly commented that if he were still with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Committee, he’d try encourage his state to annex the area.
While we were unable to show Tom any feeding sign, we did hear a couple of possible double knocks. In addition, we found a recently dead small sweet gum that had apparently been killed by ambrosia beetles, similar to others we’ve found, but as yet untouched.
While there’s no suggestive feeding sign in the immediate vicinity, the location is approximately a mile from the camera deployment discussed above and a few hundred yards from where we recorded an apparent double knock and obtained several intriguing game cam images. Given the absence of recent scaling in the immediate vicinity, we think this is the least promising of the three current locations.
We called it a day early because Tom had to return to Arkansas. What he saw and heard left him enthusiastic and eager to return. It’s a privilege to be around someone who’s so knowledgeable, and we look forward future visits and to learning from him.
If the 24th was a good day, the 25th was even better, though considerably more challenging. Brian, Frank’s son, came along and helped carry some of Frank’s gear. We went into an area that we’ve only visited once before. The area is approximately 1.5 miles from the nearest road, and as it turned out, we did that three mile round trip twice.
The habitat in this part of our patch is magnificent. There’s a good deal of old scaling high on live sweet gums. While this isn’t the type of work that we consider highly suggestive, it is consistent with what Tanner described and photographed (more on Tanner in Part 2).
We found a huge and recently downed (leaves attached) sweet gum, part of which fell between two recently dead saplings that both showed signs of ambrosia beetle infestation. Some of the scaling on the huge downed gum seems consistent with Pileated work (having a layered appearance), and some of it comes close to what we think is diagnostic for ivorybill. This is the first freshly dead tree we’ve found that has feeding sign suggestive of both species.
After finding the sign, we decided the location merited our deploying two cameras. (It would take four or five to cover the whole blowdown.) Brian and I hiked out to retrieve the two that Frank and Bob Ford deployed in October, while Frank went back to his house to get additional cards. We hiked back in and reached the location at around 3 pm.
Over the next hour, we heard several double and single knocks that seemed to be coming from no more than three hundred yards away. A couple of the double knocks were what we consider the best (most Campephilus-like) we’ve ever heard.
It was getting late, so we hiked out as quickly as we could, stopping to rest a little before sunset. As the sun was going down, there was a small burst of shooting from the direction of the road. A PIWO started scolding in apparent response, and Brian and I heard a sharp single knock from the direction of the bottom (away from the shooting) and more distant than the squalling pileated. (As an aside, Frank is a very experienced hunter and can easily distinguish between shots and knocks. It’s not difficult for me either, except when the sounds are obscured by crunching leaves, etc.)
We now have all four cameras deployed on recently dead trees or parts thereof that have a good chance of attracting woodpeckers in the near future. This along an approximately three mile line, with about a mile between each camera.
To be continued . . .
Day 2 – October 10, 2015
We have only visited the southeastern quadrant of our “northern sector” four times. This is mainly due to the amount of time it takes to cross about a mile and-a-half of the uplands surrounding the bottom. Bob and I decided we would try a longer, but possibly quicker and easier, approach by following a fire lane that is maintained a couple of times a year. It was a pleasant, if boring, hike of about a mile and three quarters, a little further, but much easier going to get to the edge of the bottom.
The forest on this side of the stream is of a somewhat different composition than that on the other side. As well as the sweetgums, loblolly pine, and various Quercus sp. an appreciable percentage of the trees are mature 3′ DBH or more beeches.
We made our way to the main channel with relative ease – this quadrant of the forest seems not to have as many deeply incised sloughs and secondary channels, so the temptation to just keep moving slowly is irresistible. After reaching the main stream, we began to do half-circle transects, looking for anything interesting. We finally took a break about mid-morning, and I performed an ADK series and shortly thereafter a series of playbacks. We then sat quietly for about thirty minutes.
We were separated by about 15 yards, and Bob was sitting at the bottom of a large tree facing away from me. Before we continued on our way, we compared notes, and we had both heard two double knocks, and possibly one kent call. Kent calls, what are and what aren’t, have been debated ad nauseum for years. Suffice it to say that this one, though further away and not as loud, stood out from the Jays that were making a ruckus all around us. All we could say for sure is this one was “different” in a way that’s hard to describe.
We continued on, finding our way back to the bank of the main channel every so often. The stream is dryer than I’ve ever seen it.
At one point, I came upon a series of curves, which being a bit deeper, allowed the water to pond. It was not running and none too fresh, but it was water. I noticed these two turtles on a log, probably a slider of some kind and a cooter. They seemed to be annoyed at one another.
We continued easing through the forest, moving slowly and stopping to listen and look occasionally. I photographed Bob standing next to a large swamp chestnut oak.
We found a bit of intriguing scaling here and there, but no large concentrations. This dying sweetgum snag is a good example. (Note the large insect at the upper right. We have not been able to identify it.)
At about one o’clock, we’d just kept walking through “lunch hour”, we decided to take a break. While we were snacking and rehydrating, I performed another series of ADKs followed by playbacks. After about an hour, Bob and I once again compared notes, and once again we had heard a pair of kents, and a single DK. I have to note that nothing we heard appeared to be a direct response to the recorded kents of the anthropogenic double knocks. While I was sitting there, I made this picture of a Red-headed Woodpecker.
We finally came to a corner with an adjoining piece of private property. As the property line was on a direct bearing for the truck, and was “only” a mile through unexplored terrain, we decided to take a chance even though terrain sometimes imposes obstacles. Fortunately for us (we had covered about six total miles previously) the terrain wasn’t bad at all, and other than a couple of hills to climb, the walk was pretty easy. On the way home, we stopped and picked up dinner at a local BBQ joint that has become something of a Project Coyote tradition.
Day 3 – October 11, 2014
On the way to the search area this morning, Bob and I, feeling a bit peckish, decided to stop at one of the convenience stores on the way. We were a bit mystified to find this sign in the window:
Being a proud son of Louisiana, I’m well aware of our love of foods that are considered a bit, ummm unconventional, but even I was a bit taken aback at the prospect of frying chicks…
We arrived at our entry point about ten minutes after first light and headed into the forest. This particular area Mark has discussed a number of times – a couple of hundred yards from the parking area one encounters a tornado blow-down track that is approximately 400 yards wide. This area is unbelievably difficult to traverse – large boled trees scattered like a giant’s game of pick up sticks, thick, almost impenetrable thickets of new growth, blackberry vines and saw briars, as well as the usual random sloughs, and cutoff stream channels.
It took us nearly an hour to make the half-mile to the location of the snag where photos, discussed in previous posts by Mark, were taken. My express purpose was to place one of our new Plotwatcher Pro cameras in this location. New growth of limbs and underbrush made this deployment a bit more complex than the last time. Bob trimmed intervening vegetation while I programmed, set up and started the camera.
After all this work, I used the camera’s Aimcheck function to make sure that the cam was placed optimally. We then proceeded to follow the bank of the main channel downstream. It should be noted that the stream is not running. In all my years of coming to this area, as a hunter, and searching for ivorybills, I have never seen it this dry.
We came to a familiar ponded slough where Mark and I have often stopped and rested for a few minutes. One of the larger trees, a 3.5 ft. DBH water oak had blown down since the last time Mark and I had visited the area in April. The tree still had leaves on it, though they were dry and brown, and the bole and upper branches had no sign of woodpecker workings. I believe that this tree was blown down on or around July 4th as that was the last time severe weather passed through the area. As they are very light and easy to carry, I had an extra Plotwatcher Pro cam with me. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I deployed the camera with a good view of the bole and top – hopefully this tree will attract insects, and soon thereafter woodpeckers feeding on them.
Bob and I continued upstream for another half mile, located a nice spot with a good view, and I performed an ADK series, followed about ten minutes later by a series of electronic playbacks of Singer Tract ivorybill calls. Shortly thereafter, Bob heard a double rap drum, that was captured on my digital recorder. I personally don’t believe that the drum was a direct response to my ADKs as there was at least a fifteen minute interval after the last of the ADK/playback series.
The double rap is not “perfect” in that the “intra-knock interval” is about .05 seconds longer than the “ideal” – based on averages of the intervals of other Campephilus drums – but it sounds very good.
As we were leaving, I determined to blaze a better trail through the blowdown area. Following a straight bearing on my GPS, I used a hatchet and snips to carve a path through the heavier ground cover. Perhaps crossing will be a bit easier next time.
On the way out of the forest Bob and I were treated to one last encounter. We came across this Buttermilk Racer sunning itself on the road. While not endangered, this snake is uncommon and seldom seen. After taking a few photos of him, I tapped his tail with my foot, encouraging him to seek a safer place out of the roadway.
I really enjoyed Bob Ford’s visit – he is a skilled woodsman and birder, and his insights as a professional wildlife scientist are greatly appreciated. I am looking forward to Mark’s next trip – hopefully over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Also, Mark and I would like to thank The Rapides Wildlife Association, and another donor “MC”, for their much appreciated and unsolicited assistance in purchasing our new trail cams, memory cards, and batteries.
A note from Mark: Frank captured some of the possible kent calls on his recorder. They are faint, and it may not be possible to tease any detail out of them. He may do a follow-up post if anything of interest can be gleaned.
As mentioned in the Part One of this trip report, I was alone in the search area from March 31st to April 2nd. Frank Wiley joined me from April 3rd-5th. He had a very robust, brief sighting on the morning of the 3rd, and we had a possible auditory encounter on the 4th. Conditions changed dramatically over the course of the week, and by the 4th, leaf-out had progressed to the point where examining tall trees for cavities and scaling had become very difficult. Weather conditions were generally good, although winds were high for much of the time. It rained heavily on the night of 3rd, and all we did on the 5th was set up a trail cam.
March 31, 2015
I hiked into what we now think is a hot zone and worked my way south, finding approximately a dozen downed sweet gums and the standing sapling that had been heavily stripped of bark. I did several playbacks and got reactions from pileateds and red-bellieds – calling and drumming but not attractions. I called it a day when I found a secondary feather that I suspected might come from an ivorybill. It seemed large for a red-headed and was white, except for the base, which was black on both sides. I bagged the feather and hiked back out. Upon examination, it became clear that it was indeed a RHWO feather; the differences are subtle. The innermost secondary of the Agey and Heinzmann feather, which has been confirmed as an innermost ivorybill secondary, is 3.5” long (thanks to Fredrik Bryntesson for providing the information on this feather, which comes from a letter from Heinzmann to Wetmore) and is all white. I have seen an ivorybill secondary that is 4.25″, though I’m not sure of the number. It had black on one side. The difference is a very fine one, especially since the innermost RHWO secondaries also have black on one side and white on the other. This was false alarm, but better safe than sorry. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Feather Atlas is a great resource; I only wish that it included the ivorybill.
April 1, 2015
To my relief, nothing much of consequence happened on April Fools Day. I returned to the same area and did several playbacks over the course of the morning, generating increased drumming and calling from pileateds, red-bellieds, and red-headeds. The playbacks also seemed to cause Barred Owls and American Crows to vocalize, and after one series at 9:00 am, two crows came in silently to investigate and then called a little. I also found the “chopped” sweet gum sapling that day; it was within a hundred yards of the scaled sapling, in an area where there was an abundance of work on sweet gums.
April 2, 2015
I visited three other locations. I began with the area where I found a concentration of bark scaling in 2012 and where I recorded calls in 2013 and where the tree on the homepage is located. The hydrology in this area has changed considerably for several reasons, and I saw nothing of interest. I did encounter a couple of large moccasins. Playbacks provoked some reactions from pileateds and red-bellieds. Strangely enough, the pileated did not respond to PIWO playbacks.
I then went to another patch where there have been contacts over the years, and where we found a heavily scaled downed sweet gum last spring. There has been no further work on that tree, and the decay has progressed to the point where the bark is loose and Bess beetles, skinks, and slugs are residing underneath. This tree has now been down for between between one and two years, and the twigs and small branches are starting to fall away. The bark too is getting looser.
Impressionistically, this is quite consistent with Tanner’s characterization of the decay process. We suspect that this lack of return visits is typical of ivorybill feeding behavior, since we’ve monitored multiple feeding trees and have seen this pattern repeatedly. In one case, the small scaled oak in the old search area, there was one round of scaling found in January and a second in May or June, but in all the other monitored trees have been scaled once and that’s all. In my experience pileateds typically return to feeding trees on a fairly regular basis, and in the case of this particular tree, there’s obviously an abundant food supply under the bark.
April 3, 2015
Frank and I hiked into the ‘hot zone’. We did some playbacks at approximately 8 am, although I did not record anything about them in my notes. We proceeded in a more or less southerly direction with Frank in the lead by about 10 yards; I was walking slowly and looking up and to my right. As we approached a body of water, Frank stopped and blurted something unintelligible. I caught up with him, and he said he had gotten a very good look at a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker that had flushed, presumably from a fallen log lying in the water or possibly from water’s edge. The distance was no more than 20 yards. I handed Frank my field book so that he could draw what he saw and record his observations. I’ve included the sketch and transcribed his description, with a few redactions related to the specific location. These were done immediately after the sighting and without reference to a field guide. Not included in the description is his estimate that the sighting lasted 2-3 seconds, as the bird, which was in the open for perhaps 10 yards (we’ll measure this distance at the next opportunity), flew upward into an opening in the woods across the water, and in his excitement, he mistakenly gave the date as April 4.
- Big traffic cone shaped WHITE bill (3”ish?)
- Solid black head/face – light colored eye (whiteish)
- Bright red crimson crest puffed up not what you’d expect.
- Stripe on face beginning behind.
- Stripes on back form chevron over rump.
- Wings long/thin shallow rapid flaps.
- Rear 1/3 to 1/2 of wings white, all the way out to primaries.
- Long tapered tail.
Later that day in an email exchange, we added the following comments.
“At the first sign of movement, I assumed a Wood Duck had flushed, looked in that direction, and immediately saw the crimson red of the crest. I then thought, “PIWO” but noticed the big white traffic cone bill, and an almost entirely black face. There was a white stripe that started below/behind the light (I got the impression of white – not yellow) colored eye. The crest was not “groomed” as is usually seen in most of the artwork – rather it was puffed up as if the bird were agitated.”
“I just have a few things to add to this. I was about 30 feet behind Frank and was looking in the opposite direction, so I didn’t see it. Frank kind of blurted something, and when I got to him, he was clearly and deeply shocked and absolutely sure of what he saw. I told him to sketch it and then write a description. I didn’t hear any splashing or wood duck sounds, and I’m sure I would have if it had been a duck. He mentioned that he didn’t think the bird was terribly frightened and had probably flushed due to the sound of something approaching, since he was likely out of view. We were approaching the area where I found a concentration of bark scaling, including both the hatchet sapling and the other scaled one I found on Tuesday. (A better photo and a detail of a worked exit tunnel on that one are attached) and were perhaps 100 yards away. I had not mentioned this to Frank until after the sighting. It’s also not at all far from the cluster of old cavities we found last spring. I guessed that the bird was drinking from the creek, and we are contemplating putting a camera on the log, in the event that it’s a place that might be a preferred spot.” The only other item of note on the third was our finding an interesting looking old cavity in a fallen sweet gum. Though partially healed over, it appears to have been quite large when fresh, at least 6″x4″ and the area beneath it had been stripped of bark.
April 4, 2015
We returned to the same general area on the morning of the 4th, covering a lot of territory and finding more scaling on downed sweet gums. At approximately 11 am, we heard a loud knock or knocks. Frank heard a softer first knock and a much louder second one. I only heard the second, but it was loud, sharp, and woody. It’s worth noting that though louder second knocks are unusual, they are by no means unheard of . . . “the second blow is louder in 21 out of 119 recorded examples of double-rap displays by seven Campephilus species we studied . . .” The knock or double knock had come from the northeast.
We decided to do some playback, after which we heard two more possible double knocks in close succession, now from the west. I was not overly impressed by these, feeling they somehow lacked the energy I associate with really good knocks. Frank agreed about the first but thought the second was as good as any he’s heard. Slight differences in perception like these are not at all uncommon in our experience.
April 5, 2015
On the morning of the 5th, we went out to place a trail camera where Frank had his sighting. We’re hopeful that this new higher resolution camera will provide unambiguous results. It’s worth noting that we flushed a Pileated Woodpecker from virtually the same spot and from a similar distance as we approached the water. There was no mistaking it, and within a roughy similar time frame, and with a virtually identical flight path, it was possible to note an equivalent number of field marks, including the facial pattern; we agree that this pileated appeared to be a female. Weather and lighting conditions on both days were similar with overcast skies, perhaps slightly darker on the morning of the 5th.
Note: this is a very image-heavy post, and most of them appear ‘below the fold’.
Although we faced significant challenges during this trip, it was nonetheless a very productive one. I was joined by John Henry, the photographer who was with me when I recorded kent-like calls in March 2013. Work obligations kept Frank Wiley out of the field, except on February 24th. A flight delay and 1:20 am arrival at my hotel in New Orleans on the morning of the 20th limited my field time to a couple of hours on that day. I had planned to get in a final half day on the 25th, but wintry precipitation prevented it. Weather conditions were a challenge throughout – skies were consistently cloudy and dark; there was occasional rain; and temperatures fluctuated from the 70s on Friday and Saturday to near or below freezing on Monday and Tuesday.
On the afternoon of the 20th, John Henry and I went to the eastern sector, the most easily accessible part of our search area. This is the vicinity where a visiting biologist, Frank, and I heard double knocks during my last visit, and where we have found a significant amount of feeding sign since 2012. I found some fairly impressive, extensive, and recent bark scaling high on the trunk of a fairly distant tree. I was unable to examine it up close, but from a distance it appeared to be consistent with what I think is likely, if not diagnostic, ivorybill work.
On a non-ivorybill related note, the feral hog population seems to be increasing in our area, and they do enormous damage to the habitat, probably not in way that impacts the ivorybills we believe to be present, but their impact on forest ecology is likely severe. While they are hunted by some in the area, and don’t seem to be nearly as abundant as they are in Congaree National Park, for example, they are still a severe problem.
Edited to add: This poor photograph of large, relatively slow moving terrestrial mammals, the best of several taken at less than 100 yards, illustrates just how difficult it is to obtain good pictures in this environment.
On the 21st, John Henry and I went into the habitat on through the northwest corner. This is an area of fairly recent blowdown, several deep, meandering sloughs, and dense blackberry thickets, making it incredibly difficult to explore. On more than one occasion, we had to retrace our steps and find a different route. I estimate that we were able to cover a quarter mile per hour. Traversing this area is hard on body, boots, and clothing, and it’s very difficult to pay attention to anything except the next step. We finally reached the site of the target tree featured in Frank’s Pros and Cons of Trail Cams and where I recorded a possible DK in response or reaction to an ADK. We decided to do a double knock series. Following Frank’s lead, I did a little pounding on the log before doing any DKs. Then I did a DK (I wasn’t recording, as I was using an external microphone mounted on my camera and figured I’d turn it on when I finished the series). Within approximately 10 seconds, there were 3 extremely loud single knocks that came from east-southeast of us. I’d estimate they were spaced about a half second apart and were no more than a couple of hundred yards away. Nothing else happened in response to the series. Although they didn’t have the resonance of typical woodpecker drumming, they didn’t sound like branches breaking, gunshots, or industrial sounds. There were no hunters in the immediate vicinity, no vehicles parked along the access road on our way in and out of the area, and we heard nothing remotely similar during the rest of the day.
On the 22nd, Frank and I made a pilgrimage to meet J.J. Kuhn’s daughter (known to us as Mrs. Edith) who had honored us with an invitation. We spent a delightful afternoon with her and her daughter, son, and son-in-law. They regaled us with many stories about Kuhn’s life, before, during, and after his time with Tanner. As readers know, we see Kuhn as the true master at finding ivorybills. Mrs. Edith is writing a biography of her father, so we’ll leave it to her to tell the story. During our absence, John Henry visited the northern sector and reported hearing a double knock late in the afternoon. He also spoke to two local hunters who claimed to have seen ivorybills. The elder of the two men said he hadn’t seen any recently but had seen a pair 15 years ago in the area that’s discussed in the first and last paragraphs of my previous trip report. This is the third local person to have claimed a sighting in that general vicinity.
The other person’s claim was of a sighting at the south end of what I refer to as the northern sector, so John and I decided to explore that area (which had not been visited) on the 23rd. As is so often the case, travel was complicated by deep, meandering sloughs, although it was nowhere near as difficult as what we encountered on the 21st. We did not have any possible auditory or visual encounters, but I did find one very impressive looking cavity (although not a fresh one) and a downed sweet gum with very extensive and fairly recent bark scaling.
This type of work is similar to work found last year. and while it doesn’t exactly meet the criteria I’ve laid out previously for what’s diagnostic, I strongly suspect that it is Ivory-billed Woodpecker work, beyond the physical capacity of a PIWO. The bark was tight and difficult to impossible to remove without an implement.
Frank joined us on the 24th, and we entered the eastern sector farther north. The hike in at this location is long and difficult, but our efforts were rewarded, and we gained quite a few new insights. Once we were well into the bottomland area, we experimented with doing some playbacks. Frank played some Pileated Woodpecker calls and drums, which stirred up a good deal of activity. One Pileated flew in silently, and several others called with the rapid, “cackle” call and drummed in the distance. He then switched over to playing the Singer Tract recordings, and two more Pileateds flew in to the trees just overhead. They drummed and did the “wok” call, apparently in direct response to the recording. It is at least intriguing that playback of ivorybill calls would produce such a response from Pileateds.
We packed up and headed deeper into the habitat and found a sweet gum with three large, oval shaped cavities.
About a hundred yards away, I came across another downed sweet gum with extensive and suggestive scaling and large bark chips underneath; one of the chips, shown below, appears to have strike marks that are suggestive of IBWO, similar to the ones discussed in this post. I failed to get clear photographs showing the extent of the work on this downed tree, partly due to angle and lighting and partly due to the events discussed below.
There was a nearby hickory snag that had been heavily scaled in the manner that I think is diagnostic, although not recently.
John had moved some distance away while Frank and I examined the tree, and I started taking pictures. As we were doing so, we heard two distinct double knocks in close succession, roughly from the south. This was at approximately 11:15 AM. We remained in place for 30-45 minutes at which time we played back the Singer Tract recordings. John had moved closer to us. Within 30 seconds to a minute of the playback, Frank and I heard a kent-like call. We disagreed about the direction. Frank had it from the Northwest, and I thought it was from the West. Between 30 seconds and one minute later, a large black bird flew in from the west at about 85 yards. My view was fully obstructed, but Frank saw it for several seconds before it took off, at which point John saw it but could not distinguish any field marks.
We proceeded through some very impressive habitat and found some additional scaling in the vicinity, some on a hanging limb and some more on a downed sweet gum. I have now found five downed sweet gums with this type of extensive work in the past year and nothing similar on other species (I did find similar but much less extensive scaling on a downed persimmon, an uncommon species in our area.) This may be significant
The quantity of suggestive and recent bark scaling I found on this trip relative to time spent was remarkably high, as was the possible encounter rate.
I hope to return the search area in about a month and may do one or two posts on other subjects before then. Stay tuned.
Weather conditions were poor for a good part of this trip, but we did the best we could under the circumstances.
I flew from New York to Louisiana on Christmas Day. During a layover in Dallas, I was uninterested in the food offerings in the terminal from which my puddle-jumper flight was slated to depart. I hopped on the tram to the international terminal and found a place to have lunch. There was a young guy sitting at the table next to mine, and we started talking while waiting for our checks. It turns out he grew up within 15 miles of our search area and thinks he saw an IBWO while hunting near his childhood home about ten years ago. I did not press him for details, but it was clear from the conversation that he knows Pileated Woodpeckers; I was also confident that he was sincere. Leaving the coincidence aside, it’s astonishing how many people in this part of Louisiana claim to have seen IBWOs in hardwood bottoms.
During this trip, we also encountered a couple of duck hunters who were already aware of our search. One of them said, “If I saw one, I wouldn’t tell anybody,” which is considerably less worrisome than what I’ve heard people say in other places. The big concern for most is that finding IBWOs means the end of hunting in the area. We assured him that would not be the case. The thing for searchers to stress in this context is that success will mean that more forest is protected.
On Friday, December 26th, Frank Wiley and I went to the northernmost sector, traversed a swath of tornado blowdown, and went to the site of our game cam. There is nothing of great significance to report from that day, except finding the somewhat unusual excavation discussed in this post. There is a good deal of old suggestive feeding sign in this area, but we found nothing fresh.
We returned to the same location on Saturday and aimed two Reconyx cameras at the target tree that will be shown and discussed in an upcoming post that Frank is writing and will complete when he recovers from the flu. We hope that having two cameras in one location, with different orientations and shooting cycles, will yield better results than deploying just one.
At a little after noon, Frank heard a single knock coming from the blowdown. It was followed by calling from a Barred Owl, a Pileated Woodpecker, and a Red-shouldered Hawk. On the full recording of the ensuing events, I can be heard saying “I thought I heard a knock out that way.” I had forgotten about this until I listened to the recording. Weak possibles are so frequent in our search area that I tend to dismiss them. The knock I heard must have come from the blowdown as well, since I pointed my camera in that direction. Frank did a double knock, and I recorded the “response” discussed in my December 27th post.
We left the swamp ahead of the rain on the 27th, and it rained heavily through the 28th. On the 29th, we were joined by several biologists and divided into two groups. I tried to take my group to the area where I recorded possible ivorybill calls in March 2012, but water levels were too high to do much, so we went to explore some new territory to the northeast. A map of the logging history suggested that some of these woods would be very impressive, but in comparison to some of the other patches, we did not find this to be the case. There is a large area of blowdown that merits further attention, and we know the habitat south of the blowdown to be outstanding; there was a good concentration of old feeding sign near the edges of the blowdown. There are several other bottomland areas in the northern and northeastern sectors that we haven’t visited yet and that appear not to have been logged since the early 20th century (1905, 1910, and 1916).
Frank took the other group into an area that has been surveyed a little more. One member of his team heard a weak possible double knock.
On the 30th, the weather was cloudy, windy, and cold. We took our three remaining guests to the site of the game cams to give them a sense of the scale and the context for some of the images to be discussed in Frank’s post. The general view was that the blowdown might be an important area. We hiked out at a little after 1 pm, and two of our guests departed. We took our remaining guest to the easternmost sector, a narrow corridor of mature bottomland hardwoods around a smaller stream. This area has had concentrations of fresh scaling in past years. At around 3:30 pm, after doing an ADK series, Frank heard two double knocks a couple of minutes apart. Neither our guest nor I heard them, but approximately two minutes later, we both heard a distinct DK that Frank missed. We disagreed about direction but both thought it was more consistent with typical Campephilus double knocks than the one I recorded on the 27th, with a shorter intra-knock interval and a softer second knock. We had no doubt that it was a double knock on a woody substrate.
On the 31st, Frank and I explored a mostly unvisited area, to the south of what Frank calls “Jurassic Park”. This is one of the widest swathes of bottomland hardwoods in the area, and it is very impressive; there are many patches of open canopy forest, with massive superdominant oaks and sweet gums like this one, which has a DBH of 4’2”.
We’ve only scratched the surface in this very large sector (which includes Jurassic Park) that our history suggests was last logged in 1908.
There was abundant scaling scattered throughout, mostly old, with one sweet gum (?) showing a large area of fresh work fairly high up.
While this fresh scaling does not quite match the criteria for what we think is diagnostic, since it shows some signs of layered working and has a couple of small foraging pits, it is still quite extensive, and at least from a distance, the limb appeared to be live or very recently dead. Some large exit tunnels are visible on close examination.
Also, while in this sector, we did an extended playback of the Singer Tract recordings. The playbacks did not generate any suggestive sounds, but several American Crows and two Red-Shouldered Hawks came in to investigate. The crows called, but the hawks did not vocalize. We don’t know whether the response of other birds to ivorybill sounds or imitations thereof is an indication of presence, but we are intrigued by it. It happens frequently in our area. Red-shouldered Hawks, in particular, react strongly to double knocks.
Weather was a severe problem on this trip, preventing us from going into the field on December 27th, January 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. On the 2nd I made a brief visit to the area described by the man I met in the Dallas airport. I was reluctant to go off the main gravel roads in my small, 2-wheel drive rental, and there was no obvious public access to the narrow stream bottom. I drove through a recent clearcut of about 40 acres. This looked to have been a stand of mature hardwoods. There is some measure of connectivity with our search area, and there are numerous smaller riparian corridors in the region. If birds are breeding in this part of Louisiana, there are ample possibilities for movement and dispersal through habitat that is not quite as impressive.
I recorded this today in the northern sector.
The first sound is Frank Wiley’s double knock with cypress dowels on a tree. The response comes approximately nine seconds later. There was no human activity in the vicinity at the time, and the spectrogram makes it clear that the source is natural. The intra-knock interval appears close to what would be expected for a large Campephilus woodpecker, approximately .11 seconds.
This was at a site where we’ve now got two cameras deployed. Frank will be posting a discussion of the pros and cons of game cams in the near future.
Edited to provide more context: I should have included this potentially significant detail – prior to my turning on the camera, Frank Wiley heard an ambient single knock that I missed. This was followed by agitated calling from a Pileated Woodpecker, Barred Owl vocalizations, and scolding from several Red-headed Woodpeckers, all of which I heard. The single knock gave him the impetus to do a single ADK. Thus, the circumstances were somewhat different from the typical use of ADKs as an attempt to attract or generate a response.
On further edit 12/31: I’ve modified the title from “. . .Apparent Double Knock in Response” to “Apparent Double Knock in Apparent Response” to correct the logical fallacy in the previous headline.