I was in the field from March 5-17; others were around before and after. Thanks to the whole team and a couple of guests for their hard work and contributions in the field this trip. We completed the swap out of recording devices in three days, which left a lot of field time afterwards. We were very fortunate in that only one unit was tampered with and only a couple malfunctioned. This is a very low rate of loss for these units.
We continue to have possible encounters in the area, perhaps at a higher rate than in past seasons, though the number of potential observers and time spent in the area has increased this year. And we have gotten some very preliminary results from the first round of deployments.
In addition to the audio deployments, we’re focused on obtaining DNA this season and have been refining the protocol for doing so. On this trip we collected samples from a couple of different forms of feeding sign, one I think is more promising than the other.
Here’s the basic protocol: collect a small quantity of material from places where a woodpecker’s tongue may have been; place it in a vial containing buffer and seal. With luck, genetic material can be obtained from these surfaces, and we can rule in or rule out ivorybill as the source of some kinds of feeding sign.
We also plan to collect samples from the most promising cavities. And are evaluating them following Cornell’s criteria. Cavities are graded:
A: very large cavity in size range of IBWO with irregular oval or rectangular shape (4.0–4.75in [10.2–12.1cm] wide and 5.0– 5.75in [12.7–14.6cm] tall);
B: cavity larger than typical PIWO cavity but shape is fairly regular, nearly perfect round or oval; or, cavity of irregular shape and within upper size range for PIWO, and lower size range for IBWO (3.5in x 3.7in or [8.8cm x 9.5cm] large PIWO and 4.0in x 5.0in [10.1cm x 12.8cm] small IBWO);
C: cavity of fairly regular shape, nearly perfect oval or round, in the upper size range for PIWO and lower size range for IBWO. Same dimensions as for B.
Here are some promising cavities (I’d grade all of them A or high B) I found last trip, plus some we know are being used by other species. I found more cavities this trip than I ever have in the past, mostly because I was paying attention. There’ll be some explanation in the captions. The truth is, no one really knows about cavities; I’ve seen a lot of variation in what PIWOs do; so a lot of this is speculation. I do think scaling or suggestive feeding sign on a tree with a cavity in it may be an indicator, including that the cavity is a former nest.
It can be a tough call. The first pair of cavities shown below is being used (and was likely excavated by) Red-bellied Woodpeckers. The size is deceptively large, but the small diameter of the high limb is an indicator.
The intriguing cavity below was being used as a PIWO roost but would probably have been graded A for its large size and irregular shape. There’s a second, possibly connected, cavity slightly higher and to the the left. Both are oddly shaped. The snag is severely decayed. But again, we have very limited information, so there’s no way to know whether IBWOs might avoid badly decayed snags.
Regarding feeding sign, extensive scaling on boles, especially of mature trees with tight bark, seems likeliest for Ivory-billed Woodpecker work. Hickories are the highest priority within this category, and we have only found a few such trees over the years. Extensively scaled sweet gums, like the one shown, are worth noting too. A second category, involving smaller sweet gums and branches, is also intriguing. Ambrosia beetles are the prey species involved in this work, which involves extensive stripping and targeted digs into the insect chambers.
In all cases, it’s important to distinguish scaling from shallow excavation with associated bark removal.
The appearance of this work is distinctive. The bark is removed cleanly, and there’s almost no damage to the underlying wood, except for expansion of the exit tunnels on the surface. We hope that DNA can be extracted from these tunnels and that the scaling shown in the first image is fresh enough to be a good candidate. Based on the life-cycle of the beetles involved, I suspect this work is likelier to be found in the latter part of spring and through summer, but keep your eyes open anyway.
We’re finding that Pileateds also feed on hickories and begin by removing bark. They go about it in a different way, however, excavating through the bark and into the sapwood. The appearance of Pileated work on hickories is similar but somewhat different. It tends to be patchier, without less extensive and contiguous bark removal. The chips are smaller, a mix of bark and sapwood, and the appearance of the wood in the areas where bark has been removed is distinctly different, as in the images below.
Extensive scaling on boles of other species is also noteworthy and may have DNA collection potential. There’s more room for overlap between what IBWO and what PIWO might be able to do, since the properties of hickory bark are unique. Look for extensiveness, large to enormous chips, and lack of damage to the underlying wood.
The final category involves sweet gum saplings and small to medium-sized limbs. I have found this distinctive appearing work in only two years, in a small cluster in 2015 and in a single example this season. The bark is extensively, indeed almost entirely, stripped. Chips on the ground should be large. Leaves should be still attached. The beetles’ brood chambers should have been vigorously attacked, and you may see superficial horizontal scratches in the sapwood (not the deeper grooves that used to be mistakenly ascribed to IBWO).
This was a longer trip than usual, and I was wiped out when I got home. We will be returning at the end of April to collect the units. This will mark the end of the deployments for this season, though we will continue to work with the trail cams, with a couple transferred to new locations. I’m hoping to have a guest post from a team member before the next trip.
I’ve gone through some additional cards and have some more data on squirrels from the deployment that had squirrel captures earlier this spring. As with the results for Pileated Woodpeckers foraging on hickories, I think this tends to exclude squirrels as the source of extensive scaling on standing mature boles. That will be the subject of the next post, which should be up within a week. In the interim, here’s the October trip report I’ve been promising.
We had no possible encounters and found little suggestive feeding sign this time around.
I spent the first two days with Matt Courtman (and his brother on the second day) in the vicinity of last November’s Saucier sighting. The first day was rainy enough to depress avian activity but not quite enough to keep us indoors. The ground was wet but mostly not unbearably muddy.
The second day, we found a scaled sugarberry (Celtis laevigata). Tanner called this species hackberry, which is the common name, but it’s not to be confused with the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), which is found farther north. Despite the appearance, the tree was either barely alive or very recently dead, since leaves were still visible on the upper branches.
Sugarberry bark is thin, and it can fracture and break off in large chunks. Pileated Woodpecker is a possibility for this type of scaling, but it is interesting nonetheless, and it strongly resembles ivorybill work on a sugarberry (mislabeled as a “gum”) photographed by Allen and Kellogg in the Singer Tract.
There were also horizontal bill marks on the surface of the wood. These were interesting and perhaps suggestive; these superficial scratches are the only horizontal markings on sapwood that I think may be suggestive of ivorybill.
There is so much potential habitat in this area that I’m unsure how to go about searching it, given our small team and limited time and resources.
I spent the balance of my time in our main search area. Tommy Michot and our new team member (I hope to include some of his photographs in a future post) joined me for part of the trip. Because we now have 8 functioning trail cams in the field, much of my time is devoted to servicing the cameras and changing cards.
On the last day, Matt, Lauren (his wife), and I explored a very narrow corridor of near old-growth forest that stretches for several miles to the east of the main search area. We also spoke to someone who had ivorybill sightings, though not recent ones, in the area discussed in this post.
We found more fresh beaver sign than I’m used to. The tree shown is an ash, uncommon in our search area.
It was a very snaky trip. I had a few near misses with cottonmouths. A coral snake was a major highlight, spotted and avoided on the road by the new Coyote. I was even able to capture it briefly on video before it buried itself.
We saw turtles too.
And all the rain meant fungi were plentiful (including a meal’s worth of chanterelles, not shown but brought home and enjoyed).
There was plenty of woodpecker activity, though it was sporadic, and there was not much drumming. It’s always tough to get good pictures with leaves on the trees, but this Red-headed Woodpecker was cooperative.
In all my years of searching, I had never found the remains of a Pileated Woodpecker until the trip before this one. It’s a little unnerving for this to happen back to back. I also found Red-shouldered Hawk remains (though not in the same vicinity). I worry that these birds may have been shot, though there’s no evidence for it. The remains, feathers and a few bones, were on top of a log, suggesting that a raccoon was the last creature involved.
One of our trail cams was hit by a falling limb, and was aiming skyward when found. It appears to be functioning and has been re-aimed at the target tree (where there was an intriguing capture in the summer of 2017).
We didn’t find much interesting scaling, although some of the work we found was on oaks, which is rare.
I don’t know the tree species, and Pileated Woodpecker is a possible source, but the work below is unusual. Edith Kuhn Whitehead once told Frank that cambium shredding, possibly like that shown, is suggestive of ivorybill; however, I only heard this second-hand and am not clear about what she meant.
The sunrise on my last field day was spectacular.
Stay tuned for squirrels . . .
I’m still planning a post on historic range and one on questions of evidence but thought I’d take this brief detour first. Tommy Michot is braving the Louisiana summer to change batteries and cards and to deploy an additional trail cam. We’re trying to service the cameras and replace the cards on a bimonthly basis. If there’s anything noteworthy on the cards, I’ll adjust my posting schedule accordingly. Look for the historic range post within a couple of weeks and the one on evidence a few weeks after that, before the start of search season in October.
This is the first time I’ve devoted an entire post to someone else’s effort. Though I’ve received a number of other intriguing reports, I’ve chosen to write about this one for a couple of reasons. First, I want to counteract the oft-repeated notion that reports have dried up in areas where intensive searches have taken place. Second, the searcher in question has found intriguing feeding sign as recently as 2017. The images included in this post are among the most suggestive I’ve seen from outside our search areas and tick most of my Ivory-billed Woodpecker boxes. I use the word ‘among’ advisedly here, since virtually all the feeding sign imagery that I’ve found intriguing comes from the Choctawhatchee, including the images showing extensive work on this page from the site devoted to the Auburn search.
The source of the report is an experienced birder and photographer named Rick Sellers. He has generously agreed to my posting this and allowed me to include some of his photographs. His first sighting was in 2012, approximately four years after organized searching came to end in the area and approximately seven miles downstream from Auburn’s ‘hot zone’. Rick shared the details with his family members and with Geoff Hill at the time and posted his email to his family on ibwo.net in March, 2014:
No doubt about it! While in the swamp today, I heard a large woodpecker hammering in the direction of a stand of slash pines at the edge of the swamp. I headed that way and just as I entered the clearing I saw the silhouette of a large dark bird leaving a tall tree on the other side of the stand of pines. I couldn’t ID it because the overcast sky was too bright. All I saw was the dark silhouette against the sky but the bird was clearly larger than a pileated woodpecker and flew loon-like, not undulating like a pileated. There had been a fire in recent years in this area and about 50% of the pines were dead showing extensive bark scaling, diagnostic of ivorybill foraging. Lamenting the fact that I had been unable to ID the big bird, I decided to stake out the pine stand, hoping that an ivorybill would return to feed. I found a secluded spot on the edge of the pines next to the swamp, sat down and ate lunch. I sat there for about 45 minutes and then as I was feeling rather drowsy, lay back with my head on my daypack. I was about to doze off when I heard, “kent-kent” coming from the swamp to my right, no more than 100 feet away! Thinking I must have been dreaming, I sat up and listened intently. Then I heard it again, “kent-kent-kent…..kent-kent! Over the next 3 or 4 minutes, I clearly heard 15-20 kents, some louder than others, that sounded exactly like Dan Mennill’s recordings from 2007. There was no doubt in my mind that I was hearing at least one, if not two, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers! Then as suddenly as they started, the kents stopped. I waited about 5 minutes before moving and then walked into the swamp in the direction of the kents. Unfortunately, I neither saw nor heard anything more as I walked around the area from whence the kents came. I plan to go back tomorrow bright and early and stake out the pines again. (end of email)
Since that encounter, I have been back to the Choctawhatchee at least 10 times for a week at a time. I have hiked and kayaked many miles but have had no more encounters. I am not discouraged, though. Just that one encounter is enough to keep me going until I can get the video or photo of the bird.
Rick informs me that he has had one possible sighting since the time he posted – a large woodpecker showing a lot of white – but that his confidence level is only around 50%.
Rick suspects that the birds do much of their feeding in upland pines outside the floodplain, which is where he had his sighting. He shared a couple of images from the location of his sighting with the notations showing the bird’s path.
Some of the scaling in this stand of pines is extensive, but none of it strikes me as being beyond the capacity of a Pileated Woodpecker. On its own, the work shown in these images would be unlikely to pique my interest. But as in our search area, fire killed pines in surrounding uplands are, at least potentially, a major food source.
What really captured my attention were a couple of photographs. I found the first on Rick’s Facebook page. It was taken in 2017. The tree may be a tupelo, but I’m not sure. The bark is thin, and regardless of species, it is undoubtedly weaker and more easily scaled than hickory. There are also some hints of layered removal, akin to blonding. Nevertheless, a number of characteristics suggest Ivory-billed Woodpecker to me – the mostly clean edges, the lack of damage to or excavation of the underlying sapwood, and the targeted expansion of already large exit tunnels. This is unusual work, and it’s what inspired me to reach out to Rick for more information.
Rick subsequently shared images of a scaled spruce pine he found in 2017. And while I’ve generally taken the view that there’s no way to recognize Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on conifers, this sign is strikingly similar to the work on hickories that we’re finding and also to the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. The work is very extensive; there’s virtually no blonding or damage to the sapwood, except for targeted digging around the exit tunnels. It ticks my ivorybill boxes, save for the fact that it’s on a softwood and there was no chance to examine the bark chips. The final image below is a detail from one of our hickories for comparison.
Except for a passing claim on Facebook about recent ivorybill sightings along the Pea River (a tributary) in Alabama, I’m not aware of other reports of sightings or auditory encounters in the area, but the fact that Rick has continued to find suggestive feeding sign, as recently as last year, suggests to me that the Choctawhatchee merits more attention than it has gotten since Auburn left. Of course, the same is true of many other areas, but this is the only instance where I’ve seen feeding sign that I strongly suspect is the work of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. If I were looking for a place to search, the Choctawhatchee would be at or near the top of my list.
Updated – Emerald Ash Borers and Blonding: A Large Body of Bark Scaling Evidence Tends to Rule Out Pileated Woodpecker as The Source of Scaling on HickoriesPosted: July 11, 2018
A couple of initial housekeeping notes: I still plan to do a second, more conceptual post on ivorybill evidence, one on historic range, and possibly another on non-IBWO trail cam imagery. Look for those over the course of the summer. I thought this subject should take precedence and have changed plans accordingly. The photographs (other than my own), which I’m including in the largest possible sizes, are courtesy of bugwood.org (under a Creative Commons License) and Patowmack the trickster.
Thanks to John Kearvell for inspiring me to pursue this subject.
The emerald ash borer or EAB (Agrilus planipennis) is an invasive Buprestid beetle. The first known North American outbreak was near Detroit, Michigan in 2002. Since that time, the species has spread to 33 states and three Canadian provinces.
Bark scaling, especially by Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus), is one reliable indicator of EAB infestation, and Pileated Woodpecker populations appear to increase as a result of outbreaks. Thus, there is now a large body of data on bark scaling that was not previously available for comparison with suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) work.
All of the numerous examples of white or green ash (Fraxinus americana or pennsylvanica) scaling by Pileated Woodpeckers (and presumably smaller woodpecker species as well) found online show “blonding” or removal of bark in layers. This may be due to anatomical limitations that preclude Pileated Woodpeckers from removing thick, tight bark in large pieces. Suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on hickories – which have harder, tougher, tighter bark than ash – shows no trace of blonding or gradual removal. I think this excludes Pileated Woodpecker as the source of the hickory scaling.
Introduction: The Emerald Ash Borer
EABs are believed to have arrived in North America in packing materials. The first outbreak began near Detroit in 2002, and the species has spread rapidly since then, decimating native ashes wherever it goes. All indications are that this invasive insect will have an impact akin to that of Dutch elm disease or chestnut blight, concerted quarantine efforts notwithstanding. Because EABs were a recent arrival and had not been well-studied during the first decade of the 2000s, their relevance to the issue of bark scaling does not appear to have been recognized by the formal searches that were conducted during that period.
While the invasion’s impact has already been devastating, EAB larvae are attractive to woodpeckers, especially Pileated Woodpeckers (Koenig and Liebhold, 2017), and bark scaling is one of the most obvious symptoms of infestation. (This attractiveness may have future implications for any surviving ivorybills as the EAB expands its range.)
Unlike many bole dwelling Cerambycidae, such as Hesperandra polita, which spend the bulk of their lifecycle in the heartwood and do minimal damage to the cambium, EAB larvae live, feed, and pupate just beneath the bark, eventually destroying the cambium. This causes the bark to fracture and sometimes to slough off by itself. In the very dramatic example shown below, I suspect that woodpeckers were involved in most, if not all, of the bark removal but only reached the sapwood well after the bark had started to loosen, fracture, and perhaps fall off on its own. Nevertheless, there are still signs of layered removal on the edges of the scaled/sloughed area.
When I started researching this subject, I was unaware that the term blonding had been applied to woodpecker work in pursuit of EABs, but it has become a widely-used (and apt) descriptive. It refers to the appearance of ash trees or parts thereof, after woodpeckers have started removing the outer bark in pursuit of EAB larvae and pupae. The process of reaching the sapwood appears to be a slow one, and after examining hundreds of images showing of bark scaling on ash trees, I have been unable to find a single example that was devoid of blonding, even when very extensive work was involved.
Patowmack the Trickster’s photo is the most extensive example of apparent Pileated Woodpecker scaling on an EAB infested tree that I’ve been able to find. The tree appears to be fairly long dead – based on the extent of the superficial excavation (tunnels are no longer distinct), the apparent fracture in the trunk at the center of the frame, and on the apparent separation of the bark from the sapwood that’s most distinct on the lower right edge of the scaled surface. While the extent of this work is impressive, I’d suspect PIWO even in potential ivorybill habitat – based on the appearance of the surface, the state of decay and seeming looseness of the bark, and the blonding, which is most evident at the top and at the lower left.
While smaller woodpeckers are responsible for some ash blonding, Pileated Woodpeckers are likely the primary source, especially when the work is as extensive as in the examples shown above. Images of Pileated Woodpeckers on blonded surfaces are considerably easier to find than ones involving other species. This brief video catches a PIWO in the act, on an extensively blonded tree, and points to the difficulty PIWOs face when scaling tight, thick bark.
Blonding on Other Tree Species
I have found blonding or its equivalent on a number of other tree species, so it is not exclusively related to any characteristics of ash bark. Rather, I think it is a function of Pileated Woodpecker anatomy. I have seen this on limbs, including sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) limbs, in our search area and have described it as a “layered” appearance.
It may be possible for Pileated Woodpeckers to remove tight bark from small to medium branches without leaving traces of blonding, especially if the bark is weakened or it comes from a species (like sweet gum) that is relatively soft and thin. Removing thick bark from mature boles is something else again, and I suspect that even when bark has loosened considerably, traces of blonding will often be visible when the work is done by Pileated Woodpeckers.
I have found one extreme example of suspected, extensive PIWO blonding on a bole in Louisiana. I think the tree involved is a sweet gum, but if it is an ash, it would be from a location well outside the range of the EAB today, let alone in 2011 when the tree was found. While blonding is easily visible on the trunk, it can also be recognized by examining bark chips.
I have seen the equivalent of blonding on loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) in the southeast and on softwoods in Westchester County, New York. The bark of most conifers is weaker and less tightly adhering than that of most hardwoods, and it typically becomes easy to scale far more rapidly. This is why I long since abandoned the idea that softwood scaling might be suggestive of ivorybill, unless it involves extensive work on multiple large trees.
I have also found it on live and dead hardwoods in Westchester County, NY. The first pair of images below, which I’ve posted previously, shows fresh, known Pileated Woodpecker work on a Norway maple (Acer platanoides) in my yard. (I saw the bird.) The second pair is from a local park. The snag, which I believe is a large sassafras (Sassafras albidum), appeared to be fairly long dead.
Ash Bark v. Hickory Bark
Ash bark resembles that of bitternut and pignut hickories (Carya cordifromis and Carya glabra), so much so that an arborist mistook the pignut that grows outside my office window for an ash and advised me to monitor it for EABs. Testing bark hardness with a fingernail is one way to avoid confusion. Ash bark feels corky, whereas hickory bark is extremely hard. Last year, I wrote an in-depth post on the characteristics of hickory bark and the reasons it is exceptionally difficult to remove. I won’t recapitulate it here, except to say that hickory bark is considerably harder and stronger than that of virtually any other genus. It is also tighter when trees are dormant or dead, as these reposted tables suggest.
The values shown are for shagbark hickory (Carya ovata), which is slightly stronger, tougher and tighter than bitternut or pignut. While white and green ash bark is considerably stronger and tougher than sweet gum and white ash bark is harder to remove from dead trees, neither species comes close to hickory in any category, except bark tightness when sap is flowing.
I suspect that the extreme strength and toughness of bitternut and pignut hickory bark renders it impervious to blonding. Certain pignuts may be a partial exception, as the outermost bark layer on that species is sometimes slightly subject to flaking. I removed the outer layer of bark from the pignut hickory mentioned above to illustrate; the inner layer is very hard and tight.
Our observations thus far suggest that Pileated Woodpeckers can excavate through hickory bark, leaving behind small pieces, and can remove narrow strips of hickory bark from already scaled areas.
We have found nothing to indicate that Pileateds can go straight from outer bark to sapwood and remove the hand-sized chunks we’ve found under the scaled hickories in the search area.
All of this strongly supports the hypothesis that Pileated Woodpeckers are incapable of scaling hickories in the manner that I believe to be characteristic of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I’d further argue that the absence of blonding on boles of any hardwood species may be suggestive of ivorybill, provided the bark is thick (over ~.5″) and tight. This is not to suggest that ivorybill work never shows traces of blonding. Though the image quality is poor, Tanner’s Plate 8 may show it.
Something similar to blonding is visible in examples of scaling by other Campephilus species. Thus, an absence of blonding on scaled hickory boles may be a basis for rejecting Pileated altogether and may be suggestive of ivorybill when other tree species are involved.
On a recent visit to a park in Orange County, New York, I found many EAB infested, blonded ash trees. I only had my iPhone with me, but I took some close ups and one shot of the chips on the ground. I also collected some chips and photographed them at home. One of these chips was particularly interesting; while it include some of the outer bark, most of it was from an intermediate layer, further illustrating how the bark is flaked off and that multiple events of stripping are involved before the cambium is exposed.
Evidence collected by Project Coyote in two parts of Louisiana from 2009-2018 should, on its own, suffice to justify maintaining the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s current listing as an extant, endangered species in the United States. Others may differ, but I think the totality of the evidence does even more, making a compelling case that the species persists in more than one Louisiana location.
This will be a two part post. The initial impetus for writing it was a conversation I had with Erik Hendrickson about how the scientific, birding, and legal approaches to evidence seem to differ. That will be the main focus of Part 2. As for Part 1, after talking to Erik, I realized that I’d never done a single post aggregating the evidence we’ve obtained over the years, so when it was announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be conducting a status review for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the need for writing this up became more urgent. That’s the primary focus of Part 1, but some of what I’m planning for Part 2 will be foreshadowed in this lengthy treatment.
There is a strong tendency to privilege visual evidence over other forms – audio and circumstantial. I’m inclined to think that our audio evidence is the most compelling material overall; as regular readers know, I also think circumstantial evidence, feeding sign in particular, is very important. But the structure of this post will track conventional attitudes, starting with visual material followed by a discussion of sound recordings and auditory encounters, and concluding with more circumstantial forms of evidence.
Project Coyote has been focused on two areas in Central and East-central Louisiana. I found what I call the “old” search area after reading a newspaper account of a local landowner’s efforts to get his reports taken seriously. This is the landowner who sketched corrections to the Louisiana Hunting Guide’s ivorybill illustrations and who showed Frank Wiley (my late collaborator) bark scaling when he visited the area.
To be clear about what he was trying to show in the corrections: the gentleman died before I had a chance to meet him, but as Frank told me after his August 2009 interview, all of the corrections are in red ink, so the intent was not to put a male crest on a female bird; it was to show the female’s crest as more erect and recurved than the drawing and indicate that the male’s crest also is more erect and prominent (less Pileated-like) than the game guide representation. Also note the drawings at top right, in which he compared IBWO and PIWO wings, implying that the wings in the game guide image are a little too rounded.
What’s most salient about these observations is not whether they are perfectly accurate, although they do seem to reflect some little-known nuances, it’s that the landowner had enough claimed observations of male and female ivorybills to recognize subtle differences and to distinguish them from Pileateds. In addition, he was offended by the treatment he received when he tried to alert the authorities. I have personal knowledge about this last aspect based on conversations with family members who wanted to see him vindicated.
He was certainly convincing enough for Frank to start visiting the property on a weekly basis during the summer of 2009. Thus, Project Coyote was born.
The landowner’s reports go back to the 1990s. (The linked post includes audio from 2009). There are several medium to large state WMAs and National Wildlife Refuges in fairly close proximity to the site. We heard additional claims from residents of the area while we were focused there.
Putative ivorybill activity on the property seems to have diminished or ended altogether after an adjoining parcel was logged in late fall 2010. As a result, we gradually shifted our attention to the new search area.
The old search area received minimal attention during the post-Arkansas period; some peripheral Ivory-billed Woodpecker-related research was conducted in the general vicinity, but there was no formal, funded search effort. Nor was it visited by Cornell’s Mobile Search Team, although Martjan Lammertink did spend several days on site, after the logging.
Similarly, our “new” search area was entirely off the radar. It doesn’t show up on anyone’s list of promising locations, notwithstanding the fact that it is in one of the most sparsely populated, heavily forested parts of the state. There’s also a long history of local reports. Most of the claims seem to have been fairly recent, but some go back to the late 1990s.
And these are only the claims I know about . . .
For reasons that I hope will become clear, I have not kept track of all our possible sightings since 2009 and have not always mentioned them in blog posts. Nevertheless, I’ll begin with sightings. Over the years, Frank had more possibles and reported having better views than anyone else. I’m probably second, with approximately six since 2009, but unfortunately no good looks. Steve Pagans has had several possibles; a few visitors have also made claims.
While this is largely a subject for the next post, it’s well-known that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, at least when the source is an untrained observer. Nevertheless, eyewitness testimony is central to many a criminal trial, and it has a strong impact on jurors. There seems to be a parallel with respect to the ivorybill. Accounts of possible sightings tend to attract more interest than many more substantive and important posts.
Thus my Sunset Sighting post, which is not quite two months old, has had approximately 800 pages views, but my March 18, 2017 post entitled, Numerous Kent-like Calls Recorded on March 11 and 15, 2017 received a total of 744 views last year. Similarly, the post on Joseph Saucier’s October 2017 sighting and our follow-up visit to that location, Change of Pace Change of Place, posted in late November, received 804 page views, the second highest total for the year, (well behind the announcement of Frank’s passing).
According to a survey conducted in the aftermath of the Arkansas controversy, “[R]espondents were most confident in the sightings, less confident in the Luneau video and recordings of double-knocks and kent calls, and least confident in the FishCrow video.” The discrepancy was strongest for the “Definitely of IBWO” category, where 22 people listed sightings as conclusive, compared to 10 for the Luneau video, 9 for kent calls, 8 for double knocks, and 4 for the first Fishcrow video. (PDF) The Great Ivory-billed Woodpecker Debate: Perceptions of the Evidence. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259337980_The_Great_Ivory-billed_Woodpecker_Debate_Perceptions_of_the_Evidence[accessed Jun 28 2018].
So sightings have an almost irresistible appeal; in some cases, there’s good reason to credit them, but it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, to determine what’s trustworthy and what isn’t. And there are many kinds of chaff – wishful thinking, self-delusion, ignorance, mistake, and deception to name the most obvious.
I’ve retrospectively rejected a couple of my possible sightings (and almost did so with the recent “Wooden Wings” incident), partly because I’m disposed to look for reasons to doubt myself and partly because I realized that I was in some way primed in a couple of those instances; for example, in one case, I’d been looking at specimens the day before. In the absence of a good look, I think it’s better to err on the side of self-skepticism.
When it comes to claims from others, it’s impossible to know with certainty what someone else saw, even when reports are accompanied by detailed sketches and field notes, as is the case with several of Frank’s sightings. I was with him for one, on April 3, 2015, when he made notes (available at the link) and a sketch (at my urging). I have no doubt that he was convinced he saw an ivorybill, as he was visibly shaken immediately afterwards and was very slow to regain his composure.
But I really like corroboration, and to the best of my recollection, Frank and I had two possible two-person sightings in all our time together – the first was in the old search area, the day after an auditory encounter and a week before a suggestive trail cam capture was obtained, effectively from the same spot. I consider this my strongest possible sighting.
The second was much weaker, a flyover with two birds seen in silhouette within 15-20 minutes of an ADK series. (Three of my possible sightings, two of which Frank also saw, have been associated with ADKs.) We did not think much of this possible at the time but could not explain it away entirely. I should add that Frank had several other two or more person sightings, but I was not present for those.
With regard to the local reports, I’m always mindful of the possibility that I’m being played, especially as an obvious northerner in rural Louisiana, but I don’t think that has ever happened. It’s still necessary to listen closely and ask the right questions. Pileated, Red-headed, and even Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be confusing for non-birders. I’m more likely to credit accounts from people who make it clear they know Pileateds and know the difference (like the landowner in the old search area) or from people who say they thought the ‘ones with the white backs are the males’ and the ‘ones with the black backs are the females’. I’ve heard this only a couple of times. But I like it best when we get ivorybill claims from different, unconnected people referencing the same location; this has happened in the vicinity of the current search area.
To conclude, members of our group have had multiple sightings of varying quality, in two different Louisiana locations since 2009. In addition, there have been multiple claims from locals in both areas.
One final note, relevant to the USFWS review: I am aware of a number of additional post-2009 claims from Louisiana (and a few from other states). In a couple of cases, Frank interviewed the people involved and found them to be credible. A cellphone video was obtained in one instance; the observers’ excitement over apparently seeing a pair of ivorybills is evident, but the quality of the video is extremely poor. In the other case, two people saw the bird and one provided a highly detailed description and sketch. There’s also Joseph Saucier’s report from last fall; our follow-up suggested that much of the habitat in this large expanse of forest was likely suitable, and Matt Courtman, who is an excellent birder, heard what he thought was a very good double knock on one of his follow-up visits.
I recently posted a couple of Frank’s 2009 sightings and accompanying photographs that hadn’t been made public previously. These are the only photographs associated with possible sightings that we have obtained. Full details are available at the link; rather than recapitulate them here, I’ll focus on trail cam photos, including several that have been discussed previously plus a few intriguing ones from the old search area that have not been posted previously.
These are the images I think are most strongly suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker and for which I am unaware of a strong counterargument.
The first two have been discussed repeatedly at length in a number of other posts. Both are from the old search area; the first was taken in August 2009 and the second, which appears to show a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker, was taken in late November, a week after the sighting discussed in the previous section.
To reiterate a couple of points about the August 2009 image: in the original photograph, there appears to be some red in the crest (though it’s not positioned right for either PIWO or IBWO). Careful review and image enhancement made it clear to me that the red is an artifact and the crest is black. In addition, as shown in the enhanced detail, there appears to be a large, light-colored bill protruding from a cavity in the background. This apparent bill is absent from captures obtained on other days. It changes position in the two frames where it is visible, suggesting it is attached to something within the cavity. (Unfortunately, the other frames from that morning have long since been lost.)
The image of a bird in flight, from the new search area, is more problematic, as it is not demonstrably a woodpecker. The still above includes an inserted Imperial Woodpecker for comparison, with motion blur reduction applied to the bird captured by the trail cam. One prominent birder stated that it is a Blue Jay, but as discussed in the original post, the bird is behind the snag and appears to be as large as or larger than a Pileated Woodpecker captured on the trunk.
Although we’ve determined that one of the initially intriguing images from that deployment shows a Red-headed Woodpecker, a few others remain interesting.
There’s an additional image from the spring of 2010 (old search area) that has always intrigued me, though I never had a chance to examine the original. I think it shows a large woodpecker, with a black crest, high on a honey locust. If it were a Pileated, male or female, I’d expect some red to be visible in the crest, even under these conditions.
Finally, there are a couple of additional trail cam captures from the old search area that I have not posted previously. By now, the original sequences are lost, and I’ve long since forgotten any details or discussion we might have had when Frank sent me the images. While they are far from conclusive, I think they are interesting enough to post in this context. At minimum, they further illustrate the challenges associated with obtaining definitive trail cam imagery.
Note: If you listen to the recordings below with headphones (recommended) be aware that some have loud sounds, clarinet toots and ADKs, in the foreground. This applies to the clip from March 2013 that I recorded and to many of Matt and Phil’s recordings from March 2017.
Possible auditory encounters far outnumber possible sightings, and over the years we have made numerous recordings of putative kents and double knocks (more than once in combination, which should add to their evidentiary value). Some visitors have been rewarded by hearing something within a day or two of arriving, and this has been true in both search areas, although others have been less fortunate, and I heard nothing suggestive during the most recent field season (though Matt Courtman recorded three possible calls in April of this year).
I will not be including all the audio evidence we’ve obtained, just some of the material I think is most significant. Some of the putative kent calls that have been recorded over the years may be Blue Jays; it has been suggested that Matt’s calls from this spring are too low pitched for ivorybill and might be from a heron, though I think they come from the same source. Regardless, many of the calls are simply inconsistent with any known bird species, are fairly close to the Singer Tract recordings harmonically, and are perfectly consistent with written descriptions of Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds.
One of the most dramatic encounters involving both apparent kents and double knocks was from the old search area. It seemed to have been triggered by banging from the tin roof of an old deer stand. Six people were present, and much of the incident was recorded. There were apparently two birds involved. More details are in this post, and here is Frank’s 58 minute recording:
Extracts from the encounter and other material recorded in person and on remote units in the old search area and environs, as well as sonograms, can be found here, via the Wayback Machine. Some of the Wayback Machine links are not functioning, and the material posted there includes a couple of double knocks; here are several of the recorded kent-like calls:
Note that the fundamental frequencies on many, but not all, of these calls are in the 900-925 hz range, higher than the Singer Tract recordings and possibly consistent with Blue Jay. But in the second clip above, the fundamentals of both the lower calls at the beginning and the higher calls at the end appear to be a little over 800 hz., and during the extended encounter mentioned above, the calls went on for a prolonged period without the source revealing itself as a Blue Jay, which would be typical if the animal were indeed a jay.
The same applies to calls I heard and recorded in the new search area on the morning and afternoon of March 2, 2013. The morning calls went on for ~20 minutes. I did not think they were Blue Jays in the field.
We have recorded apparent double knocks in apparent reaction to ADKs and to Barred Owl calls and sometimes in contexts where the trigger is unclear, as in this example from an October 2015 post written by Frank:
“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.”
The 15 minute interval between ADK/playback and apparent response is similar to the lag time that has been observed in other Campephilus woodpeckers responding to ADKs; it may be worth distinguishing between a slower ‘response’ and a more immediate ‘reaction’ in this context. (M. Lammertink, pers. comm.)
In my view, the audio recorded by Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman in March 2017 is compelling, perhaps the most compelling evidence we’ve obtained. On the morning of March 15, they recorded over 200 calls, along with a number of possible double knocks, over an approximately three hour period. The calls have lower fundamental frequencies than many of those in earlier recordings; these frequencies are considerably lower than any kent-like Blue Jay calls I’ve been able to locate online. Other suggestions have included, Red-breasted Nuthatch (too high) and Wild Turkey (no typical Turkey vocalizations were recorded that morning).
Overall, the calls appear to be inconsistent with any other known species of bird, mammal, or amphibian. Their association with Campephilus-like double knocks strengthens the argument for Ivory-billed Woodpecker as the source. As far as I know, the sheer number of recorded calls is unprecedented for a single incident in the post-Singer Tract era.
I was lucky enough to hear a couple of the calls on March 11, the day Phil first captured them, along with a couple more and some knocks at the same location on the following day. I’ve blogged about these recordings at length in multiple posts; I won’t repeat all that material here, but the discussions are worth reading. I will repost some of the original recordings and enhanced versions.
Here is the first recording Phil made, one clip with the calls isolated and one with our talk and reactions. It may be difficult to hear the calls without headphones.
Here are some brief extracts from Phil’s March 15 recordings:
Here are some from Matt’s:
In the interest of brevity, I encourage readers to visit this post for in depth analysis, various extracts, and amplified versions that highlight the calls and some of the knocks. As always, it helps to listen through headphones.
Indirect Evidence: Bark Scaling, Bark Chips, and Cavities
I’ve discussed my bark scaling hypothesis – that a certain type or types of scaling may be diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker – multiple times over the years. As explored in a couple of recent posts, we are in the process of testing it. I won’t recapitulate the hypothesis here except to say that I remain convinced that neither Pileated Woodpeckers nor squirrels are physically capable of removing hickory bark in the manner we’ve found in the new search area. There may be other diagnostic characteristics, but my main focus is now on the hickories, since the work on that species is the most extreme outlier. Below are some dramatic examples of bark scaling (plus one image of interesting feeding sign on a sweet gum sapling that had been stripped of bark) on hickories, oaks, and sweet gums from both search areas.
For Tanner, bark scaling was one of the strongest indicators of ivorybill presence, even though he accepted some reports from trusted sources in areas where he found no scaling. The absence of scaling (along with poor habitat “quality”) was one of his main reasons for dismissing reports during his 1930s survey and rejecting the ones from the Big Thicket in the 1960s. He also doubted reports from the Chipola and Apalachicola area in 1950 based on finding no cavities or scaling during a 4 day visit. He concluded his notes on the trip by stating:
Conclusion: No I-b now in Chipola R. and neighboring Apalach R. swamps. Many of Kelso’s reports are mistaken, – not deliberately false, but due to ignorance and wishful thinking. There appear to be contradictions in some of his stories. I could not get any clear statement of what Ivory-bills sound like from him. He said that the local name of I-b was “Saddleback”, – which appears good but in many ways odd. Also “Van Dyke”! There certainly is no fresh sign in any area we visited indicating that the birds are present. The only possibility is that of scaling on pine; this may be solved by watching Pileateds in the pine woods.
(F. Bryntesson, pers. comm.)
While I think it’s possible, indeed likely, that some of the work Tanner ascribed to ivorybills was done by Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels, there’s no question that an abundance of bark scaling is relevant in assessing possible ivorybill presence in a given area.
Based on visits, some lasting a week or more, to suspected ivorybill haunts in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana and on information provided by other searchers and people who have spent years in southeastern forests, I feel safe in saying that the quantity and quality of bark scaling found in both search areas is unusual. We also found an abundance of scaling in the area where Mr. Saucier had his sighting last year, something that I think lends added credibility to his report.
In the past, many in the searcher community speculated that lateral groves or bill marks in the cambium or sapwood might be suggestive, but this view has fallen out of favor; much of what was thought to be “scaling” in these instances was in fact shallow excavation with associated bark removal. We found one example of superficial lateral marks in 2013 that continues to intrigue me, although the snag in question is a young sweet gum that could easily have been stripped by a squirrel or Pileated Woodpecker.
The edges of the scaled area may tell more of a story, especially in conjunction with any bark chips found on the ground. On the trees shown above, damage to the still-adhering bark suggests that lateral blows were integral to the scaling. This would be expected if the source were a Campephilus woodpecker.
An abundance of large, hard, thick bark chips (or chunks) around the base of a tree is also a likely indicator. Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels seem to remove bark in smaller pieces and in strips. Additionally, when squirrels are involved and the bark has been recently removed, it’s likely that there will be a lot of smaller debris in the mix, since squirrels have to gnaw their way through the bark. Some of the chips we found in the old search area seem to have bill marks consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
The bills of specimens, at least, seem to fit perfectly into indentations in the chips, but Pileated Woodpecker bills seem to be too small. The larger chips shown below are suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker from a variety of species – oak, hickory, sweet gum, sugarberry, and honey locust. The specimen shots are with a honey locust chip from the old search area. The first few images show squirrel and Pileated woodpecker leavings for comparison.
Cavities are vexing. I’ve become convinced that there’s no bright line for distinguishing Pileated from Ivory-billed Woodpecker, notwithstanding the dimensions Cornell gave for “large” PIWO (3.5″ x 3.7″) versus “small” IBWO (4.0″ x 5.0″). The small ivorybill sample was limited to nest holes, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of oddly shaped and large holes being used by Pileated Woodpeckers. Thus, while I keep my eyes open for cavities, I don’t think there’s a reliable way to determine which species is responsible for creating or using large, irregularly shaped cavities, although extensive bark scaling on the tree may be indicator.
It has been a challenge to find cavities of any kind in our current search area, probably due in part to the high canopy. We did find a cluster of interesting cavities in what I call the northern sector in the 2014-2015 season. This cluster was in the vicinity where we’ve found an abundance of scaling over the years and where Phil and Matt made the recordings last year. Below are some of the most interesting cavities we’ve found in the two search areas. Cavities were much easier to find when we followed up on the Saucier sighting, but I’ve omitted those from this document.
In conclusion, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persist in Louisiana. It is self-evident that none of this evidence rises to the level of proof required for establishing beyond all doubt that the species has survived, but I think the case for persistence is a compelling one, without regard to evidence obtained in other areas since 2005.
Stay tuned for a more theoretical discussion of evidence, proof, and professional approaches thereto.
Thanks to Wylie Barrow, Fredrik Bryntesson, Patricia Johnson, Tommy Michot, Steve Pagans, and Phil Vanbergen for their input. Some photos by Steve Pagans and Erik Hendrickson.
Summary/Bottom Line Up Front
5 of our 8 trail camera deployments (a 9th is planned) are targeting unscaled hickories, stubs and live trees that show signs of damage or decline. The main goal is to capture images of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers by identifying potential foraging trees and targeting them in advance of their being scaled (a long shot but the best strategy I can think of). A secondary purpose, especially with targets that already show some scaling, is to test my feeding sign hypothesis by documenting work by Pileated Woodpeckers and Eastern gray or fox squirrels (a much easier task). These are the only other local species that have the capacity to remove large quantities of tight bark from the boles of mature living and recently dead trees, though I suspect this capacity is limited. Results from two deployments, one on a still living but compromised and extensively scaled hickory (4/29-6/6/2018) and the other on a sweet gum stub (5/3-6/4/2018), suggest to me that neither Pileated Woodpeckers nor squirrels are the source of the initial, extensive hickory scaling.
Part 1 will address Pileated Woodpecker activity on the hickory, followed by a brief discussion of my visit to the search area from June 6-11. Part 2, which should be up within a week or so, will focus on squirrels, especially their activity on the sweet gum stub, which I think is analogous to the Pileated Woodpecker activity on the hickory. These are preliminary findings that may be contradicted by data obtained in future, but thus far they support the suggestion that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are the source of the initial scaling.
Our PlotWatcher Pro trail cameras are dedicated time-lapse (as opposed to motion- activated) units. We set them to capture images at 20 second intervals, approximately between sunrise and sunset. The proprietary software makes it possible to create QuickTime movie versions of the time-lapse stills. The QuickTime versions are worth watching and are illustrative of behavior, but it’s important to remember that they are compilations of still images, not actual videos. Thus, it’s also worth stepping through them frame by frame. This will be an image heavy post but with a lot of analysis. I hope you’ll stay with it.
I am not planning to do posts on every review of every trail cam deployment but will post results that I think are a relevant or interesting to readers – PIWOs and squirrels spending time on scaled areas or removing bark, most or all woodpecker hits, mammals that are infrequently seen, identifiable birds, but not squirrels running up and down tree trunks.
Before turning to a discussion of the trail cam imagery, I’ll take this opportunity to restate and elaborate on my hypothesis. The imagery and discussion will be familiar to some readers, but I hope the new data will shed additional light, even for those who know the material.
Initially, I hypothesized that certain types of bark scaling might be diagnostic for ivorybill. Bear in mind, my focus has been on identifying a diagnostic, not covering the full range of what Ivory-billed Woodpeckers might do, so my criteria, especially this specific restatement thereof, may be overly narrow. Over time, and based on trail cam captures of Pileated Woodpeckers and a squirrel doing some scaling that seemed to match Tanner’s descriptions, I have refined and limited the hypothesis as follows:
A particular and distinctive looking type of extensive scaling (large contiguous areas with bark removed) with associated insect tunnels on bitternut and pignut hickory boles – live trees, snags, and stubs – may be diagnostic for ivorybill. For recent work, the presence of large bark chips at the base of such trees is a related potential diagnostic.
The tree on the home page (shown below) is one example. Numerous insect tunnels, some with signs of having been expanded by woodpeckers, must be visible. The appearance of the scaled areas is such that I can recognize older work even in the absence of chips. Because standing hickories (in drier areas at least) are slow to decay and the bark can remain tight for years, older examples persist, and I’ve found many of those over the years.
The hypothesis is founded on Tanner’s descriptions of scaling (although bitternut and pignut hickories were absent from the Singer Tract) and on the anatomical characteristics of Campephilus woodpeckers versus those of Dryocopus or Melanerpes, which appear to lack the physical capacity to do this type of work or do it extensively. The characteristics of hickory bark – chemical composition, strength, tightness, and thickness – are also central. I think the same limitation applies to squirrels, at least on hickories. This is not to exclude squirrels and PIWOs from coming along after the initial scaling and expanding it.
It recently struck me that grain may play a major role in limiting Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels from scaling on hickories. Both species seem to follow the grain when stripping bark. Bitternut and pignut hickory bark differs from that of many bottomland hardwoods in having criss-crossed grain, making it considerably harder to remove, except in narrow strips like these, presumably removed from the target tree by a PIWO last year.
Based on the recent observations, PIWOs are more likely to dig through hickory bark to reach the sapwood than they are to scale it. I suspect it’s the case with the presumed 2015 PIWO “scaling” on hickory shown below, which is the only example of that type of work I’ve found. The differences may appear subtle in the photo, but they are more pronounced in situ; the work is patchy and discontinuous, and there are few or no exit tunnels. The chips at the base of this tree were small and included sapwood, indicating that this was actually shallow excavation with associated bark removal, something that is often and easily confused with true scaling.
Since 2013, we have found approximately 20 hickories that appear to have been recently or freshly scaled. Below are additional examples, plus some that were presumably several years old when photographed. In the case of the tree on the home page, the scaling was very fresh when found. I have not found any recent looking work of this type since March of 2015, though Phil found some last year that were probably scaled during 2016; one of these is the target tree in the sequences shown below. Steve Pagans has found several examples, but I’m not sure of any recent ones. Note the expansion of the exit tunnels, which makes it evident that woodpeckers have been active on the scaled surfaces.
A Cerambycid infesting the trees has been identified as Parandra or Hesperandra polita, a medium-sized, bole dwelling species with a 3-5 year life cycle.
H. polita remains, apparently of 2 adults, were found in one of the ivorybill stomachs examined by Cottam; it was collected in West Carroll Parish, August 19, 1903 and is referenced by Tanner. The adults of this species remain under the bark for some time after metamorphosis.
There may be additional subtle features, including chip characteristics and general appearance, that are relevant to other tree species and may be indicative if not diagnostic. A very nearly dead sweetgum, which had an intriguing cavity, from the old search area, is one example.
Trail Cam Captures – Hickory – April 29 -June 6, 2018
Over the course of this deployment, Pileated Woodpeckers were photographed on the target tree on 10 of 36 days, sometimes briefly and sometimes for periods of over 20 minutes. On some days in the latter part of the deployment, intervening foliage partially or fully blocked the lens, so it is possible there were additional visits. The camera is trained on the base of the scaled area, which extends to the broken top of the bole, and some of the sequences make it clear that pileateds are visiting the upper part of the scaled area as well. Phil Vanbergen found this tree last season; it is still living, although the sapwood is already somewhat punkier than what I’ve found on many longer dead hickories.
The first important point is that very little bark was removed over the course of this deployment, despite considerable time spent by Pileated Woodpeckers on the scaled area. The first two images are from the first and last days of the deployment for purposes of comparison. The new work is so minimal that it is only noticeable in the field upon close examination of the edges.
Pileated Woodpeckers were photographed on May 1, May 3, May 8, May 12, May 21, May 25, May 28, May 30, June 1, and June 4. A Hairy Woodpecker was captured on April 30 and on May 12. There were no squirrel captures on the scaled area. Individual frames and time-lapse films (when birds were present for more than a couple of captures) of the Pileated sequences follow. If you choose to watch/step through just one clip, I suggest the one from May 28, in which two birds are present, but viewing all of them will provide a better sense of what took place.
In addition to removing only a modest quantity of bark along the already scaled edge, despite being present on the scaled surface for over an hour altogether, it appears that the Pileateds are not actually stripping the bark but instead are excavating through it. This is also suggested by the quality of the bark chips on the ground. (The caption predates this imagery.)
The same appears to be the case for the presumed Pileated “scaling” on hickory in the preceding section. It’s unclear what the woodpeckers were seeking in terms of food, since there is no evidence of current or recent Cerambycid tunnels. In any event, the sequences give evidence of what Pileated Woodpeckers do on hickories, and just how inefficient they are at removing bark.
In the images we captured last year from a nearby deployment (on another scaled tree Phil found, approximately 100 yards away), the Pileated appeared to be scaling bark rather than digging through it, and this too was a very inefficient process. It involved removing long narrow strips, distinctly different from the chunks of bark shown above. In a sequence Frank and I captured on the homepage tree back in 2013, a Pileated appeared on that very recently scaled tree but removed no bark at all; a Hairy Woodpecker also appeared and removed a very small piece. (Scroll down to the bottom of that post for the relevant images.)
The trail cam captures validate my prediction that the source of this most recent work is Pileated Woodpecker.
Thus, we have documented multiple instances of Pileated Woodpeckers foraging on trees suspected to have been initially scaled by ivorybills. None of the imagery thus far shows pileateds removing bark rapidly, efficiently, or extensively. Such bark as they do remove is from areas that are already compromised, although I have found a single example of hickory bark presumably removed solely by a Pileated Woodpecker; it differs markedly from what I’ve hypothesized is Ivory-billed Woodpecker work. While it is difficult to prove a negative, the data gathered thus far suggests that Pileated Woodpeckers do not or cannot extensively scale tight bark from hickories. I suspect they lack the ability to do so.
Other Interesting Trail Cam Images
While these trail cams have limited usefulness, except at close range, all of our cameras are close to their main targets. They are positioned close enough for me to recognize lizards and even insects on the trunk but not identify species. Identification problems can exist for small birds too. I suspect the bird in the image below is a Brown Creeper, though I’m prepared to be corrected as it is so poorly resolved. If it is a Brown Creeper, it would be the latest record for the species in Louisiana.
And this series shows what appears to be a bobcat, at the lower right.
Some Brief Comments on the Trip
Nothing strongly suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker was seen or heard – no ambient sounds or responses to ADKs. Tommy Michot joined me on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday morning. We deployed the 8th trail cam, aiming it at the bole of a sweet gum snag that has a scaled area; I suspect Pileated Woodpecker was the source, and squirrel is also possible, but the decay state is within the range Tanner associated with ivorybill, so this will be a long-term deployment.
Low water made it possible for us to explore some previously unvisited areas. Tommy did several stakeouts where Matt made the recordings this year and where I heard wingbeats and had a possible sighting. On Sunday evening, he observed a Pileated near the sycamore roost where I photographed one in April, and we watched it flying away from the roost on Monday morning. No wingbeats were audible in either encounter, as would be expected for Pileated Woodpecker as opposed to ivorybill.
Temperatures reached the 90s by noon every day, depressing avian activity and making fieldwork unpleasant. There were heavy rains on the afternoon of Sunday, June 10, so the 11th was particularly challenging in terms of heat, humidity, and suddenly high water levels. I had a close encounter with a cottonmouth that dropped from a tree limb within a foot of my head, landing in a slough that had been dry the day before.
One personal highlight was the abundance of chanterelles, especially after Sunday’s rain. I came home with several pounds, though transporting them was a challenge, and I couldn’t keep them clean. Despite a little grit, they’re delicious.
Here are some additional photos. There’s one new example of extensive bark scaling from the upland area shown in detail; it is interesting, but I would not consider it highly suggestive. There was also some recent scaling on a sweet gum that may be more suggestive. I was using a rented 4/3rds camera and a lens with an effective 200-800 mm reach. I had trouble adjusting to the electronic viewfinder, but it was good to get a closer look at one of the cavities found this season. I also found feathers from a Pileated Woodpecker that was presumably recently taken by a raptor; this was in an upland area within 50 yards of where I parked. This is the first time in all my years in the field the that I’ve found PIWO remains.
Stay tuned for Part 2. Like this one, it will initially be password protected so that colleagues can review it before publication.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my request for comments about the blog and its future. It’s very gratifying to have received such positive feedback and to know that my work is appreciated. With that in mind, the comments and emails have convinced me that I shouldn’t make any major changes, even if it would have been wiser to have deliberated more before posting and amending the recent post about a possible sighting.
Apologies to those who were unable to view this post due to the temporary password protection while it was being reviewed.
As mentioned previously, we currently have six cameras aimed at potential feeding trees. Tommy Michot will be deploying the seventh (on the tree discussed below) in the near future. This will put us at or near what I consider full capacity in terms of servicing the cameras and reviewing the imagery. Since Frank’s death, the task of reviewing images and working with the cameras had fallen almost entirely on Phil Vanbergen’s shoulders, and we’ve only changed cards when there’s been evidence of woodpecker activity on the target tree but have otherwise allowed them to overwrite. Recently, several people have volunteered to review the imagery, and Tommy and I have gotten a better handle on deploying the cameras. Thus, we’ll be able to shift to replacing the cards every few months and (hopefully) reviewing all the images we capture.
On the last trip, Tommy and I found recent bark scaling on a sweet gum stub, and although the bark was loose, we decided to move one of our cameras and target the stub.
The camera had previously been aimed at a hickory that lost its top in a storm last year, a location where Peggy, Phil, Tommy, and I heard a double knock last year. For some reason, the overwrite function failed, so the card was full when Tommy and I redeployed the camera. I brought it home to review. I found some interesting imagery that I’ll share and discuss. I think that at least one of the frames is suggestive of ivorybill, although it is far from conclusive, and no one I’ve shared it with is nearly as interested by it as I am. Regardless, I’m now convinced it’s a good idea to check every card and am very glad that Geoffrey McMullan encouraged this approach.
First a few comments on trail cams, which will update some of Frank’s observations from this post on the subject written in January 2015.
Our trail cams are made by Day 6 Outdoors. The Plot Watcher Pro is the only dedicated time-lapse mass market trail camera. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and inexpensive compared to Reconyx, the second best time-lapse option. The accompanying software makes it possible to step through the captures frame by frame or to view them as video at various speeds. (Our time lapse interval is 20 seconds.) This simplifies the reviewing process, at some cost to image quality, although this has always been a problem with trail cams.
Trail cam sensors are relatively low resolution; only in the last year or so have 20 megapixel cams gone on the market, and many brands are in the 10-12 MP range. The bigger problem is that these cameras are designed to photograph terrestrial creatures, mostly large mammals and Wild Turkeys. It’s also almost impossible to avoid backlighting over the course of an entire day. Thus, unless the subject is at fairly close range, the chances of getting an identifiable image are greatly reduced, as will become clear from the examples below. So let’s look at some of the captures. I used Let’s Enhance, an internet based, automated image enhancement program.
The card ran from January 24 – May 1, and I worked my way backwards. During that time, there was one clearly identifiable woodpecker capture – a PIWO that spent under 40 seconds on the target hickory.
Note that WordPress has changed the way photographs are presented, at least in the format I’m using. To enlarge the images in this section, click on the image, and it will appear in a separate frame. There’s an option to see the full-sized image at the lower right. You can further enlarge the full-sized images by using the cursor.
The first large woodpecker capture was on March 16. The bird, which is not clearly identifiable, was present from ~3:25-3:46 pm, though it was not visible in all frames. I’ve included a QuickTime video covering the entire period (and about 10 additional minutes), along with a few enhanced screen caps with a box around the bird, which first appears on the right fork of the beech tree to the left of the target, then flies to a high branch in the background and moves around before disappearing.
The next series that interested me is from the morning of March 9. A bird in flight is visible in one frame captured at 8:22 am. It appears near the beginning of this 50 frame QuickTime animation.
This is an enhanced JPEG of the relevant frame with a box around the object of interest.
While others disagree, I think the object in the box is the upper (dorsal) surface of a bird’s wing. (One reviewer suggested it could be a squirrel’s tail.) There is nothing to suggest the bird in question is a woodpecker (if it’s a bird at all, which it appears to be based on the time lapse). To my eyes, however, it has a pattern of black and white that is consistent with the wing of an ivorybill, if the white is on the trailing edge. Given the distance from the camera and the extent of the white on the wing, I’m confident it is not a Red-headed Woodpecker. I’m also confident that this is actually an object, based on a review of the surrounding frames and on experimenting with color, exposure, and white balance. I’ve included a few examples, in a tiled mosaic to illustrate. Again, click on the individual images to embiggen.
A third frame that I found somewhat less interesting was captured on the morning of February 16th. I’m less intrigued by this image. It has been suggested that it might show a Pileated Woodpecker wing or a Red-headed Woodpecker on the target tree. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think it may show a woodpecker with a lot of white on one of the smaller trees behind and to the right of the target (which would make it too large to be a Red-headed Woodpecker). I suspect that the bright patch of white on the bird is an artifact, since it matches some of the highly reflective leaves below and to the right.
Regardless of whether any of these captures involves an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and despite the problems with image quality (which I hope are even more apparent to readers of this post), the images highlight the importance of reviewing all cards and having as many cameras functioning as is possible. I’m hopeful that this more extensive coverage, which is at or near the maximum that’s practical for us, will be productive in the future and may solve the mystery of what’s doing the initial scaling on the hickories. But as I noted recently, this will require patience, and it may take a few years.
We had a sustained presence, at least one person in the search area, between February 28th and March 16th (one rain day excepted). Between the 28th and the 16th, there were no possible encounters with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers either visual or auditory. We found a modest quantity of recent bark scaling and a few fresh cavities. We were able to do some preliminary surveys of nearby areas where local people have reported seeing ivorybills; we visited one of these on foot and think it is worthy of additional attention. We aimed a trail camera at a badly damaged hickory and have identified locations for deploying two more in the coming months. In my view, the lack of possible encounters this year supports the idea that the sounds heard and recorded last March came from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.
I’m opting not to post a day-by-day log for this trip and will instead focus on what I think were the most important observations made and insights gained from this team effort. I arrived in the area on the morning of the 7th and was able to spend the afternoon in the field. I was joined at various times by Peggy Shrum, Jay Tischendorf, Tommy Michot, Amy Warfield, Phil Vanbergen, and Geoffrey McMullan, a British birder, artist, and woodpecker enthusiast. (His drawing of Mexico’s woodpeckers is shown on p. 139 of Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams).
Matt Courtman arrived on March 15 and remained in the area after my departure. If he has anything significant to report it will be discussed in the next post.
Erik Hendrickson’s post details his time in the search area prior to my arrival.
As noted, we did not hear anything suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. We did more stopping and listening than I have in many past trips; we also tried anthropogenic double knocks and playbacks of the calls recorded last year and of Barred Owls at various times, between early morning and early afternoon. At approximately 9:00 am on Wednesday, March 14, Tommy, Geoffrey, Peggy, and I heard several odd and unfamiliar “boom” sounds following my ADKs. We agreed that these were not woodpecker. They were repetitive; Tommy estimated they came in series of 5-6. While they had a metallic, industrial quality, they did not resemble shots or the typical industrial noises that are heard in the area – from logging or distant road construction. They did not seem distant, but when we hiked to the area from which they seemed to have originated, we didn’t find anything.
It’s always important to remember that correlation is not causation; while the sounds seemed to be coming in response to the ADKs, we surmised that the apparent association was coincidental. Whatever the source of the “booms”, it was a strange episode.
On the 15th, Phil and I heard some distant crow calls that were a little kent-like on first impression, enough for me to turn on my recorder and capture some of them, though we suspected crow and never thought they were ivorybill. You’ll hear Phil’s reaction when it became unquestionable that these were indeed crow calls.
They sound more obviously crow-like on the recording than they did to the naked ear, but I’m including them here since crows are rarely mentioned as a potential source of kent-like calls. The faint sonogram is not at all suggestive of ivorybill; only one frequency is readily discernible, at around 1300 hz.
To reiterate, the events of last March (2017) were unprecedented. We have had a couple of encounters involving multiple calls over an extended period – in March 2013 (these have higher fundamental frequencies) and one in the old search area, January 2010 that also involved apparent double knocks. But neither of these lasted nearly as long or involved as many suggestive sounds. Other potential auditory encounters have been brief. Thus, it’s reasonable to infer that the source is not a common species in the area. The calls strongly resemble known Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds (and resemble them more closely than they do any known species). In my view, none of the proposed alternatives (Blue Jay, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Red-breasted Nuthatch) are plausible. I’m hopeful that further analysis will support this perspective.
I found one cavity in a pine (not photographed) that seemed right in size and shape though it was old and only about 40 feet above the ground. I have not focused on pines given the paucity of records of ivorybills using them for roosting and nesting. This is probably ill-advised. The same applies to sycamores, as Erik pointed out in his trip report.
I found one intriguing and apparently recent cavity, high in a sweet gum in the area that we’ve considered to be a hot zone. Stakeouts have come up empty, and as is often the case, the cavity is too high in the tree and too subject to backlighting to merit targeting with a trail cam. This is an ongoing problem, even when the cavities are much closer to the camera, as in the “neck bird” image.
I also spotted this unusual, large and rectangular cavity in a cypress.
My thoughts on scaling continue to evolve. As time goes on, the category of what I think is diagnostic for ivorybill grows narrower. I’ve become more skeptical about much of the work we’ve found, especially on sweet gums. Nevertheless, I still think that certain types of scaling may be diagnostic and more generally that an abundance of bark scaling in a given area may be an indicator of ivorybill presence.
This is a good introduction for those who are unfamiliar with my perspective on bark scaling and what I’ve hypothesized. While I’ve been refining thy hypothesis over the years, a couple of posts from 2013 are still relevant and may provide more insights, including into the underlying anatomical rationale. There’s a gestalt involved in identifying “interesting” scaling. I look at a number of factors:
- Tree species and associated bark characteristics (tightness, toughness, and thickness) factor in. With very rare exceptions, I only consider hardwoods. Pine bark is easily scaled.
- The bark must have been removed cleanly, with little or no damage to the underlying wood (targeted digs within a scaled area excepted). It’s important to distinguish between true scaling and bark removal associated with shallow excavation; many recent searchers have not recognized the distinction (some of the work shown at the second link is true scaling and some appears not to be).
- Condition of the tree or snag. I generally exclude wood that appears to me more than two or three years dead (following Tanner), so twigs and small branches must remain. (The cherry bark oak mentioned below is an exception, due to the chip characteristics.)
- Diameter of the scaled bole or limb. Bigger is better. So are boles.
- Size, shape, quantity, and characteristics of bark chips. Bigger and broader are better. Chips can also help in distinguishing between scaling and shallow excavations. Sapwood chips point to the latter.
- Extent and appearance of the scaling. Neat edges are one factor. Pileated Woodpeckers often remove thick bark in layers, and their scaling has a messy appearance. Similarity to images of known or presumed ivorybill foraging sign (as in the example below), though these are few and hard to decipher, is another consideration; large, contiguous areas stripped of bark are required.
(Thanks to Tommy Michot for suggesting that I include this list and for his editorial suggestions generally.)
I found most of the interesting scaling on the first couple of days in the field. When I arrived in the late morning, on March 7, I went to the area where the calls were recorded last March and where we’ve had the most indications of ivorybill presence in recent years. While we often find scaled pines in the uplands, this is the first time I’ve found extensive hardwood scaling – on a number of small, recently fire-killed trees.
Because these trees are so small, the bark, while tight, is very thin and therefore easily removed. The scaling is extensive, but I don’t think Pileated Woodpecker can be ruled out. Some of the chips were substantial. The scaled trees are shown below. Two are black cherries, but I couldn’t identify the others. The trees were within approximately 100 yards of each other and no more than two hundred yards from the edge of the lower-lying hardwood habitat.
Water levels were high; I was hoping to reach one of our trail cameras, but conditions made it impractical to do so (avoiding flooded areas would have involved at least a two hour detour). I did find some recent sweet gum scaling in the area, including on a freshly dead snag that we’d found in December. Although some of the chips were large, I don’t feel confident ruling out Pileated Woodpecker for much or all of this work.
On March 8, Peggy, Geoffrey, Jay, Tommy and I visited the southern area, and Peggy spotted a sweet gum that Erik had photographed during his visit. There was new scaling, apparently done within the last week or so, especially on one of the larger limbs.
More significantly, I found a hickory with extensive scaling of the kind I suspect is diagnostic for ivorybill. My initial thought was that this was a new tree, but Phil later pointed out that it was the one he’d found last year, with a number of thin bark strips (which we attributed to Pileated Woodpecker) at the base. Nevertheless, the scaling lower on the bole of this hickory appears to be more recent, and while flooding had washed away most of the new bark chips, a couple that we found around the base are more consistent with the larger chunks of bark that I suspect are indicative of ivorybill. (The very large chip in the image may not be associated with the scaling, though I suspect it was.)
The bark on this hickory is approximately .5″ thick, and it remains very hard and tightly adhering. This is the first time I’ve found a hickory that appears to have been visited and extensively scaled at least twice, many months or even over a year apart. This was a surprise, as I’ve suspected that the life cycle of the beetles infesting the snag meant that this kind of feeding was a ‘one shot deal’. That does not appear to be the case with this tree, so some rethinking may be required.
Figuring out what animal is the first to scale these hickories is my top priority. We currently have three cameras deployed on hickories that are damaged, including one adjacent to this snag. I hope to be able to deploy two more this spring. If it turns out that Pileated Woodpeckers are responsible for the initial work, I will be persuaded there’s no way to distinguish between PIWO and IBWO work, although abundance and bark chip characteristics might still remain as possible indicators.
I remain convinced that the ivorybill has persisted and has been present in our search area, at least sporadically, but I will be disheartened if it turns out that there’s no qualitatively diagnostic feeding sign. Tanner relied heavily on feeding sign during his surveys (though he accepted reports from South Carolina where little or no sign was found) and rejected the 1970s Big Thicket reports in large part due to the absence of bark scaling.
If Pileateds are doing the initial scaling on these hickories, then Pileateds could be the source of virtually all scaling found in any part of the ivorybill’s historic range, including on live or freshly dead trees of any species. If this proves to be true, then the presence of feeding sign will be a weaker and more subjective indicator of presence.
But on a more upbeat note, we also found some scaling on a cherrybark oak. Because I’ve come to suspect that PIWOs can scale sweet gums extensively and well, other tree species are of particular interest. Though the tree was alive, the limb from which these chips were stripped was not recently dead (photographing it was impractical), with no twigs or small branches remaining. Nevertheless, the chips were large, hard, and dense. I haven’t found chips like these since 2013, and I think they are intriguing.
On March 12, we found one more scaled sweet gum that piqued my interest. The jagged appearance and extent of scaling on the bole are suggestive of known ivorybill work, subject to the caveats provided above. There was also extensive older work higher on the trunk.
We were rained out on Sunday, March 11 and took the opportunity to drive around in an area from which there have been several local reports (though I have not spoken to the people involved face-to-face and do not know them personally). Some of the upland areas are impressively restored stands of maturing longleaf pine; we did not find any stands of large hardwoods, though we did find places with numerous beaver-killed trees. I did not take any photographs.
On the morning of the 12th, I stopped to meet Jay for breakfast at one of the local hangouts, and an older man I’d talked to the year before pulled me aside and asked if I’d visited the area he’d told me about then. He specifically mentioned ivorybills and was very insistent that he’d seen them there from time to time during his hunting days (he’d stopped about a decade ago.) Last year, he’d recognized an ivorybill image on my phone but had not named the species. None of the other men in the restaurant were familiar with ivorybills, but this individual clearly knew what he was talking about.
A few years earlier, another person (a preacher and barbecue chef) told me he’d seen ivorybills in the same bottom (stating that he’d thought the ‘ones with white on the back were the males and the all black ones were the females’.
Peggy, Tommy, Jay, and I visited part of the bottom both men had identified and were impressed by the habitat, which is very similar to the primary search area. Like the main area, it appears to have been high-graded or selectively cut, so the conditions within a very narrow corridor (and one we believe to be fairly long) are near old-growth. We did not find any bark scaling during our brief visit to the area, but it definitely merits more attention. I suspect we were several miles southwest of the claimed sightings, so this may be an extensive, if narrow, strip of high quality habitat. The oak shown below (with Tommy for scale) was measured to be over 5′ in diameter, and many of the sweet gums in the area were well over 3′ DBH.
The woods were beautiful as spring was breaking out. Conditions changed dramatically over the course of my stay. Despite some very cold mornings (we only saw one snake), leaf out progressed rapidly. On my last day in the field, Matt and I found a loblolly pine that may be a contender for state champion; the current one is just under 5′ in diameter. I suspect the one shown below is close to that and may be taller. By the middle of the trip, wild azaleas were in bloom. And finding Red-headed Woodpecker feathers always causes my heart to skip a beat.
I have one or two more trips planned this season and am hopeful that they will generate some new insights.
I was very pleased that we were able to have searchers in the field almost without interruption for over three key weeks in February and March. Erik was in the area alone from February 28-March 6, and conditions were good enough for him to get out for part of almost every day. At present, Matt Courtman is still in the field. I will be posting my trip report within the next few days; it covers the afternoon of March 7 through the morning of the 16th. There have been no possible encounters during this period, a stark contrast with this time last year. I’ll be addressing this in my report, but in the meantime, here’s Erik’s. It was a pleasure to read. I’ve made a couple of side comments in italics.
Back in the early 2000’s, I often used the holiday break as a time to take off from work and go birding someplace I’d never been before. Following the Ivorybill rediscovery announcement in May 2005, I decided to go to Arkansas “on a lark” and at least see the habitat where the bird had been found. There would be birding opportunities – a chance to see wintering species not present at my home in Montana, and I wanted to visit Little Rock High School National Historic Site.
After several days of birding, I saw the ivorybill. Like many other sightings, it was a brief look, but I saw the bird through binoculars, sharply focused, in good light. I made 4 more trips to Arkansas and Florida in the next two years, before my job took me to Alaska for 8 years. I made no more trips to the southeastern United States in that time.
But retirement in March of 2017 allowed me time to think about a return; and Mark graciously responded to my inquiry with an invitation to join his search effort in December 2017 / January 2018. I got to accompany him and Steve Pagans again in February; and Mark had another search planned for March, but the timing and logistics didn’t quite work out. With trepidation, I asked about searching the week before the main search effort, and Mark was encouraging. I’d seen how well Mark navigated the woods he knows so well, and Steve was equally competent (Steve is considerably more competent) – and always had his GPS available to ensure we could get out of the woods. But on my two initial trips; I often did not know where we were headed and often got turned around. I didn’t say so, but I knew I’d have to get a lot better at reading my GPS.
Mark also encouraged me to purchase a dedicated audio recorder, in case I heard double knocks or kent calls as other searchers have in the past. This was perhaps the most obvious advantage to being in the woods in March: the likelihood that ivorybills would be more vocal and/or more noticeable if they engaged in courtship, cavity construction, brooding and interaction at a cavity, or feeding of nestlings/fledglings. If I could be in the woods a week before Mark’s major search effort, then at least I was providing some additional coverage for a possible encounter.
A friend of mine said with encouragement “I’m sure you’ll see it this time!” I didn’t respond that “I don’t think so…”. Of course I’m optimistic, but my primary goal in the field is to contribute quality hours to searching for a species which has a very low encounter rate. The more hours searchers rack up, the more encounters we have. It’s important to me to contribute by adding up those good hours.
Logistics are a major part of the search effort: traveling from my home in Colorado; arranging airflight, rental car and lodging. Being prepared with the right clothing, rain gear, hat, camera, GPS, audio recorder, first aid kit, and all the miscellaneous supplies carried each day. I studied maps so that I wouldn’t be as lost as I was on my first trips. I could check online for the weather forecast and sunrise/sunset times. And then on my travel day, it takes about 12 hours from my house to my destination. I pick up lunch supplies at a local supermarket, and get ready for 7 days of searching.
It’s exciting first thing in the morning – arriving at the start point, and getting everything ready to walk into the woods. I only forgot to record the location of my vehicle once – but remembered within a 1/2 mile of my start, and that was close enough to ensure I could get out in the afternoon. I start out listening to and trying to see every bird – they’re all different from the birds back in Colorado, and if I’m standing still trying to pull a Yellow-eyed Vireo out of the shrubs – well, I can be listening for ivorybills at the same time.
Much of my time in the bottomland forests, I’m simply acting as a roving Audio Recording Unit. Although I rely on my eyes more than my ears – and at times it seems that I can see a lot of the habitat around me – I know from experience that I can’t really see all that much. Woodpeckers cling to the backside of trunks and branches. Sometimes I watch them up high, and then they move around to the opposite side of a branch – and they’re completely invisible to me. Had I not seen them move to that location, I’d never know they were there.
So as I scan the forest around me, I’m aware that there’s really only a limited amount of “space” – of “volume” – that I can peer into to check for birds. My best method for detecting the presence of many (most?) birds, is being able to hear them. So I wander around the forest, always listening, and hoping to hear a bird that may not vocalize very often.
I know from experience that I have good hearing, in the sense that I can detect very low levels of sound; often I can hear levels of sound lower in volume than my birding companions (but, sometimes others hear sounds that I miss). However, I’ve also learned that I don’t have a “discriminating” ear, and I easily confuse all kinds of species: Pileated Woodpecker sounds a lot like Northern Flicker; Northern Cardinal sounds a lot like Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse can sound like Carolina Chickadee. It always makes sense to me when someone tells me what I’m hearing, and often – given enough time (if the bird continues to call) – I can figure it out. But I know I’m not as good at identifying birds by sound as I am by sight.
I’m pretty good at identifying birds in the field and in photographs. Often, I only need a few pixels to correctly identify a bird. I make my share of mistakes, and often call out the name of a bird before I’ve completely processed all the information – and my initial identification (part of the thought process for arriving at a final ID) is incorrect. But while I make lots of mistakes while trying to arrive at the conclusive ID for a bird, I’ve got to be certain in the end. Entire books have been written on this topic – and that makes sense to me.
Searching for ivorybills is very different (for me) from “birding”. Birding is a fun, enjoyable activity that I do regularly, in all kinds of habitats, with lots and lots of opportunities to see and identify birds. Searching for ivorybills is mostly just putting in hours without seeing or hearing anything. But my approach to searching is to go “birding” and enjoy the birds I see, and to be aware of the environs around me as I’m looking for or looking at, birds. I stop and pause for several minutes at a time. I’m not in any hurry – I don’t have to be anywhere else. I think about all the other recent encounters that have been described: someone in the right habitat, often engaged in an activity other than searching – and while relaxing, or while sitting down, or while engaged in something other that “actively looking”, suddenly they become aware of a bird that they focus on, and it turns out to be an ivorybill. I think about lots of things written about ivorybills, things that I can remember and things that I’ve heard other searchers and other birders talk about. And… I wander around the bottomland forest – listening and looking.
I made a point of looking for large cavities, and I found 8 on this trip that were large enough and asymmetrical enough for me to stop and record them. I photographed each cavity (several photos, at successive zoom ranges) and marked its GPS coordinates. I tend to consider cavities that are too small (suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers – or even smaller species), but I think I’d rather be conservative in this regard. I’d thought perhaps that if I found one or more candidate cavities, I would try to watch them as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as I could. But I realized that simply finding the cavities, and trying to find efficient routes from the cavities to/from my vehicle, would take more time than was available to me. A fresh, or routinely occupied cavity, might be distinctive in a way that would set it apart from other cavities – and none of the ones I found was notable in that regard. If I had unlimited time, I thought about aiming a trail-cam at the “better” cavities I found – and I might give that idea more thought in the future. (The last two intriguing cavities I’ve found were not good candidates for camera traps; height, backlighting, intervening vegetation can all be problems. This issue is under- appreciated, and it became more apparent to me last trip. More on that in my report.)
I looked for scaled bark, trying to pay attention to the details Mark has taught me in the field. As a long time reader of the Project Coyote blog, I read many of Mark’s descriptions of scaling, and looked at his photographs. But having him explain scaling in the field, spending several minutes at a tree with fresh scaling, increased my understanding by at least two orders of magnitude. Mark brought to life the importance of scaling as evidence for ivorybills occupying or using the area. But I also learned that Mark has an eye for “seeing” scaling, and in my previous trips I never spotted “good” scaling before Mark did. (It’s just a matter of practice.) On this trip, I did see some tree top scaling in a sweet gum, and I saw a few downed logs (recently downed) with scaling that might have been done by ivorybills (but which also could have been done by other species). I was conscious that I tried harder looking for scaling at some times, and less hard at other times – it’s a skill that needs to be learned, and I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve.
I saw many Pileated Woodpeckers over the week, and on the first day, I noted that I saw 4 pileateds while I was standing in one spot, more or less simultaneously.
Great Blue Herons (and other species) always seemed to be aware of me, when I was walking (even walking slowly/quietly), long before I was aware of them. By contrast, when I was standing or sitting still (especially when in a shadow, but even when in the sun), birds and other animals would sometimes approach quite close, and go on about whatever they were doing, clearly not yet aware that I was present. And sometimes, even once they became aware I was present, their behavior was still reserved and they lingered at closer range than the birds (or pigs, or deer, etc.) that became aware of me as I was walking.
Some observations under the latter conditions come to mind: (1) After a large limb broke off from a tree, crashing to the ground with an impressive disruption of the quiet, two pileateds flew to a cypress tree near where I was standing quietly. The first pileated flew to the top of the cypress and drummed a couple of times. The second pileated flew to the trunk of the cypress to investigate one of two cavities, one right above the other. The pileated stuck its bill and just a bit of its head into the cavity when suddenly a gray squirrel exploded from the cavity, driving the pileated away. The squirrel clung to the cypress just a foot or so from the cavity, chattering loudly for a few seconds before retreating back into the cavity.
(2) I was sitting with my back against a birch tree, watching a fresh, asymmetrical (but small) cavity in a cypress tree across a creek (mostly taking a break in the heat of the afternoon), when a Hermit Thrush approached from a nearby shrub. The thrush moved closer (to within perhaps 15′), then off to my right, and then back in front of me, before finally moving slowly off and out of view.
(3) Eating lunch on a log one day, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, seeming to fly right at my head, before veering off at the last second to perch on a large trunk about 12′ from me. I’d been sitting quietly (the bird might have thought I was a stump?), but seemed to recognize I was not part of the landscape when it veered off to perch and start tending its sap wells. I was able to grab my camera and take a couple photos while it was at close range, the bird never flushing as when they are startled, but rather simply moving gradually higher up the tree and out of view.
A couple of random thoughts based on my field notes: I flushed wood ducks about 3 or 4 times, and always thought it would be impossible to confuse a Wood Duck for an ivorybill. Even one time when I noted that “the ID was a little tricky”; the situation was that I wondered for a split second “what was that?”, and not “could that have been an ivorybill?”. I observed two (rather small, I think) Cottonmouths; both were well behaved and non-aggressive. Very beautiful snakes.
And one other observation: while standing quietly in a shadow, I saw a large bird, darkish in color, mostly obsucred by a tangle of vines, fly in to a log on the ground. I could not see the bird, and thought it was on the opposite side of the log from me, and there was much undergrowth that made visibility difficult. I heard several loud (very loud) raps, interpaced with quiet, and based on my time in the woods, I thought pretty sure this was a large woodpecker, foraging on a downed log, and occasionly delivering 3 to 6 heavy blows to the wood. The bird continued foraging in this manner, with several sequences of loud knocks, and I finally decided to move to my left to try to get a better angle on the log. I heard another couple sequences of raps and then quiet, and I was pleased I hadn’t started the bird and caused it to flush. I moved to my left, and a little closer to the log, and then there was a downed tree blocking my path, and some water, and I had to make some noise to get around the obstacle, and continue moving to try to see the area around the downed log better.
By this time, it was clear that I had flushed the bird, and did not see or hear it any more. I’ve thought about this event, and it emphasizes to me that birds may often be close enough to see, but impossible to see because of vegetatation blocking the view, and that birds we often think of being “in the shrubs” or higher “in the trees” are often on or near the ground. If I had to guess, the bird was either a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Flicker. I’ll never know.
I started writing this note with the intention of providing a simple summary of my observations during the week I was in Louisiana, but quickly realized I was describing a more general sense of purpose and the idea that looking for ivorybills is distinctly different from looking for other birds. I could add some good search hours to the effort – that was worthwhile and enjoyable to me, and although I’m uncertain how my hours contribute to the Project Coyote overall effort, I am very pleased to be part of the team.
photos follow . . .
I returned to the main Project Coyote search area where I spent December 27-January 1. I was joined by two new team members – Erik Hendrickson, an excellent birder and retired National Park Service engineer who had an ivorybill sighting in Arkansas back in 2005, and Jay Tischendorf, a veterinarian with a long and adventure-filled background as a field biologist. Erik lives in Colorado, so he may not be able to visit often, but Jay is much closer. I hope that both of them will be able to return and bring their considerable skills to the effort.
Stephen Pagans, who has been with Project Coyote since 2012, was in the area for the duration. Steve is a retired forester, avid birder with a great ear, and an outstanding photographer. This portrait of a feral hog (more on hogs later), which I think is award-worthy, is just one example of his work.
Tom Foti made it down from Arkansas for a day. Spending time in the woods with Tom, whose knowledge of bottomland forests is second to none, is always an education. On this trip, Tom pointed out that I’d been mistaken about the hickories in the search area. I believed that they were all bitternut hickories (Carya cordiformis), except for a very few shagbarks (Carya ovata), but it turns out that many, perhaps the majority, are in fact pignut hickories (Carya glabra). One of these, shown below, has a DBH of 42″ and may be a state champion. Tom also identified a nutmeg hickory (Carya myristicaeformis), an uncommon species that may not have been previously recorded in the parish.
Having such great companions for the week caused me to look back at the past year, with its terrible low points – the losses of Frank and Bill Pulliam – and high points, particularly the March recordings, which I think are among the strongest evidence of ivorybill persistence obtained to date, and to appreciate my friends, collaborators, and outside advisors. Although I’ve been the public face of Project Coyote for years (Frank wanted it that way), this has always been a team effort, although the composition of the group has shifted over time. While it would be cumbersome to name everyone involved and some frequent advisers prefer to remain anonymous, there are several, in addition to those mentioned above, whom I’d like to acknowledge publicly.
On more than one occasion over the years, Bob Ford has lifted my spirits when they most needed lifting. When I talked to Bob shortly before Frank’s death, I was despondent. I knew Frank’s prognosis was not good and was having doubts about carrying on. Bob helped me see a way forward, reminding me that the search area is important, ivorybills or no ivorybills, and that I’d done meaningful work related to its ecology in general.
Matt Courtman, who had some involvement early on and had known Frank for several years, reached out shortly after Frank died, giving me much needed moral and intellectual support and breathing new life into Project Coyote. In one of those odd coincidences, Matt’s New York relatives knew and did business with my father decades ago.
Philip Vanbergen, the youngest among us, had the presence of mind to turn on his recording device on March 11 and capture a couple of calls, setting the stage for his and Matt’s return on the 15th when the much longer recordings were made. Phil has also been responsible for our trail cams since 2016. His energy, enthusiasm, and interest in the natural history of the area are invaluable.
Peggy Shrum’s ideas, background studying raptors in the Peruvian rainforest (a considerably more challenging environment), and familiarity with tropical Campephilus double knocks are great assets. Peggy has made the long trip from South Carolina to participate several times, and it’s always a pleasure to have her along.
Tommy Michot and Wylie Barrow from Lafayette have also been great sources of support. Though Tommy is a retired biologist with a Ph.D, I admire his youthful enthusiasm, open-mindedness, enjoyment of the woods, and his sense of humor. To top it off, he’s also an accomplished traditional Cajun musician from an illustrious musical family. Wylie and Tommy have known each other for years, and while Wylie has seldom been able to make it into the field, his careful, scientific approach and probing questions help keep me on track. While I skipped it on this most recent trip, the lunches I have with Wylie and Tommy (and sometimes Phil) in Lafayette on the way home invariably help me absorb and evaluate whatever I’ve observed or experienced while searching.
Professor Fredrik Bryntesson has been a great online friend and supporter. He has shared details from his research into some arcane aspects of ivorybill history, some of which have found their way onto the blog. I hope we get to meet in person and that he will be able to visit our search area sometime soon.
Finally, Patricia Johnson, my wife – Patricia comes along from time to time, holds down the house when she stays at home. Her moral and morale support sustain me.
Though 2017 was difficult, I’m grateful to be surrounded by such great collaborators. I’m hoping for more highs and fewer lows in the year ahead . . . Without further ado, here’s the trip report. As with the previous one, I’ve opted not to do a day-by-day log. There’s not all that much to report.
The weather this trip ranged from cloudy, dreary, and damp to bitterly cold; there was little sunshine, except on January 1st, and avian activity was generally low throughout. Woodpeckers, except for Red-headeds, were mostly quieter and less active than usual. Nevertheless, on at least one day, we saw or heard all seven species (ivorybill excluded) that are found in the area at this time of year.
Birds may not have been very active, but the hogs certainly were. We saw upwards of 15-20 on a couple of days, and signs of their rooting were everywhere. Their numbers seem to have increased considerably since 2012, despite the presence of at least a few dedicated hunters in the area. We ran across these newborn hogs and assumed their mother had been shot. Their cute appearance belies their destructive potential should they survive.
We did not have any possible ivorybill encounters and found little recent bark scaling, except on two or three sweet gums, some extensive work on a pine, and a small patch on a cypress. Some commentary below the images.
Phil solved the problem with the trail cams, and we now have three deployed on hickories – two that have lost their tops and one that is in obvious decline. We’ll deploy the fourth in the spring when it will be easier to locate unhealthy trees. Given what we’ve observed and the life cycle of the beetles involved, I think scaling on hickories is most likely to take place between mid to late spring and fall.
Fresh scaling on the bole and branches of a recently uprooted sweet gum. Some of the bark chips were large and consistent with what I would expect for Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
With regard to the sweet gum scaling, it is far and away the most abundant form of this work we’ve found, and this has been true year after year. It is considerably more common in the Project Coyote search area than in other places I’ve visited or than in the Pascagoula, based on the Carlisles’ efforts there. It also matches the work described by Tanner as being typical of ivorybill, but as discussed in my post entitled Bark: An Exegesis, sweet gum bark is relatively easy to scale, making it more difficult to exclude Pileated Woodpecker. As an aside, I’m puzzled by the fact that we found a good deal of scaling on oaks in 2012-2013 and have seen virtually none since then.
While I’ve written previously that I think pine has no potential for being a diagnostic because it is easily scaled, the example above impressed me for its extensiveness and the fact that the presence of needles suggests the tree died very recently. Lighting conditions in the field were so poor that it was impossible to see that scattered patches of bark remained. This only became apparent when I brightened the photographs. Even so, the extensiveness so soon after death remains impressive.
I’ve included the beaver-killed cypress scaling here not because I think it’s likely ivorybill work; it could be, but the bark was loose, and the scaled area, while contiguous, covered only a modest percentage of the bole. What may be significant is the presence of insect work of a kind that is suggestive of suitable ivorybill prey. Tanner thought that cypress-tupelo swamps were poor habitats for the ivorybill, presumably because both are long-lived and relatively insect-resistant species and perhaps because he rarely ran across large scale deadenings of those species. The example shown here leads me to wonder about this assumption, particularly in places where beavers are present or other disturbances occur; fire, to which water tupelos are apparently vulnerable, for example. While Allen and Kellogg reported that Florida ivorybills nested in cypress and fed nearby on fire damaged pines, I think it’s possible that food sources would be sufficient in cypress-tupelo swamps under certain conditions. This relates, at least indirectly, to issues that have been addressed in the “Bits and Pieces” series. Stay tuned for the final installment.