Trail Cam Captures Redux: Beyond (My) Reasonable Doubt

I’m making another departure from my posting schedule for reasons that I hope will be self-evident. This is the strongest statement of my views I’ve made to date; I’m calling it as I see it based on this new way of looking at the photographs.  As always, click on the images for better viewing.

A Louisiana photographer (and new Project Coyote member) who has been following our efforts, reached out to me in response to the recent trail cam capture and alerted me to a feature in Photoshop. This feature makes it possible to stack two images and subtract the identical pixels, leaving the differences between the two images visible in the new composite.

I understand that this is sometimes referred to as subtracting and sometimes as ghosting. Given my limited knowledge and skill set when it comes to image processing, this was a revelation. The method is described between minutes 1 and 2 of this YouTube video. (The rest of the segment pertains to image stacking for landscape photography and is not relevant to this discussion.)

He sent me three examples – the recent capture, the neckbird, and a pair of photographs showing what Frank Wiley had identified as a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight. I didn’t get any new insights from the last of these; the results for the most recent capture were interesting and possibly significant; the neckbird was a revelation, eliminating any lingering misgivings I had about the image and convincing me (at least) beyond a reasonable doubt that it shows an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Bear in mind that the images discussed below are among a handful of captures (out of well over a million images obtained since 2009) that we’ve found to be suggestive or better. (At the 20 second interval used on our current cameras, a single month’s 12 hour-a-day deployment will produce over 60,000 images; the Reconyx cams had a 30 second interval, but that’s still over 40,000 per camera per month.)  So it’s not as if we’re finding possible ivorybills everywhere, let alone frequently.

I recently started using a different, ostensibly more user-friendly, image-processing program, Luminar, and I found that it has the same capacity. I tried it on the other oft-discussed trail cam capture with the same revelatory result, although in that case, I did not have access to both unprocessed originals and had to use one cropped image and another that had been cropped and lightly processed for brightness and contrast. I don’t think this impacted the results. I used Luminar to process all the images discussed below.

Immediately below is the original “Neckbird” capture and an enhanced crop, followed by the processed image, showing the difference between this frame and the one before it. Next is a detail, showing the ‘ghost’ outlines of the image that appeared in the original. (Note that a second bird may be present in the form of a bill protruding from the lower cavity in the snag at right, as discussed in this post.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me, the most startling result is that the bird looks even more serpentine and elongated in this iteration. This is mostly because the lower third of the body (apparently including part of the tail) is better resolved and distinguishable from surrounding objects. What I had thought was a patch of white near the base of the bird, just above the lower diagonal branch, turns out to have been a leaf. I think this longer, leaner profile is inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker and consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and not just because of the neck, the feature that was most suggestive to many who viewed the original capture. I’ve seen a lot of Pileateds and have looked at countless images online, and nothing about this better-resolved silhouette suggests Pileated. The remnant clips from the 1935 Ivory-billed Woodpecker film may be illuminating in terms of neck and body shape.

The silhouette in the November 30, 2009 capture, which was the first suggestive image we made public, is not as compelling as the one in the image shown above, but the capture shows three apparent ivorybill field marks – a black crest, white on the lower part of the bird, and a large, light-colored bill. In this case, the processing provides additional information about these apparent field marks. The bird also appears to be larger than a Pileated Woodpecker. The basics of all these issues are addressed in Frank’s original discussion of this capture.

To reiterate, I am not in possession of the original frame that follows the capture. It was probably lost after Frank’s passing, so I used two crops for the first composite, one showing the suspected ivorybill and the other, the subsequent frame. The crop of the empty frame was otherwise unaltered, but the one with the bird had the brightness and contrast adjusted. The output differed slightly between the “difference” version and the “subtraction” version, something I did not observe when working with unprocessed images. The difference, however, appears to be limited to background features and not the bird.

Remember that this capture was obtained from a spot where I’d had a sighting of a large woodpecker with a lot of white on the wings on the 25th . Both Frank and I heard the wingbeats, which were loud and distinctive. This was a rare instance in which a bird appeared to have been brought in by a double knock series. We’d also had an auditory encounter about 300 yards away on the morning of the 24th, while staking out the cavities in the willows shown above.

The first image shown below is the original capture with the red box around the bird. The crops appear as a pair of images. The first shows the bird, and the second is the subsequent frame with the bird absent. Those are followed by the difference and subtraction composites. More discussion after the images.

 

 

 

 

 

As I read this imagery, I think it suggests that the apparent white saddle is part of the bird, not light leaking through or an intervening object; indeed, the intervening branch is revealed in the ghosted images, with the body of the bird still visible behind it. That said, this may be the most ambiguous aspect. The treatment also highlights the presence of the crest and shows it is part of the bird; there is no red in the original; if any red were present, it should be at least faintly visible at this range and under these conditions. This interpretation is based both on the color in the background and on a Pileated captured perhaps six feet farther from the camera during this deployment (in an overexposed image included in Frank’s original analysis).

Most important of all is the fact that both the difference and subtracted versions confirm that the apparent very large bill (which appears to be light-colored in the original picture) is indeed a bill and not some other object. Even allowing for some motion blur, the bill is disproportionately large and therefore inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker. Indeed, all discernible features in this photograph are consistent with female Ivory-billed Woodpecker and nothing else. I have always believed this picture showed an ivorybill. Based on these composites, I am now firmly convinced that it does.

I also tried creating a composite combining the capture, which was taken in the late afternoon of November 30, 2009, with another frame taken in late morning on the following day. The results are somewhat less distinct but the same elements are still apparent.

 

Finally, I tried this approach with the images discussed in the previous post. The results of this effort were somewhat less satisfactory. I assume because the originals are lower resolution and therefore contain fewer pixels. Lighting conditions may also be a factor.

This capture offers a lot less to work with. The Reconyx jpegs are 2048 x 1536 or 3 megapixels, while the Plotwatchers are 1280 x 720 or less than 1 megapixel.

I was unable to find additional specifications for the Reconyx cams, but the folks at Day 6 Outdoors were kind enough to provide them for the Plotwatcher. Per Day 6, the sensor is .25″ (which is smaller than most cell phone cameras); the focal length is 3.5 mm (which I think translates to the equivalent of an ~20 mm lens on a full frame or 35 mm film camera); and the aperture is f/2.6 (apparently the equivalent of ~f/16).

Nevertheless, I experimented with using both the original captures and versions enlarged using Topaz A.I. Gigapixel. I applied the same process to the squirrel capture from a few weeks earlier, which was taken under better lighting conditions. The relevant images and discussion are below, starting with an enhanced version of the original capture with an arrow pointing to the object of interest. Remember that the silhouette that resembles the head and neck of a woodpecker is background vegetation. The object of interest is the small bit of black and white below it.

 

As mentioned, I’m less confident about interpreting the results for this image, since so much less detail can be gleaned. Unlike the other captures, the subtraction or ghosting does not reveal a clear outline, and aspects of the object which are distinct when moving from frame to frame are obscured in this treatment. Also note the near absence of difference between the preceding and following frames.

In the enhanced iteration, a little more of the outline of the putative IBWO may be visible. I suspect that the reason the white saddle does not appear uniform in this one is due to pixels and that the dark patch below the bright white band is consistent between images because the foreground and background pixels match, not because they’re the same. This explains why the bottom part of the saddle, where the wings meet, is also white. In other words, these are the places where the object was in front of darker pixels. That’s my guess based on shifting back and forth between the relevant frame and the ones before and after. In addition, the white dots above the “saddle” may represent dorsal stripes.

Things change slightly when using imagery from different days. I’m only using the enhanced versions here, but they again strongly suggest that the white saddle is part of the object, not the background. The second frame is the one that follows the squirrel capture discussed below.

 

The squirrel capture may provide some additional insights into the process’s limitations with lower resolution images. The squirrel, which is clearly visible in the original image, shows up as a narrow strip that’s easily missed if you don’t know it’s there. The second version is a composite using images processed through Gigapixel A.I.

 

 

Weather and lighting conditions differed considerably between the two days in question. The camera was pointed in an approximately easterly direction, probably more ENE or NNE; lighting conditions may account for the fact that this image is a little lighter and some small differences are more apparent from this pair of captures. The weather at the nearest station at the time of the squirrel capture was fair with little to no wind; whereas the weather for the putative ivorybill capture, which was taken in the afternoon, was intermittently stormy with winds probably around 10 mph. Under stormy conditions with foliage moving in the wind, there should be more variation between images, not less, so available light seems a likely factor perhaps in combination with number of pixels.

Thus, I’m not sure how much this process adds when it comes to interpreting the most recent capture and how useful it might be with others from Plotwatcher trail cams. (The two older images were taken with a color Reconyx.) But I hope that the cameras are now deployed in such a way that enhancement and differentiating won’t be necessary.

While the approach does not reveal much when it comes to the new image, I think it is dispositive with regard to the old ones. Of course, I make no claims to expertise in forensic image analysis or the technical aspects of image processing, so I am open to being corrected if any aspects of my analysis are flawed.

Like most searchers, I have tended to focus on whether the evidence is sufficient and have seldom thought about what obtaining conclusive documentation might imply. If the two images from the old search area are ivorybills, a number of questions emerge. So let’s assume (or assume arguendo if you are unpersuaded) that these images indeed show Ivory-billed Woodpeckers:

As an initial observation, if I am right about the two captures, I think it becomes overwhelmingly likely that the apparent bill protruding from the cavity in the background of the neckbird image  also belongs to an ivorybill, so it seems probable that least two birds were present in the area in 2009-2010. This is consistent with what six of us heard during an auditory encounter in January 2010. One of Frank’s sightings involved three birds. (He was accompanied by the landowners’ teenaged grandsons at the time.) This sighting suggests that breeding might have taken place in the area.

The habitat in the immediate vicinity of the camera trap deployments is not what has been thought of as having much potential; the quality is even lower than I realized at the time. I knew a lot less about forest ecology and conditions in 2009, and while I certainly recognized the habitat as not “optimal” back then, I think I overestimated and perhaps romanticized the overall quality.

Both captures come from within 50 yards of a bean field. The woods in the immediate vicinity did have a number of large trees, and there are good sized cypresses in the area, but the parcel and the neighboring ones (including the one that was clearcut) are not particularly old. Back then someone indicated they’d been cut in the early 1960s.

The site of the earlier trail cam pic and our November auditory encounter is .6 miles from a large parcel of state land that has some very mature forest and inaccessible areas. (The location of my November sighting and the second trail cam capture is approximately 300 yards farther east, away from the public land.) Several other large parcels of public land are within a few miles of the area, so it’s not exactly a suburban backyard. Nevertheless, it’s a far cry from the Singer Tract or our current search area for that matter.

It seems to me that if one accepts that a pair of ivorybills was present in this location in 2009, there’s no basis for doubting the landowner’s claim that birds had been present and using the area for a decade or so. It also supports the idea that audio obtained there included ivorybill kents and double knocks, which tends to validate audio captured elsewhere – Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and our current search area.

How does/would the confirmation of ivorybill survival, especially in such ostensibly low quality habitat, impact the assessment of other reports?

Why is that ivorybills are being reported in so many different places over the last two decades? Is it just more publicity, or is something else going on?

Why aren’t there more reports from the public and from experienced birders?

Why are they so hard to document?  Even if you read the Project Coyote trail cam captures in the most liberal possible way, there are no more than a handful of images that I think of as likely, out of well over 1,000,000.

Where does one look for them, especially if they are using habitat always thought of as unsuitable?

What is suitable habitat?

What kind of population is out there and how has it sustained itself for so long?

I’m sure there are more, and I don’t have good answers for most. I think the technical limitations of trail cams, scarcity, and wariness (even run-of-the-mill or somewhat overdeveloped wariness) are probably adequate to explain many of the documentation issues but perhaps not the relative paucity of sightings.

I hope to return to my planned posting schedule with the post on range in a week or two and the one on evidence a couple of weeks after that; however, I’ve been looking at composites created from the Reconyx images discussed here. I think the results illuminating with respect to size. This post is already long, so rather than include them here, I will likely do a follow-up examining those images before turning to more general ivorybill-related topics.

 

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A Tantalizing Trail Cam Capture

Best laid plans . . . I’m pushing back the posts on historic range and evidence but hope to get to them soon.

In going through some of the remaining unexamined images from past trail cam deployments, Geoffrey McMullan came across an intriguing image. He sent me the file for the entire day without indicating where the image was located or what interested him about it. Reviewing cards is challenging; it’s tedious, while demanding focus and attention to very subtle changes. It can be easy to overlook hits of any kind. Nevertheless, this particular frame leapt out at me immediately, even though the object involved is indistinct and is only present in a single frame (more on that later).

I’ll begin by sharing and discussing the image, before and after stills, a time lapse video, and some additional captures comparing other animals with what’s shown in the frame. I’ll follow that with some of the discussion that has taken place among the active searchers in our group and some of the biologists who are advising us. Matt Courtman suggested that everyone on our email list give three reasons they like the image for ivorybill and three counterarguments. Not everyone followed the suggested format, but I’ll draw on those emails as well. I’m hoping this will give you some insights into our process and also give you some additional ways of looking at the image, which I believe to be a picture an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, even as I recognize that it isn’t nearly good enough to stand as proof.

I’ve done my best to present this material in a clear and careful manner. This is not an image that lends itself to immediate, easy interpretation, as some of the discussion reveals. At the same time, a lot can be gleaned from a close, careful look at the raw image, and the preceding and following frames. The various enhancements and comparison captures provide additional context.

A further caveat: I write this blog to maintain a log of our efforts and to share our results with readers on an ongoing basis, in an honest and transparent manner. As with any scientific endeavor, our search is in a constant state of flux. Everything is subject to change and reappraisal based on the evidence. We offer this image with that as background. Most of us believe subjectively that we have found an area that is used by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, at least periodically. We all recognize that we do not have enough objective “proof” to “convince” third-parties that this is so. The subject image, so far, is just an intriguing part of the mosaic. It’s up to you to decide whether it moves the needle toward “proof” in your mind.

The image was captured on July 12, 2017. The target tree is a hickory that lost its top in a storm in March of that year. And we’ve had a camera aimed at it ever since. This is in area where we’ve found extensive scaling on hickories over the years and where we’ve had a number of auditory encounters. It is within the same contiguous forested area, several miles from the site of the March 2017 recordings. While squirrels are frequently captured on the target stub, there have been few woodpecker hits, and there was no obvious foraging sign on the trunk when I last visited in June.

Perhaps the most informative way to view the image is to step through the time lapse video frame by frame and compare the before, during, and after images. (You may have to download the clip to do this.) This will help clarify what’s object and what’s background. If you’re having trouble downloading the clip (and associated comparison clip), contact me, and I will share the files via Dropbox. I encourage you to click on the individual still frames to see larger, zoomable versions.

Here are two versions the relevant capture, one in its original, unprocessed form and another with a Luminar vividness filter applied, sandwiched between unprocessed captures from 20 seconds before and 20 seconds after. The arrow is pointed at the object of interest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the time lapse video clip.

 

 

 

Here is a version of the still, resized using Topaz A.I. Gigapixel, an automated, artificial intelligence-based, image enhancement program. Following that are two enhancements, and a detail therefrom, made using another processor, Let’s Enhance. Both of these programs are automated, so except for selecting enlargement percentage and general processing parameters, I had no influence on the resulting images. Note that the prominent silhouette, which suggests a woodpecker’s head and neck, is blurred, background foliage, not part of the object. Assuming that the object itself is an ivorybill, I think the capture suggests the bird is angled slightly away from the camera, with head and neck inclined to the right.

 

 

 

Edited to add: A significant number of readers have misinterpreted the image, despite my explanation. To reiterate, the somewhat woodpecker head and neck-ish silhouette is background vegetation. The object’s head and neck are not visible. This detail, scaled up as much as possible, should be helpful, despite the loss of resolution.

Detail of Enhanced Detail 7:12:17_output (1)

 

Next are a squirrel and a presumed Red-bellied Woodpecker (9-11″ including head and tail) captured on a different day. They are included for scale. Both are a little lower on the trunk and are therefore closer to the camera. The captures are followed by a 50-frame Quicktime clip showing both the smaller woodpecker (suspected RBWO) and some squirrel activity. The comparison suggests that the object, which appears to be perched in typical woodpecker fashion, is too big to be a Red-headed Woodpecker (8.3-9.8″ including head and tail) and is slightly larger and more substantial than the head and body of an Eastern gray squirrel (9.1-12″). No tail, head, or neck is discernible, so the size of the object is in the appropriate range for an ivorybill body. (Total length is given as 19-21″ with tail at 5.5-6.7″ and bill at 2.3-2.9″) More discussion, including my responses (in italics) to some questions and comments (in bold and italics), is below.

 

 

 

 

An ornithologist wrote:

. . . I have tried every possible way to call that something other than ibwo but I can’t make it into anything else. The general impression of size and shape and even posture / body position relative to the tree is spot on.

And then in response to my explanation about the foliage that had caused some confusion:

I was seeing body only, folded wings white patch.

Early on, I had the following exchange with another biologist and ivorybill researcher:

Interesting. First, as I said before, I am no expert on trail cam photos like these. It looks like a black and white object for sure, with white on the bottom, but to my eye it is not possible to determine what kind of object it is. For sure, a bird would make a lot of sense. And if it is a bird, given the location, and pose on the trunk, a woodpecker would make a lot of sense. I am not sure if I see white at the top of the object as well?

How big is the tree that the object is sitting on, and is that scaling on the other side of the tree or remnants from when a branch that broke off? Have you seen bark scaling in that neighborhood?

I replied:

I’m pretty sure that it’s a bird and therefore a woodpecker. 

I think I see a white saddle and possibly a dorsal stripe. I also think it is too big to be a Red-headed, based on the squirrel and on a smaller woodpecker that’s on the trunk in another frame from another day; I’ll have to find that image.

The tree is a large hickory stub. What looks like scaling is where bark came off when the top fell. It is in an area that has had a good concentration of hickory scaling over the years.

If you have software that enables you to step through it frame by frame, the movie clip can be very informative. Flip Player is an easy one to use.

The response:

Thanks. I just looked at the entire series step by step with Quicktime and it is very intriguing. One question: could some of the white (or all of it) actually be sky in the background? The other frames show sky in the same location. I am not saying that it is, just trying to rule out possibilities.

My answer (another person raised a similar question):

I don’t think so. To my eyes, it’s pretty clear that the white is on an intervening object. I think the white on the object actually covers some of the dark area (as well as the lighter patch) behind it in the preceding and following frames.

And the conclusion:

Good. It is a very intriguing picture.

There was also this exchange with a consulting biologist:

Thanks Mark, well at least I see something here that should be encouraging to all.
Still, I’ve seen reconyx images of what ended up being squirrels that really had me going, where white seemed to be in the “right” places, but then a subsequent image would show a clear squirrel.  Those were black-and-white images and this of course is color, but unfortunately only one image in this series shows something.  
Thanks for sharing as always,

I replied:

If it’s okay with you, I may include a version of the comment in the blog, anonymously of course. 

One quick response, there are lots of captures of squirrels on the stub, but none from that day, based on several runs through the footage. In my experience, it’s extremely rare to see a squirrel in a single frame (20 second intervals) and not in any others. Also, none of the squirrel hits look remotely similar or show black and white coloration. I’ve now viewed several hundred thousand frames from these cameras. 

I can’t prove a negative, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that it’s not a squirrel.

Similarly, and while no one has raised it, I think partially leucistic PIWO can be rejected; I’ve spent a lot of time in the area and have never seen one, and all PIWOs captured on this trail cam and others nearby have been normal.

The rejoinder:

Sure, no problem.  But let me add the following.  

What are the chances of a large woodpecker kind of critter showing up all of sudden in one frame and no sign that it either flew in or left or was in view beyond the one frame 20 seconds or anytime later.  

An alternative could be some other sort of critter ( apparently larger than gray squirrel, perhaps fox squirrel, possibly raccoon) that worked up from the ground up the tree and then went back down out of view of the reconciliation.

As you said can’t be sure this is even a woodpecker or any other bird.

Beyond all that, still “interesting” but how many times…

I had one point of disagreement:

I mostly agree – with one quibble. It’s not unusual for birds to show up in a single frame and no others (the probable RBWO in the other clip, for example); it’s much rarer and (more difficult) for mammals to do so.

My bad for not deploying the camera closer to the target; in my own defense, I’ve only just started to get a handle on how to work with the cams. It was not my department until recently. I was a little concerned about distance with this deployment but not concerned enough . . . some auspicious timing here, since the image turned up while Tommy was servicing the cams.
Going forward, anything larger than a DOWO that turns up on target trees (though not in the background or flying by) should be identifiable.

My correspondent recognized the quibble as a fair point, and it bears repeating that there have been very few woodpecker hits on this tree, probably because it is very recently dead. This exchange also led me to suspect that some of my colleagues were thinking the background foliage was part of the object in question. The discussion ended with this observation:

You are right Mark, I was interpeting the background veg as looking like the neck and head, which really made me wonder why so faded. However, now we have a frame 33 of the Luneau Video situation.

Anyway, thanks for the re-orientation.

Another member of the group also mentioned Luneau, and the similarity is striking, although there’s no accompanying video, and this single capture seems to show more than the Luneau frame.

This exchange with another advisor came soon thereafter, although the initial comments were made based on thinking the foliage artifact was part of the object. My answers came after the clarification, and I’ve deleted the comments that pertain only to the foliage:
Positive impressions –

1) first the obvious, I can’t tell much from the original picture other than it is long and somewhat “thin” relative to more stocky animals. Based on the zoomed in picture, however, it is a live bird; I can see no way it was photo shopped or that it was placed there as a wooden (or otherwise) replicate. I think it is easy to dismiss any attempt at faking it.

Definitely no fakery here 😉

2) The zoomed in image is impressive, it certainly appears to have a white back (which is a slightly different color than the white of the sky next to it) and I see what appears to be two white stripes on the back as well. The comparison of a probable RBWO on the same tree is noteworthy and clearly shows the relative size of the bird in question.

I think the size comparison stands regardless.

Negative concerns –

1) Any of the above positive impressions may be a function of zooming in well beyond the camera’s ability to correctly interpret what’s really there.

Actually, I think that it’s somewhat more compelling unaltered, if you can toggle.

3) The only one frame concern ****** brought up . . . . . . while I don’t think this is a squirrel or mammal of any kind and I’m not at all concerned about this particular series (see below), I am puzzled that the bird in question would not have shown itself on other occasions as well. Are there any pictures of this tree with a PIWO on it? How many pictures (days) do you have images from this camera on this tree? Is the primary foraging area on the other side of the tree? I’m assuming you have several days in not a few weeks worth of pictures on this tree (?)

The camera has been there for over a year, and I’ve gone through countless images. No other suggestive hits. Lots of squirrels. I don’t recall specific PIWO hits on the target tree, although there may have been some, and I’m sure there were at least a few from the deployment. This is one of the targets that has no scaling on it as yet; visits from woodpeckers have been few. As with the RBWO, I suspect birds may be hitting the tree in an exploratory manner at this point and are not staying long.

Just FYI . . . .This is [not far] from where we saw the bird that I ended up thinking was a RHWO and that you weren’t quite so quick to give up on, closer to where I had the long neck and tail silhouette sighting after some ADKs.

An additional note about not concerned about this series and only one frame . . . . .I feel strongly that IBWOs are incredibly wary, much more than we have been assuming them to be. And as any resident bird, it knows its territory very well and that anything “new” or different in that territory could spook it. I hunt as you know, and can vouch that turkeys and waterfowl are often that way . . .one thing out of place from the normal and they leave . . . 

With that said, I wouldn’t be surprised, if this is an extremely wary IBW, that it knew something was not quite the same in the area and stayed on the far side of the tree on purpose  . . .  Even as I type it and re-read it, it sounds a little crazy but since I know about that level of wariness in other species I take it seriously. I know the discussions about wariness and “Tanner’s birds” etc but not sure birds now would act the same way as birds 60 – 80 years ago. If they are that wary, then that also has implications to where the camera is moved. It has to be close enough for a good picture but far hidden well enough to not spook the bird. (If you talk to Tommy or others about new deployment of the camera, my thoughts about how the wariness of this bird is pretty well known and doesn’t have to be anonymous).

I’ve wondered about this myself, and it seems like a pitfall when it comes to putting cameras very close to target trees. With time, however, I suspect birds would become habituated. It’s always a trade-off with these cams, and unfortunately, they have to be placed quite close to the targets.

Thanks for keeping me in the loop Mark – all in all, this has the most “real” field marks and most potential of anything I’ve seen.

I really do think it’s an IBWO . . . it’s at least more cause for optimism and grounds for staying with the trail cam strategy. As I’ve said, I think we’re finally in a position to do it right.

Here’s the response:

Thanks for more clarification Mark – yes I did toggle back and forth, now that I’m not so worried about what I thought was head, neck and bill, the unaltered is more intriguing.

Good to know its been there a year, I agree that birds will get used to it being there over time. The picture has July 17 2017 along the bottom, is that correct or is it July 2018?

I also forgot that this was a tree that you were interested in before any scaling started . . . .that’s pretty exciting and would explain my other concerns about infrequent use and no PIWO use. Pretty exciting in that (if a 2018 picture) the best is yet to come for woodpeckers. Regardless of IBWO, keeping a camera on this tree and having a sequence that shows which woodpeckers use tree, when and how (assuming there are differences based on tightness of bark etc) would be cool from that area.

Frankly, as I was looking at the picture(s), I thought a few times “Damn, I think he got it” . . . . . . Thanks again,

I replied:

The picture is indeed from 2017. But there’s no scaling on it as yet, so it’s worth staying with.

I hope these exchanges help to illustrate some additional challenges related to trail cams, while revealing something about the review process. I think the object in question is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker; so do some of my associates. It’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but it is an encouraging and suggestive piece of evidence.

 


Some Unpublished Images and Two Frank Wiley Sighting Records From 2009

Think of this as a prologue to some upcoming posts on evidence – including a more structured discussion of the evidence we’ve obtained over the years and my take on broader issues of evidence and the ivorybill controversy.  Look for those at the end of this month and in July.  There’s likely to be a trip report posted before then. I’m also planning a postscript to the Bits ‘n’ Pieces series that summarizes my thoughts in a more organized fashion. That will come sometime this summer. In addition, we will have trail cam imagery from seven deployments (plus unreviewed imagery from five cards) to examine over the summer. We’ll be adding an eighth camera later this month, targeting some scaling Tommy found last month. As discussed previously, we plan to leave these cameras in place for the foreseeable future.

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Planned Camera Trap Deployment. Photo by Tommy Michot.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share the details about and accompanying photographs related to two sightings Frank had in the old search area during the summer and fall of 2009, before my first visit. But first, I’d like to share a trail cam image from the location and deployment where we obtained a suggestive trail cam image a week after I had a possible sighting. With the passage of  time, I had forgotten that the landowner’s grandsons (who are mentioned in one set of Frank’s notes) had reported seeing an ivorybill in the same immediate vicinity on the morning when Frank and I had an auditory encounter, and the day before my possible sighting.

This image below was captured in 2009, the day after the one mentioned above that we published years ago. The bird is in flight, just below the fork and to the left of the scaled trunk. I’ll leave it to readers to evaluate; I don’t know what it is, but I think the wing pattern is intriguing. You can click on this image (and the others) to view them in a larger format.

 

With regard to trail cam photos, this is a processed detail from another image from 2009 that Frank liked for ivorybill and that he may have posted on ibwo.net back in 2009 or 2010. I was initially intrigued by this image but was eventually convinced that it shows a Pileated Woodpecker with somewhat worn feathers and that the apparent long tail is due to the posture of the bird. It was a rare time when Frank and I agreed to disagree about an ivorybill related matter. I remain convinced the bird is a Pileated and won’t be including this in my planned discussion of our evidence, but I’m posting it here because Frank had such a strong opinion about it.

 

In summer and fall 2009, before my first visit to the property, Frank had two sightings in the course of which he obtained several photographs. These images are inconclusive at best, and the late Bill Pulliam had a critical take on the two Frank took during the first encounter. I’ll include the bulk of Bill’s analysis below; his commentary notwithstanding, I think these images are worthy of posting now. In retrospect, they are among the very few such images that have been obtained in conjunction with a sighting and with accompanying field notes. The context in which they were obtained, in a small area where there were multiple sightings and auditory encounters by multiple people over a period of six months, gives these notes and images added weight, in my view. I’m grateful to Amanda Wiley Legendre for giving me the go-ahead to post this material. All photos and field notes are by Frank Wiley

Here are screen caps of Frank’s handwritten notes (with a minor redaction to protect location information). The photographs follow.

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Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 5.56.35 PMScreen Shot 2018-06-02 at 5.58.31 PMScreen Shot 2018-06-02 at 5.59.27 PMScreen Shot 2018-06-02 at 6.00.38 PMsketch first sightingsketch

 

 

Bill Pulliam compared the images with others showing the background without the bird present. This is what he had to say:

First Image: I’m actually having a very hard time making sense of this one. What I get as bird is the three large white areas, the small black spot between them, and a reddish or yellowish mass to the lower left. From the context of the two images thus would seem to be a side view of a bird flying to the left and somewhat away. At a glance it almost looks like a bird with a white body, white wings, dark on the breast, and rusty red head. In the absence of any other information, I would think it is some sort of duck except I’m not sure how to make the colors match up. The reddish blob to the left really does look like the head of a duck flying to the left.

I can’t reconcile this with a woodpecker of any kind, or with the description you provided. It might be a molting young little blue heron or white ibis, I suppose. It really kinda looks like a canvasback, except this is august, right? Even if I disregard the red head, I don’t see how to line it up sensibly.

Second Image: This one is even more problematic. There are the two white arcs that look like wings, but then there is a long narrow dark extension to their left. This time the foreground object comes out to be: I don’t know WHAT this might be. If I disregard the long thing to the left it might be something with white wings, but it’s hard to say more than that.

In summary — I can’t make sense of these objects to have any idea what to call them; the first one is not easy to reconcile with Ivorybill, the second is just hard to say anything about. Given that they are actually the same object, I’m still at a loss.

Sorry, not what you want to hear, but it’s what I come up with. Bill

In reading Bill’s comments for the first time in years, nearly a decade after he wrote them, I’m struck more by how perplexing he found the images to be than by his coming up with something I didn’t want to hear. I am also struck the level of detail in Frank’s description, which I also hadn’t looked at since he wrote it or shortly thereafter.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these photographs were taken with a mid-range, consumer 2008 DSLR with a very modest burst mode. It’s to Frank’s immense credit that he got any pictures at all under the circumstances; the same goes double for the next series.

This is Frank’s account of his November 8, 2009 sighting, which he wrote up in Word, again with a few redactions unrelated to the substance of the report. This was approximately a half mile from the camera trap location. Note that I don’t have copies of all the images Frank used in the figures below, so I’ve taken screen captures from the Word document. The images I do have are reproduced in full size at bottom.

Figure 1: Overview map of sighting area

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On 11-08-09, Frank Wiley at approximately 7:30am CST was on speakerphone with Mark Michaels of New York. During the time we were on the phone I was approximately 1000 yards Southwest of the location shown in Figure 1 above. During that time while I had Mark on speakerphone, he heard several possible double raps (though over the phone he could not separate the individual raps), and at least one very loud single rap that he remarked upon as being very distinct and woody. These sound detections were quite loud to me, as the observer on the scene, and were obviously loud enough to be picked up at a considerable distance by the speakerphone microphone in my Blackberry. I had my Sony IC recorder running nearby at the time, but have not yet reviewed the recording to determine which (if any) of the putative sound detections it may have picked up.

During the time we were connected, Mark was able to make out calls of Pileated Woodpeckers, a Yellow Shafted Flicker, and Red Bellied Woodpeckers, as well as numerous other bird calls. Additionally, I identified by sight a number of other woodpeckers including 2 Downy Woodpeckers, a Yellow Shafted Flicker, numerous Red Bellied Woodpeckers, numerous Pileated Woodpeckers, 1 Hairy Woodpecker and a pair of Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers. Photos of all (time and date tagged) are available for review, except no photo of the Yellow Shafted Flicker. 

Note: I do not have copies of the photos or the audio recording referenced above.

At one point, I stated to Mark that I was possibly being approached by an ivorybill. A black and white bird with the apparent giss of a large woodpecker was approaching my position. Before the bird reached me, it was mobbed by a small (3 or 4 birds) murder of crows, and fled to the North. The unknown woodpecker appeared slightly larger than a Pileated, but was slimmer in profile with seemingly longer wings. Its flight did not undulate as a Pileated normally would. I cannot ascribe any field marks to this bird that would definitively identify it as a Pileated or any other species of large woodpecker, so obviously, Pileated Woodpecker cannot be ruled out in this instance.

After the forest quieted down, I got off the phone with Mark, and staked out a small finger lake in the area for a couple of hours. Woodpecker activity remained higher than usual in the area, especially the Red Bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. During this time, I heard some loud “hammering” that had a pop…POP-pop sequence coming from across the lake, at a distance I would estimate to be greater than 150 yds.

Slightly before noon I walked out of the forest to the home of a member of the family, that owns this tract of forest. I visited with him and his wife until their son M (14) and nephew B (14) returned from their morning squirrel hunt. As I planned to deploy a game camera, and having had one stolen a couple of weeks before, the boys had hooked a trailer to their ATV, and were hauling a caving ladder so I could strap the camera to a tree 10-12 feet off the ground to deter theft and meddling.

We were on the ATV (B riding on the trailer, M driving, and I was riding behind him) and headed to the spot where I planned to deploy the camera (in the forest approximately 100 yds West of the tree circled in Figure 1). Immediately after crossing the slough shown on the Southern portion of the map, B began pounding my back and shouting “There goes the bird!”

Though young, B and M have spent their lives in the woods. They have keen eyesight, and are becoming quite adept at identification of the larger birds common to the area by sight and sound. I have repeatedly tested them with Pileated visual and auditory contacts with “Is THAT the bird?” and they never claim that a Pileated is “the bird.” “The bird” we are discussing is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

M and I looked in the direction (North/Northeast). B was pointing and sighted the bird at approximately 275 yards, flying just above the canopy West to East. The bird did not “swoop” or “undulate” in the manner of most woodpeckers, and displayed distinct white plumage on both the dorsal and ventral secondary flight feathers. The bird’s giss was more slender, and longer, with a longer seeming tail than a normal Pileated. I quickly raised my camera and snapped off three quick shots. While the bird was definitely in the frame, I had bumped my focusing dial, and it was not focused at infinity for the zoom setting. Upon review, these three frames reveal nothing but blur, but have been retained for my records. This occurred at 1:38pm CST (2:38pm CDT on the camera). The bird then banked to its left (North) and disappeared from view.

M restarted the ATV and began moving North, when approximately 1 minute later, B shouted “There’s one on the side of that tree!” indicating a large pecan in the Northwest corner of the clearing. Both M and I looked up as three large black and white woodpeckers with trailing white secondary dorsal flight feathers flushed from the side of the tree. I am quite sure of our identification of these birds as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

Even though the range was extreme (later measured at approximately 225 yards), I raised my camera again (prefocused to infinity this time) and got off four shots of a bird fleeing to our left (West). These photos, Figures 2 thru 9, appear below. Figure 2, 3, 4, and 5 are the pictures as seen in the original file reduced for insertion into this document. Figure 6, 7, 8, and 9 are cropped and zoomed at the same pixel rate and resized for insertion into this document. In my opinion, except for the long tail, and odd wing shape, Figures 6 and 7 look somewhat like a crow. Figure 8 is apparently a large woodpecker with wings in a “tucked” position. Figure 9 is the same bird with the wings in an upward position. In both Figure 8 and 9, a long, substantial bill appears to be present. In Figure 9, the bird’s right wing shows possible white along the trailing edge in the location of the secondary flight feathers.

Figure 2:

 

Figure 3.

 

Figure 4.

 

Figure 5.

 

Figure 6.

 

Figure 7.

 

Figure 8.

 

Figure 9.

 

Again, the fact that he was able to get any photographs at all is a reflection of Frank’s skills, which he had honed as a hunter. And while these photographs are inconclusive, the description of what he observed lends them considerable weight in my view.

Here are the frames that I still have on my computer. A couple are processed and cropped somewhat differently. One includes an annotation that Frank omitted from the report, highlighting an American Robin to provide a sense of scale. It may be helpful to examine these higher resolution versions.

 

 

 

 

 


Matt Courtman Records Three Kent Like Calls – March 19, 2018

Matt spent several days in the search area after my departure. On the afternoon of March 19, he staked out a fresh cavity approximately .25 mile from a location where I recorded a double knock in apparent reaction to an ADK in 2014 and where we captured some intriguing trail cam images. This is about a mile from where Matt and Phil recorded numerous kent-like calls last year.

After more than two weeks of steady presence in the area, and no possible contacts, Matt heard and captured one distinct kent-like call a few minutes after sunset. On reviewing the audio, I found two additional calls about 16 minutes earlier on the recording. There’s also a very faint possible call that comes approximately 2 minutes and 35 seconds before the most distinct one; it’s so faint that I’ve opted not to extract and include it here. Before providing some commentary, Here’s Matt’s description of his experience and observations:

While on the stakeout described above, I began recording at 6:51 p.m., exactly thirty minutes prior to official sunset for that date and location of 7:21 p.m. For the four days prior to this one, I had been keeping notes on “last of the day” woodpecker sounds. Small sample size, but the woodpeckers had consistently gone silent at six to four minutes prior to official sunset on each preceding day. Falling into the trap of unwarranted speculation, I noted with some sadness that sunset had passed without any intriguing sounds.

The mosquitoes on the evening in question were particularly persistent.  Based on my observation (of a whole four days . . . and involving species other than ivorybills), I almost stopped recording at sunset so I could retreat from the mosquitoes. Honestly, had I not been hearing great coyote howls just after sunset,I probably would have closed up shop for the day . . . but I wanted to record the coyotes.
Almost five minutes after sunset (the 35:52 mark of my recording), I heard a single kent-like call that sounded very much like the ones that we had heard the previous March. The sound seemed to have come from between 80 and 120 yards north/northeast of my position. I continued to record until last effective light, but heard no more similar sounds.*

The following clip runs approximately 1 minute and 45 seconds (to give a sense of the ambient sounds and conditions); the kent-like call comes at 1:36.  

Here is a much shorter, amplified extract. The call should be easy to hear.

The sonogram suggests that the call has a fundamental frequency somewhere between 515 and 550 hz. There’s a strong second partial and a weaker third partial (the horizontal lines to the right of center). While the sonogram is not a perfect match for last year’s recordings (or the Singer Tract recordings for that matter), my ears and my common sense tell me that the source of the calls is the same. While the frequency is slightly lower than most of the calls recorded by Hill et al. on the Choctawhatchee, the structure is very similar. (See figures E and F.)

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Kent-like call recorded March 19, 2018

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Kent-like calls (longer horizontal lines) and tree squeaks recorded March 15, 2017

The two additional calls I found are very faint and presumably more distant. I was not able to tease out a sonogram with my software, even with a lot of amplification. The calls may be hard to hear without headphones, so listen carefully. The first clip is unamplified, and the second is pushed as far as was practical.

Bob Ford had the following to say about the first call (heard by Matt in the field):

“I spent a little more time on this one than I usually do . . . . I don’t do the sonogram analysis work myself but instead listen, compare to other known/recorded sounds, use my field experience etc.

I cannot think of a single thing that would make this sound other than ivory-bill. For me, it’s easy to dismiss the usual suspects like Blue Jay or tree squeaks etc. I fall back to turkey and wood duck. I’ve heard both species make sounds I never knew were possible from those animals. But in this case, even stretching, I can’t make it into turkey or wood duck. The sound is too robust, too “direct” (hard to explain, maybe I mean punctuated?), it’s a single sound (my experience turkey and wood duck continue even if its same sound). It’s not artificial, I believe it came from an animal. I agree, this is about as hot as it gets lead-wise.”

As I pointed out to Bob and the rest of the team, Matt’s call and the ones recorded last year have frequencies and structures that are closer to geese than some of the other confusion species, though I’m convinced that none of the calls we’ve recorded came from geese. These Canada Goose sonograms illustrate the similarity. Jackson, pp. 179-180, also notes the similarity between IBWO sounds and those made by geese.

Cornell’s criteria call for fundamental frequencies between 580 and 780 hz. (the frequency of the kents on the Singer Tract recordings). As already noted, Matt’s sound is somewhat lower pitched, but not outside the capacity of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The calls on the Singer Tract recordings that Frank and I described as the “wonka-wonkas”, examples starting at around 3:14, are both goose like and have lower fundamental frequencies.

It’s also worth reiterating that the Singer Tract birds were obviously agitated when those recordings were made, and as Tanner put it: ” . . . the kent note given in monotone and slowly or infrequently is the ordinary call note. When the bird is disturbed, the pitch of the kent rises, and it is repeated more rapidly frequently doubled, kent-kent, with the second note lower. (p. 62, emphasis added.)

Rob Tymstra, an accomplished Canadian birder and IBWO searcher, visited the search area a couple of weeks later, and on April 5, he reported the following from a location a few miles south of Matt’s capture:

“. . .at 11:55 am yesterday, I heard one clear kent-like note about 50-100 yards north of the bridge. I noted the pitch of the sound (using my ukulele) and compared it later to the soundclip Mark sent me a few days ago. The quality of the sound is similar but the pitch of my sound was about a whole note higher than yours. I didn’t hear or see anything unusual after that. I can’t say that it sounded like an ivorybill but it’s certainly a sound I’d never heard before (and I know most of the birdsongs).”

A whole note higher would likely place the fundamental frequency at the low end of Cornell’s range.

I’m personally convinced these calls and the calls recorded last year came from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. It’s also my view that the recordings Matt and Phil have made are among the strongest evidence for the ivorybill’s persistence obtained to date.

I’m more puzzled by the difference between last year, when birds were calling very actively on at least one day, and it appeared that the sounds had at least two and possibly as many as four sources, and this year when calls have been so few and far between. I can’t help but wonder whether the difference might be due to nesting success last year and failure this year. Pure speculation on my part, but perhaps we’re getting close to resolving some of the mysteries.

If the sounds Matt captured last month were Ivory-billed Woodpecker calls, it seems likely that he was in the vicinity of a roost; however, Matt returned on the morning of March 21 and did not hear anything. (There was lots of avian and woodpecker activity.) No suggestive sounds were apparent on my review of that morning’s recording, so if there is a roost in the area, it seems unlikely that it was used on the night of the 20th. Whatever the case, the location is very short walk from the road, and I plan to devote several mornings and evenings to sitting in the area with recording device running and camera at the ready.

Edited to add: When Matt and I first discussed the call, I remembered that Don Eckelberry’s account and his description of the Singer Tract ivorybill calling around sunset. I’m grateful to Houston, of IBWO.net who was reminded of it too and sent me Eckelberry’s exact words:

. . . At 7:20, after I had finished all my notes and we were about to leave, she popped out and raced up the trunk to its broken top where, bathed in rich orange light of the setting sun, she alternately preened and jerked her head about in a peculiar angular way, quite unlike the motions of any other woodpecker I knew. I was tremendously impressed by the majestic and wild personality of this bird, its vigor, its almost frantic aliveness. She flew off after five minutes and in another five returned, calling once and going in to roost at 7:30 on the dot. By the time we regained the road it was quite dark.


What’s in the Cavity? A Possible Second Bird in a Couple of Old Trail Cam Photos

Regular readers are no doubt familiar with some of the images shown below. The “neck bird”, which was photographed in our old search area in August 2009, has been discussed in a number of posts. I think it likely shows a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker, something that became clearer once I satisfied myself that what appeared to be red in the crest (in the wrong place for either Pileated or ivorybill) was likely an artifact and that the crest appears to be all black, as shown in the enhanced image below. The original captures (the first taken a minute before the neck bird appears and the second showing the neck bird) are immediately below that for those who haven’t seen them.

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Processed Detail of Image 1096, August 11, 2009

Years after the capture and probably after the first post about this image in 2014, I noticed that an object suggestive of a light colored bill was visible in both frames, apparently protruding from the lower cavity in the snag to the right of center. While I have shared this information privately with a number of people and did a vague Facebook post about it a couple of years ago, I’ve hesitated to blog about it or discuss it in detail. That changed after I showed it to Jay and Erik before we parted company on my last trip to Louisiana. When Erik suggested that the object might be a vine or some other intervening vegetation, I decided to go back through my files. I discovered that Frank had sent me several additional captures from the same deployment. I examined these frames and found that the apparent bill was absent from all of them.

 

Below are details from frames 1095 and 1096 showing the apparent bill, which changes position slightly from one frame to the next. The time lapse interval between images was 1 minute. Again, the cavity in question is the lower one (below the fork) in the snag to the right of and behind the one on which the neckbird is seen in 1096. These snags are black willows (Salix nigra), and the neck bird snag (with the large cavity apparently being used by a squirrel) fell between November 2009 and January 2010. I’m also posting the close-ups in tiled mosaic format so they can be viewed side-by-side.

For this round of image processing, I used Let’s Enhance, which enabled me to retain a large format for cropped and zoomed versions.

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Detail from 1095 – Note apparent light colored object (possibly a bill) apparently protruding from an bisecting the lower cavity

 

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Detail from 1096, captured one minute later. Note slight change in position of the possible bill.

Next are two details from images captured a few days later. The possible bill is nowhere to be seen. The same is true for the other captures from this deployment. Thus intervening vegetation and artifact can be ruled out.

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Detail from image 2135, captured August 14, 2009. Note the absence of the apparent bill that appeared in images 1095 and 1096 captured three days earlier.

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Detail from Image 2507, captured on August 16, 2009. Again, note the absence of any object in the lower cavity.

To summarize, the following two photos show what appears to be a bill in the cavity:

2009-08-11 7:48 am  (image 1095.jpg)

2009-08-11 7:49 am  (image 1096.jpg – the neck bird photo)

The following photos show a cavity with no apparent bill:

2009-08-14 6:19 am

2009-08-14 6:20 am

2009-08-14 6:21 am

2009-08-14 4:06 pm

2009-08-14 4:07 pm

2009-08-15 6:20 am

If this is a bill, it appears to be large and light colored, consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Both Erik and I noticed that, in frame 1095, a topmost part of the white dorsal stripe also may be visible. When Jay first saw the photos, he was reminded of the Neal Wright photos from Texas. Some images from the Singer Tract also come to mind.

 

Thus, this apparent bill resembles those of known ivorybills in cavities – in size, shape, orientation, and contrast. It is present only in frames 1095 and 1096 (the latter of which shows another possible ivorybill); it changes position over the course of a minute, from one frame to the next. There is no way to be sure images 1095 and 1096 show an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a roost hole, but these facts, especially taken together, suggest that they may.

When I look back at what transpired in the old search area between August 2009 and November 2010, when the adjoining parcel was logged, it’s extraordinary. I may revisit those events in a future post or two.

For now, I’ll close by tying this into the Bits and Pieces series. The old search area is not one that would be deemed suitable under most habitat models. The images above were captured in a stand of black willows at the edge of a bean field. The other trail cam capture, where I had a sighting, was also within perhaps 30 yards of that field. When I look back at my assessment of the habitat from the time, I think I somewhat naively overstated its quality; however, there was a good deal of dead and dying timber, and it was in close proximity to several much larger habitat patches. If we did indeed capture ivorybills with our trail cams, their presence in this area may point to how the species has been able to adapt to more fragmented habitats.

Thanks to Erik Hendrickson for his input on this post and his help in making it clearer.


Bits and Pieces Part 6: Rethinking Range and Habitat – Implications

If you’ve been following this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5) you know it has focused primarily on preconceptions about ivorybill range and habitat types and how the actual record paints a very different picture from what many of us think we know about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. As I noted in the most recent installment, if our knowledge of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker were based on the archaeological record alone, we’d think of it as an upland species. Further, we might very well assume that it ranged from the hills of Georgia, to the Alleghenies in Virginia, to central Ohio and west-central Illinois.*

While it may border on heretical to say so, I think there’s a plausible argument that the ivorybill’s range prior to around 1800 extended as far north as the mid-Atlantic states (New Jersey and Pennsylvania on the Eastern Seaboard) and as far north as central Ohio west of the Appalachians. I’m inclined to think this is likely based on a number of accounts including: Peter Kalm (a student of Linnaeus who reported the species was present in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 18th-century), Jefferson (1780s) and Nuttall (1840s) who included Virginia in the range, and Gerard Hopkins a Quaker from Maryland traveling to Indiana to meet with the Miami and Potowatami Nations. Hopkins described a female ivorybill at Piqua, Ohio (north of Dayton, elevation 873′) in 1804 (Leese, 2010.)

In addition, there’s the specimen that Wilson reportedly collected near Winchester, Virginia ca. 1810 (Jackson) and the central Kentucky specimen reportedly collected in the 1780s (Jackson, accepted by Tanner in 1989). As I see it, the tendency to treat these records as suspect is based, at least in part, on post-Civil War or post-Audubon “knowledge” about the ivorybill and its habitat, rather than anything intrinsically implausible about the claims themselves.

At minimum, one of the Ohio archaeological finds dates to the 15th or 16th century, so there’s strong reason to think that the ivorybill’s range extended that far north at the time of contact. North American Native populations began to decline after Columbus’s arrival, and De Soto’s expedition, 1539-1542,  led to the collapse of the Mississippian culture. (De Soto also introduced the hogs that plague the southern forests to this day.) As a consequence, countless acres of formerly agricultural lands throughout the eastern United States were reforested and remained so into the 18th and 19th centuries. There’s little reason to think that the ivorybill’s range would have contracted at a time when the total acreage of potential habitat was increasing.

I’m reminded that tree girdling may have been an important factor. The only counterargument to the foregoing suggestion about the increase in total acreage after De Soto is that Native American agricultural activity declined drastically during that period, so that while habitat acreage increased, habitat quality may not have. Tree girdling and intentional burning likely played an important role in creating good conditions for ivorybills and could conceivably have led to range expansion during the Mississippian period and again temporarily during the first couple of hundred years of European settlement.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker use of girdled trees was noted by several early observers – notably Audubon, Gosse, and Scott (in Florida, later). While researching this aspect, I came across an interesting account from 1840s Central Louisiana, apparently just south of Alexandria (the citizens of that city are described as “chiefly gamblers or cunning speculators, a nest of incarnate devils, who live by cheating the latest comers, and, whenever possible, each other.”) I’m not aware of this account having found its way into ivorybill literature:

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From Echoes from the Backwoods; or, Scenes of Transatlantic LifeCaptain R.G.A. Levinge (1849).

With this as background, I’d like to propose an alternative explanation (or more accurately an alternative group of explanations) for the ivorybil’s decline. If you think, as I do, that the ivorybill has persisted, this may help explain how the species survived and may even provide some hope for its future, even in this era of mass, anthropogenic extinction.

When it comes to the decline and possible extinction, there has been a tendency to look for one or two causes. The IUCN Species Account gives the following reasons:

Logging and clearance for agriculture are responsible for the dramatic decline in numbers and range. These factors are likely to threaten any remaining population. Hunting has also been implicated in the rapid population decline, and it has been proposed that this was the primary cause of its decline, with habitat destruction playing a secondary role, but this theory is contentious (Snyder 2007, Hill 2008, M. Lammertink in litt. 2012).

Tanner emphasized the importance of logging during the post-Civil War era, although several of his data points seem to suggest that ivorybills were disappearing prior to the most active logging dates. He also stated that the ivorybill’s disappearance “coincided at least roughly with a time of active or rapidly increasing logging.” Elsewhere in the monograph, he focused on food supply, and I suspect that this, rather than logging per se was a more important factor in the ivorybill’s decline.

That’s not to say logging was unimportant; it clearly played a major role. To expand briefly on the point Bill Pulliam raised: by the late 19th century, the more adaptable Pileated Woodpecker, had been extirpated in many parts of its range, and many expected it to ‘go the way of the ivorybill’. That didn’t happen, and PIWOs returned to or became more common in many areas (my own included) as farming gave way to suburban development and forested acreage increased as a result. I’d suggest that for the ivorybill, habitat degradation, rather than habitat loss, was what initiated the decline, with extensive logging and then hunting accelerating an already existing trend.

That is to say, a number of additional anthropogenic factors likely played a role in the ivorybill’s decline and dwindling range, especially outside of Florida, where hunting and collecting likely had much greater impacts than elsewhere. Hasbrouck, writing in the 1890s, contrasted the lack of collecting in Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee with what was transpiring in Florida at the time. And it’s important to remember that Florida, which retained ‘frontier’ characteristics far longer than other parts of the eastern United States, was ground zero for the killing and collecting of birds – for commercial and ostensibly ornithological purposes. Ivorybills appear to have been more common in Florida than elsewhere by the second half of the 19th century, but it also seems probable that they were far more heavily persecuted there than anywhere else.

I’m hypothesizing that the shrinking distribution was correlated with settlement patterns in the northeastern part of that range and that by the middle of the 19th-century, east of the Mississippi, it had dwindled to the now familiar outlines, such as those shown on the IUCN range map. Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 3.42.31 PM

The situation west of the Mississippi is somewhat more ambiguous. A specimen was collected at Forest Park, Missouri (near Saint Louis) in 1886, and there are records from west of the map in Texas dating to the early 20th century. Nevertheless, the general trend toward a shrinking range, which was frequently described in the 19th century literature, is clear.

European settlement brought about numerous changes in the land even before wholesale clearing of forests began.

As mentioned briefly in the discussion of tree girdling, Native Americans used fire for agricultural and wildlife management purposes, something that was likely beneficial for ivorybills. As Native Americans were exterminated, pushed out of their original homelands, or confined to small reservations, and as European settlers tried to control or eliminate fires, a significant factor contributing to tree mortality was likely reduced, dramatically.

Fulton’s invention of a commercially viable steamboat in 1807 revolutionized commerce, drastically accelerating the clearing of log jams from many watersheds in eastern North America. It’s fair to say that “widespread removal of instream wood for steamboat routes, timber rafts, and flood control was equally significant in decreasing floodplain sedimentation and river complexity, and in causing a fundamental, extensive, and intensive change in forested river corridors throughout the United States.” (Wohl, 2014.) As with changes in fire regimes, this clearing of log jams likely led to a decline in the number of stressed and dying trees along the riparian corridors that seem to have been so important for the ivorybill.

Perhaps equally if not more important in my view is the extirpation of the beaver. It is almost impossible to overstate the role of the beaver in shaping ecosystems throughout North America, a subject that’s addressed in engaging detail in Frances Backhouse’s Once They Were Hats. Beavers help create conditions that are good for woodpeckers by stressing and killing trees, through foraging and by changing hydrology. I’ve never tried to quantify it, but many, perhaps most, medium to large sized sweet gums in our search area show signs of beaver damage, and many others have been killed or severely weakened by beaver-caused flooding.

While beavers are not native to peninsular Florida, the ivorybill’s dwindling range elsewhere roughly tracks their decline; with extirpation starting in the northeast, moving West, and then South. (Southern beaver pelts were less valuable.) By 1900, beavers had disappeared from most of the southeastern US, and in Tanner’s day, a very small population persisted in the Florida Parishes of eastern Louisiana. Reintroductions began in the 1950s, and beavers are now considered a pest animal in Louisiana. It’s worth pointing out that the introduced beaver population in Tierra del Fuego appears to be benefitting the native Magellanic Woodpecker (Soto et al. 2012).

The resurgence of the beaver throughout the southeastern US is almost certainly producing substantially improved habitat conditions in many places. While the old growth forests may be virtually gone, it’s not inconceivable that ivorybill food sources are considerably more abundant now than they were in Tanner’s day, and if the species survived, conditions may actually be more favorable than they were in the 1930s and ’40s. It’s also worth pointing out that the southeastern United States is one of the few places in the world where forest cover has increased substantially in the 21st century.

It should be clear to readers of this series that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker inhabited a larger range and was able to exist in more varied habitats than most publications on the species suggest. This has implications for searchers and for what is deemed to be suitable habitat. For example, the trail cam images from the old Project Coyote search area were obtained near the edge of a bean field, and the putative ivorybill roost holes were in willows (more on that in my next post). Since ivorybills in the western part of their range seem to have lived in willow and cottonwood dominated riparian corridors, fast growing, short-lived willows might have played an important role in the species’ survival in other areas too, although willow-dominated habitat would be dismissed as unsuitable under conventional standards of habitat appropriateness.

It seems to me that even a slightly higher degree of adaptability would increase both the chances of survival and the likelihood that surviving populations might be overlooked due to preconceptions about habitat “suitability” ; this was doubtless one of the factors that led officials to dismiss the landowner in our old search area. Now that beavers are again abundant in the southeast, habitat that might otherwise have been deemed “unsuitable” may now be able to support ivorybills, even if the forest itself is not very old. While I don’t envision a recovery along the lines of what’s happened to the Pileated since my youth (when seeing my first one was a thrill as much for its scarcity as its beauty), I think it’s possible that ivorybill numbers have been increasing gradually and modestly over the past few decades. There was, of course, fairly intensive searching from around 2000-2010 (though it’s mostly over now), but it may be that the more numerous sightings from this period and afterwards are due to more than just the increased effort.

*The remains found in Native American middens were unlikely to have been trade goods; ivorybill parts seem to have been a valuable commodity for ceremonial use west of the Mississippi but not east of it, and in several cases, the remains found were tarsometatarsi, which would be consistent with use as food:

There is strong physical evidence of  ritual value for woodpecker scalps and bills from the upper Midwest and Plains . . .  Remains of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker can be found in sacred bundles, on pipe stems, on amulets, and with burials among the Native Americans of the region. The evidence comes from the western Great Lakes and the Plains; no
evidence of a particular use of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers has yet been un-
covered from the eastern area of the Great Lakes (Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan).

(Leese, 2006.) Leese also points out (in several of his publications) that there’s no evidence that ivorybill parts other than scalps and bills had any trade value.

A number of these midden records were accepted by Tanner in his unpublished 1989 update.


Go Read Bill Pulliam’s Blog While You Can

I had been planning to do a post with various ivorybill related tidbits in anticipation of the search season, which begins next month. That will be coming in a week or so, but I want to say a little more about Bill Pulliam first (beyond his Luneau video analyses, which I think should be dispositive). This decision was inspired in part by one of our advisors who pointed similarities between what Bill observed in Tennessee and what we’re seeing in Louisiana. While the physical characteristics of our old search area seem to have more in common with Moss Island, Tennessee than where we’re currently focused, Bill’s perspectives are relevant to both.

Edited to add: Moss Island is a small wildlife management area encompassing 3400 acres. I’m not sure what percentage is mature bottomland hardwood forest, but there are a variety of other habitat types. Compared to our search areas it is relatively isolated and distant from other large tracts of forest.

As an aside, Cyberthrush also has a post honoring Bill with a link to an eBird tribute.

With comments included, Bill’s series of posts on Moss Island runs to nearly 54,000 words. There’s no telling how long this series will remain readily accessible online, and indeed some of the images and sound files are no longer available. The entire series is worth reading and saving if you’re seriously interested in the ivorybill. It starts here.

On re-reading the posts for the first time in eight years, I’m struck by how much Bill influenced me without my recognizing it and/or how much the evolution of my understanding between  2009 and today is congruent with the ideas he expressed just as I was getting more deeply involved in searching.

Like Bill, I suspect that the near extirpation and revival of the beaver may be central to the ivorybill’s decline and survival (more about this in my next post). Like Bill, I think that Tanner’s model failed to account for environmental changes that had taken place in the preceding centuries. Like Bill, I think that if the ivorybill survived, it had to have adapted in ways that are inconsistent with Tanner’s a priori assumption that the species is old-growth dependent.

Bill was tough-minded and opinionated. There were times when I thought he considered me a somewhat annoying amateur. While we hadn’t communicated about it in recent years, he took a dim view of my efforts to make sense of feeding sign in the early days. Most of our correspondence took place in the 2000s, while he was still actively blogging about the ivorybill. After that, I sought his input sparingly.

My last exchange of emails with him pertained to the March recordings. Without quoting him directly, I think it’s fair to say he thought the calls were likely or more than likely Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He also thought it unlikely that birds were resident in our search area, based on the pattern of potential encounters, the paucity of strong sightings, and lack of conclusive evidence. I’m not sure I agree; I wish there had been a chance to explore this topic in more depth and that he’d been able to see our search area for himself. Nonetheless, his perspective has led me to consider that other nearby forested areas deserve more attention than we’ve given them to date.

I’ll conclude with three paragraphs from his final post in the Moss Island series. It’s as true today as it was in November 2009 (though I suspect nesting may take place in fragmented second growth, as in our old search area). I hope it inspires you to read the rest. More from me soon.

How does this relate to Moss Island? By Cornell standards, our habitat is unsuitable. Hence, our encounters are largely dismissed out of hand. By doing so, the Cornell approach has painted themselves into a rather nasty corner. The logic is simple. To all appearances, we have Campephilus-like double knocks that are at least as good as what has been heard in the “core habitat” such as Big Woods and Congaree. If one claims that in “core habitat” these represent evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, but in “marginal” or “unsuitable” habitat they provide no evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, one has committed a logical no-no of the first magnitude. If the same sounds come from places where you have concluded that Ivorybills are not going to be, then you should conclude that these sounds have no relevance to Ivorybills anywhere. Conversely, if you feel these sounds are evidence of the possible presence of Ivorybills in South Carolina or Arkansas, then you must also accept that they would be evidence of the same in Tennessee, Illinois, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. You can’t have it both ways.

Anyone who seriously considers that Ivorybills might still persist, and that double knocks and other soft evidence have a relevance to indicating their possible presence, should accept that the evidence in total suggests their habitat requirements might be broader than has been assumed by Cornell et al. I’m not suggesting they will nest in fragmented second growth, or even use it as a full-time habitat; but there are ample indications that if these sort of encounters mean anything anywhere then the birds indeed are using fragmented “marginal” habitats for at least parts of their life history. These habitats are hugely more extensive than the “core” habitats, hence this possibility raises all sorts of further hypothetical possibilities for the natural history, survival, and conservation of the species, all of them positive. In the alternative philosophy to Cornell’s, you search where you have learned of rumors, whispers, or credible declarations that something of interest might have been seen or heard there. This of course requires a lot of judgement, and eventually everyone will draw the line somewhere; I’d not put much stock in reports from western Kansas, for example — although good double knocks in Nebraska or Vermont would settle a lot about what they might mean in Arkansas! But until and unless we actually find some reproducible birds and determine what their 21st Century habitat use patterns really are, minds should be kept open.

You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species. You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species.