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The Choctawhatchee: A Detour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Might Have Survived

I have been corresponding with Christopher Carlisle, a Mississippi birder who has recently started searching for ivorybills in the Pascagoula watershed. These exchanges, along with a post on IBWO.net about the Choctawhatchee, led me to start thinking, in a somewhat more methodical fashion, about habitat conditions and how the ivorybill might have survived and to consider the significant differences between the old Project Coyote search area and the new one.

I suspect there may have been three behaviors, probably operating separately and together, that made survival possible and detection and documentation difficult. These behaviors are consistent with the historical record, which suggests the species was considerably more adaptable than the simplified reading of Tanner that treats “virgin” or old growth timber as essential. Tanner’s own views on this issue became considerably more dogmatic over time, but even his early surveys of possible habitat in the southeast were influenced by this belief, which I’d suggest was more cultural than scientific, since Tanner was a product of an era in which frontier mythology profoundly influenced American thinking. Tanner’s description of the Singer Tract and especially his ivorybills are reminiscent of Edward S. Curtis’s Native Americans, magnificent, worthy of honor, but ultimately doomed and incapable of adapting.

The reality about Native Americans was considerably more complex of course, and the same goes for the Singer Tract. It was by no means a vast tract of virgin forest in the 1930s; much of it had been under cultivation prior to the Civil War, less than a century prior to Tanner’s seasons there. In pre-Columbian times, the southeast had a significant indigenous population, with perhaps as many as 5.2 million people in the Mississippi Valley alone. Thus, much of what was deemed to be “virgin” forest in the 20th-century was quite likely agricultural land in the pre-Columbian era. As I see it, Tanner’s preconceptions about what constituted “suitable habitat” led him to be somewhat cavalier, even in the early days – dismissing areas based on very brief visits, most often due to lack of “virgin” forest. As a result of this prejudice, Tanner may have underestimated the IBWO population.

This is not to negate the argument that IBWOs are more specialized than PIWOs; their morphology clearly places them in a different ecological niche, and their considerably more limited historic range also points to a higher degree of specialization. The fact that IBWOs do not regurgitate may place limits on behavior and home range during breeding season. The specialization, however, has far more to do with foraging behavior than with habitat requirements.

The IBWO.net post suggested (and implied some direct knowledge) that Geoff Hill and the Auburn team focused too heavily on the main channel of the Choctawhatchee. A person calling himself “Ranger Mike” wrote:

“During the last expedition by Auburn here on the Choctawhatchee River Basin I noticed two things that in my amateur opinion could have been better-First every time I saw researchers, or others who hunted and fished the area saw them, they were far to close to the main river. I am well aware of how hard it is access the flood plain areas, but the birds will likely be closer to the banks in the floodplains where there are very large old growth long leaf interspersed with the large cypress and gum that has been missed by logging due to its inaccessibility. This transition zone will be good habitat, and in my very significant time in these in both work and hunting/fishing has produced some interesting sightings and sign, with nothing of interest in the more frequently traveled areas. Second, I don’t think much time was spent on East Island. Its a very remote and promising area, but I think it was avoided because it would have required traversing by foot instead of floating around in kayaks or canoes.”

While I have not verified this account with anyone on the Auburn team, the general observation makes sense and is consistent in some respects with what Tanner observed in the Singer Tract. Nesting habitat was primarily located along tributary streams, not the Tensas River itself.

Edited to add: I have never been to the Choctawhatchee, and so have no first-hand knowledge with which to assess Ranger Mike’s comment. My intention was not to criticize Dr. Hill or the search efforts but to highlight a possible survival scenario. Since posting, I’ve heard from a couple of people with more knowledge of the area; one emailer stated that East Island is “way overlooked”, so if anyone’s interested in revisiting the Choctawhatchee, that might be a place to start.

The two Project Coyote search areas are quite different in character and forest composition. The current search area is secluded, very mature and surrounded by a good deal of contiguous lower quality habitat. It is part of a major watershed but is somewhat distant from the main river system, in the floodplain of a tributary. The old search area was on a small parcel of private land, about 3/5 of a mile distant from a medium-sized WMA, with bean fields in between. There are a number of larger WMAs in the surrounding area. The habitat in this area is mostly if not all of lower quality than in the new area and is discontinuous. Frank Wiley described it as “pearls on a string”. Assuming that ivorybills are or were present in both areas, it seems likely that the differences in habitat require different behaviors, and this may in turn point to how the species managed to persist post-Singer Tract. The following may be the behaviors that made survival possible.

Survival Strategy 1. Seek seclusion in remnant stands of mature forest and areas that were selectively logged, with substantial tracts of contiguous lower quality habitat associated; core habitats provide sufficient food supply during breeding season, and surrounding areas, pine plantations, younger upland hardwood forests and the like, might provide additional food sources the rest of the year. Examples of this type of area may include the Choctawhatchee, possibly other Florida rivers, the Carolinas, and the Pearl.

Survival Strategy 2. Expand home range substantially to forage in degraded habitat, using forested corridors to move around whenever possible but traversing open fields when necessary. This would entail having roosts and possibly nest sites near field edges in some instances, as appeared to be the case in the old Project Coyote search area, near Patterson, LA , a few other Louisiana locations, and possibly Wattensaw WMA in Arkansas. This idea is in part inspired by the November ’48 report to Tanner from Gus Willett, Singer Tract warden, saying that he saw a pair of ivorybills at “North Lake #1” and that the “birds are moving over a much larger area than formerly.” This is the last letter to Tanner pertaining to the Singer Tract, and it points to the likelihood that the widely circulated story of Don Eckelberry’s encounter with the last female IBWO is just another facet of the mythology that surrounds the species.

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Suspected recent nest cavity found by Frank Wiley near the edge of a bean field, East-Central Louisiana, 2009.

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Black and white image of tree in which suspected nest cavity was found. Compare with the appearance of this nest tree from the Singer Tract.

cavity 2 report

Close up of suspected roost cavity in a willow at the edge of a bean field. This cavity was in the tree where we obtained a Reconyx image of a possible ivorybill, discussed here.

Survival Strategy 3. The IBWO can function as a “disaster species”, as Dennis and others have argued, having a high degree of mobility when necessary. “Disaster” in this context could be a slow motion sort of disaster as in the Singer Tract, where sweet gums were undergoing a die-off, so this could include elements of either 1 or 2.

Strategy 1 would help explain some of the difficulty finding, relocating, and documenting the species, since these are remote and inaccessible locations and sightings would most often take place outside of core habitats. Strategy 2 might also help explain why detection is so difficult. These areas are sparsely populated, birds would only be in the open briefly, and would not stay in one place for long, except during nesting season. And as Frank Wiley pointed out, the main human activity during nesting season is turkey hunting, and David Kullivan notwithstanding, turkey hunters are unlikely to see ivorybills, in part because of where they’re focused and in part because their methods would be likely to be disruptive and cause any birds in the vicinity to flee.