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Repost with Addendum: Ivory-billed Woodpecker Sightings and Evidence 1944-2003: The Partially Hidden History

I’m reposting an entry from February 2015 with some new commentary as prologue.

I recently received a Google alert about a new paper on statistical approaches to extinction relying on sight records. According to the paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed:

We have shown that the rate of sightings is the strongest indicator to infer extinction, and too much information about the quality of the sighting can actually be detrimental. Ideally a sighting record would be a list of certain and uncertain sightings only.

I’m curious as to how this model might treat the ivorybill, using the sighting data compiled and analyzed by William C. Hunter in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, a document with which many extinction modelers seem to be unfamiliar.

I’m not trained in statistics, and the literature on this subject is often over my head, but I’m familiar with the concept: “garbage in, garbage out”. Unfortunately, when it comes to the ivorybill, information that is repeated in the statistical papers is often inaccurate:

“For example in 2005, based on a brief sighting and a pixelated image, the ivory-billed woodpecker was declared to have been rediscovered (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005), resulting in the mobilisation of resources for management strategies and recovery plans (Gotelli et al., 2012). However, based on the evidence its rediscovery was brought into question (Sibley et al., 2006), and subsequent extensive searches have failed to result in further sightings (Gotelli et al., 2012).” Roberts DL, Jarić I. (2016) Inferring extinction in North American and Hawaiian birds in the presence of sighting uncertainty. PeerJ 4:e2426c 

An example of a species with a high false detectability is the ivory-billed woodpecker. After 2006, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service offered $10,000 for information leading to an ivory-billed woodpecker’s nest, it was ‘observed’ 14 times and audio recorded 300 times. Nonetheless, the reward remained uncollected (Newton 2009). Lee, T. E. (2014), A simple numerical tool to infer whether a species is extinct. Methods Ecol Evol, 5: 791–796.

Neither of these papers applied the models described to the ivorybill, and I’m not commenting on the validity of the models themselves. I’m pointing to how peer-reviewed literature can sometimes function as an echo chamber in which inaccurate information gets repeated as fact.

While it’s true that extensive searches have failed to obtain indisputable proof, the Luneau video, however controversial, cannot be characterized as a “pixelated image”. There were many more sightings in Arkansas and elsewhere, and in Arkansas, numerous kent-like calls and double knocks were heard and recorded over several seasons.

The book by Newton cited in Lee is Hidden Animals: A Field Guide to Batsquatch, Chupacabra, and Other Elusive Creatures, clearly not a serious scientific treatment of the ivorybill and apparently not a very well-researched one. There were in fact 15 Arkansas sightings between 2004 and 2005 and 14 in 2005-2006. The reward, which was for $50,000, applied to Arkansas only and was offered by the Nature Conservancy, not the USFWS, in June 2006. The source of the claim that audio was “recorded 300 times” is not clear, nor is the meaning. Inaccuracies aside, it’s an enormous logical leap to base an assertion about high false detectability on the inability of an unknown number of bounty hunters to locate a nest in ~500,000 acres of forest.

It may well be true that the ivorybill is more prone to false detectability than some other species; its iconic status makes this seem likely. It’s also true that there have been a number of organized searches for the ivorybill and that the number of sightings has increased as a result of publicity and search activity, at least during the first decade of this century. Nevertheless, many of the records between 1944 and 2003 listed in the USFWS Recovery Plan were unrelated to publicity or organized searches and were incidental to other activities, including bird surveys. In addition, the Recovery Plan tally included some qualitative analysis of the sightings, and an unspecified number of reports were excluded as probable false detections.

I find it odd that Appendix E of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan is seldom if ever referenced in the recent literature, including Birdlife International’s species account (which I’m honored to say does reference the post below). It’s an official government report and is the most extensively researched document of its kind. I suspect that many readers will be unfamiliar with it and think it merits quoting at length; I’ve bolded some important passages.  I encourage people to click on the link above and read the rest.

Here, a potential encounter is defined as a report not easily explained as something other than an Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the basis of description of the bird, the type of habitat in which it was encountered, and distribution. After the Arkansas announcement was made, post-1944 reports were compiled prior to the 2005 announcement of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker being sighted in Arkansas. A map was produced of these potential encounters in Service brochures. These potential encounters were based on those discussed by Jackson (2004) or otherwise in Service files as “probably reliable,” defined here as not obviously another species. A review of other published literature and files maintained by some State working groups included other potential encounters that are cited and used in this treatment (both before and after 1950). Excluded from further consideration were reports that likely described other species (especially Pileated, but also Red-headed and sometimes other woodpecker species), as well as those reports outside the historical range of the species (as depicted in Tanner 1942) and in unlikely habitats such as golf courses and backyards. The reports between 1945 and 2005 considered further vary in detail, with some accepted based solely on the credibility and reputation of the observer. Reports since April 2005 (i.e., the Arkansas announcement) are similarly treated, but at least one diagnostic field mark had to be observed (most often the white trailing edges on a flying or perched large woodpecker).

It is important to understand the type and level of documentation accepted for this species’ persistence at the time when most collecting of specimens began to trail off (i.e., after 1900) compared with those reports which were accepted without question previously. While most previous treatments break down reports by State, here it is believed that important insights can be made by comparing reports, type and level of documentation, by decade starting with the 1800 and ending with the present. References for those reports besides those of Tanner himself prior to 1940 are provided in Tanner (1942, with cross-reference to location on his maps, his figures 3-10) and are so noted here.

Results and Discussion

The number of locations with Ivory-billed Woodpecker reports peaked between 1880 and 1910, the same period when most specimens were collected (Figures 1, 2). The number of locations with potential reports after 1940 generally dropped below the number of locations with all reports between 1900 and 1940. However, when including only potential encounters between 1900 and 1939, the range in number of locations among decades was roughly similar to the number of locations with potential encounters in the decades between 1940 and 2009, only dropping below 10 locations during the 1990s. The number of locations within each decade with multiple reports among years never exceeded 10 per decade prior to the extensive efforts underway after 2005 to search for this species.

Prior to 1940, only a small percentage of locations from decade to decade provided the source of reports from multiple years within any one decade, ranging from 12 to 28 percent of all locations with birds reported within each decade (Figures 3, 4). After 1940, there was a slight increase in the percentage of locations with multi-year reports in the later decades, ranging from 9 to 51 percent of all locations with birds reported within each decade. Despite this increase in locations with reports from multiple years there was no definitive documentation of persistence at any of these locations. Similarly, a very low percentage of locations with reports spanning more than one decade is documented in the historical record, but again with a slight increase during the latter decades (Figures 5, 6). Reports continue to come from most of Tanner’s regions into the present day with an obvious shift from those regions that included Florida to regions elsewhere (Figure 7).

In summary, there is no evidence that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was ever widely or consistently relocated in the same areas from year to year or from decade to decade prior to 1940, despite the impression one may have about birds at the Singer Tract during the 1930s. Actually, during Tanner’s study the chore in locating birds often took days or weeks even where pairs or family groups were known to occur from previous years (and actually only one nesting pair at John’s Bayou was consistently relocated during his entire study). Whether the birds were truly more nomadic than previously thought, or whether the low percentage of repeated locations historically has been due to the search patterns of ornithologists and collectors is unclear. What is clear is that the present pattern of reports that do not effectively document occurrence of the species has been repeated from decade to decade for more than a century and that the number of locations with potential encounters within the same decade has varied little since the 1870s.

Whether or not many or all post-1944 reports pertain to actual Ivory-billed Woodpeckers will continue to be debated in some circles, and it also is possible that some of the reports dismissed for purposes of this treatment perhaps should not have been discounted so lightly. However, the pattern of credible-sounding reports accepted for this treatment from locations without firm documentation was from decade to decade slightly lower between 1940 and 2009 than the pattern recorded between 1890 and 1939. Most interestingly, the exceptional increase in locations with potential encounters during the present decade is on the surface similar to what was recorded during the 1930s, given both of these decades experienced a notable increase in amount of effort to firmly document the persistence of this species (with similar results despite substantially fewer observers involved in the 1930s than in the present decade).

 

RecoveryPlanE1&2RecoveryPlan3-4RecoveryE5-6RecovE7

One caveat about this material: the specific information in Appendix E is potentially subject to change in the future, but the overall patterns are likely to stay similar or the same.

Here’s the February 2015 entry.

This post is inspired in large part by an exchange of emails with Chris Sharpe, an ornithologist who is working on an IBWO literature review. Our correspondence revolved around the IUCN’s species account, which describes the ivorybill as “possibly extinct” and cites recent statistical analyses that suggest extinction is likely, as well as one that indicates survival is possible and another that concludes “very large search efforts are needed to detect small populations.”

Chris pointed out that there are many other species on the Red List that fall into a similar category with many unverified reports but in more remote habitats and nowhere near the search effort that has been expended on the ivorybill. While there’s some validity to this assertion, I think the reality is considerably more complex and that the ivorybill is in fact sui generis.

Many of the specifics of ivorybill history are little-known, and the statistical studies seem badly flawed. One focuses on collection rates but may not adequately address changing attitudes toward conservation in the early 20th century among other factors. Another is perhaps even more problematic for a number of reasons – most importantly its focus on “verified sightings”, which is a particularly complicated issue when it comes to the ivorybill. It omits numerous controversial sightings and does not include post-Singer Tract instances in which physical evidence was obtained, although the authenticity of that evidence has been contested. “Sidewinder” posted the abstract and a good summary of the findings on ibwo.net a few years ago:

Roberts, D. L., C. S. Elphick, and J. M. Reed. 2010. Identifying anomalous reports of putatively extinct species and why it matters. Conservation Biology 24:189–196.

As species become very rare and approach extinction, purported sightings can stir controversy, especially when scarce management resources are at stake. We used quantitative methods to identify reports that do not fit prior sighting patterns. We also examined the effects of including records that meet different evidentiary standards on quantitative extinction assessments for four charismatic bird species that might be extinct: Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), Nukupu`u (Hemignathus lucidus), and O`ahu `Alauahio (Paroreomyza maculata). For all four species the probability of there being a valid sighting today, given the past pattern of verified sightings, was estimated to be very low. The estimates of extinction dates and the chance of new sightings, however, differed considerably depending on the criteria used for data inclusion. When a historical sighting record lacked long periods without sightings, the likelihood of new sightings declined quickly with time since the last confirmed sighting. For species with this type of historical record, therefore, new reports should meet an especially high burden of proof to be acceptable. Such quantitative models could be incorporated into the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List criteria to set evidentiary standards required for unconfirmed sightings of “possibly extinct” species and to standardize extinction assessments across species.

Here are the Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting data they used:

Physical evidence: 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1913, 1914, 1917, 1924, 1925, 1932, 1935, 1938, 1939

Independent expert opinion added: 1911, 1916, 1920, 1921, 1923, 1926, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944

Controversial sightings: 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006

Data were from Tanner (1942), Hahn (1963), Jackson (2002, 2004), Fitzpatrick et al. (2005), Hill (2006), and Floyd (2007).

Some conclusions: For the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the prior sighting record suggests that even by the time of the first controversial sighting, the species was relatively unlikely to remain extant (ca. 21% chance), regardless of the level of evidence (physical or independent expert opinion) used…the effect on the predicted extinction date will depend on the details of the sighting record. Including controversial sightings will, by definition, move expected extinction dates forward in time. An ever-increasing burden of proof should be required with increasing time since the last verified sighting. The burden of proof also should be greater when there is a pattern of frequent sightings prior to the last accepted record and lower when long periods between sightings are common in the historical record.

A second paper published in 2012 reached the same conclusion using 39 sightings “classified as certain and 29 classified as uncertain”.

The insistence on verification is problematic because it’s founded on an appeal to authority, and for much of the time frame in question, the primary if not sole authority was James T. Tanner. Tanner had a strong predisposition to dismiss every post-Singer tract report he received and was somewhat cavalier about reports he investigated in the late ’30s as well. (In fairness, Tanner did accept a number of post-Singer Tract sightings in an unpublished, late 1980s update to the records section of monograph.)

Tanner likely underestimated the population IBWO population in the late 1930s. At minimum, he missed six pairs in Mississippi, according to Jackson ( In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, pp. 60-62.  These details reinforce the point made by “Fangsheath” of ibwo.net that, for the ivorybill at least, demanding verification leads to “a rather vicious circularity”. In a recent email, Fangsheath also pointed out that “the Roberts et al. scheme fits tidily into the narrative created by Tanner, that the Singer Tract was the last hope of the ivory-bill, and that when that: wilderness was lost the bird essentially became extinct . . . Tanner searched across several states for the bird and found none elsewhere, yet he himself believed that the bird survived in a number of areas. And so we have a curious contradiction – on the one hand an appeal to authority is being used to exclude many sightings, and on the other hand that same authority is saying the bird exists in areas where sightings are excluded. The mythos that the bird had very specific habitat requirements clouded every search effort and every sighting evaluation, before and after 1944.”

Fangsheath’s observation about the impact of Tanner’s narrative on future search efforts is profoundly important. Tanner’s ideas about habitat, which were in large part a product of his cultural background and the “myth of the frontier”, hardened over time. In later years, he ignored some of the caveats he set forth in his own monograph. But even his approach to reports from the 1930s reflected a set of beliefs about habitat requirements that had no scientific basis. Many people, myself included, are prone to reflexively accepting these assumptions about “habitat quality” because the conventional wisdom is so deeply engrained.

Fangsheath also reminded me that in the years before Tanner, the species was being written off and had been for decades. Florida was believed to be the last stronghold; the Singer Tract and Atchafalaya basin were not considered, nor were the large tracts of overcup oak/water hickory forest (where Beyer found ivorybills in 1898), many of which were untouched until the 1940s. Unlike the Singer Tract, these areas were often roadless and very difficult to penetrate; the Tract was bisected by a road, had few deep bayous, and was largely free of undergrowth, making it much easier to search. I’ve already discussed Tanner’s difficulty in finding ivorybills anywhere besides John’s Bayou. In this context, it’s worth noting that Bick’s 1941 sighting (from his car on Sharkey Road) involved two birds feeding in a lower lying “ash flat” in which overcup oak predominated.

In addition to these conceptual flaws, the papers grossly underestimate the number of post-Singer Tract encounters within the historic range. While it is impossible to quantify the controversial reports, it’s clear that the 26 or 29 referenced in the studies are the tip of the iceberg. There are well over four times that many on record for the 1944-2003 time period. And no doubt, numerous encounters never made it into the literature.

I initially posted a brief comment about this on Facebook and ibwo.net, with a link to Jerome Jackson’s 2002 Birdwatching Daily article listing 20 pre-Arkansas and post-Singer Tract encounters (some just auditory and one from Cuba) and a reference to Michael Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird catalogue of 85 sightings during the same time frame. A commenter wrote, “Yes but no confirming photos”. That also led me to think it would be worthwhile to explore this subject in a somewhat more depth, since there is physical evidence, albeit contested, related to several post-Singer Tract and pre-Arkansas reports.

Before turning to the physical evidence, it’s worth reiterating that the 1944 date for the last “verified sighting” is fundamentally flawed and arbitrary. The 1944 date is for the “Say Goodnight” encounter that involved artist Don Eckelberry and two local boys, Billy and Bobby Fought, and the purported last lone female IBWO in the Singer Tract. This poignant story was retold in The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, and it has become central to the popular lore about the species. There’s no doubt that the encounter took place, and Eckelberry no doubt believed that the bird was the last of her kind. Roger Tory Peterson apparently received and accepted a report that a single bird, presumably the same one, was still present in 1946. Tanner was likely aware of this and had an additional reason to think that birds persisted in the Tract well after 1944. His papers include a letter stating that Singer Tract game warden Gus Willett saw a pair in November 1948 at North Lake #1 (I have been unable to identify this lake). According to the letter, the “[b]irds are moving over a much larger area than formerly.” The letter mentions that there had been several other sightings during this time period. There’s no reply from Tanner in the archives and no further correspondence about the Singer  Tract birds. It appears that this is the letter from Tanner’s former student, Arthur MacMurray, that is referenced in Jackson, but Jackson’s account does not mention Willett, who would have been familiar with ivorybills. The strong possibility that a pair of birds remained in the Tract for more than four years after it was cut should itself raise questions about Tanner’s narrative.

Jackson’s list of 19 US reports between 1944 and 2003 was undoubtedly not intended to be comprehensive (and his book includes many others). Instead, it focuses on sightings by professional ornithologists and/or people who were familiar with the species. These include: Allan Cruickshank, John Terres, Herbert Stoddard, John Dennis, Davis Crompton (Dennis and Crompton studied ivorybills in Cuba), Whitney Eastman, and William Rhein. Jackson doesn’t mention it, and was perhaps unaware when he wrote the article, but Rhein had filmed the Imperial Woodpecker in Mexico several years prior to his 1959 Florida ivorybill sighting. It strains credulity to think that every one of these experienced observers, most or all of whom were familiar with the species and all of whom knew pileateds well, would be mistaken. Jackson points out that Terres kept his sighting to himself for more than 30 years out of “fear of being scorned.” Such was the climate surrounding ivorybill claims, even in 1955.

Steinberg lists 85 sightings between 1944 and 2003. His list includes most, if not all, of Jackson’s reports, breaking them down into individual incidents. Jackson treated repeat encounters in the aggregate. Nonetheless, most of Steinberg’s reports do not appear on Jackson’s list. Many of them are from less illustrious sources and quite a few are anonymous, but some of them are from game wardens, field biologists, and graduate students in ornithology.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan, prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and completed in 2010, includes an even more detailed compilation of records, some of which are of course also included in Jackson and Steinberg. It lists approximately 100 reports of varying quality between 1944 and 2003. Some of these are aggregates, involving multiple observations. The number of observations is sometimes enumerated and sometimes characterized as “numerous”, “multiple”, or “several”, so it’s impossible to arrive at an accurate tally, but the total almost certainly exceeds 150.

Although the Steinberg and the Recovery Plan compilations are more extensive, they are undoubtedly far from comprehensive. For starters, the climate of intimidation around reporting ivorybills was strong enough to deter John Terres in 1955, and that climate of intimidation only grew more toxic over time, as the Big Thicket and Fielding Lewis incidents, not to mention the battle over the Arkansas reports, make clear. In addition, there’s good reason to believe that countless reports from local people, hunters, and amateur birders have been discounted, dismissed, or ignored by authorities, at least prior to the “rediscovery”. Steinberg writes of his first visit to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Baton Rouge office in 2003,“ . . . few people took the book, or more important the larger issue very seriously. The typical response from many in the office, other than Nancy Higginbotham, seemed to be, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’” (Higginbotham claimed two sightings, one of male in 1986 and one of a female in 1987, both in the Pearl River area.) We’re personally familiar with several instances in which reports were dismissed or ignored. One involved the landowner in our old search area, who came forward after the Kulivan sighting and was deeply offended by the way he was treated. As far as I’m aware, no one has done a comprehensive review of records committee submittals within the historic range of the ivorybill; I know of one such submittal from Texas in 2002 that came from unsuitable habitat, outside the historic range, but there may well be others that are more robust.

I’d like to turn to three examples of physical evidence obtained in the post-1944 era. Some of this is fairly well known – the Agey and Heinzmann feather and the Fielding Lewis photographs. The other is somewhat more obscure, but no less interesting for being so.

The Agey and Heinzmann observations took place between 1967 and 1969, in Polk County Florida. They obtained two recordings that Tanner dismissed. There was evidently some very poor communication about it that was compounded by an obvious error on Agey and Heinzmann’s part. They mistakenly thought that calls on their first clip were consistent with some ivorybill sounds from the Singer Tract; they clearly are not. The second clip, which is dominated by a Red-shouldered Hawk, recorded March 3 1968, does have some faint kent-like sounds, but the quality is extremely poor. They are most easily heard on the amplified version that begins at 3:14. The RSHA calls were not what interested Agey and Heinzmann, but they failed to make this sufficiently clear.

I believe Tanner wrote the notes that accompany the recording:

“Well, I’m not sure what to say here. As far as I can determine, there are only four original sound clips here. The recordings at 0:04-0:32 and 0:49-0:57 are certainly flicker-like, especially the continuous series at 0:04-0:21 and 0:26-0:32, but I am less certain about the latter part of the first series (0:21-0:23), which appears to have been recopied twice at 0:41-0:48. A similar vocalization is included at 0:49-0:57 (recopied at 0:59-1:06). Given the very different quality of these sounds relative to those in LNS #6784, combined with the close similarity of the calls to those of Colatpes auratus, leads me to doubt that any of these sounds were given by C. principalis. The recordings from 3 March 1968 (2:45-3:07) represent the calls of Buteo lineatus. Quality unchanged (2;3 – the signal is not bad for the first part, but terrible for the rest, most of which seems to represent copies of various recordings)”

Agey and Heinzmann found several feathers near a cavity, and one was identified as the innermost secondary of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Oddly, Jackson wrote that “ . . . some shadow of doubt is cast over these records because Agey and Heinzmann also tape-recorded what they said were Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and personnel at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology identified the birds on those tapes as pileated woodpeckers.” Given that one of the recordings does include kent-like calls, this criticism is not entirely warranted, and the misidentification seems irrelevant in light of the physical evidence (and ironically Tanner seems to have failed to correctly identify the calls on the first clip). Jackson also alludes indirectly to rumors that the feathers were taken from a specimen. These have circulated for years but are unsubstantiated. Agey and Heinzmann published their findings:

Agey, H. N., and G. M. Heinzmann. 1971a. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker found in central Florida. Fla. Nat. 44 (3):46–47, 64.

Agey, H. N., and G. M. Heinzmann. 1971b. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Florida. Birding 3:43.

To the best of my knowledge neither publication is available online at this time.

The next event, chronologically, started with a series of encounters in east Texas in the late 1960s. John Dennis obtained a recording that Tanner initially dismissed, in part for the patently absurd reason that a Pine Warbler is also heard on the clip, but later described as “a real mystery” when confronted with the sonograms and analysis that were suggestive of ivorybill. That recording is now catalogued as IBWO.

Additional slides, taken in 1970 in east Texas by a man named Neal Wright, were turned over to the Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia which also houses the Fielding Lewis photographs. These were made public after the rediscovery, and since writing this in 2015, I obtained permission to post them on the blog. They show what appears to be a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a nest cavity. When I first viewed the Wright photographs, I was quite skeptical, but later, I was struck by the resemblance to this image from the Singer Tract.

Wright was apparently quite a local character, and I remain somewhat suspicious, as he may have had ulterior motives; however, the similarity to one of the unpublished images from the Singer Tract is strong, and in the pre-internet era, it seems unlikely that a Texas woodsman would be familiar with any of the ivorybill images that did not appear in Tanner’s monograph.

The Fielding Lewis photographs, taken in South Louisiana in 1971, are far better known, although Lewis wished to remain anonymous. His identity was not revealed until more than three decades later, and he was identified at the time only as “the Chief” (Jackson was unaware of his identity in 2004, though it was made public soon thereafter.) George Lowery presented these images at the American Ornithologists’ Union annual meeting and was attacked by many of his colleagues who deemed them to be a hoax. It’s worth pointing out that there have been hoaxes in recent years (these were swiftly and easily debunked), so there’s legitimate reason for skepticism about any claim. In the case of the ivorybill, however, skepticism has frequently been replaced by a virtually irrebuttable presumption of fraud (or error).

In a letter to Tanner, Lowery (who, unlike most of his detractors, had actual field knowledge of ivorybills) wrote: “I know the man in question very well and I am sure he would not pull something like that. In the first place, where would he have gotten the mounted specimen? Why would he have two photographs of the birds way up on two separate trees? Both of considerable diameter and not subject to being shinnied. Also, assuming he might have had a mounted bird to photograph, why didn’t he get a better picture while he was at it?”

The most common reasons given for believing that Lewis hoaxed the photos are that the bird is similarly positioned in both images (similarly but not identically, a neat trick with a specimen) and that the bill and feet are not visible. Bear in mind that these pictures were taken with a Brownie or Instamatic camera, and the quality is very poor. Nonetheless, I believe a foot is very faintly visible in both photos, positioned in a manner that would be expected of a live Campephilus woodpecker. I worked from scans of the originals and made some modest enhancements in Photoshop. Note also that in the first picture, both a cavity and bark scaling can be seen on the tree.

fieldle1-enlarg-scan copylewisphotoarrow

Regardless of whether my analysis is correct, the foundation for claiming that these photographs were faked is shaky indeed – not only for the reasons Lowery gave but also because of Lewis’s reticence about revealing his identity, insistence on keeping the location secret, and lack of any discernible motive.

The recovery plan mentions two other pieces of physical evidence. One is a feather that was purportedly found in a nest or roost cavity in 1985, and the other is a photograph supposedly taken in Georgia in 1975 (correction, 1965).

It’s not my intention to fault the IUCN or to quarrel with the “possibly extinct” designation, although I think Bill Pulliam’s analysis of the Luneau video in light of Rhein’s Imperial Woodpecker film should be dispositive. My main purpose is to call attention to the fact that there’s considerably more evidence for survival than is popularly recognized or than appears in the scientific literature. There are multiple instances of people, often outstanding birders, hesitating to come forward with reports and hard evidence – for decades. Terres waited 30 years; in the cases involving physical evidence, only Agey and Heinzmann went fully public and identified themselves in making their claims; in Stalking the Ghost Bird, Steinberg includes detailed 2005 field notes written by a Louisiana “birder for more than forty years” who “has also worked as a contract ornithologist conducting bird surveys on rice and crawfish farms for more than ten years.” This individual too requested anonymity. To a significant extent, the shortcomings in the literature are directly related to the controversy that has surrounded this species for nearly a century (remember Mason Spencer who went so far as to obtain a permit and kill an ivorybill to prove the species persisted) and the accompanying climate of unhealthy skepticism that has, if anything, grown even more unhealthy since the rediscovery. This sets the ivorybill apart from other possibly extinct species.

I’ll be heading for Louisiana at the end of the week and will post a trip report when I return.

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Old Singer Tract Images Compared with Two More Recent Ones (from Elsewhere)

1967 slides taken by Neal Wright of a putative Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Texas are viewable on Vireo (search Ivory-billed Woodpecker), but high resolution scans have not been widely circulated as far as I know. These images were not made public until after the the Arkansas “rediscovery”, more than three decades after they were obtained. Wright’s story is mentioned in Jackson (2004) “Reynard saw the photo and said that it was fuzzy but definitely of a Campephilus woodpecker.” It’s clear from the context that Jackson had not seen the images at the time of writing.

When I first encountered the Wright slides, I was skeptical, but after seeing some lesser-known Singer Tract photographs as well as other images of Campephilus woodpeckers in cavities, my opinion started to shift. After finding additional ivorybill photographs in the Cornell archives and in Tanner’s dissertation, I thought it would be worth posting some of those images along with one of Wright’s slides for the sake of comparison.

Of course, it’s up to readers to draw their own conclusions, but I think a few things are worthy of note. First, the Wright slides were taken long before the internet, at a time when the only readily available image of an ivorybill in a nest cavity was Tanner’s Plate 1, which is quite similar to Fig. 43b (below). The posture of Wright’s bird is much closer to the ones shown in the then virtually unknown and/or unpublished images, especially those from the 1938 nest. The placement of the cavity is also strikingly similar, just below a major fork. It seems highly unlikely that Wright would have been aware of obscure Singer Tract photographs.

While the image quality is too poor to be certain, there appears to be excavation similar to work found on some Singer Tract nest and roost trees to the right of the nest cavity in Wright’s slide. Again, this is a fine detail that would likely have been unknown to Wright and that would have been difficult to fabricate.

These are very poor quality images; the malar stripe seems a little too extensive, although this could easily be a function of angle and lighting. As with the Fielding Lewis photographs, which were taken several years later, I have to wonder why anyone intent on committing a hoax wouldn’t do a better job. And in the case of the Wright pictures, it would make more sense if the template for such a hoax would have been Plate 1 in Tanner, rather than photos that were unknown to all but a handful of people, most of them at a northeastern university.

Finally, I think the fact that the images were turned over to an ornithologist (George Reynard, scroll down for his obituary) but were kept confidential for so long also tends to support the idea that they’re authentic. Neal Wright may have had an agenda – a desire to protect the area where he took the picture – but the images were not used to serve that purpose.

Edited to add: This fascinating article on a recent, non-ivorybill related hoax suggests that it’s not uncommon for hoaxes to be paradoxically uneven in quality, and that hoaxers’ motives can be murky and bizarre. Nonetheless, I think that other factors point to authenticity for both the Wright and Lewis photos.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker w16-1-001 copy

© N. Wright/VIREO USA – Nest with adult protruding, slide mount dated 5/70 (apparently the duplication date). Poorly defined bird is apparently peering out of a cavity in the upper left of the trunk, below the fork.

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Ivorybills at Nest, John’s Bayou 1938, female’s head protruding from cavity

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Ivorybills at Nest, John’s Bayou, 1935, male’s head protruding from cavity

 

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Images from the Singer Tract and James T. Tanner’s Dissertation Courtesy of Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

 

Another item I found in Tanner’s dissertation merits comparison with one of Project Coyote’s camera trap photos, since the tree species involved are the same. Plate 7 in Tanner shows ivorybill feeding sign on honey locusts, but the reproduction in the monograph is very dark. The figure from the dissertation is much brighter, making it clearer what Tanner was attempting to show. I think the similarity to the work on our target tree, where I had a sighting a week prior to the capture, is striking.

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Courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Libraries

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Trail cam photo with scaled tree in the foreground and suspected female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in red box, Nov. 2009

To enlarge the trail cam photo, click here.


Old Material, New Light: More from the Archives Part 2

In late December 2014, I wrote what I’ve described as a speculative post titled, “Is There a Way to Recognize Ivory-billed Woodpecker Excavation? In that post, I relied on Tanner’s Plate 11,

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Tanner’s Plate 11, “Dead hackberry, fed upon frequently by Ivory-bills”. Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

a brief description from the monograph: “When Ivory-bills dig, they chisel into the sap and heartwood for borers like other woodpeckers, digging slightly conical holes that are usually circular in cross section (Plate 11)”, and online imagery showing the work of other Campephilus woodpeckers. Material found during my recent visits to Kroch library at Cornell lends some support to the ideas contained in that post, and so does T. Gilbert Pearson’s photograph of a tree that had been fed on by ivorybills. Holt:Pearson Tree

The archival material includes additional images of ivorybill excavation and a considerably more detailed description by Tanner in a document prepared for the Cuban search in the 1980s. The passage includes somewhat more detail on bark scaling than is found elsewhere, but more importantly it describes ivorybill excavations as “hard to distinguish from similar digging by the Red-bellied Woodpecker”.

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Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

This description may seem counterintuitive to some. Despite my own writing to the effect that ivorybill morphology may lead the species to dig less efficiently than pileateds and my references to targeted digging, I still had an underlying assumption that the size of the bird would correlate with the size of the dig and that ivorybill excavation would often resemble the familiar large furrows dug by PIWOs. While a couple of the holes in Plate 11 and in Pearson’s photograph may well involve the merging of more than one dig, it appears that ivorybill excavations are usually more targeted and that large furrows are not typical.

Also of interest for multiple reasons, including the observation of birds scaling very small limbs and of one feeding 5′ from the ground, are Tanner’s field notes from April 3rd, 1937.

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Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

I’ll let the remaining images of known and suspected ivorybill excavations speak for themselves and will conclude with a few from our search area that seem consistent with known ivorybill work. While I’m nowhere near as confident about this material as I am about scaling, I suspect that finding excavations that are consistent with what ivorybills are known to have done in conjunction with scaling is suggestive.

I hope this material will be useful for other searchers. All images from the Singer Tract below are courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Most of these images were published in Tanner’s dissertation but have not been widely disseminated.

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1935 Nest Tree, Red Maple

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1935 Nest Tree and Detail from a Different Perspective

And now some examples from our search area that resemble the existing images of known ivorybill excavation. This is not something I’ve focused on, so I’ve probably missed other examples.

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Image at bottom is a detail of the sweet gum snag above. I suspect that more than one species of woodpecker is involved.

There will be one or two more installments in this series, but the next post is likely to be a trip report, probably the last for this season.


Rare Ivory-billed Woodpecker Images

 

 

My visits to Cornell’s Kroch Library, where the Rare and Manuscript Collections are housed, have been very productive. In addition to the last letter to Tanner pertaining to the Singer Tract ivorybills quoted at length here, I’ve come across several little known ivorybill images, some better quality reproductions of the plates in Tanner, and some additional hints about ivorybill foraging excavations that I’ll discuss in a future post. I suspect that all of the images below are actually stills from the 1935 film footage that has been lost save for a few minutes. To see it, go here and start at 14:00. To the best of my knowledge, these images have not previously been published as stills, and a couple of the frames may never have been publicly available.

The first image is similar to the one that appears on Page 82 0f  The Race to Save the Lord God Bird.  This is a sequence (that apparently has been lost) in which the birds are changing places on the nest. A third image that follows the first two appears on p. 120 of The Race . . . A colorized version, at once gorgeous and crude and sadly somewhat damaged, is also included here; it’s reproduced in black and white in Jackson (p. 27).

I think the bird in the remaining frames is the male. In the second frame, he may be engaging in the motion described by Tanner, “. . . jerking as though working food from the back of its mouth.” the next frame shows the him peering into the cavity. These two images are clips from the surviving footage. The final shot may have come from a lost piece of film, since a remaining clip, filmed from a similar angle doesn’t include it.

In addition to the images posted below, two figures in Tanner’s dissertation include unpublished photos from 1938 – one of a male at the nest cavity and the other of a juvenile peering out of it. Those images may also be included in a future post. All four pictures below were taken with my iPhone. I have a high resolution scan of the fourth on order, since it is one of the best representations of presumed ivorybill excavation available. Images are Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

 

 

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Trip Report Feb. 20-24, 2015: Still More Smoke

Note: this is a very image-heavy post, and most of them appear ‘below the fold’.

Although we faced significant challenges during this trip, it was nonetheless a very productive one. I was joined by John Henry, the photographer who was with me when I recorded kent-like calls in March 2013. Work obligations kept Frank Wiley out of the field, except on February 24th. A flight delay and 1:20 am arrival at my hotel in New Orleans on the morning of the 20th limited my field time to a couple of hours on that day. I had planned to get in a final half day on the 25th, but wintry precipitation prevented it. Weather conditions were a challenge throughout – skies were consistently cloudy and dark; there was occasional rain; and temperatures fluctuated from the 70s on Friday and Saturday to near or below freezing on Monday and Tuesday.

On the afternoon of the 20th, John Henry and I went to the eastern sector, the most easily accessible part of our search area. This is the vicinity where a visiting biologist, Frank, and I heard double knocks during my last visit, and where we have found a significant amount of feeding sign since 2012. I found some fairly impressive, extensive, and recent bark scaling high on the trunk of a fairly distant tree. I was unable to examine it up close, but from a distance it appeared to be consistent with what I think is likely, if not diagnostic, ivorybill work.

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On a non-ivorybill related note, the feral hog population seems to be increasing in our area, and they do enormous damage to the habitat, probably not in way that impacts the ivorybills we believe to be present, but their impact on forest ecology is likely severe. While they are hunted by some in the area, and don’t seem to be nearly as abundant as they are in Congaree National Park, for example, they are still a severe problem.

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Edited to add: This poor photograph of large, relatively slow moving terrestrial mammals, the best of several taken at less than 100 yards, illustrates just how difficult it is to obtain good pictures in this environment.

On the 21st, John Henry and I went into the habitat on through the northwest corner. This is an area of fairly recent blowdown, several deep, meandering sloughs, and dense blackberry thickets, making it incredibly difficult to explore. On more than one occasion, we had to retrace our steps and find a different route. I estimate that we were able to cover a quarter mile per hour. Traversing this area is hard on body, boots, and clothing, and it’s very difficult to pay attention to anything except the next step. We finally reached the site of the target tree featured in Frank’s Pros and Cons of Trail Cams and where I recorded a possible DK in response or reaction to an ADK. We decided to do a double knock series. Following Frank’s lead, I did a little pounding on the log before doing any DKs. Then I did a DK (I wasn’t recording, as I was using an external microphone mounted on my camera and figured I’d turn it on when I finished the series). Within approximately 10 seconds, there were 3 extremely loud single knocks that came from east-southeast of us. I’d estimate they were spaced about a half second apart and were no more than a couple of hundred yards away. Nothing else happened in response to the series. Although they didn’t have the resonance of typical woodpecker drumming, they didn’t sound like branches breaking, gunshots, or industrial sounds. There were no hunters in the immediate vicinity, no vehicles parked along the access road on our way in and out of the area, and we heard nothing remotely similar during the rest of the day.

On the 22nd, Frank and I made a pilgrimage to meet J.J. Kuhn’s daughter (known to us as Mrs. Edith) who had honored us with an invitation. We spent a delightful afternoon with her and her daughter, son, and son-in-law. They regaled us with many stories about Kuhn’s life, before, during, and after his time with Tanner. As readers know, we see Kuhn as the true master at finding ivorybills. Mrs. Edith is writing a biography of her father, so we’ll leave it to her to tell the story. During our absence, John Henry visited the northern sector and reported hearing a double knock late in the afternoon. He also spoke to two local hunters who claimed to have seen ivorybills. The elder of the two men said he hadn’t seen any recently but had seen a pair 15 years ago in the area that’s discussed in the first and last paragraphs of my previous trip report. This is the third local person to have claimed a sighting in that general vicinity.

The other person’s claim was of a sighting at the south end of what I refer to as the northern sector, so John and I decided to explore that area (which had not been visited) on the 23rd. As is so often the case, travel was complicated by deep, meandering sloughs, although it was nowhere near as difficult as what we encountered on the 21st. We did not have any possible auditory or visual encounters, but I did find one very impressive looking cavity (although not a fresh one) and a downed sweet gum with very extensive and fairly recent bark scaling.

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John next to the main trunk to provide a sense of scale.

John next to the main trunk to provide a sense of scale.

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This type of work is similar to work found last year. and while it doesn’t exactly meet the criteria I’ve laid out previously for what’s diagnostic, I strongly suspect that it is Ivory-billed Woodpecker work, beyond the physical capacity of a PIWO. The bark was tight and difficult to impossible to remove without an implement.

Frank joined us on the 24th, and we entered the eastern sector farther north. The hike in at this location is long and difficult, but our efforts were rewarded, and we gained quite a few new insights. Once we were well into the bottomland area, we experimented with doing some playbacks. Frank played some Pileated Woodpecker calls and drums, which stirred up a good deal of activity. One Pileated flew in silently, and several others called with the rapid, “cackle” call and drummed in the distance. He then switched over to playing the Singer Tract recordings, and two more Pileateds flew in to the trees just overhead. They drummed and did the “wok” call, apparently in direct response to the recording. It is at least intriguing that playback of ivorybill calls would produce such a response from Pileateds.

We packed up and headed deeper into the habitat and found a sweet gum with three large, oval shaped cavities.

The lower cavity is the most obvious; the other two are near the top, partially obscured by branches.

The lower cavity is the most obvious; the other two are near the top, partially obscured by branches.

About a hundred yards away, I came across another downed sweet gum with extensive and suggestive scaling and large bark chips underneath; one of the chips, shown below, appears to have strike marks that are suggestive of IBWO, similar to the ones discussed in this post. I failed to get clear photographs showing the extent of the work on this downed tree, partly due to angle and lighting and partly due to the events discussed below.

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Large bark chip with apparent bill strike.

Large bark chip with apparent bill strikes.

Detail of downed scaled sweet gum.

Detail of downed scaled sweet gum.

This limb, which was somewhat punky, had been fully stripped of bark, apparently after it fell. Also note the scaling in the background.

This limb, which was somewhat punky, had been fully stripped of bark, apparently after it fell. Also note the scaling in the background.

There was a nearby hickory snag that had been heavily scaled in the manner that I think is diagnostic, although not recently.

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John had moved some distance away while Frank and I examined the tree, and I started taking pictures. As we were doing so, we heard two distinct double knocks in close succession, roughly from the south. This was at approximately 11:15 AM. We remained in place for 30-45 minutes at which time we played back the Singer Tract recordings. John had moved closer to us. Within 30 seconds to a minute of the playback, Frank and I heard a kent-like call. We disagreed about the direction. Frank had it from the Northwest, and I thought it was from the West. Between 30 seconds and one minute later, a large black bird flew in from the west at about 85 yards. My view was fully obstructed, but Frank saw it for several seconds before it took off, at which point John saw it but could not distinguish any field marks.

We proceeded through some very impressive habitat and found some additional scaling in the vicinity, some on a hanging limb and some more on a downed sweet gum. I have now found five downed sweet gums with this type of extensive work in the past year and nothing similar on other species (I did find similar but much less extensive scaling on a downed persimmon, an uncommon species in our area.) This may be significant

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The quantity of suggestive and recent bark scaling I found on this trip relative to time spent was remarkably high, as was the possible encounter rate.

I hope to return the search area in about a month and may do one or two posts on other subjects before then. Stay tuned.


Ivory-billed Woodpecker Sightings and Evidence 1944-2003: The Partially Hidden History

This post is inspired in large part by an exchange of emails with Chris Sharpe, an ornithologist who is working on an IBWO literature review. Our correspondence revolved around the IUCN’s species account, which describes the ivorybill as “possibly extinct” and cites recent statistical analyses that suggest extinction is likely, as well as one that indicates survival is possible and another that concludes “very large search efforts are needed to detect small populations.”

Chris pointed out that there are many other species on the Red List that fall into a similar category with many unverified reports but in more remote habitats and nowhere near the search effort that has been expended on the ivorybill. While there’s some validity to this assertion, I think the reality is considerably more complex and that the ivorybill is in fact sui generis.

Many of the specifics of ivorybill history are little-known, and the statistical studies seem badly flawed. One focuses on collection rates but may not adequately address changing attitudes toward conservation in the early 20th century among other factors. Another is perhaps even more problematic for a number of reasons – most importantly its focus on “verified sightings”, which is a particularly complicated issue when it comes to the ivorybill. It omits numerous controversial sightings and does not include post-Singer Tract instances in which physical evidence was obtained, although the authenticity of that evidence has been contested. “Sidewinder” posted the abstract and a good summary of the findings on ibwo.net a few years ago:

Roberts, D. L., C. S. Elphick, and J. M. Reed. 2010. Identifying anomalous reports of putatively extinct species and why it matters. Conservation Biology 24:189–196.

As species become very rare and approach extinction, purported sightings can stir controversy, especially when scarce management resources are at stake. We used quantitative methods to identify reports that do not fit prior sighting patterns. We also examined the effects of including records that meet different evidentiary standards on quantitative extinction assessments for four charismatic bird species that might be extinct: Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), Nukupu`u (Hemignathus lucidus), and O`ahu `Alauahio (Paroreomyza maculata). For all four species the probability of there being a valid sighting today, given the past pattern of verified sightings, was estimated to be very low. The estimates of extinction dates and the chance of new sightings, however, differed considerably depending on the criteria used for data inclusion. When a historical sighting record lacked long periods without sightings, the likelihood of new sightings declined quickly with time since the last confirmed sighting. For species with this type of historical record, therefore, new reports should meet an especially high burden of proof to be acceptable. Such quantitative models could be incorporated into the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List criteria to set evidentiary standards required for unconfirmed sightings of “possibly extinct” species and to standardize extinction assessments across species.

Here are the Ivory-billed Woodpecker sighting data they used:

Physical evidence: 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1904, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1913, 1914, 1917, 1924, 1925, 1932, 1935, 1938, 1939

Independent expert opinion added: 1911, 1916, 1920, 1921, 1923, 1926, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944

Controversial sightings: 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2006

Data were from Tanner (1942), Hahn (1963), Jackson (2002, 2004), Fitzpatrick et al. (2005), Hill (2006), and Floyd (2007).

Some conclusions: For the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the prior sighting record suggests that even by the time of the first controversial sighting, the species was relatively unlikely to remain extant (ca. 21% chance), regardless of the level of evidence (physical or independent expert opinion) used…the effect on the predicted extinction date will depend on the details of the sighting record. Including controversial sightings will, by definition, move expected extinction dates forward in time. An ever-increasing burden of proof should be required with increasing time since the last verified sighting. The burden of proof also should be greater when there is a pattern of frequent sightings prior to the last accepted record and lower when long periods between sightings are common in the historical record.

A second paper published in 2012 reached the same conclusion using 39 sightings “classified as certain and 29 classified as uncertain”.

The insistence on verification is problematic because it’s founded on an appeal to authority, and for much of the time frame in question, the primary if not sole authority was James T. Tanner. Tanner had a strong predisposition to dismiss every post-Singer tract report he received and was somewhat cavalier about reports he investigated in the late ’30s as well. This likely resulted in his underestimating the population at the time. At minimum, he missed six pairs in Mississippi, according to Jackson ( In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, pp. 60-62.  These details reinforce the point made by “Fangsheath” of ibwo.net that, for the ivorybill at least, demanding verification leads to “a rather vicious circularity”. In a recent email, Fangsheath also pointed out that “the Roberts et al. scheme fits tidily into the narrative created by Tanner, that the Singer Tract was the last hope of the ivory-bill, and that when that: wilderness was lost the bird essentially became extinct . . . Tanner searched across several states for the bird and found none elsewhere, yet he himself believed that the bird survived in a number of areas. And so we have a curious contradiction – on the one hand an appeal to authority is being used to exclude many sightings, and on the other hand that same authority is saying the bird exists in areas where sightings are excluded. The mythos that the bird had very specific habitat requirements clouded every search effort and every sighting evaluation, before and after 1944.”

Fangsheath’s observation about the impact of Tanner’s narrative on future search efforts is profoundly important. Tanner’s ideas about habitat, which were in large part a product of his cultural background and the “myth of the frontier”, hardened over time. In later years, he ignored some of the caveats he set forth in his own monograph. But even his approach to reports from the 1930s reflected a set of beliefs about habitat requirements that had no scientific basis. Many people, myself included, are prone to reflexively accepting these assumptions about “habitat quality” because the conventional wisdom is so deeply engrained.

Fangsheath also reminded me that in the years before Tanner, the species was being written off and had been for decades. Florida was believed to be the last stronghold; the Singer Tract and Atchafalaya basin were not considered, nor were the large tracts of overcup oak/water hickory forest (where Beyer found ivorybills in 1898), many of which were untouched until the 1940s. Unlike the Singer Tract, these areas were often roadless and very difficult to penetrate; the Tract was bisected by a road, had few deep bayous, and was largely free of undergrowth, making it much easier to search. I’ve already discussed Tanner’s difficulty in finding ivorybills anywhere besides John’s Bayou. In this context, it’s worth noting that Bick’s 1941 sighting (from his car on Sharkey Road) involved two birds feeding in a lower lying “ash flat” in which overcup oak predominated.

In addition to these conceptual flaws, the papers grossly underestimate the number of post-Singer Tract encounters within the historic range. While it is impossible to quantify the controversial reports, it’s clear that the 26 or 29 referenced in the studies are the tip of the iceberg. There are well over four times that many on record for the 1944-2003 time period. And no doubt, numerous encounters never made it into the literature.

I initially posted a brief comment about this on Facebook and ibwo.net, with a link to Jerome Jackson’s 2002 Birdwatching Daily article listing 20 pre-Arkansas and post-Singer Tract encounters (some just auditory and one from Cuba) and a reference to Michael Steinberg’s Stalking the Ghost Bird catalogue of 85 sightings during the same time frame. A commenter wrote, “Yes but no confirming photos”. That also led me to think it would be worthwhile to explore this subject in a somewhat more depth, since there is physical evidence, albeit contested, related to several post-Singer Tract and pre-Arkansas reports.

Before turning to the physical evidence, it’s worth reiterating that the 1944 date for the last “verified sighting” is fundamentally flawed and arbitrary. The 1944 date is for the “Say Goodnight” encounter that involved artist Don Eckelberry and two local boys, Billy and Bobby Fought, and the purported last lone female IBWO in the Singer Tract. This poignant story was retold in The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, and it has become central to the popular lore about the species. There’s no doubt that the encounter took place, and Eckelberry no doubt believed that the bird was the last of her kind. Roger Tory Peterson apparently received and accepted a report that a single bird, presumably the same one, was still present in 1946. Tanner was likely aware of this and had an additional reason to think that birds persisted in the Tract well after 1944. His papers include a letter stating that Singer Tract game warden Gus Willett saw a pair in November 1948 at North Lake #1 (I have been unable to identify this lake). According to the letter, the “[b]irds are moving over a much larger area than formerly.” The letter mentions that there had been several other sightings during this time period. There’s no reply from Tanner in the archives and no further correspondence about the Singer  Tract birds. It appears that this is the letter from Tanner’s former student, Arthur MacMurray, that is referenced in Jackson, but Jackson’s account does not mention Willett, who would have been familiar with ivorybills. The strong possibility that a pair of birds remained in the Tract for more than four years after it was cut should itself raise questions about Tanner’s narrative.

Jackson’s list of 19 US reports between 1944 and 2003 was undoubtedly not intended to be comprehensive (and his book includes many others). Instead, it focuses on sightings by professional ornithologists and/or people who were familiar with the species. These include: Allan Cruickshank, John Terres, Herbert Stoddard, John Dennis, Davis Crompton (Dennis and Crompton studied ivorybills in Cuba), Whitney Eastman, and William Rhein. Jackson doesn’t mention it, and was perhaps unaware when he wrote the article, but Rhein had filmed the Imperial Woodpecker in Mexico several years prior to his 1959 Florida ivorybill sighting. It strains credulity to think that every one of these experienced observers, most or all of whom were familiar with the species and all of whom knew pileateds well, would be mistaken. Jackson points out that Terres kept his sighting to himself for more than 30 years out of “fear of being scorned.” Such was the climate surrounding ivorybill claims, even in 1955.

Steinberg lists 85 sightings between 1944 and 2003. His list includes most, if not all, of Jackson’s reports, breaking them down into individual incidents. Jackson treated repeat encounters in the aggregate. Nonetheless, most of Steinberg’s reports do not appear on Jackson’s list. Many of them are from less illustrious sources and quite a few are anonymous, but some of them are from game wardens, field biologists, and graduate students in ornithology.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker Recovery Plan, prepared by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and completed in 2010, includes an even more detailed compilation of records, some of which are of course also included in Jackson and Steinberg. It lists approximately 100 reports of varying quality between 1944 and 2003. Some of these are aggregates, involving multiple observations. The number of observations is sometimes enumerated and sometimes characterized as “numerous”, “multiple”, or “several”, so it’s impossible to arrive at an accurate tally, but the total almost certainly exceeds 150.

Although the Steinberg and the Recovery Plan compilations are more extensive, they are undoubtedly far from comprehensive. For starters, the climate of intimidation around reporting ivorybills was strong enough to deter John Terres in 1955, and that climate of intimidation only grew more toxic over time, as the Big Thicket and Fielding Lewis incidents, not to mention the battle over the Arkansas reports, make clear. In addition, there’s good reason to believe that countless reports from local people, hunters, and amateur birders have been discounted, dismissed, or ignored by authorities, at least prior to the “rediscovery”. Steinberg writes of his first visit to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Baton Rouge office in 2003,“ . . . few people took the book, or more important the larger issue very seriously. The typical response from many in the office, other than Nancy Higginbotham, seemed to be, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’” (Higginbotham claimed two sightings, one of male in 1986 and one of a female in 1987, both in the Pearl River area.) We’re personally familiar with several instances in which reports were dismissed or ignored. One involved the landowner in our old search area, who came forward after the Kulivan sighting and was deeply offended by the way he was treated. As far as I’m aware, no one has done a comprehensive review of records committee submittals within the historic range of the ivorybill; I know of one such submittal from Texas in 2002 that came from unsuitable habitat, outside the historic range, but there may well be others that are more robust.

I’d like to turn to three examples of physical evidence obtained in the post-1944 era. Some of this is fairly well known – the Agey and Heinzmann feather and the Fielding Lewis photographs. The other is somewhat more obscure, but no less interesting for being so.

The Agey and Heinzmann observations took place between 1967 and 1969, in Polk County Florida. They obtained two recordings that Tanner dismissed. There was evidently some very poor communication about it that was compounded by an obvious error on Agey and Heinzmann’s part. They mistakenly thought that calls on their first clip were consistent with some ivorybill sounds from the Singer Tract; they clearly are not. The second clip, which is dominated by a Red-shouldered Hawk, recorded March 3 1968, does have some faint kent-like sounds, but the quality is extremely poor. They are most easily heard on the amplified version that begins at 3:14. The RSHA calls were not what interested Agey and Heinzmann, but they failed to make this sufficiently clear.

I believe Tanner wrote the notes that accompany the recording:

“Well, I’m not sure what to say here. As far as I can determine, there are only four original sound clips here. The recordings at 0:04-0:32 and 0:49-0:57 are certainly flicker-like, especially the continuous series at 0:04-0:21 and 0:26-0:32, but I am less certain about the latter part of the first series (0:21-0:23), which appears to have been recopied twice at 0:41-0:48. A similar vocalization is included at 0:49-0:57 (recopied at 0:59-1:06). Given the very different quality of these sounds relative to those in LNS #6784, combined with the close similarity of the calls to those of Colatpes auratus, leads me to doubt that any of these sounds were given by C. principalis. The recordings from 3 March 1968 (2:45-3:07) represent the calls of Buteo lineatus. Quality unchanged (2;3 – the signal is not bad for the first part, but terrible for the rest, most of which seems to represent copies of various recordings)”

Agey and Heinzmann found several feathers near a cavity, and one was identified as the innermost secondary of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Oddly, Jackson wrote that “ . . . some shadow of doubt is cast over these records because Agey and Heinzmann also tape-recorded what they said were Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, and personnel at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology identified the birds on those tapes as pileated woodpeckers.” Given that one of the recordings does include kent-like calls, this criticism is not entirely warranted, and the misidentification seems irrelevant in light of the physical evidence (and ironically Tanner seems to have failed to correctly identify the calls on the first clip). Jackson also alludes indirectly to rumors that the feathers were taken from a specimen. These have circulated for years but are unsubstantiated. Agey and Heinzmann published their findings:

Agey, H. N., and G. M. Heinzmann. 1971a. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker found in central Florida. Fla. Nat. 44 (3):46–47, 64.

Agey, H. N., and G. M. Heinzmann. 1971b. Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Florida. Birding 3:43.

To the best of my knowledge neither publication is available online at this time.

The next event, chronologically, started with a series of encounters in east Texas in the late 1960s. John Dennis obtained a recording that Tanner initially dismissed, in part for the patently absurd reason that a Pine Warbler is also heard on the clip, but later described as “a real mystery” when confronted with the sonograms and analysis that were suggestive of ivorybill. That recording is now catalogued as IBWO.

Additional slides, taken in 1970 in east Texas by a man named Neal Wright, were turned over to the Museum of Natural History in Philadelphia (search Ivory-billed Woodpecker, registration required to view image) which also houses the Fielding Lewis photographs. These were made public after the rediscovery. They show what appears to be a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a nest cavity. When I first viewed the Wright photographs, I was quite skeptical, but later, I was struck by the resemblance to this image from the Singer Tract.

Wright was apparently quite a local character, and I remain somewhat suspicious, as he may have had ulterior motives; however, the similarity to one of the unpublished images from the Singer Tract is strong, and in the pre-internet era, it seems unlikely that a Texas woodsman would be familiar with any of the ivorybill images that did not appear in Tanner’s monograph.

The Fielding Lewis photographs, taken in South Louisiana in 1971, are far better known, although Lewis wished to remain anonymous. His identity was not revealed until more than three decades later, and he was identified at the time only as “the Chief” (Jackson was unaware of his identity in 2004, though it was made public soon thereafter.) George Lowery presented these images at the American Ornithologists’ Union annual meeting and was attacked by many of his colleagues who deemed them to be a hoax. It’s worth pointing out that there have been hoaxes in recent years (these were swiftly and easily debunked), so there’s legitimate reason for skepticism about any claim. In the case of the ivorybill, however, skepticism has frequently been replaced by a virtually irrebuttable presumption of fraud (or error).

In a letter to Tanner, Lowery (who, unlike most of his detractors, had actual field knowledge of ivorybills) wrote: “I know the man in question very well and I am sure he would not pull something like that. In the first place, where would he have gotten the mounted specimen? Why would he have two photographs of the birds way up on two separate trees? Both of considerable diameter and not subject to being shinnied. Also, assuming he might have had a mounted bird to photograph, why didn’t he get a better picture while he was at it?”

The most common reasons given for believing that Lewis hoaxed the photos are that the bird is similarly positioned in both images (similarly but not identically, a neat trick with a specimen) and that the bill and feet are not visible. Bear in mind that these pictures were taken with a Brownie or Instamatic camera, and the quality is very poor. Nonetheless, I believe a foot is very faintly visible in both photos, positioned in a manner that would be expected of a live Campephilus woodpecker. I worked from scans of the originals and made some modest enhancements in Photoshop. Note also that in the first picture, both a cavity and bark scaling can be seen on the tree.

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Regardless of whether my analysis is correct, the foundation for claiming that these photographs were faked is shaky indeed – not only for the reasons Lowery gave but also because of Lewis’s reticence about revealing his identity, insistence on keeping the location secret, and lack of any discernible motive.

The recovery plan mentions two other pieces of physical evidence. One is a feather that was purportedly found in a nest or roost cavity in 1985, and the other is a photograph supposedly taken in Georgia in 1975 (correction, 1965).

It’s not my intention to fault the IUCN or to quarrel with the “possibly extinct” designation, although I think Bill Pulliam’s analysis of the Luneau video in light of Rhein’s Imperial Woodpecker film should be dispositive. My main purpose is to call attention to the fact that there’s considerably more evidence for survival than is popularly recognized or than appears in the scientific literature. There are multiple instances of people, often outstanding birders, hesitating to come forward with reports and hard evidence – for decades. Terres waited 30 years; in the cases involving physical evidence, only Agey and Heinzmann went fully public and identified themselves in making their claims; in Stalking the Ghost Bird, Steinberg includes detailed 2005 field notes written by a Louisiana “birder for more than forty years” who “has also worked as a contract ornithologist conducting bird surveys on rice and crawfish farms for more than ten years.” This individual too requested anonymity. To a significant extent, the shortcomings in the literature are directly related to the controversy that has surrounded this species for nearly a century (remember Mason Spencer who went so far as to obtain a permit and kill an ivorybill to prove the species persisted) and the accompanying climate of unhealthy skepticism that has, if anything, grown even more unhealthy since the rediscovery. This sets the ivorybill apart from other possibly extinct species.

I’ll be heading for Louisiana at the end of the week and will post a trip report when I return.


Cavities and Context

As many readers of this blog are aware, I’ve been actively searching for ivorybills since 2007 and have been obsessed with foraging sign and cavities since my first days in the field. Over the years, I’ve looked at bark scaling and cavities both in and out of suspected ivorybill territory and have developed and refined a hypothesis about what constitutes diagnostic ivorybill foraging sign. I have come to believe that no such diagnostic category exists for nest or roost cavities, although size, shape, and other contextual elements can support a suspicion that a given cavity is an ivorybill nest or roost.

The cavity cluster we found in May 2014 has characteristics that are encouraging – size, shape, tree species, bark scaling in the vicinity – and one of the cavities resembles a known Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest. This is more than ample reason to survey the surrounding area very carefully (and I’m eager to get back out there), but whereas I feel personally confident that the dramatically scaled hardwoods in our search area were fed on by IBWOs, the mere presence of intriguing cavities is nowhere near as compelling for me.

Similarly, while I suspect that Frank Wiley found a recent nest and at least a couple of roost holes in our old search area, this view is informed more by the associated conditions than by the qualities of the cavities themselves. The suspected nest was in a tree that was heavily scaled and excavated in a way that was strikingly similar to a nest tree found in the Singer Tract, and this is more important than the size and shape of the cavity itself. The two suspected roost holes were in close proximity to one another, and were certainly large enough, but were dramatically different in appearance. There are several facts that are more significant than size or shape. We had a camera trap that covered both trees for a period of several months, and no Pileated Woodpeckers were photographed using the trees in question; the only image we obtained was suggestive of ivorybill but inconclusive (no images of either species were obtained from the suspected former nest tree, even though there were active PIWO roost cavities within 20 or 30 yards); in addition, we found an abundance of feeding sign in the area and had multiple auditory encounters and possible sightings within a few hundred yards of the suspected roosts between August 2009 and April 2010.

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cavity 2 reportWillow Cavities, East-Central Louisiana 2009. Photos by Frank Wiley.

In examining the images of the suspected roosts and comparing them with other images of woodpecker cavities, I came across a photograph of a Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melaneoleucos) near a cavity and was struck by the fact that it was almost identical in appearance to one of our suspected roost holes. I did some further research and found an image of a Pileated Woodpecker nest that was quite similar, if not quite as close a match.

All of this leads me to think that, while it’s important to look for suggestive cavities, this should not be the top priority. I’d encourage other searchers to focus on feeding sign, habitat characteristics, and local reports above all. The limited available information suggests that feeding sign is what led Allen and Kellogg to the Singer Tract birds and that it’s what Kuhn and Tanner looked for. Pileateds will use big cavities (and I’ve even seen White-breasted Nuthatches nesting in holes that look perfect for ivory bills). While finding a nesting or roosting ground will be central to documenting the ivorybill if it persists, cavities alone will not point the way.


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.

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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.


IBWO Minutiae for the Holidays

In searching Cornell University’s online digital archives, I ran across some IBWO related photographs from the 1935 Allen/Kellogg/Tanner expedition in the Albert Rich Brand collection. Many of these pictures are familiar and have been widely published. Others are likely to be new, even to the most obsessive researchers, since Brand was a relatively less celebrated member of the expedition. One of the more interesting images shows a nest cavity near the top of a very long dead pin oak. This appears to be one of the two nest trees found by Allen and Kellogg and listed and discussed by Tanner, pp. 67-70. The typewritten caption on the photograph reads “The third Ivorybill’s nest. . .”, although Tanner only mentions two. The quality of the photograph is poor, but it is interesting because the stub is clearly long dead.

For my purposes, the most interesting photograph, titled Rock Elm Observation Blind shows the better known nest tree (a maple) from a different perspective than the published photos and includes more of the trunk than the others I’ve seen. I downloaded the image, and enlarged it as best I could. Readers can do the same. On close examination, a bill is visible protruding from nest cavity, making this a modest addition to the body of ivorybill photographs. What I find most significant is the appearance of the scaling on the bole. While the condition of the underlying wood seems to be considerably worse than what we are deeming to be grade A scaling, the similarity in appearance is dramatic, especially on the edges. The resemblance between this work and the scaling found in July in the northern sector is particularly striking.

Edited to add: All the digitized Brand collection images are here. They’re worth a look.

In addition, I’ve found a hand tinted version of “Rock Elm Observation Blind” in the Arthur A. Allen collection, under the title “Ivory-billed Woodpecker – Blind at Nest“. Although the colors are slightly washed out and smeared, the bird in the cavity is a little easier to see, and the similarities between the scaling on that tree and the scaling we’re finding are a little more evident, at least to my eyes.

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Wishing everyone the best for the holidays and the coming year!