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Trip Report: January 25-30, 2018

From January 25-30, Stephen Pagans and Erik Hendrickson and I searched in the vicinity of Joseph Saucier’s October sighting. I’ll begin with a day-by-day log accompanied by some photographs, followed by a discussion of our observations and what they may imply, with photographs from our last day in the field. I’ll end with some or Erik’s photos. They help convey the experience of being in the field more effectively than most of mine. This is an image heavy post, so I hope you’ll take the time to look at and enjoy the pictures.

We had no possible sightings or auditory encounters and devoted most of our time to surveying. We did a few ADK series, sometimes followed by Erik’s tooting on a baritone sax mouthpiece, the best imitation of the Singer Tract kents I’ve heard.

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Mark Michaels in Background, Double Knocking with Cypress Dowels. Stephen Pagans at right.  Photo by Erik Hendrickson

There were no apparent responses. Scaling consistent with what’s described for ivorybill was abundant in most areas visited. Large and possibly suggestive cavities were also relatively easy to find. This contrasts with the primary search area, where cavities of any size are difficult to locate. This may be due to the ~30% lower canopy at this location.

We covered between 4 and 5 miles most days. For the most part, we tried to avoid repeating the same tracks. We saw substantial flocks of Rusty Blackbirds on a couple of occasions. We didn’t encounter many mammals – an armadillo, a rabbit, and some glimpses of hogs. We found little beaver sign but didn’t get into the area where we understand beavers are most abundant.

 

We spent the 25th and 26th in the immediate vicinity of the sighting. The habitat in this area is extensive and impressive, as it was in most places we visited. We found considerably more scaling on this trip than on the last one, as well as more cavities. As mentioned previously, the cypress in this area was not heavily logged, so many large trees remain, not all of them as obviously undesirable as the ones shown.

 

 

Suggestive Scaling and Cavities Found January 25 and 26, 2018. Scaled tree species include sweet gum, honey locust, and sugarberry.

The 27th was a rainout. We spent that morning birding from the road around a nearby lake. I went to Alexandria for a brief visit to the annual meeting of the Louisiana Ornithological Society.

On the 28th, which was cloudy and drizzly, we went to a different nearby location. Again, we found some decent or better habitat, a good deal of bark scaling, and other indications of woodpecker activity, including a cavity resembling an ivorybill roost in an unpublished image from the Singer Tract. By late morning, we reached an area of much younger forest, so we turned back.

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One of the cavities strongly resembled one of Tanner’s unpublished images of an ivorybill roost.

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Ivory-billed Woodpecker Roost in Dead Ash, Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

On the 29th, we visited a different area, also nearby. The habitat was again impressive, but we only found one recently and extensively scaled sweet gum with very large chips at the base and an unusual bit of excavation on the edge of a scaled part of the trunk. An area that we could not reach appeared to contain even more mature forest and probably merits a visit in future.

 

On the 30th, we found another entry point. About two miles into the woods, we found more sweet gum scaling than I’ve seen in a single day, approaching or surpassing the quantity found during the most productive weeks in our main search area. Again, we found a number of potentially interesting cavities, new and old, including one in a cottonwood snag that had been extensively stripped of bark, this along the edge of an old logging road. We guessed that this concentration of scaling was in a patch of around 100 acres, but we were unable to explore it fully, so we can’t be sure how extensive it might be.

With the passage of time, I’m even more struck by the extraordinary nature of what we found on the 30th.

Some Comments on the Scaling and Cavities

As noted, I was impressed by the abundance of scaling found in the vicinity of the sighting and even more so in the concentration found on the 30th. The latter was truly unprecedented in my experience. As was the case in Tanner’s day, sweet gums with dying crowns are the primary target. The work found is consistent with that shown and described by Tanner. More on sweet gums below.

Additional work was found on honey locust, sugarberry, American elm, and cottonwood. Bark on all of these species (possibly excluding cottonwood which has high adhesion values and bark strength) becomes easy to remove fairly rapidly after death, and none of the scaling approached what I’d consider possibly diagnostic for ivorybill (again perhaps excluding the cottonwood). Still, the quantity of it may be significant.

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Scaled cottonwood snag with large cavity. While this snag is longer dead than some, the scaling is not recent. Cottonwood bark shares properties with hickory and probably adheres more tightly for longer than the bark of many other species, including sweet gum.

We found no scaling on oaks. (The same has been true in the main search area, except in 2012-2013.) Steve suggested this may be due to the fact that the forest is relatively young, so the oaks are still healthy.

The sweet gum scaling was mostly found in clusters, with the notable exception of the single tree found on the 29th. This may be due to the pattern of sweet gum die-off, but we did visit areas with unscaled, dead and dying gums.

The sweet gum scaling ranged from old to very fresh, probably a year or two to a day or two. All trees were recently dead, with twigs and sometimes gum balls and leaves attached. Much of it was extensive, involving larger limbs and sometimes main trunks. Bark chips ranged from very small and consistent with what I’d expect for PIWO, to larger strips that I’ve also tended to ascribe to PIWO, to much larger chunks that I think are considerably less likely to be Pileated.

 

Regarding the sweet gum scaling in general, I have only found a similar quantity and quality of scaling on this species in our main search area and at this location. Scaling in the old Project Coyote search area was on a wider variety of species, with only a little on sweet gums. I never saw anything like this in over two weeks in Congaree or in briefer visits to other areas. The Carlisles, who are searching in the Pascagoula area, have found at most a similar looking example or two over several seasons, and Paul McCaslin, one of the earliest Project Coyote team members recently sent me a note reading: “I am still amazed, every time, at the scaling pics you send from the tops of those sweetgum trees. I am an ISA Certified Arborist and spend a lot of time looking up at trees and I NEVER see anything even close up on my neck of the woods.”

To cut to the chase – if Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are not present and this work is being done by Pileateds, then I don’t think either quantity or apparent quality of bark scaling on sweet gums can be treated as a reliable indicator of ivorybill presence.

 

With regard to other tree species, I still think that the work on hickories found in the main search area is likely diagnostic. Work on live or very recently dead honey locusts (like the one in some of the old trail cam photos), cottonwoods, sugarberries (one example found in in the old search area) and oaks (one or two examples found in the old search area and several found in the new one in 2012-2013) may be as well.  Though I’ve grown increasingly cautious about sweet gums, the concepts discussed in the post entitled Bark: An Exegesis still hold.

Some Closing Thoughts

Though I have now spent multiple days in this area without any possible ivorybill contacts, I remain very impressed by the habitat and continue to think the initial report is highly credible. The scaling is abundant and suggestive, as are the cavities. However, the extensiveness is daunting, and I don’t see a way for a small, self-funded group to search it effectively. In the current search area, we have the benefits of compactness and known, readily accessible locations where there have been frequent possible contacts over a period of years. I think there’s a good possibility that ivorybills are present in the vicinity of Joseph’s sighting, and there’s sufficient habitat to make detection very difficult. I’m at a loss as to how to find them (without an infusion of J.J. Kuhn’s skills as a ‘woodsman’), if indeed any are there.

Here are some of Erik’s photos for your enjoyment.

 

 

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Bits and Pieces Part 3: Internalized Beliefs, How They Got That Way, and What the Record Really Shows

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. It looks like this series will end up being a five-parter. Part 4 should follow later this week and Part 5 sometime thereafter.

Most of us with an interest in the ivorybill have internalized a set of beliefs about what constitutes “suitable” habitat. To a large extent these beliefs treat the Singer Tract as a model – a vast tract of “virgin” bottomland forest dominated by oaks and sweetgums, with abundant, moss-draped cypress for atmosphere (although ivorybills seem to have avoided cypress in the Tract). The habitat description in Stephen A. Shunk’s excellent Peterson Reference Guide to Woodpeckers of North America clearly expresses some of these beliefs, which have influenced the overwhelming majority of modern search efforts and which are embedded in the minds of most searchers (myself included) to the point of being a default:

Virgin bottomland forest almost always below 100 ft. (30 m) elevation. May also have occurred in uplands but by 1900 restricted to areas downstream of pine-bald cypress interface. Requires large tracts of contiguous forest with very large-diameter trees and adequate dead and dying trees to provide forage and nest sites.

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The Guide, which draws on an 1891 article by Hasbrouck for the 100 foot elevation, goes on to list three different habitat types described by Tanner – sweet gum-oak dominated forests in the southeast (with species of oak varying depending on location) outside of Florida; river swamps in Florida dominated by cypress, black gum, and green ash; and creek swamps in Florida characterized by cypress, red maple, laurel oak, black gum and cabbage palmetto, with feeding in adjacent pine woods.

This is not to criticize the Guide or its author – I recommend the book highly and the overall treatment of the ivorybill is thorough and evenhanded. The quote is intended to point out the pervasiveness of these ideas about habitat requirements, ideas that Tanner reinforced, especially in later years. They’re so pervasive in part because the myth of the “virgin forest” has shaped ivorybill lore since well before Hasbrouck and has influenced almost all habitat assessments since Tanner.

The virgin forest myth is a topic for another day; the central point is that ivorybills have been found in more diverse habitat types than most have believed. It’s worth bearing in mind that Tanner himself asserted that ” . . . at present the only suitable habitat for ivorybills is in tracts or areas of virgin timber”, a narrow, almost lawyerly, and largely conjectural conclusion – one not entirely supported by fact. Ivorybills bred in at least one Singer Tract area (Mack’s Bayou) that was predominantly regrowth, and as has been discussed in previous posts, Tanner became more dogmatic and blinkered about habitat requirements in later years, dismissing the John Dennis Texas recording because a Pine Warbler was captured on the tape.

As should become clear, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were found in a variety of different habitats and did not always require extensive tracts of contiguous forest. Large diameter trees, their importance, and what Tanner meant by “large” are discussed in another post, but even if one accepts that large trees were preferred in the Singer Tract, much of the feeding sign Allen and Kellogg documented in Florida was on small, fire-killed pines.

My plan for this post was to focus on Ivory-billed Woodpecker records from outside the historic range as delineated by Tanner in his oft-reprinted 1942 map and adaptations thereof.

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US Fish and Wildlife Service range map based on Tanner, including locations of selected post- Singer Tract reports

The purpose behind this original plan was in part to show that the historic range of the ivorybill was considerably more extensive than is commonly believed, but more importantly to show that ivorybills inhabited more varied habitats than is commonly believed. As time went on, my focus has shifted even more toward the question of habitat diversity, though the fact remains that the historic range was considerably more extensive than the Tanner map, or the one drawn by Hasbrouck in the 1890s, might lead one to expect.

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Hasbrouck’s Ivory-billed Woodpecker Range Map (1890)

In recent Facebook comments, several ornithologists have suggested that without physical evidence, no record should be accepted. As I see it, this standard is, to some extent, a kind of ahistorical overkill, since it has never been applied in the past. Post-1939 Singer Tract observations don’t meet it, so the last record date is pushed back by several years, which can impact statistical analyses. At the same time, the parsimonious approach is not entirely meritless, since it eliminates false positives. The problem is that there’s no purely objective standard for evaluation of historic (and pre-contact) records, even when it comes to specimens. In many cases, location information for specimens is non-existent or ambiguous; for example, one specimen in Cornell’s collection (1896) is listed as coming from the “Florida Keys”; “Key” in this context more likely refers to an island of forest surrounded by the Everglades than to the islands offshore.

Thus, in this post and the next, I’ll be looking at many reports from within the recognized historic range, as well as some from beyond those boundaries. I will be focusing on reports accompanied by physical evidence or published accounts stating that physical evidence was obtained but will include or mention a few additional ones that seem particularly credible based on the source or amount of detail.

The more surprising of these reports are unsupported by physical evidence. These come from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Swedesboro, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Most date to the 18th-century, a time when ivorybills were reported to have fed on trees girdled for clearing. The most interesting of these come from Peter Kalm, a Swedish naturalist and student of Linnaeus. They have been discussed in several articles by Benjamin Leese, who has also written about early records from Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky (for which the case is stronger). Most of these papers do not seem to be available online.

Just under 200 of the 418 specimens (including Cuban ivorybills) listed by Hahn provide no location information or merely identify the state, or country in the case of Cuba, where the collection took place. There are multiple cases in which specimens were reportedly collected but have not been found, and in several cases, there’s no way to correlate the claim of collection with an actual specimen. In one instance, not catalogued by Hahn, a pair of ivorybill specimens was mislabeled as Pileated Woodpecker until the error was corrected in the 1960s.

When it comes to pre-Columbian sites, there’s no way to be certain whether material collected from graves and middens involves trade goods or locally killed animals, although tarsometatarsi are likely local, especially east of the Mississippi, where there’s little evidence to suggest that woodpeckers had ceremonial value. Leese addresses this subject in a paper on Native American uses of ivorybill parts. I have included records involving tarsometatarsi and one from a West Virginia midden that involves parts of two lower mandibles.

I’ve created a google map showing the locations of the records from habitat types that don’t fit the ‘large tracts of contiguous bottomland forest’ paradigm. I’ve provided some details for each location. The map draws on Appendix E or the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, Tanner, and Jackson. I’ll discuss the records from coastal areas, south Florida, the upper Mississippi and locations east of the river in the next post. I’ll conclude this one with a look at the records from the western edge of the range, since they relate to the Nebraska report and why I thought it might be credible; the Nebraska location is actually somewhat east of the records from the southern plains.

One record that I find compelling does not include a specimen; it’s from the 1820 Long Expedition, the first scientific exploration of the American West. Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 8.08.14 AM

The ivorybill’s call is described, and Pileated Woodpecker is distinguished and described as common in the area. These facts lend credibility to the report, as does the fact that Thomas Say was the expedition’s naturalist. While Say is best known as an entomologist, the expedition produced the first descriptions of a number of bird species, and an entire genus of flycatchers was named in his honor.

The location of this record is approximately south of Tulsa on the Canadian River, near the 96th Meridian. This is farther west than the location of the erroneous southeastern Nebraska report and well into the eastern Great Plains. It is also well beyond the range of the bald cypress. The relatively narrow floodplain would have been dominated by cottonwoods and willows, as it is to this day. This image, from ca. 1920s shows “Standing Rock” a geological feature now flooded that was discovered by the expedition a day after the ivorybill encounter. It should add a visceral sense of the area’s appearance to supplement the description above.

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Even if one opts to reject this record for lack of physical evidence, there are several others from approximately the same longitude that do involve specimens, and some are from the 20th century.

The Recovery Plan suggests that there are two records from west of Tulsa, a specimen was “probably” collected by Woodhouse along the Cimarron River, Pawnee County in 1849. Per Jackson, the specimen was sent to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, which has four specimens without location information in its collection. The second is from House Creek in Pawnee County, also Woodhouse 1849, and also reportedly sent to the Philadelphia Academy but not found there.

There are several Plains records from Texas. A specimen currently in the Dallas Museum was collected on Bois d’Arc Island, just southeast of Dallas, elevation 400′, in 1900. There were multiple reports from the area through 1910, and an additional bird may have been collected in 1918. A bird was reportedly “caught in a trap” in nearby Kaufman County in 1927 and examined by an R.E. Huck but not preserved. An additional Texas record, from farther south but west of the 96th Meridian, comes from New Braunfels County, south of Austin and east of San Antonio. There were multiple reports ca. 1900, with a collection reported but no specimen preserved.

Although only one record from the eastern Plains can be attached with certainty to a currently existing museum specimen, there’s proof that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers were found in this region as recently as 1900 and considerable circumstantial evidence for their presence along riparian corridors on the plains of Texas, and possibly Oklahoma,  into the 20th-century. The habitat involved is markedly different from what so many have believed ivorybills require. I’m not suggesting that ivorybills persist at the western edges of their historic range, but as will be discussed in the final installment of this series, I think their ability to exploit these relatively narrow, willow and cottonwood dominated floodplains can help explain how the species could have persisted into the 21st century.

Stay tuned for Part 4.