I was very pleased that we were able to have searchers in the field almost without interruption for over three key weeks in February and March. Erik was in the area alone from February 28-March 6, and conditions were good enough for him to get out for part of almost every day. At present, Matt Courtman is still in the field. I will be posting my trip report within the next few days; it covers the afternoon of March 7 through the morning of the 16th. There have been no possible encounters during this period, a stark contrast with this time last year. I’ll be addressing this in my report, but in the meantime, here’s Erik’s. It was a pleasure to read. I’ve made a couple of side comments in italics.
Back in the early 2000’s, I often used the holiday break as a time to take off from work and go birding someplace I’d never been before. Following the Ivorybill rediscovery announcement in May 2005, I decided to go to Arkansas “on a lark” and at least see the habitat where the bird had been found. There would be birding opportunities – a chance to see wintering species not present at my home in Montana, and I wanted to visit Little Rock High School National Historic Site.
After several days of birding, I saw the ivorybill. Like many other sightings, it was a brief look, but I saw the bird through binoculars, sharply focused, in good light. I made 4 more trips to Arkansas and Florida in the next two years, before my job took me to Alaska for 8 years. I made no more trips to the southeastern United States in that time.
But retirement in March of 2017 allowed me time to think about a return; and Mark graciously responded to my inquiry with an invitation to join his search effort in December 2017 / January 2018. I got to accompany him and Steve Pagans again in February; and Mark had another search planned for March, but the timing and logistics didn’t quite work out. With trepidation, I asked about searching the week before the main search effort, and Mark was encouraging. I’d seen how well Mark navigated the woods he knows so well, and Steve was equally competent (Steve is considerably more competent) – and always had his GPS available to ensure we could get out of the woods. But on my two initial trips; I often did not know where we were headed and often got turned around. I didn’t say so, but I knew I’d have to get a lot better at reading my GPS.
Mark also encouraged me to purchase a dedicated audio recorder, in case I heard double knocks or kent calls as other searchers have in the past. This was perhaps the most obvious advantage to being in the woods in March: the likelihood that ivorybills would be more vocal and/or more noticeable if they engaged in courtship, cavity construction, brooding and interaction at a cavity, or feeding of nestlings/fledglings. If I could be in the woods a week before Mark’s major search effort, then at least I was providing some additional coverage for a possible encounter.
A friend of mine said with encouragement “I’m sure you’ll see it this time!” I didn’t respond that “I don’t think so…”. Of course I’m optimistic, but my primary goal in the field is to contribute quality hours to searching for a species which has a very low encounter rate. The more hours searchers rack up, the more encounters we have. It’s important to me to contribute by adding up those good hours.
Logistics are a major part of the search effort: traveling from my home in Colorado; arranging airflight, rental car and lodging. Being prepared with the right clothing, rain gear, hat, camera, GPS, audio recorder, first aid kit, and all the miscellaneous supplies carried each day. I studied maps so that I wouldn’t be as lost as I was on my first trips. I could check online for the weather forecast and sunrise/sunset times. And then on my travel day, it takes about 12 hours from my house to my destination. I pick up lunch supplies at a local supermarket, and get ready for 7 days of searching.
It’s exciting first thing in the morning – arriving at the start point, and getting everything ready to walk into the woods. I only forgot to record the location of my vehicle once – but remembered within a 1/2 mile of my start, and that was close enough to ensure I could get out in the afternoon. I start out listening to and trying to see every bird – they’re all different from the birds back in Colorado, and if I’m standing still trying to pull a Yellow-eyed Vireo out of the shrubs – well, I can be listening for ivorybills at the same time.
Much of my time in the bottomland forests, I’m simply acting as a roving Audio Recording Unit. Although I rely on my eyes more than my ears – and at times it seems that I can see a lot of the habitat around me – I know from experience that I can’t really see all that much. Woodpeckers cling to the backside of trunks and branches. Sometimes I watch them up high, and then they move around to the opposite side of a branch – and they’re completely invisible to me. Had I not seen them move to that location, I’d never know they were there.
So as I scan the forest around me, I’m aware that there’s really only a limited amount of “space” – of “volume” – that I can peer into to check for birds. My best method for detecting the presence of many (most?) birds, is being able to hear them. So I wander around the forest, always listening, and hoping to hear a bird that may not vocalize very often.
I know from experience that I have good hearing, in the sense that I can detect very low levels of sound; often I can hear levels of sound lower in volume than my birding companions (but, sometimes others hear sounds that I miss). However, I’ve also learned that I don’t have a “discriminating” ear, and I easily confuse all kinds of species: Pileated Woodpecker sounds a lot like Northern Flicker; Northern Cardinal sounds a lot like Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse can sound like Carolina Chickadee. It always makes sense to me when someone tells me what I’m hearing, and often – given enough time (if the bird continues to call) – I can figure it out. But I know I’m not as good at identifying birds by sound as I am by sight.
I’m pretty good at identifying birds in the field and in photographs. Often, I only need a few pixels to correctly identify a bird. I make my share of mistakes, and often call out the name of a bird before I’ve completely processed all the information – and my initial identification (part of the thought process for arriving at a final ID) is incorrect. But while I make lots of mistakes while trying to arrive at the conclusive ID for a bird, I’ve got to be certain in the end. Entire books have been written on this topic – and that makes sense to me.
Searching for ivorybills is very different (for me) from “birding”. Birding is a fun, enjoyable activity that I do regularly, in all kinds of habitats, with lots and lots of opportunities to see and identify birds. Searching for ivorybills is mostly just putting in hours without seeing or hearing anything. But my approach to searching is to go “birding” and enjoy the birds I see, and to be aware of the environs around me as I’m looking for or looking at, birds. I stop and pause for several minutes at a time. I’m not in any hurry – I don’t have to be anywhere else. I think about all the other recent encounters that have been described: someone in the right habitat, often engaged in an activity other than searching – and while relaxing, or while sitting down, or while engaged in something other that “actively looking”, suddenly they become aware of a bird that they focus on, and it turns out to be an ivorybill. I think about lots of things written about ivorybills, things that I can remember and things that I’ve heard other searchers and other birders talk about. And… I wander around the bottomland forest – listening and looking.
I made a point of looking for large cavities, and I found 8 on this trip that were large enough and asymmetrical enough for me to stop and record them. I photographed each cavity (several photos, at successive zoom ranges) and marked its GPS coordinates. I tend to consider cavities that are too small (suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers – or even smaller species), but I think I’d rather be conservative in this regard. I’d thought perhaps that if I found one or more candidate cavities, I would try to watch them as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as I could. But I realized that simply finding the cavities, and trying to find efficient routes from the cavities to/from my vehicle, would take more time than was available to me. A fresh, or routinely occupied cavity, might be distinctive in a way that would set it apart from other cavities – and none of the ones I found was notable in that regard. If I had unlimited time, I thought about aiming a trail-cam at the “better” cavities I found – and I might give that idea more thought in the future. (The last two intriguing cavities I’ve found were not good candidates for camera traps; height, backlighting, intervening vegetation can all be problems. This issue is under- appreciated, and it became more apparent to me last trip. More on that in my report.)
I looked for scaled bark, trying to pay attention to the details Mark has taught me in the field. As a long time reader of the Project Coyote blog, I read many of Mark’s descriptions of scaling, and looked at his photographs. But having him explain scaling in the field, spending several minutes at a tree with fresh scaling, increased my understanding by at least two orders of magnitude. Mark brought to life the importance of scaling as evidence for ivorybills occupying or using the area. But I also learned that Mark has an eye for “seeing” scaling, and in my previous trips I never spotted “good” scaling before Mark did. (It’s just a matter of practice.) On this trip, I did see some tree top scaling in a sweet gum, and I saw a few downed logs (recently downed) with scaling that might have been done by ivorybills (but which also could have been done by other species). I was conscious that I tried harder looking for scaling at some times, and less hard at other times – it’s a skill that needs to be learned, and I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve.
I saw many Pileated Woodpeckers over the week, and on the first day, I noted that I saw 4 pileateds while I was standing in one spot, more or less simultaneously.
Great Blue Herons (and other species) always seemed to be aware of me, when I was walking (even walking slowly/quietly), long before I was aware of them. By contrast, when I was standing or sitting still (especially when in a shadow, but even when in the sun), birds and other animals would sometimes approach quite close, and go on about whatever they were doing, clearly not yet aware that I was present. And sometimes, even once they became aware I was present, their behavior was still reserved and they lingered at closer range than the birds (or pigs, or deer, etc.) that became aware of me as I was walking.
Some observations under the latter conditions come to mind: (1) After a large limb broke off from a tree, crashing to the ground with an impressive disruption of the quiet, two pileateds flew to a cypress tree near where I was standing quietly. The first pileated flew to the top of the cypress and drummed a couple of times. The second pileated flew to the trunk of the cypress to investigate one of two cavities, one right above the other. The pileated stuck its bill and just a bit of its head into the cavity when suddenly a gray squirrel exploded from the cavity, driving the pileated away. The squirrel clung to the cypress just a foot or so from the cavity, chattering loudly for a few seconds before retreating back into the cavity.
(2) I was sitting with my back against a birch tree, watching a fresh, asymmetrical (but small) cavity in a cypress tree across a creek (mostly taking a break in the heat of the afternoon), when a Hermit Thrush approached from a nearby shrub. The thrush moved closer (to within perhaps 15′), then off to my right, and then back in front of me, before finally moving slowly off and out of view.
(3) Eating lunch on a log one day, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, seeming to fly right at my head, before veering off at the last second to perch on a large trunk about 12′ from me. I’d been sitting quietly (the bird might have thought I was a stump?), but seemed to recognize I was not part of the landscape when it veered off to perch and start tending its sap wells. I was able to grab my camera and take a couple photos while it was at close range, the bird never flushing as when they are startled, but rather simply moving gradually higher up the tree and out of view.
A couple of random thoughts based on my field notes: I flushed wood ducks about 3 or 4 times, and always thought it would be impossible to confuse a Wood Duck for an ivorybill. Even one time when I noted that “the ID was a little tricky”; the situation was that I wondered for a split second “what was that?”, and not “could that have been an ivorybill?”. I observed two (rather small, I think) Cottonmouths; both were well behaved and non-aggressive. Very beautiful snakes.
And one other observation: while standing quietly in a shadow, I saw a large bird, darkish in color, mostly obsucred by a tangle of vines, fly in to a log on the ground. I could not see the bird, and thought it was on the opposite side of the log from me, and there was much undergrowth that made visibility difficult. I heard several loud (very loud) raps, interpaced with quiet, and based on my time in the woods, I thought pretty sure this was a large woodpecker, foraging on a downed log, and occasionly delivering 3 to 6 heavy blows to the wood. The bird continued foraging in this manner, with several sequences of loud knocks, and I finally decided to move to my left to try to get a better angle on the log. I heard another couple sequences of raps and then quiet, and I was pleased I hadn’t started the bird and caused it to flush. I moved to my left, and a little closer to the log, and then there was a downed tree blocking my path, and some water, and I had to make some noise to get around the obstacle, and continue moving to try to see the area around the downed log better.
By this time, it was clear that I had flushed the bird, and did not see or hear it any more. I’ve thought about this event, and it emphasizes to me that birds may often be close enough to see, but impossible to see because of vegetatation blocking the view, and that birds we often think of being “in the shrubs” or higher “in the trees” are often on or near the ground. If I had to guess, the bird was either a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Flicker. I’ll never know.
I started writing this note with the intention of providing a simple summary of my observations during the week I was in Louisiana, but quickly realized I was describing a more general sense of purpose and the idea that looking for ivorybills is distinctly different from looking for other birds. I could add some good search hours to the effort – that was worthwhile and enjoyable to me, and although I’m uncertain how my hours contribute to the Project Coyote overall effort, I am very pleased to be part of the team.
photos follow . . .
I returned to the main Project Coyote search area where I spent December 27-January 1. I was joined by two new team members – Erik Hendrickson, an excellent birder and retired National Park Service engineer who had an ivorybill sighting in Arkansas back in 2005, and Jay Tischendorf, a veterinarian with a long and adventure-filled background as a field biologist. Erik lives in Colorado, so he may not be able to visit often, but Jay is much closer. I hope that both of them will be able to return and bring their considerable skills to the effort.
Stephen Pagans, who has been with Project Coyote since 2012, was in the area for the duration. Steve is a retired forester, avid birder with a great ear, and an outstanding photographer. This portrait of a feral hog (more on hogs later), which I think is award-worthy, is just one example of his work.
Tom Foti made it down from Arkansas for a day. Spending time in the woods with Tom, whose knowledge of bottomland forests is second to none, is always an education. On this trip, Tom pointed out that I’d been mistaken about the hickories in the search area. I believed that they were all bitternut hickories (Carya cordiformis), except for a very few shagbarks (Carya ovata), but it turns out that many, perhaps the majority, are in fact pignut hickories (Carya glabra). One of these, shown below, has a DBH of 42″ and may be a state champion. Tom also identified a nutmeg hickory (Carya myristicaeformis), an uncommon species that may not have been previously recorded in the parish.
Having such great companions for the week caused me to look back at the past year, with its terrible low points – the losses of Frank and Bill Pulliam – and high points, particularly the March recordings, which I think are among the strongest evidence of ivorybill persistence obtained to date, and to appreciate my friends, collaborators, and outside advisors. Although I’ve been the public face of Project Coyote for years (Frank wanted it that way), this has always been a team effort, although the composition of the group has shifted over time. While it would be cumbersome to name everyone involved and some frequent advisers prefer to remain anonymous, there are several, in addition to those mentioned above, whom I’d like to acknowledge publicly.
On more than one occasion over the years, Bob Ford has lifted my spirits when they most needed lifting. When I talked to Bob shortly before Frank’s death, I was despondent. I knew Frank’s prognosis was not good and was having doubts about carrying on. Bob helped me see a way forward, reminding me that the search area is important, ivorybills or no ivorybills, and that I’d done meaningful work related to its ecology in general.
Matt Courtman, who had some involvement early on and had known Frank for several years, reached out shortly after Frank died, giving me much needed moral and intellectual support and breathing new life into Project Coyote. In one of those odd coincidences, Matt’s New York relatives knew and did business with my father decades ago.
Philip Vanbergen, the youngest among us, had the presence of mind to turn on his recording device on March 11 and capture a couple of calls, setting the stage for his and Matt’s return on the 15th when the much longer recordings were made. Phil has also been responsible for our trail cams since 2016. His energy, enthusiasm, and interest in the natural history of the area are invaluable.
Peggy Shrum’s ideas, background studying raptors in the Peruvian rainforest (a considerably more challenging environment), and familiarity with tropical Campephilus double knocks are great assets. Peggy has made the long trip from South Carolina to participate several times, and it’s always a pleasure to have her along.
Tommy Michot and Wylie Barrow from Lafayette have also been great sources of support. Though Tommy is a retired biologist with a Ph.D, I admire his youthful enthusiasm, open-mindedness, enjoyment of the woods, and his sense of humor. To top it off, he’s also an accomplished traditional Cajun musician from an illustrious musical family. Wylie and Tommy have known each other for years, and while Wylie has seldom been able to make it into the field, his careful, scientific approach and probing questions help keep me on track. While I skipped it on this most recent trip, the lunches I have with Wylie and Tommy (and sometimes Phil) in Lafayette on the way home invariably help me absorb and evaluate whatever I’ve observed or experienced while searching.
Professor Fredrik Bryntesson has been a great online friend and supporter. He has shared details from his research into some arcane aspects of ivorybill history, some of which have found their way onto the blog. I hope we get to meet in person and that he will be able to visit our search area sometime soon.
Finally, Patricia Johnson, my wife – Patricia comes along from time to time, holds down the house when she stays at home. Her moral and morale support sustain me.
Though 2017 was difficult, I’m grateful to be surrounded by such great collaborators. I’m hoping for more highs and fewer lows in the year ahead . . . Without further ado, here’s the trip report. As with the previous one, I’ve opted not to do a day-by-day log. There’s not all that much to report.
The weather this trip ranged from cloudy, dreary, and damp to bitterly cold; there was little sunshine, except on January 1st, and avian activity was generally low throughout. Woodpeckers, except for Red-headeds, were mostly quieter and less active than usual. Nevertheless, on at least one day, we saw or heard all seven species (ivorybill excluded) that are found in the area at this time of year.
Birds may not have been very active, but the hogs certainly were. We saw upwards of 15-20 on a couple of days, and signs of their rooting were everywhere. Their numbers seem to have increased considerably since 2012, despite the presence of at least a few dedicated hunters in the area. We ran across these newborn hogs and assumed their mother had been shot. Their cute appearance belies their destructive potential should they survive.
We did not have any possible ivorybill encounters and found little recent bark scaling, except on two or three sweet gums, some extensive work on a pine, and a small patch on a cypress. Some commentary below the images.
Phil solved the problem with the trail cams, and we now have three deployed on hickories – two that have lost their tops and one that is in obvious decline. We’ll deploy the fourth in the spring when it will be easier to locate unhealthy trees. Given what we’ve observed and the life cycle of the beetles involved, I think scaling on hickories is most likely to take place between mid to late spring and fall.
Fresh scaling on the bole and branches of a recently uprooted sweet gum. Some of the bark chips were large and consistent with what I would expect for Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
With regard to the sweet gum scaling, it is far and away the most abundant form of this work we’ve found, and this has been true year after year. It is considerably more common in the Project Coyote search area than in other places I’ve visited or than in the Pascagoula, based on the Carlisles’ efforts there. It also matches the work described by Tanner as being typical of ivorybill, but as discussed in my post entitled Bark: An Exegesis, sweet gum bark is relatively easy to scale, making it more difficult to exclude Pileated Woodpecker. As an aside, I’m puzzled by the fact that we found a good deal of scaling on oaks in 2012-2013 and have seen virtually none since then.
While I’ve written previously that I think pine has no potential for being a diagnostic because it is easily scaled, the example above impressed me for its extensiveness and the fact that the presence of needles suggests the tree died very recently. Lighting conditions in the field were so poor that it was impossible to see that scattered patches of bark remained. This only became apparent when I brightened the photographs. Even so, the extensiveness so soon after death remains impressive.
I’ve included the beaver-killed cypress scaling here not because I think it’s likely ivorybill work; it could be, but the bark was loose, and the scaled area, while contiguous, covered only a modest percentage of the bole. What may be significant is the presence of insect work of a kind that is suggestive of suitable ivorybill prey. Tanner thought that cypress-tupelo swamps were poor habitats for the ivorybill, presumably because both are long-lived and relatively insect-resistant species and perhaps because he rarely ran across large scale deadenings of those species. The example shown here leads me to wonder about this assumption, particularly in places where beavers are present or other disturbances occur; fire, to which water tupelos are apparently vulnerable, for example. While Allen and Kellogg reported that Florida ivorybills nested in cypress and fed nearby on fire damaged pines, I think it’s possible that food sources would be sufficient in cypress-tupelo swamps under certain conditions. This relates, at least indirectly, to issues that have been addressed in the “Bits and Pieces” series. Stay tuned for the final installment.
In late 2011, I visited the Museum of Natural History at Harvard and took some iPhone photos of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest that’s on display there. In reviewing the pictures of cavities I took last week in Louisiana, I was struck by the similarity in appearance, especially between the Harvard cavity and the cavity in the stack, the most significant difference is in orientation; one angles left and the other right. I’ve cropped and zoomed the Louisiana cavity, while boosting the contrast and details, and I’ve flipped the Harvard cavity so the orientation is the same.
The Louisiana cavity could, of course, have been gnawed by squirrels, but the similarity is intriguing.
Edited to add: while I believe there is a type of feeding sign that is diagnostic for IBWO, cavities are another matter. In my view, ivorybill-ish cavities only become interesting when associated with other indicators, especially feeding sign.