I had been planning to do a post with various ivorybill related tidbits in anticipation of the search season, which begins next month. That will be coming in a week or so, but I want to say a little more about Bill Pulliam first (beyond his Luneau video analyses, which I think should be dispositive). This decision was inspired in part by one of our advisors who pointed similarities between what Bill observed in Tennessee and what we’re seeing in Louisiana. While the physical characteristics of our old search area seem to have more in common with Moss Island, Tennessee than where we’re currently focused, Bill’s perspectives are relevant to both.
Edited to add: Moss Island is a small wildlife management area encompassing 3400 acres. I’m not sure what percentage is mature bottomland hardwood forest, but there are a variety of other habitat types. Compared to our search areas it is relatively isolated and distant from other large tracts of forest.
As an aside, Cyberthrush also has a post honoring Bill with a link to an eBird tribute.
With comments included, Bill’s series of posts on Moss Island runs to nearly 54,000 words. There’s no telling how long this series will remain readily accessible online, and indeed some of the images and sound files are no longer available. The entire series is worth reading and saving if you’re seriously interested in the ivorybill. It starts here.
On re-reading the posts for the first time in eight years, I’m struck by how much Bill influenced me without my recognizing it and/or how much the evolution of my understanding between 2009 and today is congruent with the ideas he expressed just as I was getting more deeply involved in searching.
Like Bill, I suspect that the near extirpation and revival of the beaver may be central to the ivorybill’s decline and survival (more about this in my next post). Like Bill, I think that Tanner’s model failed to account for environmental changes that had taken place in the preceding centuries. Like Bill, I think that if the ivorybill survived, it had to have adapted in ways that are inconsistent with Tanner’s a priori assumption that the species is old-growth dependent.
Bill was tough-minded and opinionated. There were times when I thought he considered me a somewhat annoying amateur. While we hadn’t communicated about it in recent years, he took a dim view of my efforts to make sense of feeding sign in the early days. Most of our correspondence took place in the 2000s, while he was still actively blogging about the ivorybill. After that, I sought his input sparingly.
My last exchange of emails with him pertained to the March recordings. Without quoting him directly, I think it’s fair to say he thought the calls were likely or more than likely Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He also thought it unlikely that birds were resident in our search area, based on the pattern of potential encounters, the paucity of strong sightings, and lack of conclusive evidence. I’m not sure I agree; I wish there had been a chance to explore this topic in more depth and that he’d been able to see our search area for himself. Nonetheless, his perspective has led me to consider that other nearby forested areas deserve more attention than we’ve given them to date.
I’ll conclude with three paragraphs from his final post in the Moss Island series. It’s as true today as it was in November 2009 (though I suspect nesting may take place in fragmented second growth, as in our old search area). I hope it inspires you to read the rest. More from me soon.
How does this relate to Moss Island? By Cornell standards, our habitat is unsuitable. Hence, our encounters are largely dismissed out of hand. By doing so, the Cornell approach has painted themselves into a rather nasty corner. The logic is simple. To all appearances, we have Campephilus-like double knocks that are at least as good as what has been heard in the “core habitat” such as Big Woods and Congaree. If one claims that in “core habitat” these represent evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, but in “marginal” or “unsuitable” habitat they provide no evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, one has committed a logical no-no of the first magnitude. If the same sounds come from places where you have concluded that Ivorybills are not going to be, then you should conclude that these sounds have no relevance to Ivorybills anywhere. Conversely, if you feel these sounds are evidence of the possible presence of Ivorybills in South Carolina or Arkansas, then you must also accept that they would be evidence of the same in Tennessee, Illinois, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. You can’t have it both ways.
Anyone who seriously considers that Ivorybills might still persist, and that double knocks and other soft evidence have a relevance to indicating their possible presence, should accept that the evidence in total suggests their habitat requirements might be broader than has been assumed by Cornell et al. I’m not suggesting they will nest in fragmented second growth, or even use it as a full-time habitat; but there are ample indications that if these sort of encounters mean anything anywhere then the birds indeed are using fragmented “marginal” habitats for at least parts of their life history. These habitats are hugely more extensive than the “core” habitats, hence this possibility raises all sorts of further hypothetical possibilities for the natural history, survival, and conservation of the species, all of them positive. In the alternative philosophy to Cornell’s, you search where you have learned of rumors, whispers, or credible declarations that something of interest might have been seen or heard there. This of course requires a lot of judgement, and eventually everyone will draw the line somewhere; I’d not put much stock in reports from western Kansas, for example — although good double knocks in Nebraska or Vermont would settle a lot about what they might mean in Arkansas! But until and unless we actually find some reproducible birds and determine what their 21st Century habitat use patterns really are, minds should be kept open.
You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species. You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species.
Frank wrote this up and asked me to post it.
Recently, we’ve received several messages, and another blogger has mentioned the use of game cameras – also referred to as trail cams, or camera traps – as aids in searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. We’ve been deploying trail cams since early 2009, and have had some intriguing “hits”. They have been useful in many ways, and we have learned a lot about the feeding habits of other woodpeckers – specifically, Pileated, Hairy, and Red-bellied – that were useful in giving Mark insights into the type of feeding sign that we have come to believe is most likely diagnostic for ivorybills. In dozens of deployments, and hundreds of hours of searching with boots on the ground, and sometimes in the water, we have NEVER observed a woodpecker performing the type of scaling that we have come to suspect is diagnostic.
While trail cams are a valuable tool in our arsenal, they are, by no means infallible. There are many pitfalls involved in their use. Firstly, they are not designed to capture birds – in fact many common species of birds are almost unidentifiable in the images. Birds do not set off the motion triggers that these cameras use, and why should they? The cameras are designed for use along trails and adjacent to food plots used by larger mammals – usually whitetail deer. I have tested the Reconyx “Hyperfire” cameras that we use, and even a large Wild Turkey at fairly close range will not trigger one, even at its most sensitive setting, while a relatively small (terrier size) dog will trigger one from a distance of twenty-five or more yards. The manufacturer has indicated to me that there is “something about the way birds reflect light in the visible and infrared spectrum” that makes the cameras’ triggering units unable to “see” them.
As a result, ivorybill hunters must find a camera that will operate in time lapse mode. For all their disadvantages (3.1 megapixels, low resolution among them) the Reconyx cameras offer the best time lapse mode available at an affordable price. This, in and of itself, though, becomes a handicap, as the card for each camera must be programmed, using a proprietary program provided by Reconyx, on a PC. One programs the card, inserts it into the camera, and hopes for the best – there is no way to check and see if the card/camera combination is functioning properly. This has led to many wasted deployments. Additionally, there is the problem of how often should the camera take a photo vs. storage capacity of the card. The cams are designed for 8 gig cards, sometimes they will function with a 16 gig card, but will universally malfunction with a 32 gig card. 8 gigs is usually enough for a ten-day deployment with the camera time constrained to take a photo every twenty seconds for ten hours a day – you do get to select the hours of operation though. While every twenty seconds would seem to be quite often (and a full 8 gig card will store upwards of thirty thousand images), perform a little test for yourself. Go out to your favorite birdwatching location and see how long a bird – any arboreal non-raptor species – stays in one location for twenty or more seconds. Captures of birds on game cams are a relatively rare event – I have looked at nearly a million Reconyx photographs and have picked up birds of any kind in perhaps a thousand images – identifiable birds in maybe two hundred.
The very first thing that has to be done when using game cams is to select a location where you suspect an ivorybill is likely to show up. This could be a tree with scaled bark and other indications that an ivorybill has visited it, or a cavity with features that seem to match photographs of known ivorybill cavities. Both of these are, at best, iffy propositions. One has to find the tree, geotag it (you do have a good GPS unit, right?) then return to the location – often several miles of hiking through some pretty rough and secluded forest, carrying the camera and its mounting system – which weighs around ten pounds. Then the camera and mount have to be positioned to get the target near the center of the frame, which gets easier with practice, and the camera and mount hidden and intervening vegetation trimmed so as not to interfere with the line-of-sight. Once all this has been done the camera can be turned on, armed, and left to do its thing.
Assuming that everything up to this point has been done perfectly, in ten days or so, it’s time to change cards, or retrieve the cam. Now one is faced with the daunting prospect of going through some thirty-thousand photos looking for anything “interesting”. Often, several days of images will pass without a single “hit” of any kind. It’s often a relief to spot even a small woodpecker or squirrel, to remind one that the target is part of a living ecosystem.
The series shown here is exceptional in terms of quantity of images, quality, and our ability to place the camera. (It may be significant for what it doesn’t show, a Pileated doing the type of scaling we think is diagnostic.) Even so, it was not possible to cover the entire target tree.
As I stated earlier, these cameras, within their limitations, are useful tools, but for my money, nothing really beats the good old MK I MOD I human eyeball. But at this point, that’s just not enough …
In addition to the suggestive photos we’ve already posted, we recently obtained some pictures at the site where last week’s double knock was recorded. Because we find some of these pictures intriguing but inconclusive, we have deployed two cameras in hopes that the double placement will yield an identifiable photograph. The first picture, taken under good lighting conditions, clearly shows a Red-headed Woodpecker (there is a roost at the very top of the snag); the others are ambiguous. We are posting them unedited and leave it to you to speculate about what they may be. We recognize that none of these are of anywhere near good enough quality to be identifiable as ivorybills, but we are doing some further analysis to get a clearer sense of scale. The camera placement is 85’ from the tree; the branches behind the tree are an additional 15” away. My preliminary estimate of the diameter of the tree just above the jug handle on the right is approximately 18”.
I have taken careful measurements using a camera with known lens settings and a rangefinder – when the weather is more congenial, I will make comparison shots at the exact measured ranges. This should give a margin of error of ~1″ or less.