Trail Cam Captures Redux: Beyond (My) Reasonable Doubt, Part 2

The previous post generated a number of responses, mostly positive, but there were a couple of negative remarks, one of which I thought I should address.

One claim was that this new way of examining the imagery (which was misleadingly described as “enhancement”) confuses the issue and makes the images harder to assess. In reality, the processes used in the previous post and in this one are for the most part not “enhancements.” While I have used various image enhancement tools in the past, most of these treatments use unaltered original images to create composites that make it possible to separate figure from ground and parts of the target from artifacts. It’s not a perfect method, but it’s an illuminating one, even with low resolution images. It requires no special forensic expertise. As should become clear from this post, it can also be useful for estimating size.

The images examined in this post were all captured December 7, 2014 on a Reconyx Trail cam that was showing its age. They were previously discussed here, here, and here.  As in the previous post, I’ve used Luminar to create the composites and apply various effects for this deeper dive. As always, views can be had by clicking on the images themselves; mousing over the images will reveal captions in most instances, and I have added versions with arrows to help orient you. I strongly encourage you to examine the images closely.

One initial comment about these images and the ones discussed in the last post: I’m personally convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that two of those images show Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. The images discussed in this post show fewer details, so they may not be quite as compelling. Either way, the captures under discussion are only part of the mosaic, and the subjective conviction that we have found Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in two locations is not solely dependent on them. The audio from last year, for example, is strong evidence in its own right. Go here for a detailed discussion of evidence gathered since 2009

I’ve reposted the original captures in tiled mosaic form below; I’ll follow that with some composites and comparisons among the images. I think the results are helpful if not quite as revelatory as the ones in the last round.  A very prominent American birder tweeted that one of the images below shows a Blue Jay (9.8-11.8″) and characterized the suggestion that it might be an ivorybill as “crazy”. (This is the capture I think is likeliest for ivorybill in this group.) I think his knee-jerk suggestion is absurd, as this approach to reviewing the images should make more apparent.

 

I’ll begin with the raw image I’ve always liked most for ivorybill, as previously discussed in detail and in comparison with Imperial Woodpecker captures. (Note that the version comparing putative IBWO and IMWO has been enhanced.)

IMG_4195

Suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker

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Rotated, resized image of Imperial Woodpecker in flight. The bird is angled downward and slightly away from the camera obscuring the bill and foreshortening the profile. An automated motion blur reduction feature has been applied to the image of the putative ivorybill.

The next image shows the difference between the foregoing frame and one captured approximately 40 minutes later. The bird to the left of the snag is clearly closer to the camera (which was approximately 85′ from the target snag), between it and the snag. The composite strengthens the impression that the suspected ivorybill is behind the tree and the foliage behind it, since at least some leaves appear to be between bird and camera. Frank estimated the foliage as being 15′ more distant.

 

In the earlier discussion, several Pileated Woodpecker captures, including the one below, were used for comparison. These captures were taken from a slightly different position, but that’s irrelevant to the issue of size relative to the reference object, the jug handle-shaped stub.

IMG_2735-1

Pileated Woodpecker on Snag

It may be even more instructive to contrast the capture with the Red-headed Woodpecker, apparently caught as it was preparing to land on the snag. The comparison suggests that the two birds are approximately the same distance from the camera. The possible ivorybill’s body is considerably longer than the Red-headed Woodpecker’s wingspan (14-17″). Thus, between the Pileated Woodpecker (~16-19″, with southern birds typically on the smaller side) and the Red-headed Woodpecker, it can be inferred that the suspected ivorybill is approximately the right size (19-21″), considerably larger than a Red-headed and somewhat larger than a Pileated. I am unable to think of an alternative ID for a bird of similar size and shape, even leaving aside the fact that a white trailing edge seems to be present even in the original, unmodified version of the capture. (The trailing edge becomes more apparent when the image is processed to reduce motion blur.)

 

A different but related method of image processing is helpful for understanding the position of the bird relative to the snag and also suggests that another capture in the series is at least size-appropriate for ivorybill; the tuck and the long, pointed shape of the wings are also intriguing. The first composite shows the unknown bird and the Red-headed Woodpecker. (Note what seems to be a wing, species unknowable, protruding from behind the snag; it appears in the Red-headed frame and no others and had gone unnoticed until now. On looking again, this could also be a squirrel’s tail, albeit unusually positioned.) The second is an overlay of the suspected ivorybill capture and the unknown bird processed using Luminar’s “Color Burn” feature; the two birds appear to be approximately the same size and in the same plane. I’ve added a shot of a Pileated Woodpecker in flight, with wings in a similar position, for comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

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Another capture from the morning of December 7 has always interested us. The underwing pattern and shape are suggestive of ivorybill and reminiscent of one of the Singer Tract photographs. But questions about size have lingered. Comparing this image with two others from the same deployment that show Red-headed Woodpeckers may be helpful, and it has pushed me toward favoring Ivory-billed Woodpecker for this capture as well.

IMG_4399

Either Ivory-billed or Red-headed Woodpecker Depending on Size

 

 

 

 

This capture seems more ambiguous to me, but a few factors are more consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker than Red-headed Woodpecker. Both Red-headed Woodpeckers, one captured on the same morning under similar lighting conditions, appear to be closer to the camera than the possible ivorybill. My efforts at measuring wingspan were crude, but the suspected ivorybill seems to have a slightly greater wingspan, despite the upturned angle of the wings and apparent greater distance from the camera. This would tend to exclude Red-headed.

The comparison is also useful insofar as it shows that the wing and body shape of the possible ivorybill are not similar to the Red-headed Woodpeckers captured during this deployment. While Red-headed wing and body shapes can resemble ivorybill at certain angles and under certain lighting conditions, as Bill Pulliam documented years ago, the tail in this image looks too long relative to the body, and the wings look very narrow, at an angle that I don’t think would create an illusion of elongation.

As always, I’m open to correction, and my interpretations are provisional. Intelligent and informed comments are welcome.


Trail Cam Captures Redux: Beyond (My) Reasonable Doubt

I’m making another departure from my posting schedule for reasons that I hope will be self-evident. This is the strongest statement of my views I’ve made to date; I’m calling it as I see it based on this new way of looking at the photographs.  As always, click on the images for better viewing.

A Louisiana photographer (and new Project Coyote member) who has been following our efforts, reached out to me in response to the recent trail cam capture and alerted me to a feature in Photoshop. This feature makes it possible to stack two images and subtract the identical pixels, leaving the differences between the two images visible in the new composite.

I understand that this is sometimes referred to as subtracting and sometimes as ghosting. Given my limited knowledge and skill set when it comes to image processing, this was a revelation. The method is described between minutes 1 and 2 of this YouTube video. (The rest of the segment pertains to image stacking for landscape photography and is not relevant to this discussion.)

He sent me three examples – the recent capture, the neckbird, and a pair of photographs showing what Frank Wiley had identified as a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight. I didn’t get any new insights from the last of these; the results for the most recent capture were interesting and possibly significant; the neckbird was a revelation, eliminating any lingering misgivings I had about the image and convincing me (at least) beyond a reasonable doubt that it shows an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Bear in mind that the images discussed below are among a handful of captures (out of well over a million images obtained since 2009) that we’ve found to be suggestive or better. (At the 20 second interval used on our current cameras, a single month’s 12 hour-a-day deployment will produce over 60,000 images; the Reconyx cams had a 30 second interval, but that’s still over 40,000 per camera per month.)  So it’s not as if we’re finding possible ivorybills everywhere, let alone frequently.

I recently started using a different, ostensibly more user-friendly, image-processing program, Luminar, and I found that it has the same capacity. I tried it on the other oft-discussed trail cam capture with the same revelatory result, although in that case, I did not have access to both unprocessed originals and had to use one cropped image and another that had been cropped and lightly processed for brightness and contrast. I don’t think this impacted the results. I used Luminar to process all the images discussed below.

Immediately below is the original “Neckbird” capture and an enhanced crop, followed by the processed image, showing the difference between this frame and the one before it. Next is a detail, showing the ‘ghost’ outlines of the image that appeared in the original. (Note that a second bird may be present in the form of a bill protruding from the lower cavity in the snag at right, as discussed in this post.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me, the most startling result is that the bird looks even more serpentine and elongated in this iteration. This is mostly because the lower third of the body (apparently including part of the tail) is better resolved and distinguishable from surrounding objects. What I had thought was a patch of white near the base of the bird, just above the lower diagonal branch, turns out to have been a leaf. I think this longer, leaner profile is inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker and consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and not just because of the neck, the feature that was most suggestive to many who viewed the original capture. I’ve seen a lot of Pileateds and have looked at countless images online, and nothing about this better-resolved silhouette suggests Pileated. The remnant clips from the 1935 Ivory-billed Woodpecker film may be illuminating in terms of neck and body shape.

The silhouette in the November 30, 2009 capture, which was the first suggestive image we made public, is not as compelling as the one in the image shown above, but the capture shows three apparent ivorybill field marks – a black crest, white on the lower part of the bird, and a large, light-colored bill. In this case, the processing provides additional information about these apparent field marks. The bird also appears to be larger than a Pileated Woodpecker. The basics of all these issues are addressed in Frank’s original discussion of this capture.

To reiterate, I am not in possession of the original frame that follows the capture. It was probably lost after Frank’s passing, so I used two crops for the first composite, one showing the suspected ivorybill and the other, the subsequent frame. The crop of the empty frame was otherwise unaltered, but the one with the bird had the brightness and contrast adjusted. The output differed slightly between the “difference” version and the “subtraction” version, something I did not observe when working with unprocessed images. The difference, however, appears to be limited to background features and not the bird.

Remember that this capture was obtained from a spot where I’d had a sighting of a large woodpecker with a lot of white on the wings on the 25th . Both Frank and I heard the wingbeats, which were loud and distinctive. This was a rare instance in which a bird appeared to have been brought in by a double knock series. We’d also had an auditory encounter about 300 yards away on the morning of the 24th, while staking out the cavities in the willows shown above.

The first image shown below is the original capture with the red box around the bird. The crops appear as a pair of images. The first shows the bird, and the second is the subsequent frame with the bird absent. Those are followed by the difference and subtraction composites. More discussion after the images.

 

 

 

 

 

As I read this imagery, I think it suggests that the apparent white saddle is part of the bird, not light leaking through or an intervening object; indeed, the intervening branch is revealed in the ghosted images, with the body of the bird still visible behind it. That said, this may be the most ambiguous aspect. The treatment also highlights the presence of the crest and shows it is part of the bird; there is no red in the original; if any red were present, it should be at least faintly visible at this range and under these conditions. This interpretation is based both on the color in the background and on a Pileated captured perhaps six feet farther from the camera during this deployment (in an overexposed image included in Frank’s original analysis).

Most important of all is the fact that both the difference and subtracted versions confirm that the apparent very large bill (which appears to be light-colored in the original picture) is indeed a bill and not some other object. Even allowing for some motion blur, the bill is disproportionately large and therefore inconsistent with Pileated Woodpecker. Indeed, all discernible features in this photograph are consistent with female Ivory-billed Woodpecker and nothing else. I have always believed this picture showed an ivorybill. Based on these composites, I am now firmly convinced that it does.

I also tried creating a composite combining the capture, which was taken in the late afternoon of November 30, 2009, with another frame taken in late morning on the following day. The results are somewhat less distinct but the same elements are still apparent.

 

Finally, I tried this approach with the images discussed in the previous post. The results of this effort were somewhat less satisfactory. I assume because the originals are lower resolution and therefore contain fewer pixels. Lighting conditions may also be a factor.

This capture offers a lot less to work with. The Reconyx jpegs are 2048 x 1536 or 3 megapixels, while the Plotwatchers are 1280 x 720 or less than 1 megapixel.

I was unable to find additional specifications for the Reconyx cams, but the folks at Day 6 Outdoors were kind enough to provide them for the Plotwatcher. Per Day 6, the sensor is .25″ (which is smaller than most cell phone cameras); the focal length is 3.5 mm (which I think translates to the equivalent of an ~20 mm lens on a full frame or 35 mm film camera); and the aperture is f/2.6 (apparently the equivalent of ~f/16).

Nevertheless, I experimented with using both the original captures and versions enlarged using Topaz A.I. Gigapixel. I applied the same process to the squirrel capture from a few weeks earlier, which was taken under better lighting conditions. The relevant images and discussion are below, starting with an enhanced version of the original capture with an arrow pointing to the object of interest. Remember that the silhouette that resembles the head and neck of a woodpecker is background vegetation. The object of interest is the small bit of black and white below it.

 

As mentioned, I’m less confident about interpreting the results for this image, since so much less detail can be gleaned. Unlike the other captures, the subtraction or ghosting does not reveal a clear outline, and aspects of the object which are distinct when moving from frame to frame are obscured in this treatment. Also note the near absence of difference between the preceding and following frames.

In the enhanced iteration, a little more of the outline of the putative IBWO may be visible. I suspect that the reason the white saddle does not appear uniform in this one is due to pixels and that the dark patch below the bright white band is consistent between images because the foreground and background pixels match, not because they’re the same. This explains why the bottom part of the saddle, where the wings meet, is also white. In other words, these are the places where the object was in front of darker pixels. That’s my guess based on shifting back and forth between the relevant frame and the ones before and after. In addition, the white dots above the “saddle” may represent dorsal stripes.

Things change slightly when using imagery from different days. I’m only using the enhanced versions here, but they again strongly suggest that the white saddle is part of the object, not the background. The second frame is the one that follows the squirrel capture discussed below.

 

The squirrel capture may provide some additional insights into the process’s limitations with lower resolution images. The squirrel, which is clearly visible in the original image, shows up as a narrow strip that’s easily missed if you don’t know it’s there. The second version is a composite using images processed through Gigapixel A.I.

 

 

Weather and lighting conditions differed considerably between the two days in question. The camera was pointed in an approximately easterly direction, probably more ENE or NNE; lighting conditions may account for the fact that this image is a little lighter and some small differences are more apparent from this pair of captures. The weather at the nearest station at the time of the squirrel capture was fair with little to no wind; whereas the weather for the putative ivorybill capture, which was taken in the afternoon, was intermittently stormy with winds probably around 10 mph. Under stormy conditions with foliage moving in the wind, there should be more variation between images, not less, so available light seems a likely factor perhaps in combination with number of pixels.

Thus, I’m not sure how much this process adds when it comes to interpreting the most recent capture and how useful it might be with others from Plotwatcher trail cams. (The two older images were taken with a color Reconyx.) But I hope that the cameras are now deployed in such a way that enhancement and differentiating won’t be necessary.

While the approach does not reveal much when it comes to the new image, I think it is dispositive with regard to the old ones. Of course, I make no claims to expertise in forensic image analysis or the technical aspects of image processing, so I am open to being corrected if any aspects of my analysis are flawed.

Like most searchers, I have tended to focus on whether the evidence is sufficient and have seldom thought about what obtaining conclusive documentation might imply. If the two images from the old search area are ivorybills, a number of questions emerge. So let’s assume (or assume arguendo if you are unpersuaded) that these images indeed show Ivory-billed Woodpeckers:

As an initial observation, if I am right about the two captures, I think it becomes overwhelmingly likely that the apparent bill protruding from the cavity in the background of the neckbird image  also belongs to an ivorybill, so it seems probable that least two birds were present in the area in 2009-2010. This is consistent with what six of us heard during an auditory encounter in January 2010. One of Frank’s sightings involved three birds. (He was accompanied by the landowners’ teenaged grandsons at the time.) This sighting suggests that breeding might have taken place in the area.

The habitat in the immediate vicinity of the camera trap deployments is not what has been thought of as having much potential; the quality is even lower than I realized at the time. I knew a lot less about forest ecology and conditions in 2009, and while I certainly recognized the habitat as not “optimal” back then, I think I overestimated and perhaps romanticized the overall quality.

Both captures come from within 50 yards of a bean field. The woods in the immediate vicinity did have a number of large trees, and there are good sized cypresses in the area, but the parcel and the neighboring ones (including the one that was clearcut) are not particularly old. Back then someone indicated they’d been cut in the early 1960s.

The site of the earlier trail cam pic and our November auditory encounter is .6 miles from a large parcel of state land that has some very mature forest and inaccessible areas. (The location of my November sighting and the second trail cam capture is approximately 300 yards farther east, away from the public land.) Several other large parcels of public land are within a few miles of the area, so it’s not exactly a suburban backyard. Nevertheless, it’s a far cry from the Singer Tract or our current search area for that matter.

It seems to me that if one accepts that a pair of ivorybills was present in this location in 2009, there’s no basis for doubting the landowner’s claim that birds had been present and using the area for a decade or so. It also supports the idea that audio obtained there included ivorybill kents and double knocks, which tends to validate audio captured elsewhere – Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, and our current search area.

How does/would the confirmation of ivorybill survival, especially in such ostensibly low quality habitat, impact the assessment of other reports?

Why is that ivorybills are being reported in so many different places over the last two decades? Is it just more publicity, or is something else going on?

Why aren’t there more reports from the public and from experienced birders?

Why are they so hard to document?  Even if you read the Project Coyote trail cam captures in the most liberal possible way, there are no more than a handful of images that I think of as likely, out of well over 1,000,000.

Where does one look for them, especially if they are using habitat always thought of as unsuitable?

What is suitable habitat?

What kind of population is out there and how has it sustained itself for so long?

I’m sure there are more, and I don’t have good answers for most. I think the technical limitations of trail cams, scarcity, and wariness (even run-of-the-mill or somewhat overdeveloped wariness) are probably adequate to explain many of the documentation issues but perhaps not the relative paucity of sightings.

I hope to return to my planned posting schedule with the post on range in a week or two and the one on evidence a couple of weeks after that; however, I’ve been looking at composites created from the Reconyx images discussed here. I think the results illuminating with respect to size. This post is already long, so rather than include them here, I will likely do a follow-up examining those images before turning to more general ivorybill-related topics.

 


A Tantalizing Trail Cam Capture

Best laid plans . . . I’m pushing back the posts on historic range and evidence but hope to get to them soon.

In going through some of the remaining unexamined images from past trail cam deployments, Geoffrey McMullan came across an intriguing image. He sent me the file for the entire day without indicating where the image was located or what interested him about it. Reviewing cards is challenging; it’s tedious, while demanding focus and attention to very subtle changes. It can be easy to overlook hits of any kind. Nevertheless, this particular frame leapt out at me immediately, even though the object involved is indistinct and is only present in a single frame (more on that later).

I’ll begin by sharing and discussing the image, before and after stills, a time lapse video, and some additional captures comparing other animals with what’s shown in the frame. I’ll follow that with some of the discussion that has taken place among the active searchers in our group and some of the biologists who are advising us. Matt Courtman suggested that everyone on our email list give three reasons they like the image for ivorybill and three counterarguments. Not everyone followed the suggested format, but I’ll draw on those emails as well. I’m hoping this will give you some insights into our process and also give you some additional ways of looking at the image, which I believe to be a picture an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, even as I recognize that it isn’t nearly good enough to stand as proof.

I’ve done my best to present this material in a clear and careful manner. This is not an image that lends itself to immediate, easy interpretation, as some of the discussion reveals. At the same time, a lot can be gleaned from a close, careful look at the raw image, and the preceding and following frames. The various enhancements and comparison captures provide additional context.

A further caveat: I write this blog to maintain a log of our efforts and to share our results with readers on an ongoing basis, in an honest and transparent manner. As with any scientific endeavor, our search is in a constant state of flux. Everything is subject to change and reappraisal based on the evidence. We offer this image with that as background. Most of us believe subjectively that we have found an area that is used by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, at least periodically. We all recognize that we do not have enough objective “proof” to “convince” third-parties that this is so. The subject image, so far, is just an intriguing part of the mosaic. It’s up to you to decide whether it moves the needle toward “proof” in your mind.

The image was captured on July 12, 2017. The target tree is a hickory that lost its top in a storm in March of that year. And we’ve had a camera aimed at it ever since. This is in area where we’ve found extensive scaling on hickories over the years and where we’ve had a number of auditory encounters. It is within the same contiguous forested area, several miles from the site of the March 2017 recordings. While squirrels are frequently captured on the target stub, there have been few woodpecker hits, and there was no obvious foraging sign on the trunk when I last visited in June.

Perhaps the most informative way to view the image is to step through the time lapse video frame by frame and compare the before, during, and after images. (You may have to download the clip to do this.) This will help clarify what’s object and what’s background. If you’re having trouble downloading the clip (and associated comparison clip), contact me, and I will share the files via Dropbox. I encourage you to click on the individual still frames to see larger, zoomable versions.

Here are two versions the relevant capture, one in its original, unprocessed form and another with a Luminar vividness filter applied, sandwiched between unprocessed captures from 20 seconds before and 20 seconds after. The arrow is pointed at the object of interest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the time lapse video clip.

 

 

 

Here is a version of the still, resized using Topaz A.I. Gigapixel, an automated, artificial intelligence-based, image enhancement program. Following that are two enhancements, and a detail therefrom, made using another processor, Let’s Enhance. Both of these programs are automated, so except for selecting enlargement percentage and general processing parameters, I had no influence on the resulting images. Note that the prominent silhouette, which suggests a woodpecker’s head and neck, is blurred, background foliage, not part of the object. Assuming that the object itself is an ivorybill, I think the capture suggests the bird is angled slightly away from the camera, with head and neck inclined to the right.

 

 

 

Edited to add: A significant number of readers have misinterpreted the image, despite my explanation. To reiterate, the somewhat woodpecker head and neck-ish silhouette is background vegetation. The object’s head and neck are not visible. This detail, scaled up as much as possible, should be helpful, despite the loss of resolution.

Detail of Enhanced Detail 7:12:17_output (1)

 

Next are a squirrel and a presumed Red-bellied Woodpecker (9-11″ including head and tail) captured on a different day. They are included for scale. Both are a little lower on the trunk and are therefore closer to the camera. The captures are followed by a 50-frame Quicktime clip showing both the smaller woodpecker (suspected RBWO) and some squirrel activity. The comparison suggests that the object, which appears to be perched in typical woodpecker fashion, is too big to be a Red-headed Woodpecker (8.3-9.8″ including head and tail) and is slightly larger and more substantial than the head and body of an Eastern gray squirrel (9.1-12″). No tail, head, or neck is discernible, so the size of the object is in the appropriate range for an ivorybill body. (Total length is given as 19-21″ with tail at 5.5-6.7″ and bill at 2.3-2.9″) More discussion, including my responses (in italics) to some questions and comments (in bold and italics), is below.

 

 

 

 

An ornithologist wrote:

. . . I have tried every possible way to call that something other than ibwo but I can’t make it into anything else. The general impression of size and shape and even posture / body position relative to the tree is spot on.

And then in response to my explanation about the foliage that had caused some confusion:

I was seeing body only, folded wings white patch.

Early on, I had the following exchange with another biologist and ivorybill researcher:

Interesting. First, as I said before, I am no expert on trail cam photos like these. It looks like a black and white object for sure, with white on the bottom, but to my eye it is not possible to determine what kind of object it is. For sure, a bird would make a lot of sense. And if it is a bird, given the location, and pose on the trunk, a woodpecker would make a lot of sense. I am not sure if I see white at the top of the object as well?

How big is the tree that the object is sitting on, and is that scaling on the other side of the tree or remnants from when a branch that broke off? Have you seen bark scaling in that neighborhood?

I replied:

I’m pretty sure that it’s a bird and therefore a woodpecker. 

I think I see a white saddle and possibly a dorsal stripe. I also think it is too big to be a Red-headed, based on the squirrel and on a smaller woodpecker that’s on the trunk in another frame from another day; I’ll have to find that image.

The tree is a large hickory stub. What looks like scaling is where bark came off when the top fell. It is in an area that has had a good concentration of hickory scaling over the years.

If you have software that enables you to step through it frame by frame, the movie clip can be very informative. Flip Player is an easy one to use.

The response:

Thanks. I just looked at the entire series step by step with Quicktime and it is very intriguing. One question: could some of the white (or all of it) actually be sky in the background? The other frames show sky in the same location. I am not saying that it is, just trying to rule out possibilities.

My answer (another person raised a similar question):

I don’t think so. To my eyes, it’s pretty clear that the white is on an intervening object. I think the white on the object actually covers some of the dark area (as well as the lighter patch) behind it in the preceding and following frames.

And the conclusion:

Good. It is a very intriguing picture.

There was also this exchange with a consulting biologist:

Thanks Mark, well at least I see something here that should be encouraging to all.
Still, I’ve seen reconyx images of what ended up being squirrels that really had me going, where white seemed to be in the “right” places, but then a subsequent image would show a clear squirrel.  Those were black-and-white images and this of course is color, but unfortunately only one image in this series shows something.  
Thanks for sharing as always,

I replied:

If it’s okay with you, I may include a version of the comment in the blog, anonymously of course. 

One quick response, there are lots of captures of squirrels on the stub, but none from that day, based on several runs through the footage. In my experience, it’s extremely rare to see a squirrel in a single frame (20 second intervals) and not in any others. Also, none of the squirrel hits look remotely similar or show black and white coloration. I’ve now viewed several hundred thousand frames from these cameras. 

I can’t prove a negative, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that it’s not a squirrel.

Similarly, and while no one has raised it, I think partially leucistic PIWO can be rejected; I’ve spent a lot of time in the area and have never seen one, and all PIWOs captured on this trail cam and others nearby have been normal.

The rejoinder:

Sure, no problem.  But let me add the following.  

What are the chances of a large woodpecker kind of critter showing up all of sudden in one frame and no sign that it either flew in or left or was in view beyond the one frame 20 seconds or anytime later.  

An alternative could be some other sort of critter ( apparently larger than gray squirrel, perhaps fox squirrel, possibly raccoon) that worked up from the ground up the tree and then went back down out of view of the reconciliation.

As you said can’t be sure this is even a woodpecker or any other bird.

Beyond all that, still “interesting” but how many times…

I had one point of disagreement:

I mostly agree – with one quibble. It’s not unusual for birds to show up in a single frame and no others (the probable RBWO in the other clip, for example); it’s much rarer and (more difficult) for mammals to do so.

My bad for not deploying the camera closer to the target; in my own defense, I’ve only just started to get a handle on how to work with the cams. It was not my department until recently. I was a little concerned about distance with this deployment but not concerned enough . . . some auspicious timing here, since the image turned up while Tommy was servicing the cams.
Going forward, anything larger than a DOWO that turns up on target trees (though not in the background or flying by) should be identifiable.

My correspondent recognized the quibble as a fair point, and it bears repeating that there have been very few woodpecker hits on this tree, probably because it is very recently dead. This exchange also led me to suspect that some of my colleagues were thinking the background foliage was part of the object in question. The discussion ended with this observation:

You are right Mark, I was interpeting the background veg as looking like the neck and head, which really made me wonder why so faded. However, now we have a frame 33 of the Luneau Video situation.

Anyway, thanks for the re-orientation.

Another member of the group also mentioned Luneau, and the similarity is striking, although there’s no accompanying video, and this single capture seems to show more than the Luneau frame.

This exchange with another advisor came soon thereafter, although the initial comments were made based on thinking the foliage artifact was part of the object. My answers came after the clarification, and I’ve deleted the comments that pertain only to the foliage:
Positive impressions –

1) first the obvious, I can’t tell much from the original picture other than it is long and somewhat “thin” relative to more stocky animals. Based on the zoomed in picture, however, it is a live bird; I can see no way it was photo shopped or that it was placed there as a wooden (or otherwise) replicate. I think it is easy to dismiss any attempt at faking it.

Definitely no fakery here 😉

2) The zoomed in image is impressive, it certainly appears to have a white back (which is a slightly different color than the white of the sky next to it) and I see what appears to be two white stripes on the back as well. The comparison of a probable RBWO on the same tree is noteworthy and clearly shows the relative size of the bird in question.

I think the size comparison stands regardless.

Negative concerns –

1) Any of the above positive impressions may be a function of zooming in well beyond the camera’s ability to correctly interpret what’s really there.

Actually, I think that it’s somewhat more compelling unaltered, if you can toggle.

3) The only one frame concern ****** brought up . . . . . . while I don’t think this is a squirrel or mammal of any kind and I’m not at all concerned about this particular series (see below), I am puzzled that the bird in question would not have shown itself on other occasions as well. Are there any pictures of this tree with a PIWO on it? How many pictures (days) do you have images from this camera on this tree? Is the primary foraging area on the other side of the tree? I’m assuming you have several days in not a few weeks worth of pictures on this tree (?)

The camera has been there for over a year, and I’ve gone through countless images. No other suggestive hits. Lots of squirrels. I don’t recall specific PIWO hits on the target tree, although there may have been some, and I’m sure there were at least a few from the deployment. This is one of the targets that has no scaling on it as yet; visits from woodpeckers have been few. As with the RBWO, I suspect birds may be hitting the tree in an exploratory manner at this point and are not staying long.

Just FYI . . . .This is [not far] from where we saw the bird that I ended up thinking was a RHWO and that you weren’t quite so quick to give up on, closer to where I had the long neck and tail silhouette sighting after some ADKs.

An additional note about not concerned about this series and only one frame . . . . .I feel strongly that IBWOs are incredibly wary, much more than we have been assuming them to be. And as any resident bird, it knows its territory very well and that anything “new” or different in that territory could spook it. I hunt as you know, and can vouch that turkeys and waterfowl are often that way . . .one thing out of place from the normal and they leave . . . 

With that said, I wouldn’t be surprised, if this is an extremely wary IBW, that it knew something was not quite the same in the area and stayed on the far side of the tree on purpose  . . .  Even as I type it and re-read it, it sounds a little crazy but since I know about that level of wariness in other species I take it seriously. I know the discussions about wariness and “Tanner’s birds” etc but not sure birds now would act the same way as birds 60 – 80 years ago. If they are that wary, then that also has implications to where the camera is moved. It has to be close enough for a good picture but far hidden well enough to not spook the bird. (If you talk to Tommy or others about new deployment of the camera, my thoughts about how the wariness of this bird is pretty well known and doesn’t have to be anonymous).

I’ve wondered about this myself, and it seems like a pitfall when it comes to putting cameras very close to target trees. With time, however, I suspect birds would become habituated. It’s always a trade-off with these cams, and unfortunately, they have to be placed quite close to the targets.

Thanks for keeping me in the loop Mark – all in all, this has the most “real” field marks and most potential of anything I’ve seen.

I really do think it’s an IBWO . . . it’s at least more cause for optimism and grounds for staying with the trail cam strategy. As I’ve said, I think we’re finally in a position to do it right.

Here’s the response:

Thanks for more clarification Mark – yes I did toggle back and forth, now that I’m not so worried about what I thought was head, neck and bill, the unaltered is more intriguing.

Good to know its been there a year, I agree that birds will get used to it being there over time. The picture has July 17 2017 along the bottom, is that correct or is it July 2018?

I also forgot that this was a tree that you were interested in before any scaling started . . . .that’s pretty exciting and would explain my other concerns about infrequent use and no PIWO use. Pretty exciting in that (if a 2018 picture) the best is yet to come for woodpeckers. Regardless of IBWO, keeping a camera on this tree and having a sequence that shows which woodpeckers use tree, when and how (assuming there are differences based on tightness of bark etc) would be cool from that area.

Frankly, as I was looking at the picture(s), I thought a few times “Damn, I think he got it” . . . . . . Thanks again,

I replied:

The picture is indeed from 2017. But there’s no scaling on it as yet, so it’s worth staying with.

I hope these exchanges help to illustrate some additional challenges related to trail cams, while revealing something about the review process. I think the object in question is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker; so do some of my associates. It’s not proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but it is an encouraging and suggestive piece of evidence.

 


Evidence Part 1: Project Coyote 2009-2018

Summary

Evidence collected by Project Coyote in two parts of Louisiana from 2009-2018 should, on its own, suffice to justify maintaining the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s current listing as an extant, endangered species in the United States. Others may differ, but I think the totality of the evidence does even more, making a compelling case that the species persists in more than one Louisiana location.

Introduction

This will be a two part post. The initial impetus for writing it was a conversation I had with Erik Hendrickson about how the scientific, birding, and legal approaches to evidence seem to differ. That will be the main focus of Part 2. As for Part 1, after talking to Erik, I realized that I’d never done a single post aggregating the evidence we’ve obtained over the years, so when it was announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be conducting a status review for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the need for writing this up became more urgent. That’s the primary focus of Part 1, but some of what I’m planning for Part 2 will be foreshadowed in this lengthy treatment.

There is a strong tendency to privilege visual evidence over other forms – audio and circumstantial. I’m inclined to think that our audio evidence is the most compelling material overall; as regular readers know, I also think circumstantial evidence, feeding sign in particular, is very important. But the structure of this post will track conventional attitudes, starting with visual material followed by a discussion of sound recordings and auditory encounters, and concluding with more circumstantial forms of evidence.

Locations

Project Coyote has been focused on two areas in Central and East-central Louisiana. I found what I call the “old” search area after reading a newspaper account of a local landowner’s efforts to get his reports taken seriously. This is the landowner who sketched corrections to the Louisiana Hunting Guide’s ivorybill illustrations and who showed Frank Wiley (my late collaborator) bark scaling when he visited the area.

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To be clear about what he was trying to show in the corrections: the gentleman died before I had a chance to meet him, but as Frank told me after his August 2009 interview, all of the corrections are in red ink, so the intent was not to put a male crest on a female bird; it was to show the female’s crest as more erect and recurved than the drawing and indicate that the male’s crest also is more erect and prominent (less Pileated-like) than the game guide representation. Also note the drawings at top right, in which he compared IBWO and PIWO wings, implying that the wings in the game guide image are a little too rounded.

What’s most salient about these observations is not whether they are perfectly accurate, although they do seem to reflect some little-known nuances, it’s that the landowner had enough claimed observations of male and female ivorybills to recognize subtle differences and to distinguish them from Pileateds. In addition, he was offended by the treatment he received when he tried to alert the authorities. I have personal knowledge about this last aspect based on conversations with family members who wanted to see him vindicated.

He was certainly convincing enough for Frank to start visiting the property on a weekly basis during the summer of 2009. Thus, Project Coyote was born.

The landowner’s reports go back to the 1990s. (The linked post includes audio from 2009). There are several medium to large state WMAs and National Wildlife Refuges in fairly close proximity to the site. We heard additional claims from residents of the area while we were focused there.

Putative ivorybill activity on the property seems to have diminished or ended altogether after an adjoining parcel was logged in late fall 2010. As a result, we gradually shifted our attention to the new search area.

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The old search area received minimal attention during the post-Arkansas period; some peripheral Ivory-billed Woodpecker-related research was conducted in the general vicinity, but there was no formal, funded search effort. Nor was it visited by Cornell’s Mobile Search Team, although Martjan Lammertink did spend several days on site, after the logging.

Similarly, our “new” search area was entirely off the radar. It doesn’t show up on anyone’s list of promising locations, notwithstanding the fact that it is in one of the most sparsely populated, heavily forested parts of the state. There’s also a long history of local reports. Most of the claims seem to have been fairly recent, but some go back to the late 1990s.

And these are only the claims I know about . . .

Eyewitness Evidence

For reasons that I hope will become clear, I have not kept track of all our possible sightings since 2009 and have not always mentioned them in blog posts. Nevertheless, I’ll begin with sightings. Over the years, Frank had more possibles and reported having better views than anyone else. I’m probably second, with approximately six since 2009, but unfortunately no good looks. Steve Pagans has had several possibles; a few visitors have also made claims.

While this is largely a subject for the next post, it’s well-known that eyewitness testimony is unreliable, at least when the source is an untrained observer. Nevertheless, eyewitness testimony is central to many a criminal trial, and it has a strong impact on jurors. There seems to be a parallel with respect to the ivorybill. Accounts of possible sightings tend to attract more interest than many more substantive and important posts.

Thus my Sunset Sighting post, which is not quite two months old, has had approximately 800 pages views, but my March 18, 2017 post entitled, Numerous Kent-like Calls Recorded on March 11 and 15, 2017 received a total of 744 views last year. Similarly, the post on Joseph Saucier’s October 2017 sighting and our follow-up visit to that location, Change of Pace Change of Place, posted in late November, received 804 page views, the second highest total for the year, (well behind the announcement of Frank’s passing).

According to a survey conducted in the aftermath of the Arkansas controversy, “[R]espondents were most confident in the sightings, less confident in the Luneau video and recordings of double-knocks and kent calls, and least confident in the FishCrow video.” The discrepancy was strongest for the “Definitely of IBWO” category, where 22 people listed sightings as conclusive, compared to 10 for the Luneau video, 9 for kent calls, 8 for double knocks, and 4 for the first Fishcrow video. (PDF) The Great Ivory-billed Woodpecker Debate: Perceptions of the Evidence. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259337980_The_Great_Ivory-billed_Woodpecker_Debate_Perceptions_of_the_Evidence[accessed Jun 28 2018].

So sightings have an almost irresistible appeal; in some cases, there’s good reason to credit them, but it is very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, to determine what’s trustworthy and what isn’t. And there are many kinds of chaff – wishful thinking, self-delusion, ignorance, mistake, and deception to name the most obvious.

I’ve retrospectively rejected a couple of my possible sightings (and almost did so with the recent “Wooden Wings” incident), partly because I’m disposed to look for reasons to doubt myself and partly because I realized that I was in some way primed in a couple of those instances; for example, in one case, I’d been looking at specimens the day before.   In the absence of a good look, I think it’s better to err on the side of self-skepticism.

When it comes to claims from others, it’s impossible to know with certainty what someone else saw, even when reports are accompanied by detailed sketches and field notes, as is the case with several of Frank’s sightings. I was with him for one, on April 3, 2015, when he made notes (available at the link) and a sketch (at my urging). I have no doubt that he was convinced he saw an ivorybill, as he was visibly shaken immediately afterwards and was very slow to regain his composure.

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But I really like corroboration, and to the best of my recollection, Frank and I had two possible two-person sightings in all our time together – the first was in the old search area, the day after an auditory encounter and a week before a suggestive trail cam capture was obtained, effectively from the same spot. I consider this my strongest possible sighting.

The second was much weaker, a flyover with two birds seen in silhouette within 15-20 minutes of an ADK series. (Three of my possible sightings, two of which Frank also saw, have been associated with ADKs.) We did not think much of this possible at the time but could not explain it away entirely. I should add that Frank had several other two or more person sightings, but I was not present for those.

With regard to the local reports, I’m always mindful of the possibility that I’m being played, especially as an obvious northerner in rural Louisiana, but I don’t think that has ever happened. It’s still necessary to listen closely and ask the right questions. Pileated, Red-headed, and even Red-bellied Woodpeckers can be confusing for non-birders. I’m more likely to credit accounts from people who make it clear they know Pileateds and know the difference (like the landowner in the old search area) or from people who say they thought the ‘ones with the white backs are the males’ and the ‘ones with the black backs are the females’. I’ve heard this only a couple of times. But I like it best when we get ivorybill claims from different, unconnected people referencing the same location; this has happened in the vicinity of the current search area.

To conclude, members of our group have had multiple sightings of varying quality, in two different Louisiana locations since 2009. In addition, there have been multiple claims from locals in both areas.

One final note, relevant to the USFWS review: I am aware of a number of additional post-2009 claims from Louisiana (and a few from other states). In a couple of cases, Frank interviewed the people involved and found them to be credible. A cellphone video was obtained in one instance; the observers’ excitement over apparently seeing a pair of ivorybills is evident, but the quality of the video is extremely poor. In the other case, two people saw the bird and one provided a highly detailed description and sketch. There’s also Joseph Saucier’s report from last fall; our follow-up suggested that much of the habitat in this large expanse of forest was likely suitable, and Matt Courtman, who is an excellent birder, heard what he thought was a very good double knock on one of his follow-up visits.

Photographic Evidence

I recently posted a couple of Frank’s 2009 sightings and accompanying photographs that hadn’t been made public previously. These are the only photographs associated with possible sightings that we have obtained. Full details are available at the link; rather than recapitulate them here, I’ll focus on trail cam photos, including several that have been discussed previously plus a few intriguing ones from the old search area that have not been posted previously.

These are the images I think are most strongly suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker and for which I am unaware of a strong counterargument.

The first two have been discussed repeatedly at length in a number of other posts. Both are from the old search area; the first was taken in August 2009 and the second, which appears to show a female Ivory-billed Woodpecker, was taken in late November, a week after the sighting discussed in the previous section.

To reiterate a couple of points about the August 2009 image: in the original photograph, there appears to be some red in the crest (though it’s not positioned right for either PIWO or IBWO). Careful review and image enhancement made it clear to me that the red is an artifact and the crest is black. In addition, as shown in the enhanced detail, there appears to be a large, light-colored bill protruding from a cavity in the background. This apparent bill is absent from captures obtained on other days. It changes position in the two frames where it is visible, suggesting it is attached to something within the cavity. (Unfortunately, the other frames from that morning have long since been lost.)

The image of a bird in flight, from the new search area, is more problematic, as it is not demonstrably a woodpecker. The still above includes an inserted Imperial Woodpecker for comparison, with motion blur reduction applied to the bird captured by the trail cam. One prominent birder stated that it is a Blue Jay, but as discussed in the original post, the bird is behind the snag and appears to be as large as or larger than a Pileated Woodpecker captured on the trunk.

Although we’ve determined that one of the initially intriguing images from that deployment shows a Red-headed Woodpecker, a few others remain interesting.

There’s an additional image from the spring of 2010 (old search area) that has always intrigued me, though I never had a chance to examine the original. I think it shows a large woodpecker, with a black crest, high on a honey locust. If it were a Pileated, male or female, I’d expect some red to be visible in the crest, even under these conditions.

Finally, there are a couple of additional trail cam captures from the old search area that I have not posted previously. By now, the original sequences are lost, and I’ve long since forgotten any details or discussion we might have had when Frank sent me the images. While they are far from conclusive, I think they are interesting enough to post in this context. At minimum, they further illustrate the challenges associated with obtaining definitive trail cam imagery.

Audio Evidence

Note: If you listen to the recordings below with headphones (recommended) be aware that some have loud sounds, clarinet toots and ADKs, in the foreground. This applies to the clip from March 2013 that I recorded and to many of Matt and Phil’s recordings from March 2017.

Possible auditory encounters far outnumber possible sightings, and over the years we have made numerous recordings of putative kents and double knocks (more than once in combination, which should add to their evidentiary value). Some visitors have been rewarded by hearing something within a day or two of arriving, and this has been true in both search areas, although others have been less fortunate, and I heard nothing suggestive during the most recent field season (though Matt Courtman recorded three possible calls in April of this year).

I will not be including all the audio evidence we’ve obtained, just some of the material I think is most significant. Some of the putative kent calls that have been recorded over the years may be Blue Jays; it has been suggested that Matt’s calls from this spring are too low pitched for ivorybill and might be from a heron, though I think they come from the same source. Regardless, many of the calls are simply inconsistent with any known bird species, are fairly close to the Singer Tract recordings harmonically, and are perfectly consistent with written descriptions of Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds.

One of the most dramatic encounters involving both apparent kents and double knocks was from the old search area. It seemed to have been triggered by banging from the tin roof of an old deer stand. Six people were present, and much of the incident was recorded. There were apparently two birds involved. More details are in this post, and here is Frank’s 58 minute recording:

Extracts from the encounter and other material recorded in person and on remote units in the old search area and environs, as well as sonograms, can be found here, via the Wayback Machine. Some of the Wayback Machine links are not functioning, and the material posted there includes a couple of double knocks; here are several of the recorded kent-like calls:

Note that the fundamental frequencies on many, but not all, of these calls are in the 900-925 hz range, higher than the Singer Tract recordings and possibly consistent with Blue Jay. But in the second clip above, the fundamentals of both the lower calls at the beginning and the higher calls at the end appear to be a little over 800 hz., and during the extended encounter mentioned above, the calls went on for a prolonged period without the source revealing itself as a Blue Jay, which would be typical if the animal were indeed a jay.

The same applies to calls I heard and recorded in the new search area on the morning and afternoon of March 2, 2013. The morning calls went on for ~20 minutes. I did not think they were Blue Jays in the field.

We have recorded apparent double knocks in apparent reaction to ADKs and to Barred Owl calls and sometimes in contexts where the trigger is unclear, as in this example from an October 2015 post written by Frank:

“Bob and I continued upstream for another half mile, located a nice spot with a good view, and I performed an ADK series, followed about ten minutes later by a series of electronic playbacks of Singer Tract ivorybill calls. Shortly thereafter, Bob heard a double rap drum, that was captured on my digital recorder. I personally don’t believe that the drum was a direct response to my ADKs as there was at least a fifteen minute interval after the last of the ADK/playback series.

The double rap is not “perfect” in that the “intra-knock interval” is about .05 seconds longer than the “ideal” – based on averages of the intervals of other Campephilus drums – but it sounds very good.”

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The 15 minute interval between ADK/playback and apparent response is similar to the lag time that has been observed in other Campephilus woodpeckers responding to ADKs; it may be worth distinguishing between a slower ‘response’ and a more immediate ‘reaction’ in this context. (M. Lammertink, pers. comm.)

In my view, the audio recorded by Phil Vanbergen and Matt Courtman in March 2017 is compelling, perhaps the most compelling evidence we’ve obtained. On the morning of March 15, they recorded over 200 calls, along with a number of possible double knocks, over an approximately three hour period. The calls have lower fundamental frequencies than many of those in earlier recordings; these frequencies are considerably lower than any kent-like Blue Jay calls I’ve been able to locate online. Other suggestions have included, Red-breasted Nuthatch (too high) and Wild Turkey (no typical Turkey vocalizations were recorded that morning).

Overall, the calls appear to be inconsistent with any other known species of bird, mammal, or amphibian. Their association with Campephilus-like double knocks strengthens the argument for Ivory-billed Woodpecker as the source. As far as I know, the sheer number of recorded calls is unprecedented for a single incident in the post-Singer Tract era.

I was lucky enough to hear a couple of the calls on March 11, the day Phil first captured them, along with a couple more and some knocks at the same location on the following day. I’ve blogged about these recordings at length in multiple posts; I won’t repeat all that material here, but the discussions are worth reading. I will repost some of  the original recordings and enhanced versions.

Here is the first recording Phil made, one clip with the calls isolated and one with our talk and reactions. It may be difficult to hear the calls without headphones.

Here are some brief extracts from Phil’s March 15 recordings:

Here are some from Matt’s:

In the interest of brevity, I encourage readers to visit this post for in depth analysis, various extracts, and amplified versions that highlight the calls and some of the knocks. As always, it helps to listen through headphones.

Indirect Evidence: Bark Scaling, Bark Chips, and Cavities

I’ve discussed my bark scaling hypothesis – that a certain type or types of scaling may be diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker – multiple times over the years. As explored in a couple of recent posts, we are in the process of testing it. I won’t recapitulate the hypothesis here except to say that I remain convinced that neither Pileated Woodpeckers nor squirrels are physically capable of removing hickory bark in the manner we’ve found in the new search area. There may be other diagnostic characteristics, but my main focus is now on the hickories, since the work on that species is the most extreme outlier. Below are some dramatic examples of bark scaling (plus one image of interesting feeding sign on a sweet gum sapling that had been stripped of bark) on hickories, oaks, and sweet gums from both search areas.

For Tanner, bark scaling was one of the strongest indicators of ivorybill presence, even though he accepted some reports from trusted sources in areas where he found no scaling. The absence of scaling (along with poor habitat “quality”) was one of his main reasons for dismissing reports during his 1930s survey and rejecting the ones from the Big Thicket in the 1960s. He also doubted reports from the Chipola and Apalachicola area in 1950 based on finding no cavities or scaling during a 4 day visit. He concluded his notes on the trip by stating:

Conclusion: No I-b now in Chipola R. and neighboring Apalach R. swamps. Many of Kelso’s reports are mistaken, – not deliberately false, but due to ignorance and wishful thinking. There appear to be contradictions in some of his stories. I could not get any clear statement of what Ivory-bills sound like from him. He said that the local name of I-b was “Saddleback”, – which appears good but in many ways odd. Also “Van Dyke”! There certainly is no fresh sign in any area we visited indicating that the birds are present. The only possibility is that of scaling on pine; this may be solved by watching Pileateds in the pine woods.

(F. Bryntesson, pers. comm.)

While I think it’s possible, indeed likely, that some of the work Tanner ascribed to ivorybills was done by Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels, there’s no question that an abundance of bark scaling is relevant in assessing possible ivorybill presence in a given area.

Based on visits, some lasting a week or more, to suspected ivorybill haunts in South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana and on information provided by other searchers and people who have spent years in southeastern forests, I feel safe in saying that the quantity and quality of bark scaling found in both search areas is unusual. We also found an abundance of scaling in the area where Mr. Saucier had his sighting last year, something that I think lends added credibility to his report.

In the past, many in the searcher community speculated that lateral groves or bill marks in the cambium or sapwood might be suggestive, but this view has fallen out of favor; much of what was thought to be “scaling” in these instances was in fact shallow excavation with associated bark removal. We found one example of superficial lateral marks in 2013 that continues to intrigue me, although the snag in question is a young sweet gum that could easily have been stripped by a squirrel or Pileated Woodpecker.

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The edges of the scaled area may tell more of a story, especially in conjunction with any bark chips found on the ground. On the trees shown above, damage to the still-adhering bark suggests that lateral blows were integral to the scaling. This would be expected if the source were a Campephilus woodpecker.

An abundance of large, hard, thick bark chips (or chunks) around the base of a tree is also a likely indicator. Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels seem to remove bark in smaller pieces and in strips. Additionally, when squirrels are involved and the bark has  been recently removed, it’s likely that there will be a lot of smaller debris in the mix, since squirrels have to gnaw their way through the bark. Some of the chips we found in the old search area seem to have bill marks consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The bills of specimens, at least, seem to fit perfectly into indentations in the chips, but Pileated Woodpecker bills seem to be too small. The larger chips shown below are suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker from a variety of species – oak, hickory, sweet gum, sugarberry, and honey locust. The specimen shots are with a honey locust chip from the old search area. The first few images show squirrel and Pileated woodpecker leavings for comparison.

Cavities are vexing. I’ve become convinced that there’s no bright line for distinguishing Pileated from Ivory-billed Woodpecker, notwithstanding the dimensions Cornell gave for “large” PIWO (3.5″ x 3.7″) versus “small” IBWO (4.0″ x 5.0″). The small ivorybill sample was limited to nest holes, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of oddly shaped and large holes being used by Pileated Woodpeckers. Thus, while I keep my eyes open for cavities, I don’t think there’s a reliable way to determine which species is responsible for creating or using large, irregularly shaped cavities, although extensive bark scaling on the tree may be indicator.

It has been a challenge to find cavities of any kind in our current search area, probably due in part to the high canopy. We did find a cluster of interesting cavities in what I call the northern sector in the 2014-2015 season. This cluster was in the vicinity where we’ve found an abundance of scaling over the years and where Phil and Matt made the recordings last year. Below are some of the most interesting cavities we’ve found in the two search areas. Cavities were much easier to find when we followed up on the Saucier sighting, but I’ve omitted those from this document.

In conclusion, there is an abundance of evidence suggesting that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers persist in Louisiana. It is self-evident that none of this evidence rises to the level of proof required for establishing beyond all doubt that the species has survived, but I think the case for persistence is a compelling one, without regard to evidence obtained in other areas since 2005.

Stay tuned for a more theoretical discussion of evidence, proof, and professional approaches thereto.

Thanks to Wylie Barrow, Fredrik Bryntesson, Patricia Johnson, Tommy Michot, Steve Pagans, and Phil Vanbergen for their input. Some photos by Steve Pagans and Erik Hendrickson.


Some Unpublished Images and Two Frank Wiley Sighting Records From 2009

Think of this as a prologue to some upcoming posts on evidence – including a more structured discussion of the evidence we’ve obtained over the years and my take on broader issues of evidence and the ivorybill controversy.  Look for those at the end of this month and in July.  There’s likely to be a trip report posted before then. I’m also planning a postscript to the Bits ‘n’ Pieces series that summarizes my thoughts in a more organized fashion. That will come sometime this summer. In addition, we will have trail cam imagery from seven deployments (plus unreviewed imagery from five cards) to examine over the summer. We’ll be adding an eighth camera later this month, targeting some scaling Tommy found last month. As discussed previously, we plan to leave these cameras in place for the foreseeable future.

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Planned Camera Trap Deployment. Photo by Tommy Michot.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share the details about and accompanying photographs related to two sightings Frank had in the old search area during the summer and fall of 2009, before my first visit. But first, I’d like to share a trail cam image from the location and deployment where we obtained a suggestive trail cam image a week after I had a possible sighting. With the passage of  time, I had forgotten that the landowner’s grandsons (who are mentioned in one set of Frank’s notes) had reported seeing an ivorybill in the same immediate vicinity on the morning when Frank and I had an auditory encounter, and the day before my possible sighting.

This image below was captured in 2009, the day after the one mentioned above that we published years ago. The bird is in flight, just below the fork and to the left of the scaled trunk. I’ll leave it to readers to evaluate; I don’t know what it is, but I think the wing pattern is intriguing. You can click on this image (and the others) to view them in a larger format.

 

With regard to trail cam photos, this is a processed detail from another image from 2009 that Frank liked for ivorybill and that he may have posted on ibwo.net back in 2009 or 2010. I was initially intrigued by this image but was eventually convinced that it shows a Pileated Woodpecker with somewhat worn feathers and that the apparent long tail is due to the posture of the bird. It was a rare time when Frank and I agreed to disagree about an ivorybill related matter. I remain convinced the bird is a Pileated and won’t be including this in my planned discussion of our evidence, but I’m posting it here because Frank had such a strong opinion about it.

 

In summer and fall 2009, before my first visit to the property, Frank had two sightings in the course of which he obtained several photographs. These images are inconclusive at best, and the late Bill Pulliam had a critical take on the two Frank took during the first encounter. I’ll include the bulk of Bill’s analysis below; his commentary notwithstanding, I think these images are worthy of posting now. In retrospect, they are among the very few such images that have been obtained in conjunction with a sighting and with accompanying field notes. The context in which they were obtained, in a small area where there were multiple sightings and auditory encounters by multiple people over a period of six months, gives these notes and images added weight, in my view. I’m grateful to Amanda Wiley Legendre for giving me the go-ahead to post this material. All photos and field notes are by Frank Wiley

Here are screen caps of Frank’s handwritten notes (with a minor redaction to protect location information). The photographs follow.

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Bill Pulliam compared the images with others showing the background without the bird present. This is what he had to say:

First Image: I’m actually having a very hard time making sense of this one. What I get as bird is the three large white areas, the small black spot between them, and a reddish or yellowish mass to the lower left. From the context of the two images thus would seem to be a side view of a bird flying to the left and somewhat away. At a glance it almost looks like a bird with a white body, white wings, dark on the breast, and rusty red head. In the absence of any other information, I would think it is some sort of duck except I’m not sure how to make the colors match up. The reddish blob to the left really does look like the head of a duck flying to the left.

I can’t reconcile this with a woodpecker of any kind, or with the description you provided. It might be a molting young little blue heron or white ibis, I suppose. It really kinda looks like a canvasback, except this is august, right? Even if I disregard the red head, I don’t see how to line it up sensibly.

Second Image: This one is even more problematic. There are the two white arcs that look like wings, but then there is a long narrow dark extension to their left. This time the foreground object comes out to be: I don’t know WHAT this might be. If I disregard the long thing to the left it might be something with white wings, but it’s hard to say more than that.

In summary — I can’t make sense of these objects to have any idea what to call them; the first one is not easy to reconcile with Ivorybill, the second is just hard to say anything about. Given that they are actually the same object, I’m still at a loss.

Sorry, not what you want to hear, but it’s what I come up with. Bill

In reading Bill’s comments for the first time in years, nearly a decade after he wrote them, I’m struck more by how perplexing he found the images to be than by his coming up with something I didn’t want to hear. I am also struck the level of detail in Frank’s description, which I also hadn’t looked at since he wrote it or shortly thereafter.

It’s worth bearing in mind that these photographs were taken with a mid-range, consumer 2008 DSLR with a very modest burst mode. It’s to Frank’s immense credit that he got any pictures at all under the circumstances; the same goes double for the next series.

This is Frank’s account of his November 8, 2009 sighting, which he wrote up in Word, again with a few redactions unrelated to the substance of the report. This was approximately a half mile from the camera trap location. Note that I don’t have copies of all the images Frank used in the figures below, so I’ve taken screen captures from the Word document. The images I do have are reproduced in full size at bottom.

Figure 1: Overview map of sighting area

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On 11-08-09, Frank Wiley at approximately 7:30am CST was on speakerphone with Mark Michaels of New York. During the time we were on the phone I was approximately 1000 yards Southwest of the location shown in Figure 1 above. During that time while I had Mark on speakerphone, he heard several possible double raps (though over the phone he could not separate the individual raps), and at least one very loud single rap that he remarked upon as being very distinct and woody. These sound detections were quite loud to me, as the observer on the scene, and were obviously loud enough to be picked up at a considerable distance by the speakerphone microphone in my Blackberry. I had my Sony IC recorder running nearby at the time, but have not yet reviewed the recording to determine which (if any) of the putative sound detections it may have picked up.

During the time we were connected, Mark was able to make out calls of Pileated Woodpeckers, a Yellow Shafted Flicker, and Red Bellied Woodpeckers, as well as numerous other bird calls. Additionally, I identified by sight a number of other woodpeckers including 2 Downy Woodpeckers, a Yellow Shafted Flicker, numerous Red Bellied Woodpeckers, numerous Pileated Woodpeckers, 1 Hairy Woodpecker and a pair of Yellow Bellied Sapsuckers. Photos of all (time and date tagged) are available for review, except no photo of the Yellow Shafted Flicker. 

Note: I do not have copies of the photos or the audio recording referenced above.

At one point, I stated to Mark that I was possibly being approached by an ivorybill. A black and white bird with the apparent giss of a large woodpecker was approaching my position. Before the bird reached me, it was mobbed by a small (3 or 4 birds) murder of crows, and fled to the North. The unknown woodpecker appeared slightly larger than a Pileated, but was slimmer in profile with seemingly longer wings. Its flight did not undulate as a Pileated normally would. I cannot ascribe any field marks to this bird that would definitively identify it as a Pileated or any other species of large woodpecker, so obviously, Pileated Woodpecker cannot be ruled out in this instance.

After the forest quieted down, I got off the phone with Mark, and staked out a small finger lake in the area for a couple of hours. Woodpecker activity remained higher than usual in the area, especially the Red Bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers. During this time, I heard some loud “hammering” that had a pop…POP-pop sequence coming from across the lake, at a distance I would estimate to be greater than 150 yds.

Slightly before noon I walked out of the forest to the home of a member of the family, that owns this tract of forest. I visited with him and his wife until their son M (14) and nephew B (14) returned from their morning squirrel hunt. As I planned to deploy a game camera, and having had one stolen a couple of weeks before, the boys had hooked a trailer to their ATV, and were hauling a caving ladder so I could strap the camera to a tree 10-12 feet off the ground to deter theft and meddling.

We were on the ATV (B riding on the trailer, M driving, and I was riding behind him) and headed to the spot where I planned to deploy the camera (in the forest approximately 100 yds West of the tree circled in Figure 1). Immediately after crossing the slough shown on the Southern portion of the map, B began pounding my back and shouting “There goes the bird!”

Though young, B and M have spent their lives in the woods. They have keen eyesight, and are becoming quite adept at identification of the larger birds common to the area by sight and sound. I have repeatedly tested them with Pileated visual and auditory contacts with “Is THAT the bird?” and they never claim that a Pileated is “the bird.” “The bird” we are discussing is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

M and I looked in the direction (North/Northeast). B was pointing and sighted the bird at approximately 275 yards, flying just above the canopy West to East. The bird did not “swoop” or “undulate” in the manner of most woodpeckers, and displayed distinct white plumage on both the dorsal and ventral secondary flight feathers. The bird’s giss was more slender, and longer, with a longer seeming tail than a normal Pileated. I quickly raised my camera and snapped off three quick shots. While the bird was definitely in the frame, I had bumped my focusing dial, and it was not focused at infinity for the zoom setting. Upon review, these three frames reveal nothing but blur, but have been retained for my records. This occurred at 1:38pm CST (2:38pm CDT on the camera). The bird then banked to its left (North) and disappeared from view.

M restarted the ATV and began moving North, when approximately 1 minute later, B shouted “There’s one on the side of that tree!” indicating a large pecan in the Northwest corner of the clearing. Both M and I looked up as three large black and white woodpeckers with trailing white secondary dorsal flight feathers flushed from the side of the tree. I am quite sure of our identification of these birds as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

Even though the range was extreme (later measured at approximately 225 yards), I raised my camera again (prefocused to infinity this time) and got off four shots of a bird fleeing to our left (West). These photos, Figures 2 thru 9, appear below. Figure 2, 3, 4, and 5 are the pictures as seen in the original file reduced for insertion into this document. Figure 6, 7, 8, and 9 are cropped and zoomed at the same pixel rate and resized for insertion into this document. In my opinion, except for the long tail, and odd wing shape, Figures 6 and 7 look somewhat like a crow. Figure 8 is apparently a large woodpecker with wings in a “tucked” position. Figure 9 is the same bird with the wings in an upward position. In both Figure 8 and 9, a long, substantial bill appears to be present. In Figure 9, the bird’s right wing shows possible white along the trailing edge in the location of the secondary flight feathers.

Figure 2:

 

Figure 3.

 

Figure 4.

 

Figure 5.

 

Figure 6.

 

Figure 7.

 

Figure 8.

 

Figure 9.

 

Again, the fact that he was able to get any photographs at all is a reflection of Frank’s skills, which he had honed as a hunter. And while these photographs are inconclusive, the description of what he observed lends them considerable weight in my view.

Here are the frames that I still have on my computer. A couple are processed and cropped somewhat differently. One includes an annotation that Frank omitted from the report, highlighting an American Robin to provide a sense of scale. It may be helpful to examine these higher resolution versions.

 

 

 

 

 


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.

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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.


Trip Report December 16-21, 2016, Part 2

Part 1 of this report is here.

Patricia opted to take the day off on the 19th, so I went out on my own and covered a lot of territory. I had been thinking hard about the hickories and the fact that, in virtually all cases, we’ve seen indications that bark is removed from these trees and stubs within a very brief period or perhaps in a single visit and that other woodpeckers don’t seem to begin working heavily on these trees for extended periods, sometimes for years. Except for changes in color due to exposure to the elements, some of the scaled surfaces we associate with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers can retain their distinctive appearance for at least three years and more likely five or more.

Steve Pagans later explained that this is due in large part to hardening by compression; hickory wood is hard and dense to begin with, and when a tree or stub is leaning, the wood that’s absorbing more weight becomes even denser, harder, and more impervious to rot. Thus, on many of these trees, Pileated Woodpeckers will have worked on the rotting side, sometimes extensively, while the compressed side remains very hard and virtually untouched by woodpeckers.

I examined and marked as many of these trees as I could over the remainder of the trip. Unfortunately, we did not find any of this scaling in the 2015-2016 season. Trying to find more of it this year and trying to find a way to identify potential target trees before they’re scaled will be priorities for me.

I plan to write about this work on hickories and what I think it suggests in an upcoming post. For now, suffice it to say that these particular snags and stubs are a kind of twofer having the decayed substrate that’s preferred by Pileateds and and the hard wood that, following Tanner, is preferred or used exclusively by ivorybills. As noted elsewhere, some bark on these snags and stubs can remain tight for years, and on one of the trees I examined, it was still difficult to remove, even when it had reached a point at which some of it would crumble to powder when it was being pulled off. More importantly, the harder surfaces show modest expansion of exit tunnels and targeted digging work that appear to be associated with the initial scaling (as in the hickory on the homepage and the one in Steve’s photo at the end of this post, both of which were very freshly scaled and alive when found) and little or no other work for a period of years, even when there are signs of infestation by multiple insect species (based on the presence of exit tunnels that vary greatly in size and shape). I’ve included multiple examples, long shots and details, to illustrate.

On the 20th, Patricia, Steve, Phil, and I went to Sector 2 together. We went through the area where I recorded calls in 2013 and where we found concentrations of scaling in spring 2012 and during the 2012-13 season. There has been none since in this little patch. We found no recent looking bark scaling in the morning (as it turned out, we missed a group of three sweet gums with high branch work perhaps a quarter mile to the northeast of this area, see below.) One odd highlight was coming across a patch of forest floor with many of these beautiful ice formations that had formed around the stems of a couple of species of plant.

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At a little before noon, Steve opted to turn back; we had already covered 2.3 miles. Before we went our separate ways, we all speculated on and were baffled as to what might have damaged this sweet gum. The wounds seem to have been caused by a scrape, but there were no downed trees or tops anywhere in the immediate vicinity.

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Phil, Patricia, and I proceeded another half mile farther north, reaching a hickory stub that I found in the spring of 2013, shown below. The stub was still standing, and the areas with putative ivorybill work had lost more bark but showed no signs of further woodpecker activity. The presence of a click beetle in this 2013 photo suggests that parts of the tree were already starting to rot even then.

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We found two sweet gums with extensive scaling on large branches within 30 yards of this snag. Some of the work was recent. This is something that we’re finding repeatedly; even within clusters, the interesting feeding sign often seems to appear in tighter groupings involving two or more trees. I’ll provide a possible explanation in my next post.

We found a particularly unusual bark chip at the base of the tree on the left. While it comes from a relatively small branch, the way it was removed may be significant. Over 1/3 of the chip is cylindrical encompassing almost the entire circumference of the limb; it was not pecked off piece by piece; instead, it appears to have been loosened by several blows and then pried free. The bark is hard, suggesting it was tightly attached; it was moist and contained a good deal of frass when found. The piece is very large, approximately 13″ long and nearly 7″ in circumference.

On the return trip, we found a small group of three sweet gum snags, somewhat on the longer dead side. All three had recent to fresh scaling, and there were very large bark slabs at the bases of two of them. These slabs of bark were dense and hard, suggesting that they were tightly adhering when stripped.

We came across a massive relict cypress on the way back. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this tree, but it never fails to take my breath away.

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~7′ DBH cypress. Dec. 2016. Photo by Phil Vanbergen

On the morning of December 21st, Phil and I went to Sector 1, and Patricia and Steve went to Sector 3. We decided not to deploy a camera on the downed top we had found on the 16th. We have two functioning cameras at the moment, and it seemed more prudent to deploy them on untouched substrates. We didn’t find any new scaling or a substitute target, so we decided to head for Sector 3 where I had a couple of targets in mind.

As we were walking to the car, I got a text from Patricia saying that she and Steve had just had a possible auditory encounter. Steve is a dedicated birder with very good hearing and excellent ear-birding skills. Patricia has limited experience, but she is a retired opera singer with a good general ear. Here are their descriptions of the morning’s events.

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Steve: At about 9:10 am, Patricia and I were in the bottomland hardwood area in Sector 3. The weather was overcast and cold without any wind – very good conditions to hear bird calls. We had walked southward for about a quarter of a mile in the bottomland area when we had decided to do some DKs. Actually it was Patricia’s idea to do some DKs, and we proceeded to find a small American Holly that was the right size to cut two sticks for knocking.

Patricia: I thought it would be a good location, as I remembered Frank, Steve, Mark and I had done them at the same location a few years back. I remember the fallen tree we all sat on for lunch. Steve had sardines! And where Frank sat down at the base of a tree and started to snore. When I mentioned to Mark that Frank was sleeping, Frank retorted “I’m not asleep”

Steve: The location is one where we could see for a distance fairly well. When we started the DKs, we did not keep up with how many were done or how long we did them, but I think it was for about 10 minutes. We made an effort to keep watch for an incoming IBWO that would be responding to the DKs, but we were probably not as diligent as we could have been. At a point we had engaged in some conversation. I was sitting on a sweetgum log and Patricia standing about six feet away. My right side was facing south. Patricia was talking when all of a sudden I heard what sounded like at least two distinct calls from my right. The calls sounded like textbook calls of the IBWO – a bit like a toy horn was being blown. I know White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatch calls very well and what I heard did not sound like either of those birds. I immediately put up my left hand to stop Patricia from talking and pointed with my right hand toward the south. I told her what I had heard while we both strained to hear any more calls. There were no more calls. Also, we did not see the bird. It is highly likely that we did not spend enough time watching and listening for the bird after I had heard it call. It is hard to say how close the bird might have been to our location because I don’t know how far their call can be heard.

Patricia: I think I did about 10 DKs, perhaps 15-30 seconds apart. When I didn’t hear anything interesting,I joined Steve, who was about 20 yards away. We started talking, and I was responding to something he said when his hands went up and his eyes widened. He whispered, “Did you hear that? Kent calls?” I shook my head no. We listened for a while, but probably no longer than 5 minutes.

Steve suggested we do another round of DKs to see if we could call in whatever made the sound again. I asked him to do the next round, as I my hands were stinging and sore; plus I wanted to hear them from someone with more experience. I think that, should someone have an auditory encounter, another person should take their place during a second round of DKs.

I stayed where I was standing when Steve heard the kents but was facing directly south. After 3 or 4 DKs, I heard something similar in cadence, but it had a sharper, crisper quality to it (similar to recorded Campephilus double knocks). It came roughly from the southwest. By the time Steve joined me later, I had convinced myself that it was caused by the logging that we heard going on in the distance, also to the southwest. If I mentioned hearing the DK to Steve, I probably downplayed it, blaming the logging or a falling limb; the winds were very calm at the time, and I didn’t hear any similar sounds from the logging that morning.

I have not spent much time in the field and am reluctant to place too much weight on my observations. I’d much prefer the IBWO (should it be out there) land on my shoulder “Sonny Boy” style and leave behind a fine DNA sample, after I manage to take a series of selfies!

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Don’t we all . . . or at least that we could call them in like Barred Owls.

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Barred Owl, iPhone photo by Patricia Johnson

We met up with Patricia and Steve, and Phil set up the cams; one is currently aimed at a sweet gum stub we targeted last year before losing a camera to flooding. There is some fresh woodpecker work, I suspect Hairy, on the stub, so this may be a good  time to target it. The other cam is trained on both a downed sweet gum top and a longer dead snag. Both are within the area where we’ve had multiple possible encounters recently, not far from the heavy concentration of sign found last spring.

Toward the end of the day, Phil went to do an evening stakeout in sector 1; Patricia went with him, while I took Steve a little farther north to show him a couple of the hickory stubs. In this location as well, there were a couple of recently scaled sweet gums in within 20-30 yards of the older hickories, which were similarly about 20-30 yards apart. We also examined one of the hickories Steve photographed in 2013; it was alive at the time. This one had decayed somewhat more rapidly than many of the others I’ve found, but it’s at a lower elevation relative to the nearest water body.

Steve remarked that he’s never seen feeding sign like this anywhere else, and he has spent countless professional hours in bottomland hardwood forests.

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Scaled hickory, 2013. Photo by Steve Pagans.

Frank, Phil, and John Williams will be in the search area over the next few days, so there may be another report coming soon, in addition to the post I’m planning on hickories and foraging behavior.


Trip Report December 16-21, 2016, Part 1

On this trip, I was joined by Patricia Johnson (my wife) who was making her first visit to our search area in over two years. Phil Vanbergen was along on Friday, when a classmate of his, Jeremy Irion, spent also spent the day with us. Steve Pagans, retired forester at D’Arbonne National Wildlife Refuge, was very active in our efforts until he was sidelined with back trouble. He too made his first visit in over two years on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s great to have Steve along for his birding skills and knowledge of this habitat type. Phil returned on Tuesday and Wednesday, and spent Thursday in the woods on his own. Frank Wiley was unable to get out this time around.

Prior to our departure, rain was predicted for three of our planned field days, but as it turned out, the weather was generally tolerable, if cold at times; Saturday was the only day when conditions, high winds and predicted thunderstorms, kept us away. Patricia and I took that day as an opportunity to visit Tensas National Wildlife Refuge (on the site of the Singer Tract) and Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge. More on these visits below.

Although I didn’t have any possible encounters (Steve and Patricia’s will be discussed in Part 2), the trip was an incredibly productive one for me. We found a good deal of recent feeding sign. I also took the opportunity to look at over 10 hickories that have been scaled within the last several years. This is the type of work I think is most compelling for ivorybill.

I got what I think are some important new insights and some ideas about how whatever is stripping bark is behaving over time; these merit a separate post that will likely follow Part 2 of the trip report; I also anticipate writing an addendum to the feeding sign page I added recently. I hope these insights can inform our strategies going forward. It’s especially helpful to get fresh perspectives, so I’m grateful to Phil, Steve, and Patricia. Each in their own way helped me think a little more deeply about my observations; a conversation I had with Frank after a long day in the field was similarly helpful.

The groups of images in this post are in “tiled mosaic” format. Clicking on any single image will enable you to scroll through the group and enlarge the individual photographs if you choose to.

We met Phil on the edge of what we call Sector 1 at 6:45 am on the 16th. The weather was cloudy, cold, and windy; later in the day, the thermometer soared to nearly seventy, but the skies remained a wintry gray, less than ideal conditions for finding feeding sign or observing birds. Nevertheless we did find some recent work on both standing and downed sweetgums and on a broken hickory limb, all of this in an area where we’ve found an abundance of scaling every search season. None of this work is in the category I find most compelling; the hickory limb is probably most interesting due to the characteristics of hickory bark and the very large bark chip we found below the limb. Given what we’ve observed on hickory boles, this may be good target tree for later in the season.

The scaling on the downed limb has some features that might point toward Pileated, especially the layered appearance at the lower right and the patchiness of the work on the smaller limb. Conversely, the shredding of the cambium on the stub is consistent with what Edith Kuhn Whitehead told us her father associated with ivorybills.

Phil and I considered aiming a trail cam at the downed limbs but decided the work was not quite interesting enough.

The weather forecast for the 17th was ominous, with winds upwards of 20 mph and thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. Patricia and I thought we might be able to spend a couple of hours in Sector 1, but when we reached the trailhead we found a truck parked where we were planning to walk in. Given the bad weather and the presence of hunters, we decided to head straight for Tensas, a pilgrimage I’d been wanting to make for some time.

The drive took a couple of hours, and our Wayz app sent us on a couple of roads that dead-ended in bean fields, but we finally made it, only to find the visitor center closed for the weekend.

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We took a walk on the boardwalk behind the headquarters and found a dead tree that had been almost completely stripped of bark, large soft slabs of which were lying around the base. I’m posting a photograph to illustrate how difficult it can be to explain what we’re finding to those who haven’t seen it firsthand. I doubt there are ivorybills in Tensas, but if I found this work in our area, I wouldn’t suspect ivorybill. The remaining adhering bark is loose and decaying; the large slabs we found on the ground were soft and pliable. The tree in the background has a little bit of scaling on it too, but it is in an advanced state of decay, and the bark has not been removed from large, contiguous areas.

As we drove around Tensas, we did note occasional instances of high branch scaling, but nothing remotely suggestive. Again I’m again including these examples in hopes of providing more clarity with regard to the kinds of feeding sign I find suggestive for ivorybill; this work doesn’t qualify; it is on very small, longer dead limbs; it does not involve large, contiguous areas; nor does it reach the bole or larger parts of the limbs.

We spent a couple of hours exploring the refuge from the road, stopping at Africa Lake, on the West side of the Tensas River, and then drove Sharkey Road, stopping for a somber moment on the bridge over John’s Bayou. I’m facing south in the picture below; Tanner would have walked north to the core of the home range. There are strips of maturing woods along the banks of the bayou but bean fields to the east and west. Tensas is big, extensively wooded, and an impressive restoration effort is under way, but the visit left me saddened, with a more visceral sense of what was lost when the Singer Tract was logged.

From Tensas, we went to Bayou Cocodrie, a nearly 15,000 acre refuge that’s part of a large, east-central Louisiana potential habitat complex. While the corridors are not uninterrupted, they encompass many thousands of acres of maturing forest, from D’Arbonne and Tensas National Wildlife Refuges to Raccourci Island and Tunica Hills. There’s some connectivity with the Atchafalaya Basin as well. Bayou Cocodrie is fairly isolated and hard to reach (Wayz was unhelpful again); it includes a small (775 acre) stand of old growth hardwoods (the Fisher Tract), and there may be a good deal more surrounding forest that’s suitable for ivorybills. I met a professional hunting guide a couple of years ago, and he claimed to have had an encounter there. We’re planning to visit Bayou Cocodrie and see the Fisher Tract and surrounding areas on my next visit.

Patricia and I were on our own on the 18th, which was a much colder, clearer day after some early morning clouds broke up. We spent the early part of the day in the northeastern part of Sector 1 and didn’t find anything of interest. We went to the scaling concentration in Sector 3 in the latter part of the morning and stayed in the area until about 3 pm.

I didn’t notice any new scaling worth mentioning, but we found a limb that had fallen and broken apart in the storms that had raged through the night before. The scaling had been done before the branch fell, and except for one targeted dig, there was no associated excavation. While some of the bark had loosened, it was tight (impossible to remove without an implement) on the edges. I’ve included several images because they help illustrate the difference between the very extensive scaling we’re finding in our area and what’s common elsewhere (as shown in some of the Tensas photos). Patricia is 5’9″.

Stay tuned for Part 2.


Trip Report: October 13-18, 2016

This was an eventful trip, with an extraordinary amount of activity on the first four days – including a possible sighting and several possible auditory encounters – and none at all on the last two. I was alone on October 13th, 17th, and 18th; Frank joined me from the 14th-16th. Conditions were generally good – light winds (strongest gust, 20 MPH, was on the 13th) and sunny or partly cloudy skies. Daytime highs were in the upper 80s-low 90s, with uncomfortably high humidity on 17th and 18th. Notwithstanding the recent flooding in Louisiana, the forest floor was dry and water levels were lower than I’ve ever seen, making it much easier to reach less accessible areas.

I found very little fresh scaling, although a tree on which we had a trail cam appeared to have been worked on quite extensively sometime after my last visit in late May. The card probably contains imagery through June and possibly into July. Unfortunately, it may have been corrupted; Frank is working on retrieving the data. If I were superstitious, I’d point to this as another case of “the curse of the ivorybill”. That aside, the paucity of fresh scaling (only a few trees with small chips consistent with PIWO work at the bases) supports the idea that bark scaling has a seasonal component that is related to breeding. This is implicit in Tanner, the limited data on ivorybill stomach contents, and in several previous posts (links).

I am somewhat hesitant to mention and describe my possible sighting and some of the other possible encounters this trip but have decided that it’s better to be comprehensive and transparent. Of all the events of the past several days, I think the double knocks Frank and I heard on Saturday were the most compelling. While my views on the IBWOs persistence are unchanged, my pessimism about obtaining conclusive documentation has grown. I may have more to say about this in a future post.

And with that, here’s the day-by-day log.

I arrived in Sector 3 at sunrise on Thursday morning and got to the ‘hot zone’ as quickly as I could.

The small pond with several scaled trees, discussed in this post, was completely dry, enabling me to look at some of the downed wood that had been in or under water on previous visits. I found a large and very interesting cavity in some blowdown. Both the shape and size are unusual and more consistent with IBWO than PIWO. (My iPhone 7 Plus’s dimensions are 6.23”x3.07”)

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I went a little farther south to the trail cam and noted that one of the target trees had been more extensively scaled since my last visit in May. The work is on the bole of this less than 1’ DBH sweet gum that had been damaged by a falling limb and has recently succumbed (photo below). There were large chips on the ground, but they did not appear to be fresh. If the scaling was done in June, as I suspect, we hope to have captured the source.

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I hunkered down and watched the trees for some time, seeing and hearing nothing of interest. When the sun was above the tree line, I ventured south and east, thinking I’d take advantage of the low water and explore some unvisited areas.

I had a possible sighting at about 9:25. I was walking south and turned to my right, looking across a clearing to a large snag that I estimated to be approximately 200 yards away (paced off at over 170 steps and later rangefindered at 160 yards). The snag in question is very close to where Frank had a sighting in March.

I texted my wife with a description that I fleshed out in an email that evening, bracketed remarks have been added for clarification.

“I saw a brilliant flash of white as a woodpecker flew up onto the tree [this was a dorsal view.] I reached for my binoculars not my camera; I think because the distance was so great. I got the bins on the bird and got them focused as it took off. I didn’t get anything like a good look, but again saw brilliant white wings with a little black. I also had the distinct impression that the bird was much too large to be a RHWO. But it was a fleeting glimpse (or better two fleeting glimpses).

I did some playback of PIWO and IBWO and had no responses.

I . . . went to the snag. There is a RHWO roost at the very top, and I saw one juvenile and another RHWO but didn’t see the head [and could not determine whether it was a juvenile or an adult]. Though RHWOs were present, seeing them at this close range made me feel even more strongly that the bird I spotted was much bigger. I can’t fully rule out RHWO, but I also find it hard to imagine that I would have been able to get any details at all such a distance unless the bird was large.” imgp3469Snag where I had the possible sighting. The bird landed on and took off from the stub at center. A Red-headed Woodpecker cavity is at the top of the left stub. My view was dorsal and from below, so the white was clearly on the trailing edges of the wings, ruling out Pileated.

This was my first possible sighting in almost three years. I was disoriented and shaken by it, as I have been with my handful of other possibles. And since it was not a good look, I can’t help but doubt myself.

In reply to my emailed description, Bob Ford had this to say:

“My ‘for what it’s worth’, I had a similar sighting once and paced it off to the same distance, then found Red-headed Woodpeckers and watched them at around that distance (maybe a little closer). Yes, can’t rule out red-headed but they look pretty small at that distance.”

As it turned out, Frank and I were able to spend some time observing Red-headed Woodpeckers in an open area at 50-100 yards. This was on Sunday morning at approximately the same time and under lighting conditions that were, if anything, somewhat brighter than those on Thursday. These observations led me to lean somewhat more strongly toward Ivory-billed Woodpecker. While the white rump of the Red-headed was easily visible at these distances, the white on the wings at a similar angle of view appears a lot less extensive and vivid than what I saw, and Red-headeds indeed look quite small.

I was able to capture a female Pileated and a sub-adult Red-headed in several frames. I’ve included a couple of the images here, both because they illustrate the size differential and because the posture of the Pileated is very similar to the posture of the bird in one of our old trail cam photos; the angle of view is different; nevertheless, it seems relevant with regard to neck length. The snag was less than fifty yards away. The first photo in the series shows the entire area. Frank measured the distance to the distant snag at right as 100 yards; the snag in the second and third images is at the left edge of the frame in the first.

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On Friday morning, Frank and I had hoped to return to the ‘hot zone’, but when we arrived another vehicle was parked at the end of the road, presumably a squirrel hunter. To avoid contact with others, we went to Sector 2 but found another vehicle parked where we were hoping to hike in. We opted to hike into Sector 3 from the south, a part of the area that we visit less frequently and that’s harder to traverse when water levels are high.

I did not note the time, but I’d estimate that it was between 9:00 and 10:00. Frank did a series of double knocks, and shortly afterwards, I heard two single knocks (Frank heard one) and then a possible distant double knock that we both heard. Later on, farther north and closer to the ‘hot zone’, he did another series, and there was a loud, close single knock, followed by what may be the longest and most agitated-sounding Pileated calling I’ve ever heard. We both found these knocks somewhat intriguing, but neither one of us thought they were compelling.

On Saturday, there were no vehicles at the trailhead, so we were able to return to the ‘hot zone’. At a little after 9:00 am, we were approaching the northernmost edge when we heard 5 double knocks from two sources to the west of us. I estimated the distance at over 200 yards, but Frank put it somewhat closer, perhaps 150. We both agreed they sounded very good for Campephilus; Frank thinks some of the best ever; he wrote: “. . . three of the first five, early on, were very crisp, clean, and woody; among the best I’ve heard.”

We stopped and waited, and heard nothing. Frank did an ADK series and got no response. About fifteen minutes later, I did another series, and this time, I heard 2-4 more double knocks. Frank was applying insect repellant, the reason for my uncertainty about the number of knocks I heard. He only heard one. We sat for another 20 minutes or so, and, after hearing nothing, proceeded south to the scaling concentration. When we reached the pond with the downed cavity, we heard another DK from the south, at fairly close range.

From there, I took Frank to where I was standing when I had the possible sighting, and he measured the distance. We then went on to explore some previously unvisited places, finding some possible cavities and starts and a little bit of older feeding sign. This part of our search area is difficult to reach and navigate unless conditions are extremely dry, and we suspect it may be where roosts are located at present. If we can visit and explore it when leaves are down, we will be able to do a more intensive search for potential roosts. This is a difficult undertaking, especially given that the big trees are more than 100’ tall.

On Sunday, we went to Sector 2, the easily accessible part of which has seen a major increase in human activity and four-wheeler use over the last three years. This is the area where the tree on the homepage is located. Because waters were so low were able to get to parts of this sector that we haven’t visited in a couple of seasons due to changes in hydrology caused by beavers and and human traffic.

I was sad to discover that what I called the kissing trees, my favorites, have separated.

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At 11:30, about 4 miles in, Frank nearly stepped on this canebrake rattler, only the third one I’ve ever seen.

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A few minutes later, a series of approximately a dozen calls from two or three sources caught our ears. We agreed on the following details: they sounded more like “yips” than “kents” (I didn’t consciously remember that Allen and Kellogg described some ivorybill calls as “yips”); they were all single notes with no variations in pitch, perhaps not as rich sounding and higher pitched than the Singer Tract recordings, but with something of their toy horn quality; the first calls came from the east and northeast, and with movement northwestward and away from us. A Downy Woodpecker called shortly afterwards; I mentioned to Frank (and he agreed) that the “yips” had a similar quality to the Downy’s “Pik”, what I’d describe in retrospect as their brevity and emphasis.

After the calls subsided, we proceeded north for another hour or so, before looping south and west. At approximately 2 PM and at about the same latititude, I heard three more calls that were more kent-like. Frank missed them; while I suspect they came from Blue Jays, I’m including them for the sake of completeness.

On the 17th, I explored parts of Sector 1 I haven’t visited before but did not see or hear anything suggestive of ivorybills. The same was true on the 18th, when I returned to the ‘hot zone’.

I don’t anticipate returning to Louisiana until sometime in December but may do another post or two between now and then.


Mystery Bird Meets Imperial Woodpecker – Trail Cam Photos Revisited (Part 2)

If you haven’t done so already, please read Trail Cam Photos Revisited for a more comprehensive discussion of the image that’s central to this post (including an explanation of our conclusion that the mystery bird is larger than a Pileated Woodpecker). At the time of writing, I didn’t envision doing a follow-up, but the nagging sense that the Rhein Imperial Woodpecker film might be even more relevant than I thought initially led me to go through the film again and pull an additional frame that showed the body profile, with neck extended, more fully and accurately. While I added an update to the original post that included a brightened composite for comparison, there’s a bit more to say.

We’re aware that many (perhaps most) in the scientific and birding communities will accept nothing less than a clear, high quality photograph (or series of photographs) or video. We’re also aware that many people will dismiss any post-processing whatsoever, even when intermediate steps are shown and the processing is relatively limited (in this case only involving the removal of motion blur). I must add, as should be evident from the images in this post, my skills with photographic post-processing tools are very limited. (Patricia Johnson, my wife, had to talk me through the rotation of the images in Photoshop.) Nevertheless, we think comparing the de-blurred mystery bird with frames from the Rhein film showing an Imperial Woodpecker in flight with similarly positioned wings makes a compelling case that our mystery bird is indeed an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Our choice of location for the game cam deployment was not random. As with this image (from our old search area), which was obtained a week after a sighting in the same location, the camera was deployed in an area where we’d had recent possible contacts – multiple double knocks (scroll to the end of the trip report) heard within a few hundred yards before and during the deployment, about a week before the image was captured. We also recorded an apparent double knock on the day we retrieved the cards. Thus, in both instances there was a close temporal association between a putative encounter and obtaining (at worst) a strongly suggestive trail cam capture. But I digress . . .

To return to the Imperial Woodpecker, these two screen captures are the most salient.

Screen cap of Imperial Woodpecker in flight, shortly after take-off, at a different angle, but with similar wing position.

Screen capture of Imperial Woodpecker in flight, shortly after take-off, at a different angle, but with similar wing position.

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Screen capture of Imperial Woodpecker in flight.

I was unable to find frames in the film that replicate the angle from which the mystery bird was shot. In the first of these two frames, the bird is flying downward and is angled slightly away from the camera, obscuring the bill and foreshortening the neck and tail. The second is a ventral view from behind, and the bird is angled downward. Our mystery bird is ascending and is seen in profile. Nonetheless, the similarities in both the extent of white on the wing and physical structure are striking. This becomes even more apparent when the Imperial frames are rotated and sized to match the mystery bird. Be sure to click on the images to see the full sized versions.

Rotated, resized image of Imperial Woodpecker in flight. The bird is angled downward and slightly away from the camera obscuring the bill and foreshortening the profile.

Rotated, resized image of Imperial Woodpecker in flight. In the original, the bird is angled downward and slightly away from the camera obscuring the bill and foreshortening the profile.

Imperial Woodpecker in flight. Rotated and re-sized for comparison with mystery bird.

Imperial Woodpecker in flight. Rotated and re-sized for comparison with mystery bird. Although this is a more ventral and posterior view, the similarities in structure are dramatic.

I concluded the previous post by observing, “We realize that this is far from conclusive but can think of few alternative interpretations, all of which are problematic.” Based on the comparison with known stills of the Imperial Woodpecker, I am now firmly convinced that the mystery bird is an Ivory-billed Woodpecker and do not think there’s a reasonable alternative explanation. Frank’s comment was, “People have been executed on far flimsier evidence.”