Remembering Frank Wiley on the Anniversary of His Passing

Last year, a reader requested that I post some personal reminiscences about Frank. I didn’t get around to doing it then but thought I’d offer something on this sad anniversary.

Frank and I met through the Ivorybill Researchers’ Forum ( in the fall of 2008. I made my first trip to search with him in Louisiana shortly thereafter. Our collaboration gelled in the summer of 2009 when he began to visit our old search area. I visited him again in November 2009. In January 2010, I came up with the name Project Coyote as a play on his name and to reflect his central role in the effort.

On the surface, Frank and I were probably as different as the worlds in which we grew up. Frank was one of the smartest, most paradoxical people I’ve ever known. He was a very well-read autodidact whose writing style was deceptively at odds with the way he presented himself – as a stone cold, 2nd amendment loving, libertarian redneck, albeit a nerdy math, physics, sci-fi, and Star Trek loving one. I’m a very liberal New Yorker of Jewish ancestry with degrees in law and American Studies.

Despite our differences, we found more common ground politically than I could have anticipated, and he’d sometimes say, “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but . . .” We shared a distaste for spectator sports and also found common ground musically. Though he loved Pink Floyd first and foremost, and I grew up in the ’70s Punk scene, we both enjoyed rootsier genres, and some of our most enjoyable, non-field times involved tequila and singing together. Frank was a good singer and gifted all-around musician; I managed to harmonize decently on background vocals. The Stones’ “Dead Flowers” was a favorite.

But what really united us was the ivorybill, and more specifically, a shared sense that figuring out what J.J. Kuhn knew was the key to documenting the bird.

While there are echoes of the Tanner-Kuhn dynamic in our story – at least to the extent that, like Tanner, I’m from New York, with a graduate degree from an Ivy League school, and Frank, like Kuhn, was from Louisiana with no formal academic training – we were doing something different. We were equal partners, trying to solve a mystery together, bringing different, complementary skills to the effort.

Still, when we were approached about the possibility of doing a reality show (I’m thankful every day that didn’t happen), I described us as “the odd couple of the ivorybill world”.  In retrospect, the oddness was more superficial than substantial; we may not have been the only such pair; and odd may be commonplace when it comes to the ivorybill. In any case, I miss my friend, our shared dedication to the search, the music, and our many running jokes – especially the ones about stump holes and the ubiquitous Plate 11.


In Memory: Frank Wiley, 1962-2017

My friend and collaborator since 2008. We came from different worlds, brought together and bonded by our passion for the ivorybill and the swamps. I will miss him.dsc_0029dsc_0033dsc00749dsc00781img_0832img_0842imgp0385imgp0801imgp1721

Here’s one more from Phil Vanbergen.


Scaling Data 2012-2016

To expand on some of the data included toward the end of the March trip report (which is worth reading in in conjunction with this post), I thought it would be informative to provide a season by season and sector by sector breakdown of the scaling I and others involved with Project Coyote have found since the spring of 2012. To do so, I’ve gone through my notes and photographs and have done my best to reconstruct the data collected. While not complete (I’m quite sure a good deal more scaling was found in Sector 3 during 2013-2014, for example), I think this breakdown is a fairly accurate reflection of what we’ve found over the years.

As discussed in previous posts, I think extensive scaling on hickory boles is the most compelling for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Bark on this species is thick, dense, and usually remains very tight for a long time. Extensive scaling on sweet gum boles and oaks (upper boles and large branches) is second among work that I’ve found. Work on small boles, and higher and smaller branches is somewhat less compelling and is more significant for its abundance. Some of the high branch scaling and work on smaller boled sweet gums may well have been done by Pileated Woodpeckers (and possibly by Hairy Woodpeckers), but the abundance, the presence of large bark chips in many cases, the way it appears in clusters, and the fact that Pileateds scale infrequently suggest a different source for much of it.

I have excluded all work where squirrels are suspected but have counted one tree, a hickory found this year, on which the work could well have been that of a Hairy Woodpecker. Hairies do forage for Cerambycid beetles just under the bark, but they’re only capable of removing tight bark in small pieces; their work on hickories is perhaps more accurately described as excavation through the bark.

The trail cam images toward the end of this post are the best we have (out of many thousands of hours of coverage) showing how these species forage on suspected ivorybill feeding trees.

All trees were live or recently dead (twigs and sometimes leaves attached). All scaling was on live or recently dead wood.
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Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styracifula)

Sector 1:         46

Sector 2:         8

Sector 3:         51

                        105         (84.68%)        

~15% had scaling on boles (a few of these were large trees). The majority of work was on crowns, including larger branches. Fallen trees were included when woodpecker involvement was evident and bark was tight.

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)

Sector 1:            3

Sector 2:            4

Sector 3:            7

                           14         (11.29%)

All trees were standing; scaling was on boles and was very extensive (the tree shown on the homepage is one example) with one exception from this year . Insect tunnels were visible in all examples. An additional hickory with a modest amount of high branch scaling was found in Sector 1 this year but was not counted for this analysis.

Oak (Quercus) spp.

Sector 1:         1

Sector 2:         4

Sector 3:         0

                         5         (4.03%)

All oaks had scaling on large branches; one also had some on the bole. All oaks in Sector 2 were found in a single cluster.

We have some information on forest composition in Sector 3, and it appears that sweet gums make up approximately 19%, oaks upwards of 35%, and hickories somewhere under 10%. Sectors 1 and 2 may differ and be more varied in overall composition.

The overwhelming preference for sweet gums relative to their abundance stands out. The scaled oaks are a mix of species, one Nuttall’s, one willow, the others unidentified.

In Sector 3, I am treating the compact stretch from the location of Frank Wiley’s sighting last spring/downed sweet gum top where we had the camera trap to just south of our current deployment as a cluster. The estimate of 23 trees being found in this area is conservative. I have only found one instance of recent scaling north of the location of the downed limb/Frank’s 2015 sighting. The main cluster has been in the same vicinity this year and last, with additional work scattered around farther south. Two of the hickories are within 30 yards of each other, approximately half a mile from the cluster, and one was on the edge of the concentration.

It also may be significant to note that we found a cluster of old but intriguing cavities in the same vicinity as the Sector 3 concentration in 2013-2014. Most of these seem to have fallen. The difficulty we’re having finding active, suggestive cavities is vexing, and may be the most compelling reason to be skeptical about the presence of ivorybills in the area. At the same time, finding Pileated cavities is difficult, even in defended home ranges.

I’m treating Sector 1 as a single concentration; the vast majority of the work is on a natural levee where sweet gums are abundant. The entire area is considerably larger than the other clusters, but given the abundance and ease with which we’ve found sign there over the last five seasons, I think it constitutes one area of concentration.

In Sector 2, there was a small cluster in the area where I recorded putative kent calls in 2013, with work found in 2012 (spring and fall) and 2013. Because the area is small with open sight lines, I can be confident there has been no recent work there since late in 2013 (I last passed through it with Tom Foti back in March of this year.)

The sweet gum work Tom and I found on that day was perhaps half a mile north of this cluster, within 100 yards of the hickory on the homepage. The other hickories found in the 2013 and 2014 seasons were not far away, no more than 500 yards apart as the crow flies.

There’s obviously some bias here, since there’s a relationship between finding feeding sign in a given area and spending time there. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that the putative ivorybill work tends to be clustered. I also have little doubt about the strong preference for sweet gums, since I’m not looking at tree species when I look for scaling. The degree to which sweet gums are favored has only become clear over the last year or so.

Frank pointed out this data does not reflect most of the scaling that likely exists in relatively close proximity to the Sector 3 cluster but cannot be quantified because it is in an area we have intermittently visited due to  inaccessibility. Only two or three examples are from this area, which has been visited a handful of times.


















Strips, Flakes, Chips, Chunks, and Slabs: Squirrels, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Ivorybills, Part 4

Careful examination of bark chips found in conjunction with extensive scaling is one of the key elements in our diagnostic gestalt, but “chips”, a term I’ve been using for years, is both inaccurate and too vague for what we believe is being left behind by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and for differentiating it from the leavings of other animals. Tanner used “pieces” of bark, ranging “from the size of a “silver dollar to the size of “a man’s hand.” A caption from the National Geographic article on the 1935 Allen and Kellogg expedition that refers to “large chunks of bark”.  The existing images of these pieces of bark suggest that chunks is the better term.

It’s important to reiterate that this discussion applies only to live and freshly dead hardwoods. Pines slough bark quickly after death. The process is slower in hardwoods, but as decay progresses, the bark loosens considerably, with the rate of loosening depending on species and environmental conditions. Once the bark has loosened sufficiently, PIWOs can and do scale bark extensively, sometimes leaving behind large chips. In the images that follow (from Allen and Kellogg and Tanner), the bark chips ascribed to ivorybills appear to come from considerably longer dead trees than some of the examples we’ve found, but the images are informative.

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

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

The small tree shown above, identified as a “dead gum” by the 1935 expedition, appears to be a hackberry or sugarberry not a gum, and a fairly long dead one; the pieces of bark at the base resemble ones we found beneath hackberries or sugarberries in our old search area, some of which were considerably larger (the one below is the largest).


This colorized slide reveals more about the bark at the base of these pines than the black and white print in Tanner (Plate 9).

There’s also this example, (Plate 10 in Tanner), which appears to be in a considerably more advanced state of decay, and presumably looser, than much of the work we find most interesting. I suspect most of the grubs were placed on the chip for illustrative purposes; the caption “Beetle larvae from beneath bark of Nuttall’s oak” is ambiguous as to where the larvae, which appear to be small Cerambycidae, were actually found.

What I think is most salient in Tanner’s description of bark chips is shape not size. In this regard, it seems important to come up with a more specific set of terms to replace the commonly used “chips”. I’d suggest using chunks and slabs for suspected ivorybill work (although smaller pieces of bark may also be present). Pileated bark removal can involve chips, strips, or flakes, the last when they’re doing the layered scaling discussed here and here. I suspect that squirrels remove hardwood bark primarily or exclusively in strips, and of course, their bark removal on cypresses leaves shredded bark hanging from the trees.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences among pieces of bark we have reason to believe were left by squirrels, those we have reason to believe were left behind by Pileated Woodpeckers, and those we suspect were left behind by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

I collected a number of bark chips from the tree we know to have been scaled by a squirrel, and while these were removed before our camera trap revealed the source, there’s strong reason to think they too were left behind by squirrels.


Note the uniformly elongated shape and the ragged appearance at the tops and bottoms of these strips of bark. This is not typical of bark that we infer or know to have been removed by woodpeckers, and it’s consistent with chewing, not scaling. The presumed squirrel strips I collected had the following dimensions:






The downed sweet gum from which they had been removed was a fairly young tree, and the bark is much thinner than on more mature ones. These strips were approximately 1/8″ thick. While this is a very small sample, we suspect (along with Houston from that approximately 3″ is the upper limit for width when a squirrel is doing the bark removal.

Our research and observations suggest that Pileated Woodpeckers have two strategies for removing tight bark; one involves pecking around the edges until they can gradually pry off small pieces, and the other involves scaling away strips, sometimes in layers. Their physical structure precludes them from doing the extensive, clean scaling of tight bark that Tanner associated with ivorybills.

We suspect that this collection of chips, from a honey locust near a known Pileated nest, reflects the range of what the species is capable of doing on a tight-barked hardwood (and honey locust bark is relatively thin). The upper limit appears to be hand size, with many-quarter sized or smaller.


The following are measurements of some fairly typical suspected Pileated strips from a sweet gum:





The strips shown below, suspected Pileated Woodpecker leavings from a high branch, are on the large end of the spectrum for this category of work. The Peterson Guide is 9.5″ x 6.5″. I can’t rule squirrel out completely for these.


Flakes resemble strips, but they are removed in layers, so that reaching the sapwood is a gradual process. Pileated scaling frequently has this appearance, something that seems frequently to be the case with congeners, including the larger-billed Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius).



The chunks and slabs we suspect to be ivorybill work are significantly larger and thicker than strips, flakes and chips, although strips and chips may be present in the mix at the base of suspected feeding trees. Chunks are usually more irregular and varied in size and shape, and both chunks and slabs sometimes have what appear to be strike marks from a broad bill.

I kept one of the chunks scaled from the hickory tree on the homepage, a fairly typical example. It is 8.5″x3.5″ and .375″ thick. (It has undoubtedly lost some of its thickness after drying for over two years.)


The sweet gum chunk with the apparent bill mark Frank is holding is 7.5″x3″ and .25″ thick. On mature, thicker barked trees most or all suspected ivorybill chunks, chips, and slabs will have been removed cleanly, all the way down to the sapwood.

Frank adds:

This particular bark “chunk” is intriguing on several levels. We have found that markings many describe as “bill marks” are really truncated galleries between the bark and sapwood. Marks made by woodpecker bills are distinctive, but somewhat subtle, and easily overlooked. This chunk actually has two interesting markings – markings that were left by the animal that removed the bark. The first is near the end of my left thumb – my right index finger is pointing toward it. It is about a quarter inch wide, a bit over a half inch long, and three sixteenths of an inch or so thick. The other is a “V” shaped “notch” at the end of the chunk, near the center of the photo. These places look as if they’ve been struck with a chisel – hard enough to rip the bark away from the sapwood/cambium. This suggests that, even though this bark was very tight, very few strikes were required to loosen and remove it. Granted that these marks are bill strikes, this suggests that the bird removing bark is indeed a powerful animal for its size. Back to Mark.

DSC00031The two preceding examples are on the smaller side for suspected ivorybill work; in the first, the density, tightness, and grain of hickory bark seem to be a limiting factor on size. Some of the larger examples are shown in the Bark Chip Gallery (as are several of the images shown above). A couple of additional examples of larger slabs are below. In the first, the oak was approximately 8 months dead (leaves attached), and the bark was still tight. (The fractured slab was damaged in transit.)




Squirrels Stripping Bark

I thought it was important to post the following advance of writing a comprehensive trip report.

On arriving in the search area last week, I found fresh scaling on a downed, recently dead sweet gum. The tree was relatively small, with a DBH of under two feet, and was alongside one of the roads that pass through our search area. There was fresh work on it on subsequent days. I staked it out on Thursday and saw nothing. We placed one of our game cams on it on Friday and retrieved it late Saturday. The trail cam photos showed a squirrel removing the bark fairly extensively. These images are currently in the game cam’s proprietary format, and we’ll post them in the near future.

As is the case with many of these blowdowns, there was also work in the tops that looked very consistent with Tanner’s descriptions of ivorybill scaling, although only on the upper sides of the limbs and branches. What this tells us is that we have to think squirrels are likely responsible for scaling on downed sweet gums and that all possible sign on downed wood should be looked at with a jaundiced eye. It also means that my previous foraging preference analysis has to be revised; we’ve taken that page private at least for the time being.


Scaled area on bole of downed sweet gum. A squirrel expanded this considerably, working from left to right, toward the base.

I did not collect any chips that are unquestionably the work of a squirrel, but I did gather several that I presume to be. They measure:






and thus are all considerably longer than they are wide, stripped with the grain rather than scaled. The edges that go across the grain have a ragged appearance, and since the tree was not mature, the bark is thin and brittle compared to the bark of the mature downed top discussed below.

It’s odd that we only started finding this type of work in abundance in the past year; it doesn’t exactly match the diagnostic criteria I’d articulated earlier, but it comes close in some respects. It has been an unfortunate distraction, since the work on downed trees is much easier to find and photograph than work on the boles or upper branches of standing ones.

There was a little bit of fresh work on the downed sweet gum top found in April, but it was not extensive enough even to show up in the game cam images. There were a few chips on the ground, more like strips than chips, actually, 6′ to 8′ inches long and no more than an inch across at the largest. We’ve had numerous images of squirrels on that top but none showing them scaling bark for a period of more than two months. We got numerous images of squirrels again this time, and also a pair of Pileateds, with a Downy or Hairy (we didn’t examine the frames very closely) literally trailing the PIWOs up the trunk. In any event, there was no way to tell what did the little bit of scaling, or what did the scaling on the upper part of the downed top or the left fork, which had been almost entirely stripped before we got the camera on it. I lean toward this little bit of new  work was done by the Pileateds, but either way the chips don’t have the characteristics I associate with suspected ivorybill chips.

I had been planning to do a post refining and being more explicit about the different types of work I’d been ascribing to ivorybills. I still plan to go ahead with this project but will have to do so informed by this new information. I expect to write something later this month, after I’ve posted the trip report.

While squirrels cannot be ruled out for some of the work we’re finding, it seems unlikely that squirrels are doing all of it, especially on the boles of dense-barked, mature trees (like the hickory on the homepage and most of the others shown here) that have numerous cerambycid exit tunnels and on those that are not quite so freshly dead (and therefore don’t offer as much nutritional value). We monitored the tree on the homepage for several months and had no evidence of squirrels removing bark.

Some preliminary thoughts on what I think remains likely ivorybill work:

The chips shown in the bark chip gallery are mostly as large as or larger than an adult man’s hands. Chip size, shape, and density are probably factors that need to be looked at very closely, and perhaps the contrast between a very ragged, gnawed appearance and a cleaner one with apparent bill strikes is another key aspect.

This smashed sapling was clearly not worked on by squirrels, and the little patches of targeted digging on the small limb are highly reminiscent of Magellanic sign I’ve seen in several photographs:

If you zoom in on the image below, you can see that a woodpecker was involved because the tunnels have been expanded slightly and there’s one Magelllanic-looking dig on the smaller limb. This one also has some superficial scratches that could be from a bill:

This work on a dead oak from the old search area remains interesting, because the bark chips were huge (one as big as my forearm) and due to the apparent lateral bill strikes that were evident when additional bark as stripped several months later:

This little, dead gum (not oak, I think), because there are apparent bill strikes in the cambium and other obvious signs of lateral blows.

When it comes to high branch scaling, squirrels can do extensive damage, as in this example on a sugar maple. At the same time, some of the high branch work we’re finding shows clear signs of insect infestation and woodpecker involvement, as in this downed sweet gum limb I found on Saturday. The scaling took place before it fell.


In next example, although the scaling has a little bit of the layered appearance we’ve suggested is more characteristic of Pileateds, it’s clear that woodpeckers are involved, since there are a few places where what we presume to be insect tunnels have been expanded.


There’s also this one, which I initially thought could be due to natural sloughing, but how would sloughed bark fall at an upwards angle?swgumbole

While I was initially disappointed by this new data point, not only because it compels me not only to reexamine certain aspects of my hypothesis but also because it eliminates the types of targets we’ve thought most promising in terms of obtaining clear trail cam photos, I recognize that this is part of the process. It’s an opportunity to refine the hypothesis and a reminder to observe carefully. Ultimately, I think there’s more room for confusion between squirrel work and what I take to be IBWO work. We can’t help but wonder whether Tanner himself might have been fooled in some instances.

Feeding Sign, Foraging Preferences, and Prey Species: Some Observations and Speculation

Frank and a visiting ornithologist spent this past weekend in our search area. I’m eager to read and will be posting Frank’s report before long. For now, suffice it to say they set up three trail cams, one on the snag where we captured the image discussed here and here and one on this downed sweet gum top found in April:Big Limb

It most likely fell on April 19th. When I found it a couple of days later, it had fresh green leaves attached and no sign of insect infestation. Since then it has been partially scaled. This is an important data point, as we know the scaling took place within five and a half months of death, and Tanner documented the IBWO’s preference for freshly dead wood. We hope there will be a return visit soon.

They also placed a camera on an even more recently fallen water oak, something that started me thinking about possible patterns in the feeding sign we’re finding.

I’ve counted the examples of feeding sign from our current search area I’ve posted on the blog (which is by no means all the suggestive work we’ve found but is generally the most impressive), and the results for sweet gums are interesting, especially in light of Tanner’s observations suggesting an IBWO preference for sweet gums. Our results also suggest a preference for hickory. (Hickories were scarce in the Singer Tract, and apparently the species present in our area were not present there.) In both cases, the frequency with which we’re finding scaling seems to exceed the relative abundance of either type of tree, although we have not made formal counts. This sign was found between the spring of 2012 and the Spring of 2015, except for the downed top pictured above, which was scaled a little later.

The tally includes a couple of examples of work that falls short of what we consider to be diagnostic for IBWO. It also includes the small sweet gum snag that looks like it was attacked with a hatchet.

Edited November 2021 to add: We now have reason to think this is likely Pileated Woodpecker work.


While there seemed to be a preference for sweet gums prior to the 2014-2015 season, the preference was considerably more pronounced this year when the abundance of fresh scaling on sweet gums in a relatively small area was astonishing. Here’s the multi-year breakdown:

Sweet gum:                       25

Hickory:                             10

Presumed sweet gum:        6 (One example possibly PIWO)

Oak species:                       3

Willow oak:                          2

Unknown:                            1

Maple:                                  1 (Possibly PIWO)

Ivorybills fed on sweet gums in 42.6% of Tanner’s observations, scaling in 40 instances and digging in 3. Sweet gums made up 20.8% of the forest composition in Tanner’s study area. Next on Tanner’s list of preferred foraging trees were Nuttall’s oaks. By contrast, Pileateds “appeared to have no preference for any species of tree.” Tanner observed PIWOs feeding on sweet gums on fourteen occasions; nine involved digging and five involved scaling. He further noted, “What scaling Pileateds were observed to do was mostly on loose bark and was never as extensive or cleanly done as the work of the Ivory-bills.”

On a more speculative note, I think I’ve been able to identify one species of beetle that’s infesting the sweet gums, including the small one shown above. They’re an invasive, the granulate (formerly Asian) ambrosia beetle Xylosandrus crassiuculus (or another closely related invasive). Ambrosia beetles are tiny, but they are gregarious, with adult females creating chambers and tending broods of larvae in the sapwood. They can kill small trees but also infest larger ones. They have a relatively short life-cycle, and one source suggests they can produce 3 or 4 broods a season in the deep south. It’s worth repeating that I’ve seen signs of ambrosia beetle infestation elsewhere in Louisiana (near our old search area and in upland hardwood forest adjacent to our current one) but did not find work suggestive of ivorybills in either place.

We’ve found known IBWO prey species in our search area, on trees that we suspect were fed on by ivorybills. We also suspect that, contrary to Tanner, they may feed on darkling beetles. Could they also be feeding on an invasive species? We can see no reason to suspect otherwise and will continue our investigations with this in mind. I plan to return to Louisiana Thanksgiving week.

The Pros and Cons of Trail Cams

Frank wrote this up and asked me to post it.

Recently, we’ve received several messages, and another blogger has mentioned the use of game cameras – also referred to as trail cams, or camera traps – as aids in searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. We’ve been deploying trail cams since early 2009, and have had some intriguing “hits”. They have been useful in many ways, and we have learned a lot about the feeding habits of other woodpeckers – specifically, Pileated, Hairy, and Red-bellied – that were useful in giving Mark insights into the type of feeding sign that we have come to believe is most likely diagnostic for ivorybills. In dozens of deployments, and hundreds of hours of searching with boots on the ground, and sometimes in the water, we have NEVER observed a woodpecker performing the type of scaling that we have come to suspect is diagnostic.

While trail cams are a valuable tool in our arsenal, they are, by no means infallible. There are many pitfalls involved in their use. Firstly, they are not designed to capture birds – in fact many common species of birds are almost unidentifiable in the images. Birds do not set off the motion triggers that these cameras use, and why should they? The cameras are designed for use along trails and adjacent to food plots used by larger mammals – usually whitetail deer. I have tested the Reconyx “Hyperfire” cameras that we use, and even a large Wild Turkey at fairly close range will not trigger one, even at its most sensitive setting, while a relatively small (terrier size) dog will trigger one from a distance of twenty-five or more yards. The manufacturer has indicated to me that there is “something about the way birds reflect light in the visible and infrared spectrum” that makes the cameras’ triggering units unable to “see” them.

As a result, ivorybill hunters must find a camera that will operate in time lapse mode. For all their disadvantages (3.1 megapixels, low resolution among them) the Reconyx cameras offer the best time lapse mode available at an affordable price. This, in and of itself, though, becomes a handicap, as the card for each camera must be programmed, using a proprietary program provided by Reconyx, on a PC. One programs the card, inserts it into the camera, and hopes for the best – there is no way to check and see if the card/camera combination is functioning properly. This has led to many wasted deployments. Additionally, there is the problem of how often should the camera take a photo vs. storage capacity of the card. The cams are designed for 8 gig cards, sometimes they will function with a 16 gig card, but will universally malfunction with a 32 gig card. 8 gigs is usually enough for a ten-day deployment with the camera time constrained to take a photo every twenty seconds for ten hours a day – you do get to select the hours of operation though. While every twenty seconds would seem to be quite often (and a full 8 gig card will store upwards of thirty thousand images), perform a little test for yourself. Go out to your favorite birdwatching location and see how long a bird – any arboreal non-raptor species – stays in one location for twenty or more seconds. Captures of birds on game cams are a relatively rare event – I have looked at nearly a million Reconyx photographs and have picked up birds of any kind in perhaps a thousand images – identifiable birds in maybe two hundred.

The very first thing that has to be done when using game cams is to select a location where you suspect an ivorybill is likely to show up. This could be a tree with scaled bark and other indications that an ivorybill has visited it, or a cavity with features that seem to match photographs of known ivorybill cavities. Both of these are, at best, iffy propositions. One has to find the tree, geotag it (you do have a good GPS unit, right?) then return to the location – often several miles of hiking through some pretty rough and secluded forest, carrying the camera and its mounting system – which weighs around ten pounds. Then the camera and mount have to be positioned to get the target near the center of the frame, which gets easier with practice, and the camera and mount hidden and intervening vegetation trimmed so as not to interfere with the line-of-sight. Once all this has been done the camera can be turned on, armed, and left to do its thing.

Assuming that everything up to this point has been done perfectly, in ten days or so, it’s time to change cards, or retrieve the cam. Now one is faced with the daunting prospect of going through some thirty-thousand photos looking for anything “interesting”. Often, several days of images will pass without a single “hit” of any kind. It’s often a relief to spot even a small woodpecker or squirrel, to remind one that the target is part of a living ecosystem.

The series shown here is exceptional in terms of quantity of images, quality, and our ability to place the camera. (It may be significant for what it doesn’t show, a Pileated doing the type of scaling we think is diagnostic.) Even so, it was not possible to cover the entire target tree.

As I stated earlier, these cameras, within their limitations, are useful tools, but for my money, nothing really beats the good old MK I MOD I human eyeball. But at this point, that’s just not enough …

In addition to the suggestive photos we’ve already posted, we recently obtained some pictures at the site where last week’s double knock was recorded. Because we find some of these pictures intriguing but inconclusive, we have deployed two cameras in hopes that the double placement will yield an identifiable photograph. The first picture, taken under good lighting conditions, clearly shows a Red-headed Woodpecker (there is a roost at the very top of the snag); the others are ambiguous. We are posting them unedited and leave it to you to speculate about what they may be. We recognize that none of these are of anywhere near good enough quality to be identifiable as ivorybills, but we are doing some further analysis to get a clearer sense of scale. The camera placement is 85’ from the tree; the branches behind the tree are an additional 15” away. My preliminary estimate of the diameter of the tree just above the jug handle on the right is approximately 18”.

I have taken careful measurements using a camera with known lens settings and a rangefinder – when the weather is more congenial, I will make comparison shots at the exact measured ranges. This should give a margin of error of ~1″ or less.


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The Two Faces of James T. Tanner – A Study in Selective Memory and Blindspots

In a 1936 letter to James Tanner before Tanner began his survey of possible ivorybill habitat in the southeast, Herbert Stoddard wrote, “The area where they (Ivory-billed Woodpeckers) may occur at present is simply tremendous, not restricted as many believe.” Stoddard continued, “. . . if I had the rest of my life for the purpose, I doubt I could cover adequately half the ground I now think worth investigating. When I say adequately I have in mind five days I spent looking especially for these birds with men such as Bob Allen and Alex Sprunt on an area of some ten thousand acres known to be frequented by several pairs of these birds without seeing one. Of course this was due to the element of luck, as others have gone in the same area for a few hours and seen one or two. But it indicates the time one would have to spend in these great river valleys to really be reasonably sure that the birds were absent or even extremely rare therein.” Tanner was one person, and he clearly didn’t have the time to devote to the thorough survey Stoddard suggested, but the later record suggests that he failed even more deeply to take Stoddard’s words to heart. Stoddard’s perspective leaves room for the possibility that Tanner grossly underestimated the ivorybill population in his monograph, something that might lead to very different projections about the likelihood of survival today. It also sheds additional light on the difficulties in searching for ivorybills and on what appear to be some significant blindspots in Tanner’s thinking about the species.

I recently wrote a Facebook post in which I stated Tanner had a “hard time” finding Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. A very prominent American birder and ivorybill skeptic promptly shot back asking for citations, which I provided; I wouldn’t play along with the snarky response, but the exchange gave me the impetus to write this post. To most birders, Tanner is a kind of heroic figure, a pioneer ornithologist, and the author of the only in-depth, definitive study of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a bird that, in Tanner’s telling (and even more so in the retelling), was a super specialist that depended on virgin forest for its survival. Tanner is also rightly seen as having played a central role in the development of modern environmentalism, fighting to save the Singer Tract itself and later helping to create Congaree National Park, one of the few remaining substantial old growth stands in the south.

Those who are more deeply steeped in ivorybill lore are likely to have a somewhat different perspective, even as they admire Tanner’s good qualities. In later years, Tanner became increasingly dogmatic about ivorybill habitat requirements and was usually harshly dismissive of  reports from others – including John Dennis in Texas and Agey and Heinzmann in Florida. (This dismissiveness began to take hold in the early 1950s.) By no later than 1985, and probably much earlier than that, Tanner had become convinced the ivorybill was extinct, a conviction that he usually leavened with the statement that he’d love to be proven wrong. Ivorybill aficionados may also raise questions about the 1930s surveys he conducted in the southeast, and the rapidity with which he dismissed almost every place he visited as being unsuitable, sometimes based on a visit lasting a day or two. Most of these visits were made outside of breeding season, at times when finding ivorybills was considerably more difficult.

Tanner may have been right to dismiss many of these areas, but the possibility that he might have missed several populations cannot be ruled out, especially in light of the letter from Stoddard, an established ornithologist with first-hand knowledge of the species. At minimum, Stoddard’s letter put Tanner on notice that ivorybills could be very difficult to find.

Were preconceived beliefs driving Tanner from 1937-1939; was he being cavalier in his dismissals; or was he simply doing his best to accomplish what Stoddard said would take a lifetime in a few weeks spread over three years? It was probably all of the above, but whatever the reason, his mindset became an even bigger problem as time went on, leading him to foment the false impression that ivorybills should be easy to find, a notion that informed the views of my interlocutor on Facebook and of many those who believe the species is extinct.

The fact is that when Tanner was in the Singer Tract, the only birds he could find on a regular basis were the “John’s Bayou Family”, the group first studied in 1935. Their nesting and roosting grounds were approximately 1 mile from Sharkey Road. From 1935-1939, the birds nested in the same general vicinity. Three of the four nests were in very close proximity to one another, and the greatest distance between any two nest sites was 3/4 of a mile. Despite this clustering, it took Tanner five days to find a nest in 1939, when he didn’t have J.J. Kuhn (who had been forced out of his job as Singer Tract Warden) to assist him.

While Tanner paid respect to and credited Kuhn, the passage of time has made it increasingly clear that he downplayed the degree to which he depended on Kuhn to find ivorybills. Kuhn had been observing the birds for several years before the 1935 expedition (which also took several days to find ivorybills), and it’s reasonable to infer that the John’s Bayou family was already somewhat habituated to human presence by 1935. Certainly after ’35, they were accustomed to human activity in the immediate vicinity of their nest sites.

The only other ivorybill Tanner saw was one he named Mack’s Bayou Pete, presumably a bird hatched in 1935 from a nest that Kuhn found. As with the John’s Bayou pair, this bird was found within a home range that had been roughly delineated in 1935; Tanner believed he could recognize Pete’s voice, but the bird was far more frequently heard than seen.

Edited to Add: I’ve been reminded that the 1935 Mack’s Bayou Nest failed, and that Pete more likely fledged in 1937. The fate of the adult Mack’s Bayou pair is unknown. And that Tanner did encounter a wandering family group while watching the John’s Bayou birds. There was no indication of territoriality.

Tanner continued to correspond with informants in the Singer Tract until 1948 or ’49 and was advised that one or two birds remained until that time. As Tanner’s temporal distance from his experiences in the Singer Tract grew, so did the distortions in his memory. These distortions are perhaps most dramatically illustrated in an article he wrote entitled “A Forest Alive”, which was published posthumously in Birdwatch (2001), a British magazine. Prominent ivorybill skeptic Martin Collinson mentioned the article and quoted it at some length in a 2007 blog post:

Collinson concluded his post with this observation: “As others have pointed out… you can only rationalise the failure of the current searches if you don’t include the words ‘active and noisy’, ‘called frequently’ and ‘easier to see and follow’, in your dataset.”

Of course, Tanner’s observations applied only to the John’s Bayou birds studied in close proximity to a nest. More importantly, Tanner’s recollection was incomplete and inaccurate, and he corrected it in another, humbler, posthumous piece that appeared in Birdwatcher’s Digest (2000) under the title “A Postscript on Ivorybills”. Tanner began by observing that, “Like everyone else’s memory, mine forgets the annoying and unpleasant things and remembers the pleasing; the mosquitoes go but the birdsong remains. Mine is also likely to forget the important and regular events and retain the trivial and unusual.”

The article makes it clear that finding even the John’s Bayou birds (which had a known territory and roosting ground) could be difficult and was even harder outside of nesting season. Tanner concluded with this reminiscence: “Hunting in other areas of the Singer Tract for ivorybills was even more difficult and discouraging. My journal is full of such comments as ‘saw old sign, lots of impenetrable vines, and no ivorybills.’ The only other ivorybill we ever found outside of the one nesting pair and their offspring was a single male that we dubbed Mack’s Bayou Pete because of the area he usually inhabited. He was hard to find and once found was soon lost . . . ”  And to reiterate, Mack’s Bayou Pete’s home range was at least something of a known quantity.

By 1985, Tanner was advising the US Fish and Wildlife Service to classify the ivorybill as extinct. He gave the following reasons, to paraphrase:

1) The reports have been unconfirmed and they often describe behavior that is characteristic of Pileateds (flushing from stumps and logs).

Tanner described this as being rare in ivorybills, which may or may not be true, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Allen and Kellogg observed a female feeding on the ground. Moreover, not all reports involved this behavior.

2) There’s so much recreational use of areas where ivorybills used to be present that people should be hearing and seeing them, and there are no extensive areas of former IBWO habitat that are remote and unvisited.

What’s omitted from this analysis is the fact that the beginning of nesting season and the end of deer season are roughly congruent, at least in Louisiana. This means that there’s actually very little human traffic in many prime nesting areas during the times when birds are most active and vocal. And of course, the John’s Bayou area was not particularly remote, although other parts of the Singer Tract were considerably more difficult to reach.

3) Ivorybills are fairly conspicuous birds that, “if present . . . are not hard to find. Furthermore, the feeding sign they made (scaling bark from extensive areas of not long dead limbs and trees) could be easily recognized as a clue to their presence.”

With regard to the feeding sign, I have to wonder what Tanner would say about the sign we’ve found that appears to match this description perfectly. With regard to being easy to find, Tanner’s field notes and his reminiscence in “A Postscript . . .” make it clear that ivorybills were extremely difficult to find, except in extraordinary circumstances – in close proximity to a nest and perhaps with a good deal of habituation to human presence.

Tanner’s story is amazing. His monograph is seminal though not gospel. The in-depth examination of his work in Stephen Lyn Bales’s Ghost Birds is essential reading. Many of his later pronouncements, however, have done a disservice and continue to sow confusion more than two decades after his death.

I’m indebted to Fredrik Bryntesson for sharing Herbert Stoddard’s 1936 letter and reminding me of Tanner’s missive to USFWS. This piece is informed by years of discussion with Frank Wiley. He also made a number of constructive suggestions about the specific content. Direct descendants excepted, Frank was undoubtedly J.J. Kuhn’s greatest admirer.