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.

 

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Bits and Pieces Part 5: More on Range and Habitat Variety

I intended this long-delayed installment in the “Bits and Pieces” series to be the year’s final post. I also intended it to the be final installment in the series. While this may end up as the last post for 2017, I’ve decided to cut this short and save some discussion for what I anticipate will REALLY be the final installment.

Follow the links for Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

I’ll begin by reiterating that my focus here is not just on records from outside what’s commonly believed to be the historic range but also on records from habitats that depart from the stereotype that has emerged since the 1940s. Those who have studied the ivorybill’s natural history in depth understand that the species was not limited to Singer Tract-like habitats, and Tanner himself made this clear. Nevertheless, there’s a widespread tendency to think about habitat quality with a somewhat romanticized image of the Singer Tract – a vast contiguous area of old growth or virgin forest with huge trees and a high canopy – as the touchstone; Matt Courtman blamed this tendency on internalized beliefs. And for my part, I sometimes find it hard to shake these beliefs.

Ivorybill anatomy is specialized and particularly well-adapted to scaling bark, but the specialization pertains to securing food sources not easily retrieved by other woodpeckers (including Pileated) during the breeding season; it is not a specialization tied to particular tree species or habitat types.

Before moving on to a discussion of other records that don’t fit the Singer Tract model, I wanted to address something Cyberthrush said in an October post linking to this series. He wrote:

One of my hopes for the widespread USFWS/Cornell search was that it would at least narrow any possible IBWO persistence down to a very few (perhaps 2-3) localized areas; instead the failed endeavor left open the possibility of 2 dozen or more (sometimes little-birded) areas that scarce IBWOs might conceivably utilize. The lack of a single Ivory-billed Woodpecker appearing on remote, automatic cameras by now at more traditional and well-searched areas remains a pretty devastating obstacle to hope for the species… unless indeed it has found a home in the canopies of less-obvious, lightly human-trafficked woodlands.

I don’t want to hold out too much false(?) hope for this species, but on the other hand I believe most southeast woodland habitat is rarely birded in any regular or significant fashion and the vast majority of individual woodland birds are never systematically recorded — moreover, the ornithological literature is rife with weak, unscientific conclusions/generalizations/assumptions about bird behavior, and perhaps even bird biology. There’s just a lot we don’t know, while pretending we do.

While I don’t share Cyberthrush’s perspective on the lack of remote camera photos (or canopies), he makes very good points about the overall paucity of birding activity in many southeastern forests (I have never encountered other birders in the field) and about the limits of our knowledge.

With regard to his disappointment in the organized search effort, I suspect his hopes were founded in part on similar internalized beliefs; these beliefs were reflected to some extent in the excellent lists of potential habitat compiled by Bob Russell and Bill Pulliam that were so widely referenced a decade or so ago. That’s not to say the listed locations were unworthy of attention (and some of them have yet to receive much); however, there are many other areas that were not included.

In discussing his search efforts in one of these areas, Bill summed it up very well:

Many forest birds have modified their habitat usage in recent decades and centuries. Chimney Swifts are an obvious example; also quite telling is the Vaux’s Swift which has only begun moving out of old growth and into chimneys in the last few decades. But of more direct relevance, consider the following quotes:

When found they are usually in regions of original forest growth, rarely being seen where the woods have been once cut over. […] As this Woodpecker seems not to possess the faculty of adapting itself to the new conditions created by civilization, it is quite possible that it will not long survive the passing of our primeval forests. T. Gilbert Pearson, Birds of America, 1936.

Its presence in a region is more often revealed by the large cavities it excavates in dead stumps and trunks than by actual observation of the bird itself. […] This species is common only in the wilder parts of its range. Frank M. Chapman, Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, 1939.

Both of these early 20th Century characterizations are of the habitat requirements of the Pileated Woodpecker. In fact, as we all know, over the intervening decades Pileateds managed to adapt to forest fragmentation and second growth quite well, thank you, and are now widespread in habitats well beyond the range of what was described in the 1930s.

There’s also another fundamental, perhaps somewhat tautological factor at work. If in fact Ivorybills were an obligate old-growth bird, then yes, they are now extinct. If they were never able to utilize second growth and fragmented forest, then there is absolutely no reason to be looking for them now anywhere. But even given the historical accounts of their habits they demonstrated a bit more flexibility than this; and given the actual history of Pileateds and various other forest birds since the industrial revolution, it seems brash and unjustified to presume that the habitat utilization of a 21st Century Ivorybill would be the same as that of one in the 19th Century.

We now know that even within the Singer Tract, ivorybills nested successfully at Mack’s Bayou, an area that was predominantly second growth, and I’d suggest that ivorybills showed more than “a bit more flexibility”, when one looks at the historical record.

As Fangsheath at ibwo.net has pointed out both on the forum and in an email, most of the ivorybill localities referenced by Tanner are from within 20 miles of the coast, and “[t]hese coastal forests are quite different from the Singer Tract.” In many of these coastal areas, tree size would have been smaller, the understory would have been thicker, and the canopy would have been lower due to hurricanes and other factors. In addition, the coastal records may have implications for survival in fragmented habitat types.

There are a number of records from Florida and South Carolina involving offshore islands. While most if not all of these offshore islands would have been covered in old growth forest at the time of collection, reaching them would have required crossing expanses of open water or marsh.

In South Carolina, there were multiple reports from barrier islands into the 1880s. A specimen collected in 1879 or 1880 is now lost. Hoxie, writing in 1918, reported that ivorybills were generally “unpersecuated or harmed by man” and that they had opportunistically fed on the barrier islands, following hurricanes, but disappeared when the food supply was exhausted.

My knowledge about Florida and conditions there is limited, but it seems clear that ivorybills lived and bred in a variety of habitats. Florida is also the largest single source of specimens and probably had the largest ivorybill population in the country. What may also be relevant is their apparent use of of mangrove forests, including potentially some 1-2 miles away from the mainland, especially in the Everglades region. As with barrier islands, use of this habitat may have involved crossing some open water between mainland forests (e.g., Big Cypress, associated forested sloughs, and open pine woods, leading to the Gulf of Mexico) and mangrove forests, both along the coastline and in the area referred to as the Ten Thousand Islands, extending south to where Tanner relayed reports during the 1930s from Shark and Lostman’s Rivers within what is now Everglades National Park.

To end this tour of ‘unexpected’ habitats and ‘extralimital’ records, let’s jump north and west by a thousand miles or so and consider records from Arkansas/Missouri and Virginia.

The Arkansas/Missouri records are from George Featherstonhaugh who explored the area in the 1830s and published his account in 1844 as Excursion Through the Slave States from Washington on the Potomac to the Frontier of Mexico; with Sketches of Popular Manners and Geological Notices. Featherstonhaugh reported seeing ivorybills in two different locations – one from a bottomland area above the confluence of the Ouachita and Caddo Rivers, in the vicinity of present day Arkadelphia, AR. This passage is from Volume 2.

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The second location appears in Volume 1 and is more interesting for the purposes of this discussion, since it involves fire damaged upland forest, likely oak-dominated, with hickory and perhaps some shortleaf pine. It’s not clear whether the site is in present day Arkansas or present day Missouri. Either way, it appears to be on the edge of the Ozark Plateau where it meets the Mississippi Alluvial Plain. As an aside, Featherstonhaugh seems to have had an eye for detail and a dry sense of humor:

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Whether the birds were resident in this area or were merely feeding opportunistically in the fire damaged table-land, the habitat involved bears no resemblance to the Spanish Moss festooned, swamp forest stereotype.

Back in October, Matt Courtman discovered that Thomas Jefferson included the ivorybill on his list of Virginia birds found in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). While some authors have suggested that Jefferson was merely following Catesby, it has also been argued that Jefferson’s list was “a product of his personal observations”. If this is true, Jefferson’s observation would not have been from the Great Dismal Swamp (where Pearson thought ivorybills might be present in the early 20th-century), since Jefferson never went south of Norfolk.

Thomas Nuttall, writing in the 1830s, described the ivorybill as being “seldom seen to the north of Virginia and rarely in that state.” In The History of Ornithology in Virginia (2003), Johnston dismisses Nuttall’s assertion but also points to a much earlier and unambiguous record from an upland site, one that seems to have been otherwise overlooked.

The record is from a Native American midden dating to the early Woodland period, ca. 300 CE (AD). The site, Daugherty’s Cave, was used for millennia. It’s in the western part of the state, far from the coastal plain, at an elevation of approximately 2000′. The context suggests that the remains were not trade goods, and Johnston deems it to be “the only known record of this bird from Virginia”.

I’m struck by the fact that if the ivorybill had gone extinct before 1700, and we only had the scant archaeological record to go on, we’d imagine it to be a bird associated with upland forests. On a more serious note and perhaps one more relevant to the discussion that will follow in the next post, I wonder whether the appearance of ivorybill remains in Appalachian middens around 1800 years ago is related to the spread of maize agriculture and tree kills associated with this new farming technology.

So what inferences can be drawn from all this information and what are the implications? I have some thoughts, not all of them had occurred to me before I began  this exploration, and I hope they’ll inspire readers to reflect and come up with their own new insights.

The first and perhaps most mundane observation is that the range maps with which we’re all so familiar, like the one below from the IUCN, reflect the ivorybill’s status after what was likely a long period of decline, especially east of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, these maps reinforce ideas about habitat requirements and tree species associations that are, at best, oversimplifications.

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For contrast, I’ve updated the map I created showing most of the records discussed in this series.

This is not to suggest that reports from outside this “historic” range should be taken seriously today. The map is a fairly accurate reflection of the reality post-Civil War. The more important questions are why the range started to shrink, probably during the 18th-century, and what this more complex analysis of potential habitat types might imply for the species’ survival. That will be the subject of the next and final installment.


Change of Pace, Change of Place: Trip Report and Sighting Follow-Up, November 16-21, 2017

On October 22nd, I received an email reporting a recent ivorybill sighting in eastern Louisiana. I found the report convincing for its high level of detail and decided to devote my next trip to following up on it. The source was Joseph Tyler Saucier, a pastor, avid hunter, and Louisiana native whom I’ve known virtually since early 2014, when he wrote and expressed his interest in Project Coyote. We exchanged a few emails at that time, but he was in more frequent contact with Frank. I have no doubt about his honesty.

When I asked him if I could post his entire report, with location details redacted, he courageously volunteered to attach his name to the sighting.  In addition to the initial report, I’m including some further comments he made when I shared my impressions of the area and asked if I could include his description in the post. His words should speak for themselves.

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I was a friend of Frank and talked to him on a few occasions about my own experiences with the IBWO. I saw a lone male when I was about 14 years old on my grandfathers property in West Central Louisiana. After many years of searching without success, I became a IBWO agnostic/ skeptic. I’m an avid hunter and the last two years I had pretty much given up on even thinking about the bird. Saturday morning that changed. I went on a annual squirrel hunting trip over the weekend . . . the birds presence there it never crossed my mind. On Saturday at approximately 9:30 am I was in pursuit of a squirrel . . . in a section of large trees. I saw through some brush a black animal with white stripes slowly making its way up the truck of a large tree. My first thought, was it was a black squirrel with white marks on it which would be the kill of a lifetime. I had killed a black squirrel the previous afternoon. My second thought, as the animal became more visible was that it was a skunk with white stripes somehow climbing up the bottom of the tree. Then suddenly, the bird came into better view and into the sunlight. I first noticed that it wasn’t climbing the tree slowly but was hoping or bobbing up the tree. I noticed the two clear stripes coming down from the neck to the lower back. When I reached for my phone in my front pocket the bird quickly turned its head in my direction. At that moment, I noticed the most startling thing I’ve ever seen. The bill on the bird was solid white. The sun illuminated its radiance as it stuck out against the dark bark of the tree. I noticed a black underdeveloped crest. Judging by the size and underdevelopment of the crest it was a fledgling. Suddenly, the bird flew to my right then ascended upwards and swung to my left where the bird was met in the air by a larger woodpecker without any red on its crest. The soaring birds quickly were no longer visible. I did not get the best view of them flying off because I was obstructed by trees and brush. I believe once again and have no doubt about what I saw. I know I won’t be taken seriously but do you think I should contact anyone . . . about this sighting?

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Thank you for your steadfastness and detailed report. I wish I could have gone assisted you guys on the search. Unfortunately, a number of things required my attention. Mark you can use my name or report as you wish. I’m certain that I viewed at least one IBWO. I’ve typically hunted once or twice a week for about 17 years and I see Pileated Woodpeckers nearly every outing. I know the difference. A large Woodpecker with two white stripes, a long ivory bill, and a solid black crest stood out. Certainly, some will roll their eyes or be dismissive of my sighting. I’ve simply shared what I saw and the experience itself helped heal this doubting Thomas.

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Steve Pagans and I visited the vicinity between November 16-21, spending a total of five days in the field and covering just over 23 miles. We had no possible sightings but heard what I’d describe as a weak possible single knock on the afternoon of the 21st. Because we were talking at the time, and there were some hunters in the vicinity, gunshot is a distinct possibility. I did not find the kinds of feeding sign I’ve suggested may be diagnostic for ivorybill; however, we did find several concentrations of bark scaling involving a variety of tree species. I usually post my trip reports as day-by-day logs, but since this involves a new area, I’ll take a different approach to summarizing our observations.

Habitat Characteristics

The area is part of a large parcel of bottomland hardwoods, much of it maturing second growth. Forest composition more closely resembles the old Project Coyote search area than the new one; Nuttall oaks, honey locusts, and pecans, which are absent from the new search area, are abundant. Overall, the forest is more mature than in the old search area, with many trees between 2′-3′ DBH, and some oaks and gums exceeding that in the most mature sections.

I have the impression that the harvest of cypresses from the area was limited. We only saw a couple of old stumps, and many seemingly healthy, large trees can be found, including the largest ones I’ve ever seen.

The woods are breathtakingly beautiful, and if ivorybills have persisted, I think the habitat is adequate to support them.

 

 

 

Woodpeckers and Nuthatches

Pileateds, Red-bellieds, Hairies, Downies, Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were abundant, and impressionistically, there were many more Sapsuckers than in the current Project Coyote search area. By contrast, Red-headed Woodpeckers were scarce; we only heard three over five days. We encountered no White-breated Nuthatches (which are very common in our current search area) or Red-breasted Nuthatches and got no responses to playbacks of both species. Playback of the (putative ivorybill) March calls sometimes provoked apparent reactions from Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers and from Red-shouldered Hawks.

Cavities

Finding cavities can be challenging, especially when the canopy is high, leaves have not all fallen, and the mid-story is thick. In addition, Pileated Woodpecker cavities vary considerably, and there are no data on the dimensions of ivorybill roosts. All we know is that ivorybill nests tend to be larger and more irregularly shaped than Pileated nests. It seems reasonable to infer that the same would apply to roosts. While cavities may not be strong indicators of presence, it’s still worth looking for outliers. We found two on this trip, one in a honey locust (which has harder wood than most oak species) and one in an American elm.

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Large cavity in a honey locust snag

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Large cavity in an American elm

Feeding Sign

As noted, we did not find any feeding sign that matches the diagnostic criteria I’ve hypothesized for ivorybill work. We did, however, find a decent quantity of bark scaling. Our field impression was that bark scaling was not as abundant as it is in our main search area, but on reviewing the photographs I took over five days, I’m doubting that impression.

We found bark scaling, some fresh some older, on a number of species – honey locust, sweet gum, red maple, persimmon (old and not photographed), and sassafras (not photographed and consistent with PIWO scaling on the species that I’ve found locally). The bark of small red maples is easy to scale, so this work too could well be Pileated.

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In the area where we found the cavity in a honey locust, there appeared to have been a substantial die-off of that species, and several snags had scaling on the upper branches and boles. Honey locust bark is very hard and tight when the tree is alive and shortly after death, but it softens, loosens and becomes easy to remove, as was the case of the snag shown below. Examination revealed that the snag shown below was infested with termites, making PIWO the likely culprit, at least with regard to the most recent work.

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There was scaling, both old and new, on a number of recently dead honey locusts in the vicinity.

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The bark remained hard and very tight on the recently downed locust shown below; however, the appearance and extent of the scaling are suggestive of Pileated. Squirrel is also possible, although there were signs of insect infestation.

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Sweet gum scaling was also abundant. Most of it was on higher branches and involved small limbs. The largest limb is shown in the first image below. Most of the chips were small, and all of the work strikes me as being within the range of what’s physically possible for Pileated. There was a time when some of this work would have excited me more. Nevertheless, the fact that bark scaling is abundant in the area is encouraging, since Pileated Woodpeckers scale bark relatively infrequently.  In addition, scaling is likely to be less abundant at this time of year, when other food sources are readily available.

 

 

Snakes

I always enjoy including herp photos when the opportunity presents itself. Steve nearly stepped on the rattlesnake, the biggest I’ve ever seen. I was glad to be wearing snake boots. The eastern ribbon and garter were mesmerizing.

 

 

Some Closing Thoughts

The forest is extensive. We focused on the vicinity of Joseph’s sighting, coming in from several different directions.  Many acres remain to be explored. We found little beaver sign but understand that beavers are abundant in nearby, much less accessible patches of similarly mature forest. Hunters frequent the area, but as in many other patches of potential ivorybill habitat, signs of human activity – litter, shotgun shells, flagging – diminish the farther one goes from existing ATV trails.

While Steve and I didn’t see or hear anything strongly suggestive of ivorybill, I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the habitat. I came away convinced that this area merits further attention, and that would be the case even without Joseph’s report. There is far more such habitat in Louisiana than most casual followers of the ivorybill saga imagine, and while I plan to remain focused on the current Project Coyote search area, I will do my best to give this area the attention it deserves.


Bits and Pieces Part 4: Rethinking Range and “Suitable Habitat”

Part 1.

Part 2.

Part 3.

Bottom line upfront: In pre-contact and early colonial times and into the 19th century, Ivory-billed Woodpeckers inhabited a more varied and expansive range than most people realize. The range probably reached from the southern tip of Florida to central Ohio, with the 40th parallel as the approximate northern limit, westward to St. Louis and perhaps along the Missouri River. As discussed in the previous post, the western limit of the range appears to have been somewhere around the 96 or 97th Meridian, in the southwest, and probably somewhat farther east at the northwestern edge, if unproven historic reports from the Kansas City area are valid. Outside of coastal areas, distribution appears to have followed riparian corridors to its outer limits, and there are no records from elevations of over ~1000′.

A couple of maps may be useful for additional information about forest, bioregion, and habitat types and may help with visualization along with my map of records from unexpected habitats.

This is a new avenue of exploration for me, and I’m not personally familiar with many of the areas involved. I need to do additional research on areas within Tanner’s range map, along the coasts and in Florida, to be sure my characterizations are accurate. I’m leaving some of these locations on the master map for now (but removing them from the graphic below which includes extralimital and edge of range records). The master map is thus subject to change, so view it with the caveat that the notations may be incomplete or inaccurate. This post will address locations that are outside the confines of Tanner’s 1942 range map, although he accepted some of these records in 1989.

 

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As in the previous post, my analysis relies on records accompanied by reported physical evidence (even if that evidence has been lost) and to Native American sites where remains found are deemed unlikely to have been trade items. I relied on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Recovery Plan, Appendix E, Tanner, Jackson, and a few additional sources.

Before undertaking a whirlwind tour of the locations involved, I thought I should return to the mythology discussed in the previous post. I chose my words poorly in describing that mythology: “To a large extent these beliefs treat the Singer Tract as a model – a vast tract of “virgin” bottomland forest dominated by oaks and sweetgums, with abundant, moss-draped cypress for atmosphere (although ivorybills seem to have avoided cypress in the Tract).”

In fairness to Tanner, he didn’t characterize cypress as being abundant in the Tract. (It was not.) And his overall view was that cypress-tupelo swamps were not good ivorybill habitat. Audubon, with his romantic, indeed gothic, language is the father of the cypress myth.

I wish, kind reader, it were in my power to present to your mind’s eye the favourite resort of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Would that I could describe the extent of those deep morasses, overshadowed by millions of gigantic dark cypresses, spreading their sturdy moss-covered branches, as if to admonish intruding man to pause and reflect on the many difficulties which he must encounter, should he persist in venturing farther into their almost inaccessible recesses, extending for miles before him, where he should be interrupted by huge projecting branches, here and there the massy trunk of a fallen and decaying tree, and thousands of creeping and twining plants of numberless species! Would that I could represent to you the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition, although covered with a beautiful but treacherous carpeting, composed of the richest mosses, flags, and water-lilies, no sooner receiving the pressure of the foot than it yields and endangers the very life of the adventurer, whilst here and there, as he approaches an opening, that proves merely a lake of black muddy water, his ear is assailed by the dismal croaking of innumerable frogs, the hissing of serpents, or the bellowing of alligators! Would that I could give you an idea of the sultry pestiferous atmosphere that nearly suffocates the intruder during the meridian heat of our dogdays, in those gloomy and horrible swamps! But the attempt to picture these scenes would be vain. Nothing short of ocular demonstration can impress any adequate idea of them. 

Hasbrouck (1891) perpetuated the emphasis on cypress and very low-lying locations:

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Hasbrouck’s explanation of the Missouri extralimital records is odd. The locations given are well outside bald cypress range.

That aside, the myth discussed in the previous post is a composite. The emphasis on cypress originates with Audubon and Hasbrouck, and the emphasis on large tracts, old growth, oaks, sweetgums, and tree size is largely drawn from Tanner.

Here are the extralimital records:

Reedy River, South Carolina: Nest with eggs reportedly collected in 1896 and later lost. The location is in the Piedmont, south of Greenville, at an elevation of approximately 900′. The Reedy flows into the Salad, which flows into the Congaree. This report is listed in the Recovery Plan because it was accepted by Sprunt as “definitive” but is considered highly questionable.

Etowah Mounds, Georgia: Pre-contact site, elevation approximately 700′. Presumably not trade goods “but requires further discussion” per the Recovery Plan. The Etowah River is at the northern end of the Alabama River watershed.

Between Martinsburg, West Virginia and Winchester, Virginia: Specimen reportedly collected by Wilson ca. 1810. Elevation at Winchester is 725′ and at Martinsburg is 453′. This would appear to be in the Potomac watershed.

Moundsville, West Virginia: Two lower mandibles found in a pre-contact (early Common Era, 0-200) midden. Potentially trade goods. Elevation 696′. The location is on the Ohio River.

Philo, Ohio: Near the Muskingum River. Tarsometatarsus found in pre-contact midden, dates from ca. 1100-1500. Elevation 735′.

Sciotto County, Ohio: Same as above. Elevation of the site is 1050′, but the nearby Sciotto River is lower. The site is about 10 miles from the Ohio, and the elevation at the confluence is 533′.

Ross County, Ohio: Same as above. Also on the Sciotto River but farther upstream. Elevation 863′

Near Troy, Ohio: Near the Miami River, March 1804 sight record by Gerard Hopkins, a Quaker envoy to the Miami and Pottwatomi. The report includes a description, “. . . resembling the red headed woodcock of Maryland, except that its head is black and its bill ivory. ” (Leese 2001). Omitted from the map because it doesn’t involve a specimen, but included here because it adds weight to the archaeological records.

Franklin County, Indiana: Report of a specimen, 1869, now lost. Elevation at least 490′. Probably along the Whitewater River, an Ohio tributary. There are a number of early reports from Indiana, but no other reported specimens and no archaeological records. In light of Audubon’s collection at Henderson, KY (just across the Ohio River) as well as the Ohio records, it seems likely that ivorybills were present in parts of Indiana into the 19th century.

Henderson, Kentucky: Female specimen collected by Audubon in July 1810 and used as a model for his first painting of the species. Elevation 400′. This record does not appear in the Recovery Plan or Jackson, and it seems to have been overlooked by researchers. Audubon’s own notation describes the location as “Red Banks”, on the Ohio River at the northernmost limit of the cypress-tupelo association, well upstream from the confluence with the Mississippi. Article by R. Haven Wiley in Kentucky Warbler, May 1970.

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Stanford, Kentucky: Pair reported, with one specimen collected by a Colonel Fleming, 1790. Record accepted by Tanner in 1989. Elevation 942′. The Dix River, which flows into the Kentucky and thence the Ohio, is nearby.

Cahokia Mounds, Illinois: East of the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri, 1500s or earlier, tarsometatarsus. Elevation 490′.

Forest Park, Missouri or Vicinity: West of the confluence of  the Mississippi and Missouri. Specimen collected 1896 and in the collection of the Colorado Museum of Natural History. Elevation approximately 500′.

I find it interesting that Ohio is the state with the most pre-contact records involving likely food items – 3 out of a total of 4-6.

With regard to Missouri and the Missouri River watershed, Hasbrouck accepted reports from Fayette and Kansas City, and given the overall picture, this does not seem implausible. In addition, there were persistent reports from the vicinity of Lake of the Ozarks, in the Missouri River watershed, until the end of the 1940s; Tanner received information about Missouri reports from local Audubon society officers but apparently disregarded it. There’s no way to assess the validity of these old, anecdotal claims and no evidence to support them, but given this perspective on the historic range, they may be somewhat less far-fetched than it seems at first glance.

I’m heading for Louisiana soon. More after I return – a trip report and probably two additional installments.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for Part 4.


Not So ‘Virgin’ Forest: The Singer Tract Myth Debunked

Update: This post includes hard data about the extent of old growth in the Singer Tract (scroll down past all photographs) and in ivorybill home ranges. The general points made below remain valid, although some of the wording is perhaps too strong; Tanner overestimated the amount of old growth in the Tract ( at “over 80%” v. 72% in fact), and the Mack’s Bayou home range was predominantly second growth.

This post is a companion to the previous one and to others discussing habitat conditions in the Singer Tract. Those posts reference Richard Pough’s 1944 report to the Audubon Society. Pough, whose study was never published, noted that much of the Singer Tract had actually been under cultivation prior to the Civil War. But it’s worth taking a closer look at just how much.

Tanner characterized the Singer Tract as “the largest tract of virgin timber in the Mississippi Delta,” contending that it contained “120 square miles of virgin forest in 1934”. He also wrote that the largest plantation “had about 3000 acres under cultivation,” while suggesting that “some of the early settlers along the Tensas River cleared land along the river banks for cotton fields.” Thus, the myth of the Singer Tract as virgin forest was born.

It’s not clear where Tanner got his information, but some of his characterizations are not supported by the historical record; the language about “early settlers” almost seems disingenuous when one looks at the history of Madison Parish. (Rootsweb has many pages devoted to this subject, and I’ve drawn heavily on them for this analysis.) As should become evident, there was a great deal of human activity in and around the Singer Tract, especially prior to the Civil War. I will suggest that most, perhaps virtually all, of the arable land in the parish, had been cleared for agricultural purposes and that the Singer Tract was a mix of second growth and remnant old growth, most of which was in the lower-lying, wetter areas that Tanner deemed to be less suitable for ivorybills.

A 1937 Masters thesis in economics by Robert L. Moncrief, “The Economic Development of the Tallulah Territory”, provides a great deal of information about the parish and its history. In the post-Columbian era, the area was very sparsely settled until the 1830s. Madison Parish was established in 1839, and in 1840, steamboats began plying the Tensas River. A major population influx began in 1836, and the population kept growing until the Civil War, going from 5,142 in 1840 to 14,133 in 1860. The war led to a dramatic decline to a mere 8,600 in 1870. Over the next couple of decades, the numbers grew again to 14,135 in 1890. Changing economic conditions and the boll weevil outbreak caused another decline that was only reversed between 1920 and 1940, when the number of residents reached 14,826. By 2010, it had fallen to 12,093.

Cotton and the quality of the soil drove this influx. By 1850, there were 27 landowners in the parish who owned more than $20,000 (over $590,000 in 2015 dollars) worth of real estate. The largest holding was valued at $140,000 (well over $4,000,000 in today’s dollars).

According to Moncrief, “the newcomers cleared away the heavy forests and planted the new ground in the favored crop then, as now –– cotton. They cleared all the lands fronting water courses (which are the highest and most desirable lands for cultivation in this region) to form a continuous line of plantations along the streams.” Streams in this context refers not just to the Tensas but also to the smaller non-navigable bayous. Cotton raised along the smaller streams was brought down to the Tensas in flat-bottomed boats.

Moncrief’s thesis also includes figures for cotton and corn production in Madison Parish. Cotton production peaked at over 46,000 bales in 1858. (Pough was apparently incorrect in stating it was over 100,000 bales; he may have combined the total with that of an adjoining parish.) It had fallen to 1,830 by the end of the war. Production recovered between 1870 and 1875 and reached a postwar/pre-boll weevil peak of 25,981 bales in 1890, about the same level of production as in 1936. Corn production peaked at 618,620 bushels in 1859, falling dramatically after the war, peaking at 836,000 bushels in 1909, and then falling to 320,000 by 1936. My crude, back of the envelope estimate based on  yields of 5 bales per acre for cotton and 15 bushels per acre for corn, suggests that between a quarter and a third of the total acreage in the Parish was under commercial cultivation prior to the war.

While Moncrief’s paper evokes Tanner by describing the Singer Tract as 81,102 acres (126 square miles) of virgin timber, it also notes, “The tract includes several abandoned and grown up plantations, which after the Civil War, reverted to the state and were later sold to the present owners.” The ruins of one plantation house are still standing, deep within the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge.

While it was adjacent to and not strictly part of the Singer Tract, the story of the Frisby Plantation is illustrative. The plantation was established in the early 1850s with land acquisitions taking place over the next decade. Norman Frisby, the founder, was murdered by his nephew by marriage in an 1863 in a dispute over property. When Frisby’s widow was forced to sell the plantation in 1870, it totaled 19,479 acres, and its crops generated over $77,000 in revenue (the equivalent of $1.36 million in 2015). Tanner visited the site of the plantation and photographed one of its old fields. I haven’t been able to pinpoint the location of the old house; one 19th century survey survey seems to place it in Tensas Parish, near Fool’s River. Another account (from the history of the Sharkey Plantation discussed below) says it borders Disharoon (or Dishroom) Bend, much closer to the core of the Singer Tract. As shown on this overlay of 1875 land ownership on a modern map, the Frisby holdings included parcels adjacent to Mack’s Bayou and on Dishroom Bend.

The maps help flesh out the story. An earlier and incomplete parish-wide map of patentees shows that many parcels in the Singer Tract were purchased well before Frisby started acquiring land in the 1850s. Lands purchased in the 1840s include parcels along John’s and Mack’s Bayous, which makes sense since frontlands along streams were most desirable. This history of the Sharkey Plantation reveals that land sales began in the heart of Tanner’s search area during the 1840s. The author explains that the Sharkey plantation and others like it were more like communities, with a cluster of families (and presumably their slaves) living in close proximity, near a watercourse.  The 1875 map shows that much of the Singer Tract remained in private hands even after many parcels were abandoned during the Civil War.

Perhaps even more telling is this hand drawn map of Madison and Carroll Parishes from 1862. It shows the locations of towns, roads, ferry crossings, and plantations in the Singer Tract area. While it is incomplete and John’s Bayou is not shown, Sharkey Road is there, cutting in a southwesterly direction from the Richmond-Carthage road, crossing Alligator Bayou, and the Swearingen parcel. Another road crosses the heart of the Mack’s Bayou home range and the Tensas itself. The map delineates abandoned plantations and appears to show that, except for those abandoned areas, some cotton was being grown in every division of the Singer Tract. However limited the agricultural activity may have been in these sectors, the area was hardly a primeval wilderness; habitat had been fragmented; and old growth conditions were likely restricted for the most part to areas unsuitable for farming.

This passage from an 1885 article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune sheds some additional light on conditions in the area both before and after the Civil War. “But little has been said about Tensas River and Joe’s Bayou as, but little interest is there as compared with former years. Before the war there was a continuous planting interest all along those two streams but overflows and the war left them to grow up into weeds and bushes. In 1870 Mason, and later Loyd bought cattle from other parts of the country and carried them to those bayou places for pasturage, wherein a few years they made large sums of money. This was in the neighborhood of Quebec, which before the war was a flourishing little city, shipping 7090 bales of cotton. It was at the junction of the Tensas River and the railroad. It is now a waste place and to pass there on the railroad you would never know that a town had been there.” (In The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, p.76 Hoose plays into the virgin forest myth by claiming that railroads “finally reached the Tensas River sometime around 1900.”) Quebec was just a few miles outside the tract, near Bayou Despair, where Tanner listed a pair from 1934-1936.

The Rootsweb pages provide a couple of additional and important pieces of information.

Theodore Roosevelt visited Madison Parish in 1907.  Roosevelt’s descriptions provide added detail about conditions in and around the Singer Tract several decades after the Civil War. According to Roosevelt:

“Beyond the end of cultivation towers the great forest. Wherever the water stands in pools, and by the edges of the lakes and bayous, the giant cypress loom aloft, rivalled in size by some of the red gums and white oaks. In stature, in towering majesty, they are unsurpassed by any trees of our eastern forests; lordlier kings of the green-leaved world are not to be found until we reach the sequoias and redwoods of the Sierras. Among them grow many other trees–hackberry, thorn, honeylocust, tupelo, pecan, and ash. In the cypress sloughs the singular knees of the trees stand two or three feet above the black ooze. Palmettos grow thickly in places. The canebrakes stretch along the slight rises of ground, often extending for miles, forming one of the most striking and interesting features of the country. They choke out other growths, the feathery, graceful canes standing in ranks, tall, slender, serried, each but a few inches from his brother, and springing to a height of fifteen or twenty feet. They look like bamboos; they are well-nigh impenetrable to a man on horseback; even on foot they make difficult walking unless free use is made of the heavy bush-knife. It is impossible to see through them for more than fifteen or twenty paces, and often for not half that distance. Bears make their lairs in them, and they are the refuge for hunted things. Outside of them, in the swamp, bushes of many kinds grow thick among the tall trees, and vines and creepers climb the trunks and hang in trailing festoons from the branches. Here, likewise, the bush-knife is in constant play, as the skilled horsemen thread their way, often at a gallop, in and out among the great tree trunks, and through the dense, tangled, thorny undergrowth.”

The most salient point here is that Roosevelt’s “great forest” applied to low-lying areas in which there was standing water (something that Hoose glosses over). Roosevelt also saw three Ivory-billed Woodpeckers:

“The most notable birds and those which most interested me were the great ivory-billed woodpeckers. Of these I saw three, all of them in groves of giant cypress; their brilliant white bills contrasted finely with the black of their general plumage. They were noisy but wary, and they seemed to me to set off the wildness of the swamp as much as any of the beasts of the chase.”

 

A photograph from the hunt is here. Tanner seems to have been unaware of the Roosevelt encounter. Roosevelt’s visit came just 17 years into cotton farming’s second decline and 52 years after the end of the Civil War. Habitat conditions are likely to have been poorer in general than when Tanner was there 3 decades later. The relative ease with which Roosevelt saw three ivorybills (despite their wariness) suggests they were not uncommon in 1907 and calls Tanner’s assumptions (pp. 48-50) about fire, tree death, and population influxes between 1911 and 1930 into question.

There’s another gem in the Rootsweb pages. It’s not directly on topic, but it relates to Tanner’s later dogmatism. In arguing for extinction and dismissing post-Singer Tract reports, many of which involved birds being flushed from tree stumps or other locations near the ground, Tanner characterized this behavior as being characteristic of pileateds not ivorybills.

Rootsweb has a newspaper account of  T. Gilbert Pearson‘s  visit to the Singer Tract in 1932. Pearson (who was President of the Audubon Society at the time) was the first ornithologist to confirm the presence of ivorybills in the Tract. He saw, “The birds . . . feeding on stumps of rotting trees, the tops of which had been broken off. A favorite place for feeding is also on dead limbs at or near the tops of the very tall sweet gum trees found abundantly in this region.”

The evidence that relates directly to Tanner’s study area and its immediate environs suggests that claims about “virgin forest” and IBWO dependency on old-growth are based on flawed premises. The Singer Tract was no doubt a remarkable place, a huge area of contiguous and relatively undisturbed forest, but it’s clear that much of it was not old growth or “virgin”.

It’s more useful to think about what the Singer Tract is likely to have offered Ivory-billed Woodpeckers – some measure of seclusion, enough big trees for roosting and nesting, and an abundance of standing and fallen deadwood. The myth that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker required vast tracts of “virgin” forest may be emotionally compelling, but it’s not based on evidence; it’s time to put it to rest.

I’m looking forward to spending a week in the field starting just after Christmas.