More Squirrels and No Scaling on a Mature Sweetgum

I have reviewed the entire late August-late October card and some of the June-August card for what we’ve designated as deployment 5 – a three-years dead Sweetgum stub discussed last summer. Based on approximately six months of data from this deployment, I think squirrels can be excluded as the source of extensive bark removal from mature, thick-barked hardwood boles, just as the data suggest that Pileated Woodpecker can be excluded as the source of scaling on hickories.

The only potential sources of the extensive bark removal under discussion are gray or fox squirrel, Pileated Woodpecker, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Pileated Woodpeckers appear to be unable to remove large quantities of bark from hickories in large pieces, and squirrels appear to be unable to do so on the weaker, thinner-barked sweetgums. Based on trail cam captures obtained thus far, Ivory-billed Woodpecker is the likeliest source for the extensive bark-scaling on hickories that we’ve found infrequently in our search area and that I’ve hypothesized is diagnostic for that species.

There were no woodpecker hits on this target tree, but there are multiple sequences involving squirrels. There was minimal little bark removal, and only from previously scaled areas. In fact, I have only detected one visible change to the bark. A small quantity was removed on June 9, between 11:44:13 and 11:44:33. This is shown in the details below.

Squirrels were active on this scaled patch over the course of the deployment, but whatever removed the small strip of bark on the lower right did so during that 20-second interval and was not captured on the trail camera. I think a woodpecker of some sort is probable, since a squirrel would likely have been visible on the trunk in preceding or subsequent frames.

More importantly, squirrels were captured on or around the scaled areas on multiple occasions, and the captures shed light the way they interact with bark on standing boles and what may limit their capacity to remove it.

This deployment ran from August 19-October 21. Squirrels were detected on 17 days and on or near the scaled surfaces on at least 6 of those days. As previously documented, squirrels displayed interest in the edges of the scaling and frequently appeared to be gnawing; however, they removed little or no bark. We now have numerous captures of squirrels on target boles, both scaled and unscaled, and no captures showing them removing bark in quantity or in anything other than small strips.

Squirrels are clearly capable of rapidly and efficiently removing bark from limbs, downed trees, and thinner barked boles. However, I think there are physical limits – body structure and incisor length – on their capacity to remove thick bark from standing boles.

The following images and time lapse clips show what squirrels do when confronted with thicker bark and suggest that when hanging onto a standing trunk, they lack the leverage to remove bark quickly and leave large pieces behind. This should apparent in the selection of stills and video clips shown below as well as in the sequences posted previously. (A brief discussion of squirrels on hickories follows the images.)

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Up to now, I have not been differentiating among squirrel hits on targeted trees, squirrel hits on or near scaled surfaces, and squirrel hits in other parts of the frame. Suffice it to say there many, far more than woodpecker hits on both sweet gums and hickories. Squirrels frequently show an interest in the scaled surfaces and also in other damaged areas (like the fracture in the hickory bark shown below). To date we have no examples of squirrels removing any bark from hickories, regardless of condition. It stands to reason that the limits of their capacity on hickories would far exceed what limits their capacity on sweet gums.

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Final Installment: Trail Cam Deployment and Pileated Woodpecker Hits April-October 2018.

I’ve completed reviewing the cards from the deployment discussed in three previous posts. As it turned out, the most dramatic and informative sequence was captured on July 29; it was the last sequence found in the course of the review.

To recapitulate: the tree is a hickory, and hickory bark is uniquely tough, tight, and hard to remove; when first found in early 2017, the tree had already been extensively scaled, probably during the spring and summer of 2016; additional and extensive scaling took place between early 2017 and early 2018; at the time the trail cam was first deployed in April 2018, I’d estimate that over 30% of the entire surface area of the tree had been stripped of bark.

This type of very extensive scaling on hickories has a distinctive appearance, and I hypothesize that it is diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I further hypothesize that it is beyond the physical capacity of Pileated Woodpeckers to do this type of work. We have not yet documented whatever is doing the initial scaling (which is the main objective of these deployments), but data collected thus far on Pileated Woodpecker foraging on hickories tend to exclude this species as the source of the initial work.

Minimal additional bark removal took place between April and October 2018, and all Pileated Woodpecker visits to the targeted part of the tree were captured by the trail cam, except for any that may have occurred between August 12 and August 21, when the camera malfunctioned. The images below are from the beginning and end of the deployment, and they reveal just how little bark was removed over a nearly six month period, when Pileated Woodpeckers visited the tree at least 23 times.

 

 

 

 

The breakdown of those visits may be related to beetle abundance near the interface of bark and sapwood; this could be relevant to peak ivorybill foraging times as well, although there were no possible ivorybill captures during this deployment.

Pileated Woodpeckers (alone and in pairs) visited the tree 10 times between late April and June – on May 1, May 3, May 8, May 12, May 21, May 25, May 28, May 30, June 1, and June 4.  There were nine visits between June 17 and July 3, (with two sets of of captures on June 17 and July 3rd). Hits dropped off dramatically after July 3rd. There were none between July 4 and July 25 and one each on July 26 and 28. The final hits were on September 24 and a very brief one on October 5.

The duration of these visits ranged from approximately one minute to over 20 minutes. At just under 15 minutes, with two birds present, the July 29th clip is one of the longer ones. Immediately below are the captures from July 26 and July 29 and a version of the July 29 capture at 1/10 speed, which makes it easier to see what the birds are doing while on the trunk. The relevant part of the clip ends at just after the one minute mark. If you have the capacity to download the captures and step through them frame by frame, that will also be helpful. Some additional discussion after the videos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This capture shows the most extensive single incident of bark removal by a Pileated Woodpecker over the course of the deployment. It’s also the only incident in which bark is removed from an area that is not an edge. The area in question is on the upper right.

I think this illustrates the Pileated Woodpecker’s very limited capacity for bark removal on hickories. It takes the bird several minutes to remove approximately 8″x2″ of bark (crudely estimated, based on the size of the woodpecker). This is roughly equal to, and possibly less than, the area of many of the individual chips found under the homepage tree. In addition, it appears that the PIWO removed the bark by excavating through it, not by stripping it.

It’s also worth pointing out that the snag and remaining bark are farther along in the decay process, and hence the bark is likely easier to remove, than when the first two rounds of scaling took place.

This is congruent with what I’ve hypothesized; Pileated Woodpeckers are very well adapted for excavating, and they are capable of digging through even tough, dense hickory bark; however, they appear to be excavating but not to be capable of removing it by scaling in large chunks.

We will continue to collect data, which may end up contradicting the findings thus far, all of which suggest that some other animal is responsible for the initial, very extensive scaling. The main purpose of this deployment was to document what woodpecker activity on a tree that had already been scaled; I expected that this would involve Pileated Woodpeckers, not ivorybills. It will take considerable luck to predict which trees are likely to be scaled and capture whatever is doing the initial bark removal; that’s the primary focus of this effort. There are a lot of hickories in the woods, and we’ve only found a handful of impressively scaled ones over the years.


Updated with More Pileated Woodpecker Clips: Trail Cam Results and More on a Camera Trap Tree

The original post from last week is below the updated material. It provides some important background, and I encourage you to read all the way and watch the clips.

A couple of prefatory notes for new readers: first, this discussion pertains to hickories only because the bark of trees in the genus Carya has characteristics that make it much harder to remove than any other type of tree in the southeastern U.S. Second, the video clips are time-lapse composites of images shot at 20 second intervals.

I’ve gone through most of the June-August captures from the deployment discussed in the original post and have found a number of additional examples showing one or two Pileated Woodpeckers foraging on the scaled areas. I’m including those captures and a couple of individual frames that should help illustrate what’s being described.

Pileated visits to the target tree spiked starting on June 17, with two visits on that day, one on June 18, and one on the 20th, 23rd, 24th, 25th, one on July 2, and two on July 3. There were no hits between July 4 and July 10 and no hits between August 2 and August 12. Imagery for July 11-August 1 has yet to be reviewed.

Of the sequences below, the ones from June 17, 18, and 25 are probably the most informative. They suggest that when Pileateds remove hickory bark, even on a tree that is considerably more decayed than some on which we’ve found scaling, they do so by focusing on the scaled edges, and when they do remove bark, they’re more likely to dig through it (as I’ve hypothesized) than to pry it off in flakes.

We have now obtained 22 sequences of Pileated Woodpeckers investigating or foraging on and around extensively scaled hickory boles, the first one dating back to 2013. Some captures involve lone birds and others involve pairs. Duration of the visits ranges from under 1 minute to upwards of 20 minutes. In these captures, Pileated Woodpeckers remove bark in modest quantities and with difficulty, when they remove it at all. They never scale extensively or remove bark in pieces approaching the size of those found under the homepage tree, and there is nothing in the footage obtained that suggests they are capable of doing so. I think this tends to exclude Pileated Woodpecker as the source of the initial work on hickories.

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Suspected IBWO hickory chips

 

 

 

 

These stills should shed additional light on Pileated Woodpeckers and bark removal.

 

The additional sequences are below, followed by the text of the original post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I just returned from Louisiana where I visited both the search area and the location of Joseph Saucier’s sighting last year. There were no possible encounters on this trip and just a little of potential significance ivorybill-wise. I plan to post a trip report within in the next week or so and hope to get to the long-promised evidence post in November. There may be additional posts about trail cam results if anything significant shows up. There are numerous cards to review, and I have a lot going on in a variety of arenas, but I’ll do my best to keep you all updated on a regular basis.

I’ve gone through the card for one of our deployments between August 21-October 20. The June to August card has yet to be reviewed, but these results are informative in their own right, especially in conjunction with the results from April and May, discussed here. I think they tend to support the hypothesis that Pileated Woodpeckers are not responsible for the bulk of the bark removal on live or recently dead hickories and at least indirectly to support the hypothesis that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are the only creature capable of doing this type of work. (Go here for a discussion of squirrels as a potential source.)

At Tommy Michot’s suggestion, we’re also going to start quantifying our results, including all hits that we note, regardless of what kind of animal is involved. Those results appear at the end of the post.

Like two other current target trees, which are sweet gums not hickories, I selected this one because it had already been scaled (extensively in this case); the remaining (majority of) targets have been chosen in hopes that they will be scaled in the future. For most of the hickories we’ve found, including ones that I’ve watched for extended periods of time, the bulk of the scaling appears to have been done in a single visit.

We’ve found only one example of a tree with truly fresh scaling, the home page tree. That work, found in May 2013, was probably no more than a week old, since the trunk was wet with sap and the tree died soon after. Numerous large chips were found at the base. All other examples appear to have been less recent, and in most instances, flooding appeared to have washed bark chips away.

After reviewing the captures, I was inspired to revisit the history of this particular snag, which Phil Vanbergen found in early March, 2017. It had been extensively scaled at that time, I suspect during the spring or summer of 2016 but possibly the year before. Phil found a few small chips at the base, but given the extent of the scaling, it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of the chips associated with the initial work had been washed away in one of the flooding events that had taken place during the intervening months. Phil shot this video of the tree, which shows the work extending from mid-bole up to the point where the crown had broken off; I later found what I believe to have been the crown, and it too had been scaled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bark Strips

Small Strips Found by Phil Vanbergen at Base of Scaled Hickory, Presumed Source is Pileated Woodpecker

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Downed Hickory Top showing suspected ivorybill scaling.

What sets this tree apart, is that there appears to have been a second extensive scaling event between March 2017 and March 2018 when I re-found it. While there had been a couple of floods in the course of the year, one large and a couple of medium-sized chips remained near the base of the snag, but it was apparent that most had been washed away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We deployed a trail cam on the tree in April, and one of the early frames from that deployment more clearly shows the extent of the second round of scaling, which reaches to near the base of the snag.

A comparison of that frame, one from the beginning of the mostly unreviewed June-August card, and a capture from October 21 of this year shows how little bark has been removed by Pileated and other woodpeckers over the course of just under six months, with modest quantities removed from the bole, as indicated by the arrows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pileated Woodpeckers appeared in two captures between late August and late October, a far lower rate than in April and May. The first capture, from September 24, involved one bird, which spent several minutes on the target tree and did little additional damage. The other, from October 5 involved two birds and was fleeting but cool to see. The time lapse clip and the three captures are below

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pileated Woodpeckers are abundant in the area, but we have yet to obtain any evidence that they can remove large chunks of bark from the boles of live or recently dead hickories and scale them rapidly and extensively; indeed, all the evidence obtained thus far is that they remove bark in small pieces, slowly and inefficiently.

Past observations suggest that the peak period for scaling of these hickories is between May and October. This appears to be the time frame when Hesperandra polita, the heartwood dwelling Cermabycid identified as infesting one of our scaled hickories, are likeliest to be  found under the bark, as larvae and adults, or close to the bark layer in pupation chambers. The adults shown below were collected from under bark on June 28, 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

In the case of this snag, at least, Pileated Woodpeckers removed little bark during the probable peak scaling period. The other side of the tree remains unscaled. In addition, we’ve found this work infrequently over the years, and the scaling on the lower part of this tree is the only new example of this kind of foraging sign found in the past year. All of this points to something other than Pileated Woodpecker, and I would suggest something rare, as the source of the scaling.

Regarding the hits over the course of the deployment, I’m counting a “hit” as the appearance of an animal in a frame or series of frames, including interrupted series in which the animal reappears after a break of a minute or two. Impressionistically, this deployment is considerably more active than some. Even so, there were no hits on 17 of 62 days.

The most frequent hits were lizards (mostly on the target tree): 46 hits.

Passerines, including Hooded Warblers, Carolina Wrens, and Cardinals, were next with 24 hits, followed closely by squirrels with 22.

Woodpeckers followed – 2 Pileated hits, one involving two birds, one Downy and one probable Yellow-bellied Sapsucker toward the end of the deployment.

There were two hits each for beaver, deer, and moth or butterfly (one likely a luna moth).

Finally, there was one apparent Barred Owl and only one hog, which was surprising given their abundance in the area.

Stay tuned for the trip report . . .

 


Trail Cam Results and More on a Camera Trap Tree

I just returned from Louisiana where I visited both the search area and the location of Joseph Saucier’s sighting last year. There were no possible encounters on this trip and just a little of potential significance ivorybill-wise. I plan to post a trip report within in the next week or so and hope to get to the long-promised evidence post in November. There may be additional posts about trail cam results if anything significant shows up. There are numerous cards to review, and I have a lot going on in a variety of arenas, but I’ll do my best to keep you all updated on a regular basis.

I’ve gone through the card for one of our deployments between August 21-October 20. The June to August card has yet to be reviewed, but these results are informative in their own right, especially in conjunction with the results from April and May, discussed here. I think they tend to support the hypothesis that Pileated Woodpeckers are not responsible for the bulk of the bark removal on live or recently dead hickories and at least indirectly to support the hypothesis that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are the only creature capable of doing this type of work. (Go here for a discussion of squirrels as a potential source.)

At Tommy Michot’s suggestion, we’re also going to start quantifying our results, including all hits that we note, regardless of what kind of animal is involved. Those results appear at the end of the post.

Like two other current target trees, which are sweet gums not hickories, I selected this one because it had already been scaled (extensively in this case); the remaining (majority of) targets have been chosen in hopes that they will be scaled in the future. For most of the hickories we’ve found, including ones that I’ve watched for extended periods of time, the bulk of the scaling appears to have been done in a single visit.

We’ve found only one example of a tree with truly fresh scaling, the home page tree. That work, found in May 2013, was probably no more than a week old, since the trunk was wet with sap and the tree died soon after. Numerous large chips were found at the base. All other examples appear to have been less recent, and in most instances, flooding appeared to have washed bark chips away.

After reviewing the captures, I was inspired to revisit the history of this particular snag, which Phil Vanbergen found in early March, 2017. It had been extensively scaled at that time, I suspect during the spring or summer of 2016 but possibly the year before. Phil found a few small chips at the base, but given the extent of the scaling, it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of the chips associated with the initial work had been washed away in one of the flooding events that had taken place during the intervening months. Phil shot this video of the tree, which shows the work extending from mid-bole up to the point where the crown had broken off; I later found what I believe to have been the crown, and it too had been scaled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bark Strips

Small Strips Found by Phil Vanbergen at Base of Scaled Hickory, Presumed Source is Pileated Woodpecker

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Downed Hickory Top showing suspected ivorybill scaling.

What sets this tree apart, is that there appears to have been a second extensive scaling event between March 2017 and March 2018 when I re-found it. While there had been a couple of floods in the course of the year, one large and a couple of medium-sized chips remained near the base of the snag, but it was apparent that most had been washed away.

 

 

 

 

 

We deployed a trail cam on the tree in April, and one of the early frames from that deployment more clearly shows the extent of the second round of scaling, which reaches to near the base of the snag.

A comparison of that frame, one from the beginning of the mostly unreviewed June-August card, and a capture from October 21 of this year shows how little bark has been removed by Pileated and other woodpeckers over the course of just under six months, with modest quantities removed from the bole, as indicated by the arrows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pileated Woodpeckers appeared in two captures between late August and late October, a far lower rate than in April and May. The first capture, from September 24, involved one bird, which spent several minutes on the target tree and did little additional damage. The other, from October 5 involved two birds and was fleeting but cool to see. The time lapse clip and the three captures are below

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pileated Woodpeckers are abundant in the area, but we have yet to obtain any evidence that they can remove large chunks of bark from the boles of live or recently dead hickories and scale them rapidly and extensively; indeed, all the evidence obtained thus far is that they remove bark in small pieces, slowly and inefficiently.

Past observations suggest that the peak period for scaling of these hickories is between May and October. This appears to be the time frame when Hesperandra polita, the heartwood dwelling Cermabycid identified as infesting one of our scaled hickories, are likeliest to be  found under the bark, as larvae and adults, or close to the bark layer in pupation chambers. The adults shown below were collected from under bark on June 28, 2013.

 

 

 

 

In the case of this snag, at least, Pileated Woodpeckers removed little bark during the probable peak scaling period. The other side of the tree remains unscaled. In addition, we’ve found this work infrequently over the years, and the scaling on the lower part of this tree is the only new example of this kind of foraging sign found in the past year. All of this points to something other than Pileated Woodpecker, and I would suggest something rare, as the source of the scaling.

Regarding the hits over the course of the deployment, I’m counting a “hit” as the appearance of an animal in a frame or series of frames, including interrupted series in which the animal reappears after a break of a minute or two. Impressionistically, this deployment is considerably more active than some. Even so, there were no hits on 17 of 62 days.

The most frequent hits were lizards (mostly on the target tree): 46 hits.

Passerines, including Hooded Warblers, Carolina Wrens, and Cardinals, were next with 24 hits, followed closely by squirrels with 22.

Woodpeckers followed – 2 Pileated hits, one involving two birds, one Downy and one probable Yellow-bellied Sapsucker toward the end of the deployment.

There were two hits each for beaver, deer, and moth or butterfly (one likely a luna moth).

Finally, there was one apparent Barred Owl and only one hog, which was surprising given their abundance in the area.

Stay tuned for the trip report . . .

 


A Tantalizing Trail Cam Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the time lapse video clip.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

An ornithologist wrote:

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

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

I was seeing body only, folded wings white patch.

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

The response:

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

My answer (another person raised a similar question):

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

And the conclusion:

Good. It is a very intriguing picture.

There was also this exchange with a consulting biologist:

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

The rejoinder:

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

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

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

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

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

I had one point of disagreement:

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

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

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

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

Anyway, thanks for the re-orientation.

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

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

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

Definitely no fakery here 😉

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

I think the size comparison stands regardless.

Negative concerns –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the response:

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

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

 


Trip Report: March 7-16, 2018

Summary

We had a sustained presence, at least one person in the search area, between February 28th and March 16th (one rain day excepted). Between the 28th and the 16th, there were no possible encounters with Ivory-billed Woodpeckers either visual or auditory. We found a modest quantity of recent bark scaling and a few fresh cavities. We were able to do some preliminary surveys of nearby areas where local people have reported seeing ivorybills; we visited one of these on foot and think it is worthy of additional attention. We aimed a trail camera at a badly damaged hickory and have identified locations for deploying two more in the coming months. In my view, the lack of possible encounters this year supports the idea that the sounds heard and recorded last March came from Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

Introduction

I’m opting not to post a day-by-day log for this trip and will instead focus on what I think were the most important observations made and insights gained from this team effort. I arrived in the area on the morning of the 7th and was able to spend the afternoon in the field. I was joined at various times by Peggy Shrum, Jay Tischendorf, Tommy Michot, Amy Warfield, Phil Vanbergen, and Geoffrey McMullan, a British birder, artist, and woodpecker enthusiast. (His drawing of Mexico’s woodpeckers is shown on p. 139 of Tim Gallagher’s Imperial Dreams). 

Matt Courtman arrived on March 15 and remained in the area after my departure. If he has anything significant to report it will be discussed in the next post.

Erik Hendrickson’s post details his time in the search area prior to my arrival.

Sounds

As noted, we did not hear anything suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. We did more stopping and listening than I have in many past trips; we also tried anthropogenic double knocks and playbacks of the calls recorded last year and of Barred Owls at various times, between early morning and early afternoon. At approximately 9:00 am on Wednesday, March 14, Tommy, Geoffrey, Peggy, and I heard several odd and unfamiliar “boom” sounds following my ADKs. We agreed that these were not woodpecker. They were repetitive; Tommy estimated they came in series of 5-6. While they had a metallic, industrial quality, they did not resemble shots or the typical industrial noises that are heard in the area – from logging or distant road construction. They did not seem distant, but when we hiked to the area from which they seemed to have originated, we didn’t find anything.

It’s always important to remember that correlation is not causation; while the sounds seemed to be coming in response to the ADKs, we surmised that the apparent association was coincidental. Whatever the source of the “booms”, it was a strange episode.

On the 15th, Phil and I heard some distant crow calls that were a little kent-like on first impression, enough for me to turn on my recorder and capture some of them, though we suspected crow and never thought they were ivorybill. You’ll hear Phil’s reaction when it became unquestionable that these were indeed crow calls.

They sound more obviously crow-like on the recording than they did to the naked ear, but I’m including them here since crows are rarely mentioned as a potential source of kent-like calls. The faint sonogram is not at all suggestive of ivorybill; only one frequency is readily discernible, at around 1300 hz.Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 1.40.31 PM

To reiterate, the events of last March (2017) were unprecedented. We have had a couple of encounters involving multiple calls over an extended period – in March 2013 (these have higher fundamental frequencies) and one in the old search area, January 2010 that also involved apparent double knocks. But neither of these lasted nearly as long or involved as many suggestive sounds. Other potential auditory encounters have been brief. Thus, it’s reasonable to infer that the source is not a common species in the area. The calls strongly resemble known Ivory-billed Woodpecker sounds (and resemble them more closely than they do any known species). In my view, none of the proposed alternatives (Blue Jay, Wild Turkey, American Crow, Red-breasted Nuthatch) are plausible. I’m hopeful that further analysis will support this perspective.

Cavities

I found one cavity in a pine (not photographed) that seemed right in size and shape though it was old and only about 40 feet above the ground. I have not focused on pines given the paucity of records of ivorybills using them for roosting and nesting. This is probably ill-advised. The same applies to sycamores, as Erik pointed out in his trip report.

I found one intriguing and apparently recent cavity, high in a sweet gum in the area that we’ve considered to be a hot zone. Stakeouts have come up empty, and as is often the case, the cavity is too high in the tree and too subject to backlighting to merit targeting with a trail cam. This is an ongoing problem, even when the cavities are much closer to the camera, as in the “neck bird” image.

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I also spotted this unusual, large and rectangular cavity in a cypress.

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Scaling

My thoughts on scaling continue to evolve. As time goes on, the category of what I think is diagnostic for ivorybill grows narrower. I’ve become more skeptical about much of the work we’ve found, especially on sweet gums. Nevertheless, I still think that certain types of scaling may be diagnostic and more generally that an abundance of bark scaling in a given area may be an indicator of ivorybill presence.

This is a good introduction for those who are unfamiliar with my perspective on bark scaling and what I’ve hypothesized. While I’ve been refining thy hypothesis over the years, a couple of posts from 2013  are still relevant and may provide more insights, including into the underlying anatomical rationale. There’s a gestalt involved in identifying “interesting” scaling. I look at a number of factors:

  1. Tree species and associated bark characteristics (tightness, toughness, and thickness) factor in. With very rare exceptions, I only consider hardwoods. Pine bark is easily scaled.
  2. The bark must have been removed cleanly, with little or no damage to the underlying wood (targeted digs within a scaled area excepted). It’s important to distinguish between true scaling and bark removal associated with shallow excavation; many recent searchers have not recognized the distinction (some of the work shown at the second link is true scaling and some appears not to be).
  3. Condition of the tree or snag. I generally exclude wood that appears to me more than two or three years dead (following Tanner), so twigs and small branches must remain. (The cherry bark oak mentioned below is an exception, due to the chip characteristics.)
  4. Diameter of the scaled bole or limb. Bigger is better. So are boles.
  5. Size, shape, quantity, and characteristics of bark chips. Bigger and broader are better. Chips can also help in distinguishing between scaling and shallow excavations. Sapwood chips point to the latter.
  6. Extent and appearance of the scaling. Neat edges are one factor. Pileated Woodpeckers often remove thick bark in layers, and their scaling has a messy appearance. Similarity to images of known or presumed ivorybill foraging sign (as in the example below), though these are few and hard to decipher, is another consideration; large, contiguous areas stripped of bark are required.

(Thanks to Tommy Michot for suggesting that I include this list and for his editorial suggestions generally.)

I found most of the interesting scaling on the first couple of days in the field. When I arrived in the late morning, on March 7, I went to the area where the calls were recorded last March and where we’ve had the most indications of ivorybill presence in recent years. While we often find scaled pines in the uplands, this is the first time I’ve found extensive hardwood scaling  – on a number of small, recently fire-killed trees.

Because these trees are so small, the bark, while tight, is very thin and therefore easily removed. The scaling is extensive, but I don’t think Pileated Woodpecker can be ruled out. Some of the chips were substantial. The scaled trees are shown below. Two are black cherries, but I couldn’t identify the others. The trees were within approximately 100 yards of each other and no more than two hundred yards from the edge of the lower-lying hardwood habitat.

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Water levels were high; I was hoping to reach one of our trail cameras, but conditions made it impractical to do so (avoiding flooded areas would have involved at least a two hour detour). I did find some recent sweet gum scaling in the area, including on a freshly dead snag that we’d found in December. Although some of the chips were large, I don’t feel confident ruling out Pileated Woodpecker for much or all of this work.

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On March 8, Peggy, Geoffrey, Jay, Tommy and I visited the southern area, and Peggy spotted a sweet gum that Erik had photographed during his visit. There was new scaling, apparently done within the last week or so, especially on one of the larger limbs.

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More significantly, I found a hickory with extensive scaling of the kind I suspect is diagnostic for ivorybill. My initial thought was that this was a new tree, but Phil later pointed out that it was the one he’d found last year, with a number of thin bark strips (which we attributed to Pileated Woodpecker) at the base. Nevertheless, the scaling lower on the bole of this hickory appears to be more recent, and while flooding had washed away most of the new bark chips, a couple that we found around the base are more consistent with the larger chunks of bark that I suspect are indicative of ivorybill. (The very large chip in the image may not be associated with the scaling, though I suspect it was.)

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The bark on this hickory is approximately .5″ thick, and it remains very hard and tightly adhering. This is the first time I’ve found a hickory that appears to have been visited and extensively scaled at least twice, many months or even over a year apart. This was a surprise, as I’ve suspected that the life cycle of the beetles infesting the snag meant that this kind of feeding was a ‘one shot deal’. That does not appear to be the case with this tree, so some rethinking may be required.

Figuring out what animal is the first to scale these hickories is my top priority. We currently have three cameras deployed on hickories that are damaged, including one adjacent to this snag. I hope to be able to deploy two more this spring. If it turns out that Pileated Woodpeckers are responsible for the initial work, I will be persuaded there’s no way to distinguish between PIWO and IBWO work, although abundance and bark chip characteristics might still remain as possible indicators.

I remain convinced that the ivorybill has persisted and has been present in our search area, at least sporadically, but I will be disheartened if it turns out that there’s no qualitatively diagnostic feeding sign. Tanner relied heavily on feeding sign during his surveys (though he accepted reports from South Carolina where little or no sign was found) and rejected the 1970s Big Thicket reports in large part due to the absence of bark scaling.

If Pileateds are doing the initial scaling on these hickories, then Pileateds could be the source of virtually all scaling found in any part of the ivorybill’s historic range, including on live or freshly dead trees of any species. If this proves to be true, then the presence of feeding sign will be a weaker and more subjective indicator of presence.

But on a more upbeat note, we also found some scaling on a cherrybark oak. Because I’ve come to suspect that PIWOs can scale sweet gums extensively and well, other tree species are of particular interest. Though the tree was alive, the limb from which these chips were stripped was not recently dead (photographing it was impractical), with no twigs or small branches remaining. Nevertheless, the chips were large, hard, and dense. I haven’t found chips like these since 2013, and I think they are intriguing.

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On March 12, we found one more scaled sweet gum that piqued my interest. The jagged appearance and extent of scaling on the bole are suggestive of known ivorybill work, subject to the caveats provided above. There was also extensive older work higher on the trunk.IMGP5945

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Jagged scaling on 1935 Singer Tract Nest Tree. Courtesy of the Rare and Manuscript Division, Cornell University Library.

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Local Reports

We were rained out on Sunday, March 11 and took the opportunity to drive around in an area from which there have been several local reports (though I have not spoken to the people involved face-to-face and do not know them personally). Some of the upland areas are impressively restored stands of maturing longleaf pine; we did not find any stands of large hardwoods, though we did find places with numerous beaver-killed trees. I did not take any photographs.

On the morning of the 12th, I stopped to meet Jay for breakfast at one of the local hangouts, and an older man I’d talked to the year before pulled me aside and asked if I’d visited the area he’d told me about then. He specifically mentioned ivorybills and was very insistent that he’d seen them there from time to time during his hunting days (he’d stopped about a decade ago.) Last year, he’d recognized an ivorybill image on my phone but had not named the species. None of the other men in the restaurant were familiar with ivorybills, but this individual clearly knew what he was talking about.

A few years earlier, another person (a preacher and barbecue chef) told me he’d seen ivorybills in the same bottom (stating that he’d thought the ‘ones with white on the back were the males and the all black ones were the females’.

Peggy, Tommy, Jay, and I visited part of the bottom both men had identified and were impressed by the habitat, which is very similar to the primary search area. Like the main area, it appears to have been high-graded or selectively cut, so the conditions within a very narrow corridor (and one we believe to be fairly long) are near old-growth. We did not find any bark scaling during our brief visit to the area, but it definitely merits more attention. I suspect we were several miles southwest of the claimed sightings, so this may be an extensive, if narrow, strip of high quality habitat. The oak shown below (with Tommy for scale) was measured to be over 5′ in diameter, and many of the sweet gums in the area were well over 3′ DBH.

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Additional Tidbits

The woods were beautiful as spring was breaking out. Conditions changed dramatically over the course of my stay. Despite some very cold mornings (we only saw one snake), leaf out progressed rapidly. On my last day in the field, Matt and I found a loblolly pine that may be a contender for state champion; the current one is just under 5′ in diameter. I suspect the one shown below is close to that and may be taller. By the middle of the trip, wild azaleas were in bloom. And finding Red-headed Woodpecker feathers always causes my heart to skip a beat.

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I have one or two more trips planned this season and am hopeful that they will generate some new insights.

 

 


Wake Feeding on a Hickory?

This is my 100th post on the blog. It has been on hold for a while due to the new developments. There’s another coming soon with more discussion of recent events and the audio Matt obtained with numerous kent-like calls. I’m now even more firmly convinced that IBWOs were the source of those calls, but that’s a topic for the future.

On the weekend of March 4-5, Phil Vanbergen visited the search area and changed out the card on our deployed trail cam. He found that Pileateds had hit the target tree, scaling a single and large strip of bark during one of several visits. The raw sequence and a slowed version by Steve Pagans are immediately below. Phil also found a nearby hickory that had been extensively scaled and some fresh bark chips at the base. Footage of that tree is also below.

When I was in the search area earlier this month, I scrutinized both these trees quite closely, and it appears that the extensive scaling was not recent. Moreover, we did not pass near enough to have seen the scaling when we were in the vicinity in December.

The first of these trees could not be approached on foot, but no large chips were visible at the base, based on careful examination through binoculars. In addition, the strip of bark removed by the Pileated appears to have been exposed on three sides by whatever did the initial scaling. Nevertheless, it took the PIWO over a minute to remove this compromised bark strip.

The chips at the base of the second were either fairly long strips or small chips, many of which had adhering and punky sapwood (first set of images). This contrasts with large chips found at the bases of recently scaled hickories (second set of images).

I now suspect the scaling on these two trees was done no later than early fall of 2016 and quite possibly in late spring, based in part on what we know about the life cycle of the beetles that appear to have been the initial prey species. As discussed in my post on hickory bark, I think this initial work is beyond the physical capacity of Pileated Woodpeckers.

As I was preparing this blog post, Phil asked to see my notes on Tanner’s field notes, and I ran across an observation about which I had forgotten: Tanner observed IBWOs on a partially dead sweet gum, scaling bark in chunks from dollar to hand sized. Shortly after they left a pileated arrived and started knocking off bark. But, also did a little digging. While other scaled hickories monitored for months have shown no signs of subsequent visits by Pileated Woodpeckers, I suspect that what transpired with these two is what Jon Young, author of the outstanding What the Robin Knows calls “wake feeding”, a reference to seabirds following boats for the food they churn up or throw overboard, although the concept applies in a variety of circumstances. This behavior might help to account for the abundance of scaling in our search area relative to other locations in the southeast.

We’re currently targeting three hickories that have multiple old wounds, in fairly close proximity to trees of that species that have been scaled in the past. A fourth tree we had planned to target has fallen. I hope to deploy a fourth trail cam on a wounded or dying hickory in April. This is a very long shot, given the number of hickories in the area and our limited equipment and resources, but it still seems worth a try

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pileated Hickory Bark Snip

 

 

 

 

 


Hickory Scaling

Yesterday, Phil Vanbergen visited the search area and found fresh scaling of the kind I think is diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker on a hickory. This is an exciting development because we found no fresh work of this type last season.

While Phil was unable to get to the base of the tree to examine the bark chips, the scaling has the distinctive appearance, including abundant insect tunnels, discussed in multiple posts and on this page. While the video doesn’t show the detail that still photographs can, I think it conveys the extensiveness of the work more effectively than stills.

Edited to add: Phil found this striking clip of a foraging Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucos). The similar appearance of the feeding sign should be apparent.

Update: Phil shot a second sequence from a different angle, and Steve Pagans has slowed it and edited it into two shorter clips. In the first, the edited version shows the scaled surface more clearly. The presence of buds in the second suggests that the tree is still alive, though probably just barely. If you listen to Phil (sounding like a death metal singer or, as he put it, Megatron from Transformers), you’ll hear him mention thinking of a lightning strike. Steve Pagans also noted the similarity. If there was a strike, it wasn’t recent, although it’s possible that a strike some years ago wounded the tree, setting the stage for a Cerambycid infestation.

 

We’re confident that this work was done between late December and yesterday because we visited the same location in December and Phil photographed Patricia and me with a huge relict cypress; the hickory is about 50 yards away, and the work would have been obvious to us had it been there at the time.

April 4 is the earliest I’ve found recent scaling of this type, and the January or February date for this work is a surprise. But the winter has been unusually warm.

Edited to Add: After visiting the tree and another one nearby, I’m retracting the above. I doubt that the initial scaling on these two trees was done more recently than September 0f 2016. I have also revised the title accordingly.

Phil returned yesterday and trained a camera on this hickory. I’ve never seen signs of a return visit to such an extensively scaled tree, and image quality may be an issue because conditions required placing the camera farther away than we’d like. Nevertheless, we had to give it a try.

I’ve written an in-depth post on bark that is currently password protected. I’m awaiting some feedback and a copy of a paper for which I’ve only read the abstract. I plan to make it public soon.


Bark: An Exegesis

Introduction:

According to Tanner, scaling bark was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s primary foraging strategy during breeding season in Louisiana. Tanner wrote that the ivorybill is “capable of easily scaling away heavy bark that other woodpeckers could not loosen.” (Tanner 1942). All woodpeckers in genus Campephilus have specific anatomical characteristics that enable them to forage in this specialized way (Bock and Miller 1959). Following Tanner, most post-Singer Tract search efforts have looked for feeding sign as an indicator of presence. Because Tanner’s descriptions are somewhat vague and many of the photographs showing feeding sign are poor, these efforts have tended to focus on decay state and bark adhesion without taking bark characteristics and tree species sufficiently into account. I posit that tree species and bark and wood characteristics are key factors that should be considered. I further posit that extensive bark scaling on live and recently dead hickories (genus Carya) may be beyond the physical capacity of the Pileated Woodpecker.

Discussion:

As all regular readers know, I’ve been somewhat obsessively focused on bark and bark scaling since my earliest years of ivorybill searching. The reason for this interest is simple: it’s how Tanner found ivorybills or inferred their presence when he couldn’t find them (Tanner 1942). Unfortunately, as discussed in a number of posts, Tanner’s descriptions are somewhat opaque, and most of the published images of feeding sign, including those in the monograph, are not very illuminating. Indeed, some of them are consistent with pileated work that we’ve documented. Plate 8, shown below, is a prime example. The caption reads, “Ivory-bill feeding sign on a slender limb”.

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Tanner’s Plate 8, Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

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Pileated Woodpecker feeding sign on a slender limb

Early on in my study of this subject, I hypothesized that certain kinds of bark scaling on hardwoods might be beyond the physical capacity of the Pileated Woodpecker. I still believe this to be true, a view that is supported by what we’ve documented for pileated and by numerous examples of pileated scaling from online sources. At the same time, the details of what types of work might belong in this category have shifted somewhat, especially as it has become clear that Pileated scaling can look like what’s shown in Plate 8 and that pileateds will scale bark from recently dead sweet gums.

This is not to suggest that ivorybills never scale small and medium-sized branches in a similar manner. According to Tanner they did so frequently; however, I have been focused on what may be diagnostic for ivorybill. It seems likely that there is considerable overlap between ivorybill and pileated work when smaller branches are involved (at least on sweet gums).

The sequences we obtained showing pileateds scaling a sweet gum limb have inspired me to look more deeply at the characteristics of hardwood bark and pursue some research avenues that I hadn’t considered previously. I’ve linked to some of the sources in recent posts, but I’ve had some additional insights that seem important enough to share. Every time I think I’ve run out of things to say on the subject, something new crops up.

Like virtually everyone else, I’ve followed Tanner and focused on two bark characteristics, “tightness” and thickness, but it recently struck me that other features might be important as well. And the literature, mostly from the lumber industry, supports this idea.

Tanner suspected that the Singer Tract ivorybills preferred sweet gums and Nuttall’s Oaks because the bark is thinner, and the thinner barked limbs had “more borers” than thick barked ones. While abundance of food was likely a factor, I suspect that, at least with respect to sweet gums and possibly Nuttall’s oaks, ease of scaling and access to food played a role.

It’s important to point out that in live trees, hardwood bark adhesion varies seasonally, with bark becoming tighter during dormant stages and looser (with considerably less variation from species to species) during the growing season. Bark is often if not always tighter on recently dead trees than on live ones (Stokland et al. 2012).

In addition, “The structural and chemical traits of dead wood, inherited from the traits of living trees, are also major drivers of wood decomposition and these traits vary greatly among tree species.” (Cornellisen et al. 2012). The authors of the linked paper point out that other factors, including size and site, can also contribute to the way that bark loosens post-mortem, but specific traits seem to be paramount, especially since the scaling we deem to be suggestive, whether on standing or downed wood, is on trees that are alive or are recently dead. Because the scaling has a very distinctive appearance, we also deem as suggestive hickory snags and stubs that appear to have been scaled some years ago, even if they are in a considerably later stage of decay overall. Bark attached to hard wood on these longer dead stubs and snags often remains tight for 3 or more years after death.

A 1978 report, entitled Bark and Wood Properties of Pulpwood Species as Related to Separation and Segregation of Chip/Bar Mixtures examined bark morphology and strength properties in 42 different pulpwood species and identified factors that impede the mechanical removal of bark from logs. These include: cellular structure, bark adhesion, bark strength, bark toughness, wood toughness, specific gravity/density, and moisture content. (Institute of Paper Chemistry 1978) One caveat about this report: a subsequent paper gives the sample size for each species, and in many cases (including sweet gums) it was only 2 (Einspahr et al. 1982)

It may be counterintuitive, but the authors found that shagbark hickory was far and away the most difficult bark to remove. (The tightly adhering layer is thin, beneath the dead bark that gives the species its shaggy appearance.) One key finding was that:

“Morphologically, the presence of fibers increases inner bark strength and, when sclereids (a type of cell) are present, bark strength is decreased. Inner bark strength, in turn, has a major influence on hardwood wood/bark adhesion. The multiple regression equation employing wood toughness and inner bark strength accounts for 72% of the wood/bark adhesion variation encountered.”

Sclereids are virtually absent in hickories (Nanko 1980) and a few other species that don’t approach the hickories in bark strength and bark and wood toughness (Eastern cottonwoods, yellow poplars, white ashes, and black willows). These tables are particularly illustrative:

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Shagbark hickories are the extreme outlier in this study, in terms of adhesion, as well as in terms of inner and outer bark toughness and strength; there are very few shagbarks in our search area, and we have never found scaling on one. I have been unable to find specific information about bitternut hickory bark strength or toughness, but the industry’s debarking problem applies to all species in the genus Carya due to the near absence of sclereids in conjunction with the other factors. Moreover, the industry does not differentiate among hickory species (Timber Mart South 2016). This 1996 paper is worth quoting at length in this regard (full text is not readily accessible):

The amount of published literature dealing with hickory debarking is very limited. Often it is only mentioned as an example of one of the hardest tree species to debark. One study quantified this by measuring the strength of the bark-to-wood bond of 42 hardwood species, including hickory. According to Einspahr et al., the dormant season bark-to-wood adhesion for hickory is greater than 3000 kPa, which is a tenfold difference from the growing season and nearly three times as great as the dormant season wood/bark adhesion for quaking aspen (Populous tremuloides, L.), a species considered to be extremely difficult to debark in the northern United States.

Einspahr et al. also microscopically examined the failure zone in an attempt to correlate morphological differences with bark-to-wood adhesion. For hardwoods in general, they found that during the growing season, failure occurred in the cambium or in the xylem just inside the cambial zone. Conversely, dormant-season failure occurred in the inner bark. They also found that fibers in the bark increased the inner bark strength while sclereids decreased inner bark strength. Hickory bark can contain between 15 to 20 percent fiber and contains less than 0.05 percent sclereids.

While these studies have confirmed that hickory is difficult to debark, they have not addressed possible solutions to the problem. As a result, hickory is often left behind during harvesting, reducing the total usable fiber from a given stand and, over time, increasing the percentage of the species in the hardwood resource, compounding the problem of future harvests.

When a tree dies, the bark eventually loosens and detaches naturally as the cambium decays. After felling, the cambium remains alive until it has consumed all available food or dries out. Moisture loss, while causing cambial death, initially greatly increases the strength of bark attachment because additional bonding between fibers occurs as the secondary valence bonds with water are broken (Belli 1996).

Thus, even though hickory bark adheres less tightly than sweet gum bark during the growing season, it seems likely that it’s harder to scale year round, given its much greater wood and bark strength and toughness. It is also clear from my observations that sweet gum bark loosens far more rapidly than hickory bark post mortem. Note that we have found fresh scaling on both live and recently dead hickories.

Based on specific gravity of the bark – averaging 0.72 for shagbark and 0.60 for bitternut – and bark moisture content – averaging 34% of dry weight for shagbark, and 60% for bitternut – it seems likely that bitternuts are somewhat easier to debark than shagbarks but considerably harder to debark than virtually any other tree species in our search area.

Comparing bitternut hickories to other species, most oaks have a considerably higher average moisture content in their bark (Chestnut and Southern red, including Nuttall’s oaks, are exceptions) and similar specific gravities. Sweet gum bark has an average specific gravity of 0.37 and an average moisture content of 91% of oven dry weight. (Schlaegel and Willson 1983, Miles and Smith 2009). But oaks and sweet gums have sclereids, and sweet gums and all tested oak species score far lower on bark toughness and strength than shagbark and, by inference, bitternut hickories. Sweet gums and the tested oak species are fairly similar in these regards, but I suspect that the higher density and lower moisture content in oak bark makes it harder to scale and may mean that oak bark adheres more tightly than sweet gum bark for a longer period after death.

I posit that when it comes to woodpecker scaling, dormant season bark adhesion, inner and outer bark strength, and inner and outer bark toughness are all relevant factors. We know that Pileated Woodpeckers remove sweet gum bark with some difficulty and that even on medium-sized limbs, they are not consistently able to remove bark cleanly down to the sapwood. It’s also clear that bitternut hickory bark is very difficult to remove, second only to shagbark hickory in our search area. This further reinforces my view that the work on hickories is not the work of Pileated Woodpeckers.

Click here and here for examples of the hickories that are scaled in a manner we hypothesize is diagnostic for Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Also be sure to watch this YouTube video of a Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melanoleucus) foraging. (Thanks to Phil Vanbergen for finding the clip and the scaled hickory at the second link.) I’m reposting the link to the video here because I think it very clearly illustrates many of the characteristics we associate with Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on hickories, although the species of tree being fed on is unknown. Note the striking similarity in appearance and also that the work of the substantially smaller billed Crimson-crested is not as clean around the edges as the work we’re ascribing to ivorybills.

There were no bitternut hickories in the Singer Tract, but there were congeners – pecans and water hickories. Tanner observed ivorybills scaling on these species twice and digging once. For pileateds, there were 4 instances of digging and none of scaling, as opposed to 5 scaling and 9 digging on sweet gums. The relative abundance of water hickory and pecan at Singer was 2.7%; approximately 10% of the trees in our search area are hickories, and hickories are second only to sweet gums in terms of the number of scaled trees we’ve found. While Tanner’s is obviously a minuscule data set, it may support the hypothesis that live and recently dead Carya bark is too tough for pileateds to scale extensively, if at all.

There are a number of hardwood species found in potential ivorybill habitat that are somewhere between sweet gums and hickories in terms of how easily scaled they may be and how soon after death bark decay and loosening set in – eastern cottonwoods, black willows, water tupelos, some oak species, red maples, green ashes, honey locusts, persimmons, and elms – in these species, it seems likely that close examination of the scaling and bark chips can provide some clues.

Conclusion:

Previous Ivory-billed Woodpecker searches have focused on bark adhesion and state of decay when considering scaling as possible foraging sign. Bark morphology, dormant season adhesion, inner and bark outer strength, and inner and outer bark toughness, and wood toughness are all relevant to the ease with which bark can be scaled from live and recently dead hardwoods. Specific gravity and moisture content are also factors. Bark from trees in the genus Carya is difficult to remove industrially, and members of this genus are likely the most difficult trees to scale throughout the historic range of the ivorybill. Since Pileated Woodpeckers scale sweet gum branches with some difficulty and do not consistently remove bark down to the sapwood, it may be beyond the physical capacity of Pileated Woodpeckers to scale hickories extensively and cleanly, while leaving large pieces of bark behind. Extensive work on hickories that has a distinctive appearance may be diagnostic for ivorybills; this distinctive appearance of this scaling may also be the key to recognizing Ivory-billed Woodpecker foraging sign on other species.

Lagniappe:

This may be no more than an aside, but it may be a relevant data point. I recently observed a Pileated scaling briefly on a live 14″ DBH Norway maple in my yard near New York City. The photos show that the sap is flowing. The appearance of the scaling is exactly what I’d expect for Pileated, with strips about half an inch across. Norway maple may be a decent stand-in for sweet gum; while its bark has a higher specific gravity, 53 as opposed to 37, the moisture content of the bark is almost identical, 91% as opposed to 90%.

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References Cited:

Bock, Walter J. and Waldron Dewitt Miller, The Scansorial Foot of the Woodpeckers, with Comments on the Evolution of Perching and Climbing Feet in Birds, American Museum Novitates, #1931, 1959

Belli, Monique L., Wet storage of hickory pulpwood in the southern United States and its impact on bark removal efficiency, Forest Products Journal. Madison 46.3 (Mar 1996): 75.

Cornelissen, Johannes H.C., Ute Sass-Klaassen, Lourens Poorter, Koert van Geffen, Richard S. P. van Logtestijn,Jurgen van Hal, Leo Goudzwaard, Frank J. Sterck, René K. W. M. Klaassen, Grégoire T. Freschet, Annemieke van der Wal, Henk Eshuis, Juan Zuo, Wietse de Boer, Teun Lamers, Monique Weemstra, Vincent Cretin, Rozan Martin, Jan den Ouden, Matty P. Berg, Rien Aerts, Godefridus M. J. Mohren, and Mariet M. Hefting, Controls on Coarse Wood Decay in Temperate Tree Species: Birth of the LOGLIFE Experiment, Ambio. 2012 Jul; 41(Suppl 3): 231–245.

Einspahr, D.W, R.H VanEperen, M.L. Harder et al. Morphological and bark strength characteristics important to wood/bark adhesion in hardwoodsThe Institute of Paper Chemistry, 1982: 339-348.

Institute of Paper Chemistry, Project 3212, Bark and wood properties of pulpwood species as related to separation and segregation of chip/bark mixtures, Report 11, 1978.

Miles, Patrick D. and W. Brad Smith, Specific Gravity and Other Properties of Wood and Bark for 156 Tree Species Found in North America, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Northern Research Station, Research Note NRS-38, 2009.

Nanko, Hiroki, Bark Structure of Hardwoods Grown on Southern Pine Sites (Renewable Materials Institute series), Syracuse University Press, 1980.

Schlaegel, Bryce E. S and Regan B. Willson, Nuttall Oak Volume and Weight Tables, United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Southern Research Station, Research Paper SO-l 86, 1983

Siry, Jacek, ed., Species Detail Report, Timber Mart-South, 2016

Stokland, Jogeir N., Juha Siitonen, and Bengt Gunnar Jonsson, Biodiversity in Dead Wood, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Tanner, J.T. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker,National Audubon Society, 1942.

Thanks to Fredrik Bryntesson, Steve Pagans, Chris Carlisle, and Bob Ford for their help with this post.


Pileated Woodpecker Scaling on the Limb of a Downed Sweet Gum – Part 2

Thanks again to all who sent condolences, and appreciations of Frank Wiley and our work. Your sympathy and support have comforted and encouraged me during this difficult time.

Part 1 is here. This post supplements the analysis at: Feeding Sign: Some Possible Ivorybill Diagnostics. I’ll be reiterating ideas that are familiar to longtime readers; I have posted many of the photographs before; but there’s some additional research and some new perspectives informed by the Pileated scaling sequences obtained in December and January.

I am now firmly convinced that the work we’ve found on a small number of hickories over the past several years cannot have been done by Pileated Woodpeckers. I have believed this to be the case for some time, but the recent sequences showing how Pileateds scale sweet gum bark provide strong, direct evidence in support of that conviction.

As noted in Part 1, sweet gum bark is in the mid-range for tightness among hardwood species. Hickory bark in general, and bitternut hickory bark in particular, is at the highest end of the range in terms of adhesion. Hickories belong to the genus Carya, which is divided into two types, “true” and “pecan” hickories. Bitternuts are in the pecan group, “which are not equal to true hickories in strength, hardness, and toughness.” This inequality is relative, and the differences are modest. In addition, the timber industry identifies bitternuts and a true hickory species, mockernuts, as “tight barked” hickories. True hickory bark adheres so tightly that its removal poses problems for the pulp lumber industry, and I suspect that for the purposes of the linked study, bitternuts are treated as true hickories. In any case, it is safe to say that hickories are the tightest barked hardwood species in our search area, and I have observed that hickory bark can remain tight for years after death, given the right conditions.

Now let’s examine the physical evidence we’ve found with regard to both sweet gums and hickories.

These are three of the largest chips found under the medium-sized limb of the downed sweet gum. There was one larger chip that broke on handling, as well as quite a few smaller ones. This is known Pileated Woodpecker work.

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It is perhaps more accurate to describe these as strips. They’re approximately .25″ thick and 2″ across at the widest points.

Now let’s look at some presumed Pileated Woodpecker work from another sweet gum that appears to have been longer dead. This work is from somewhat larger limbs and a nearby hanging broken limb. I can see indications, patchiness and layered appearance, that would lead me to suspect Pileated, just based on the field impression. The chips are even more revealing, even though some of them are larger than what I would have expected.

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Here’s an image of the chips found on the ground. There’s been a lot of scaling on this tree, and some older chips (that could be consistent with ivorybill) can be seen in the photograph. Note the variability in size.

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Here are some of the fresh chips I collected, shown with my 13″ MacBook Air for scale.

img_1260Again, some of these chips are slightly larger than I would have hypothesized for Pileated Woodpecker, but the appearance, which suggests that a considerable amount of pecking was required before the bark was removed, would have led me to assume Pileated. I’m confident this is not squirrel work either, based on the exit tunnels and the way they’ve been pecked at (most readily visible at the far right). Note also that these chips were so brittle that the larger ones broke in transit. This work was done on larger limbs, and the bark is approximately .375″ thick.imgp4295

By contrast, the hickory scaling is on boles, where bark is tighter and thicker; the surface area involved is typically much greater; and there is no sign of the layered appearance, which I presume to be a consequence of pecking rather than chiseling/prying. In those instances in which we’ve found fresh work, most or all of it appears to have been done within a very short timeframe. The example below, the homepage tree, was still alive, with the scaled areas wet with sap when found.

We found this tree in the spring of 2013 and monitored it regularly for over a year. There were no return visits by whatever did the scaling, and the only other woodpecker work involved the removal small patches of bark by a Hairy Woodpecker (captured on a trail cam). This particular tree had been partially uprooted and was in a lower, wetter area than many of the other hickories that have been worked on in this manner. By the spring of 2016, it had fallen and Pileated Woodpeckers were feeding on the rotting log.

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I’ll repost the known PIWO scaling, done over approximately 30 minutes in two visits, five weeks apart, for comparison. Even if the same species of tree were involved I’d have suspected two different sources for the scaling.

As I see it, our Pileated sequences show that it would have required hours for a PIWO to have scaled so extensively on the hickory bole and suggest that they could not have done so as cleanly. The chips (>.375″ thick on a relatively young tree, not at all brittle, and no hint of pecking or removal in layers) and the remaining adhering bark should have a very different appearance if Pileateds were responsible, especially given the substantial differences between sweet gum and hickory bark adhesion and hardness. The work we’ve found on hickories involves both live and recently dead examples. Again, I’ll repost an image of the hickory chips from this tree for reference.

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Suspected Ivorybill Chips

As discussed previously, the hickory scaling also has a distinctive appearance that strongly resembles presumed Ivory-billed Woodpecker scaling on one of the Singer Tract nest trees, a maple.

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Suspected Ivorybill Scaling on Hickory 2013

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Detail of the “Elm Rock” Nest Tree, 1935, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University

I think it may be possible to distinguish Pileated and Ivory-billed Woodpecker work on sweet gum branches, based on very close examination of the scaling and the bark chips (when possible). The effort to do so is complicated by the fact that both Pileated Woodpeckers and squirrels can and do strip bark in similar ways. Extensive, mostly contiguous, and clean appearing scaling on larger limbs may be suggestive for ivorybill, as in the example below and as Tanner suggests, but even if ivorybills are doing some of this work, identifying it requires making some fine distinctions.

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By contrast, I think the work on hickory boles in our search area is diagnostic for ivorybill. Our focus going forward will be on trying to anticipate and document whatever is scaling bark from the hickories in this distinctive manner. Given the nature of hickory bark, I suspect I will have reached a dead end if it turns out I’m wrong about this.

One final note, identifying potential target trees is a very long shot. We found no scaled hickories of this type in 2015-2016. I have been looking for candidates on the last two trips and have found two wounded trees, both within 50 yards of hickories that have been scaled in recent years.

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We’ll be targeting these and will be looking for two more when I return in March.