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Trip Report: January 25-30, 2018

From January 25-30, Stephen Pagans and Erik Hendrickson and I searched in the vicinity of Joseph Saucier’s October sighting. I’ll begin with a day-by-day log accompanied by some photographs, followed by a discussion of our observations and what they may imply, with photographs from our last day in the field. I’ll end with some or Erik’s photos. They help convey the experience of being in the field more effectively than most of mine. This is an image heavy post, so I hope you’ll take the time to look at and enjoy the pictures.

We had no possible sightings or auditory encounters and devoted most of our time to surveying. We did a few ADK series, sometimes followed by Erik’s tooting on a baritone sax mouthpiece, the best imitation of the Singer Tract kents I’ve heard.

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Mark Michaels in Background, Double Knocking with Cypress Dowels. Stephen Pagans at right.  Photo by Erik Hendrickson

There were no apparent responses. Scaling consistent with what’s described for ivorybill was abundant in most areas visited. Large and possibly suggestive cavities were also relatively easy to find. This contrasts with the primary search area, where cavities of any size are difficult to locate. This may be due to the ~30% lower canopy at this location.

We covered between 4 and 5 miles most days. For the most part, we tried to avoid repeating the same tracks. We saw substantial flocks of Rusty Blackbirds on a couple of occasions. We didn’t encounter many mammals – an armadillo, a rabbit, and some glimpses of hogs. We found little beaver sign but didn’t get into the area where we understand beavers are most abundant.

 

We spent the 25th and 26th in the immediate vicinity of the sighting. The habitat in this area is extensive and impressive, as it was in most places we visited. We found considerably more scaling on this trip than on the last one, as well as more cavities. As mentioned previously, the cypress in this area was not heavily logged, so many large trees remain, not all of them as obviously undesirable as the ones shown.

 

 

Suggestive Scaling and Cavities Found January 25 and 26, 2018. Scaled tree species include sweet gum, honey locust, and sugarberry.

The 27th was a rainout. We spent that morning birding from the road around a nearby lake. I went to Alexandria for a brief visit to the annual meeting of the Louisiana Ornithological Society.

On the 28th, which was cloudy and drizzly, we went to a different nearby location. Again, we found some decent or better habitat, a good deal of bark scaling, and other indications of woodpecker activity, including a cavity resembling an ivorybill roost in an unpublished image from the Singer Tract. By late morning, we reached an area of much younger forest, so we turned back.

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One of the cavities strongly resembled one of Tanner’s unpublished images of an ivorybill roost.

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Ivory-billed Woodpecker Roost in Dead Ash, Courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

On the 29th, we visited a different area, also nearby. The habitat was again impressive, but we only found one recently and extensively scaled sweet gum with very large chips at the base and an unusual bit of excavation on the edge of a scaled part of the trunk. An area that we could not reach appeared to contain even more mature forest and probably merits a visit in future.

 

On the 30th, we found another entry point. About two miles into the woods, we found more sweet gum scaling than I’ve seen in a single day, approaching or surpassing the quantity found during the most productive weeks in our main search area. Again, we found a number of potentially interesting cavities, new and old, including one in a cottonwood snag that had been extensively stripped of bark, this along the edge of an old logging road. We guessed that this concentration of scaling was in a patch of around 100 acres, but we were unable to explore it fully, so we can’t be sure how extensive it might be.

With the passage of time, I’m even more struck by the extraordinary nature of what we found on the 30th.

Some Comments on the Scaling and Cavities

As noted, I was impressed by the abundance of scaling found in the vicinity of the sighting and even more so in the concentration found on the 30th. The latter was truly unprecedented in my experience. As was the case in Tanner’s day, sweet gums with dying crowns are the primary target. The work found is consistent with that shown and described by Tanner. More on sweet gums below.

Additional work was found on honey locust, sugarberry, American elm, and cottonwood. Bark on all of these species (possibly excluding cottonwood which has high adhesion values and bark strength) becomes easy to remove fairly rapidly after death, and none of the scaling approached what I’d consider possibly diagnostic for ivorybill (again perhaps excluding the cottonwood). Still, the quantity of it may be significant.

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Scaled cottonwood snag with large cavity. While this snag is longer dead than some, the scaling is not recent. Cottonwood bark shares properties with hickory and probably adheres more tightly for longer than the bark of many other species, including sweet gum.

We found no scaling on oaks. (The same has been true in the main search area, except in 2012-2013.) Steve suggested this may be due to the fact that the forest is relatively young, so the oaks are still healthy.

The sweet gum scaling was mostly found in clusters, with the notable exception of the single tree found on the 29th. This may be due to the pattern of sweet gum die-off, but we did visit areas with unscaled, dead and dying gums.

The sweet gum scaling ranged from old to very fresh, probably a year or two to a day or two. All trees were recently dead, with twigs and sometimes gum balls and leaves attached. Much of it was extensive, involving larger limbs and sometimes main trunks. Bark chips ranged from very small and consistent with what I’d expect for PIWO, to larger strips that I’ve also tended to ascribe to PIWO, to much larger chunks that I think are considerably less likely to be Pileated.

 

Regarding the sweet gum scaling in general, I have only found a similar quantity and quality of scaling on this species in our main search area and at this location. Scaling in the old Project Coyote search area was on a wider variety of species, with only a little on sweet gums. I never saw anything like this in over two weeks in Congaree or in briefer visits to other areas. The Carlisles, who are searching in the Pascagoula area, have found at most a similar looking example or two over several seasons, and Paul McCaslin, one of the earliest Project Coyote team members recently sent me a note reading: “I am still amazed, every time, at the scaling pics you send from the tops of those sweetgum trees. I am an ISA Certified Arborist and spend a lot of time looking up at trees and I NEVER see anything even close up on my neck of the woods.”

To cut to the chase – if Ivory-billed Woodpeckers are not present and this work is being done by Pileateds, then I don’t think either quantity or apparent quality of bark scaling on sweet gums can be treated as a reliable indicator of ivorybill presence.

 

With regard to other tree species, I still think that the work on hickories found in the main search area is likely diagnostic. Work on live or very recently dead honey locusts (like the one in some of the old trail cam photos), cottonwoods, sugarberries (one example found in in the old search area) and oaks (one or two examples found in the old search area and several found in the new one in 2012-2013) may be as well.  Though I’ve grown increasingly cautious about sweet gums, the concepts discussed in the post entitled Bark: An Exegesis still hold.

Some Closing Thoughts

Though I have now spent multiple days in this area without any possible ivorybill contacts, I remain very impressed by the habitat and continue to think the initial report is highly credible. The scaling is abundant and suggestive, as are the cavities. However, the extensiveness is daunting, and I don’t see a way for a small, self-funded group to search it effectively. In the current search area, we have the benefits of compactness and known, readily accessible locations where there have been frequent possible contacts over a period of years. I think there’s a good possibility that ivorybills are present in the vicinity of Joseph’s sighting, and there’s sufficient habitat to make detection very difficult. I’m at a loss as to how to find them (without an infusion of J.J. Kuhn’s skills as a ‘woodsman’), if indeed any are there.

Here are some of Erik’s photos for your enjoyment.

 

 

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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9”x2.5”

7”x2.25”

5.75”x2″

7.5”x1.75”

4”x1.75”

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

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

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

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

7”x1”

8”x.8”

7”x.8”

6”x.8”

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

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

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

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

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

Frank adds:

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

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

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