I was very sad to learn that Bob Russell, Retired US Fish and Wildlife Service, died suddenly this week. Bob’s name (Rob on Facebook) will be familiar to most ivorybill searchers; he was involved in the events in Arkansas in the earliest days, and he developed one of the first lists of promising search locations, all this back in the ‘aughts.
I first met him in Minneapolis in 2009 or 2010, and he was the first real pro to befriend me, introducing Patricia and me to Jim Williams a Minneapolis journalist and searcher, and ornithologist Jim Fitzpatrick who had one of the Arkansas sightings. That meal was an important moment in my evolution. Beyond that, Bob’s generosity and support will always mean a lot.
Bob had a whole network of sources for ivorybill information that I hope will not be lost with his passing. He had been involved with Project Coyote/Prinicipalis for years, playing a more active role this season. I’m glad he had a couple of auditory encounters in the search area, but I’m so sad he won’t have the chance to be with us when and if we succeed. He will be missed.
Last year, a reader requested that I post some personal reminiscences about Frank. I didn’t get around to doing it then but thought I’d offer something on this sad anniversary.
Frank and I met through the Ivorybill Researchers’ Forum (www.ibwo.net) in the fall of 2008. I made my first trip to search with him in Louisiana shortly thereafter. Our collaboration gelled in the summer of 2009 when he began to visit our old search area. I visited him again in November 2009. In January 2010, I came up with the name Project Coyote as a play on his name and to reflect his central role in the effort.
On the surface, Frank and I were probably as different as the worlds in which we grew up. Frank was one of the smartest, most paradoxical people I’ve ever known. He was a very well-read autodidact whose writing style was deceptively at odds with the way he presented himself – as a stone cold, 2nd amendment loving, libertarian redneck, albeit a nerdy math, physics, sci-fi, and Star Trek loving one. I’m a very liberal New Yorker of Jewish ancestry with degrees in law and American Studies.
Despite our differences, we found more common ground politically than I could have anticipated, and he’d sometimes say, “Don’t tell anyone I said this, but . . .” We shared a distaste for spectator sports and also found common ground musically. Though he loved Pink Floyd first and foremost, and I grew up in the ’70s Punk scene, we both enjoyed rootsier genres, and some of our most enjoyable, non-field times involved tequila and singing together. Frank was a good singer and gifted all-around musician; I managed to harmonize decently on background vocals. The Stones’ “Dead Flowers” was a favorite.
But what really united us was the ivorybill, and more specifically, a shared sense that figuring out what J.J. Kuhn knew was the key to documenting the bird.
While there are echoes of the Tanner-Kuhn dynamic in our story – at least to the extent that, like Tanner, I’m from New York, with a graduate degree from an Ivy League school, and Frank, like Kuhn, was from Louisiana with no formal academic training – we were doing something different. We were equal partners, trying to solve a mystery together, bringing different, complementary skills to the effort.
Still, when we were approached about the possibility of doing a reality show (I’m thankful every day that didn’t happen), I described us as “the odd couple of the ivorybill world”. In retrospect, the oddness was more superficial than substantial; we may not have been the only such pair; and odd may be commonplace when it comes to the ivorybill. In any case, I miss my friend, our shared dedication to the search, the music, and our many running jokes – especially the ones about stump holes and the ubiquitous Plate 11.
I had been planning to do a post with various ivorybill related tidbits in anticipation of the search season, which begins next month. That will be coming in a week or so, but I want to say a little more about Bill Pulliam first (beyond his Luneau video analyses, which I think should be dispositive). This decision was inspired in part by one of our advisors who pointed similarities between what Bill observed in Tennessee and what we’re seeing in Louisiana. While the physical characteristics of our old search area seem to have more in common with Moss Island, Tennessee than where we’re currently focused, Bill’s perspectives are relevant to both.
Edited to add: Moss Island is a small wildlife management area encompassing 3400 acres. I’m not sure what percentage is mature bottomland hardwood forest, but there are a variety of other habitat types. Compared to our search areas it is relatively isolated and distant from other large tracts of forest.
As an aside, Cyberthrush also has a post honoring Bill with a link to an eBird tribute.
With comments included, Bill’s series of posts on Moss Island runs to nearly 54,000 words. There’s no telling how long this series will remain readily accessible online, and indeed some of the images and sound files are no longer available. The entire series is worth reading and saving if you’re seriously interested in the ivorybill. It starts here.
On re-reading the posts for the first time in eight years, I’m struck by how much Bill influenced me without my recognizing it and/or how much the evolution of my understanding between 2009 and today is congruent with the ideas he expressed just as I was getting more deeply involved in searching.
Like Bill, I suspect that the near extirpation and revival of the beaver may be central to the ivorybill’s decline and survival (more about this in my next post). Like Bill, I think that Tanner’s model failed to account for environmental changes that had taken place in the preceding centuries. Like Bill, I think that if the ivorybill survived, it had to have adapted in ways that are inconsistent with Tanner’s a priori assumption that the species is old-growth dependent.
Bill was tough-minded and opinionated. There were times when I thought he considered me a somewhat annoying amateur. While we hadn’t communicated about it in recent years, he took a dim view of my efforts to make sense of feeding sign in the early days. Most of our correspondence took place in the 2000s, while he was still actively blogging about the ivorybill. After that, I sought his input sparingly.
My last exchange of emails with him pertained to the March recordings. Without quoting him directly, I think it’s fair to say he thought the calls were likely or more than likely Ivory-billed Woodpecker. He also thought it unlikely that birds were resident in our search area, based on the pattern of potential encounters, the paucity of strong sightings, and lack of conclusive evidence. I’m not sure I agree; I wish there had been a chance to explore this topic in more depth and that he’d been able to see our search area for himself. Nonetheless, his perspective has led me to consider that other nearby forested areas deserve more attention than we’ve given them to date.
I’ll conclude with three paragraphs from his final post in the Moss Island series. It’s as true today as it was in November 2009 (though I suspect nesting may take place in fragmented second growth, as in our old search area). I hope it inspires you to read the rest. More from me soon.
How does this relate to Moss Island? By Cornell standards, our habitat is unsuitable. Hence, our encounters are largely dismissed out of hand. By doing so, the Cornell approach has painted themselves into a rather nasty corner. The logic is simple. To all appearances, we have Campephilus-like double knocks that are at least as good as what has been heard in the “core habitat” such as Big Woods and Congaree. If one claims that in “core habitat” these represent evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, but in “marginal” or “unsuitable” habitat they provide no evidence for the possible presence of Ivorybills, one has committed a logical no-no of the first magnitude. If the same sounds come from places where you have concluded that Ivorybills are not going to be, then you should conclude that these sounds have no relevance to Ivorybills anywhere. Conversely, if you feel these sounds are evidence of the possible presence of Ivorybills in South Carolina or Arkansas, then you must also accept that they would be evidence of the same in Tennessee, Illinois, Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. You can’t have it both ways.
Anyone who seriously considers that Ivorybills might still persist, and that double knocks and other soft evidence have a relevance to indicating their possible presence, should accept that the evidence in total suggests their habitat requirements might be broader than has been assumed by Cornell et al. I’m not suggesting they will nest in fragmented second growth, or even use it as a full-time habitat; but there are ample indications that if these sort of encounters mean anything anywhere then the birds indeed are using fragmented “marginal” habitats for at least parts of their life history. These habitats are hugely more extensive than the “core” habitats, hence this possibility raises all sorts of further hypothetical possibilities for the natural history, survival, and conservation of the species, all of them positive. In the alternative philosophy to Cornell’s, you search where you have learned of rumors, whispers, or credible declarations that something of interest might have been seen or heard there. This of course requires a lot of judgement, and eventually everyone will draw the line somewhere; I’d not put much stock in reports from western Kansas, for example — although good double knocks in Nebraska or Vermont would settle a lot about what they might mean in Arkansas! But until and unless we actually find some reproducible birds and determine what their 21st Century habitat use patterns really are, minds should be kept open.
You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species. You will not get anyone involved in the Tennessee project to state that we have established the presence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker anywhere in Tennessee as a statistical or scientific certainty. None of us has put an Ivorybill on his or her life list. However, if you asked us off the record for our own personal unscientific feelings, I think you would hear several confessions that indeed, some of us do strongly suspect that there has been at least one of these critters tormenting and taunting us in the delta woods for the last several years. Which means we also think that all that follows from this about habitat, behavior, distribution, etc. should be given serious consideration. Interconnected mosaics of fragmented second growth bottomland forest should be included within the spectrum of possible habitats for the species.
I’ve been corresponding with Mississippi-based searcher Christopher Carlisle both privately and on Facebook, and our conversations have inspired some additional thoughts on bark scaling and led me to revisit Cornell’s 2006-2007 final report, which includes two interesting photos of Pileated Woodpecker work on sweet gums taken by Martjan Lammertink in Congaree National Park. I was familiar with the document, which is available here but had forgotten about the images. Scroll to page 30 (some additional images of interest from Texas appear on the following page.)
While it’s a tiny sample, there may be some value in comparing the Congaree photos with the work on two heavily scaled sweet gums in the Project Coyote search area.
Correction: the tree in the second image is a hickory.
While it was not possible to examine this scaling up close, the bark appears to be tightly adhering on both trees, and the decay state is likely comparable to the Congaree sweet gum. The work in both cases is on the boles, and the size of the trees involved seems to be roughly comparable. Beyond that, the scaling is dramatically different in a number of ways. Most obviously, the suspected IBWO work from our search area is far more extensive than the PIWO work from Congaree (I suspect the small patches of scaling in the lower photo are the work of a Hairy Woodpecker). As I’ve discussed, PIWOs are not well-suited to scaling bark, anatomically, and it’s not a preferred or efficient feeding strategy – accounting for 23% of observed foraging behavior in Tanner and 7% in Patricia Newell’s more recent and PIWO-focused study.
The most significant difference though is in the appearance of the edges. When Pileated Woodpeckers scale tight-barked hardwoods, they typically remove the bark in layers, as in these images. This layered scaling is also very apparent in the photos from Congaree, and it’s absent from our sweet gums as well as from the extensively scaled oaks and hickories that we found in 2013-2014. Our trees show very extensive scaling with no indication that bark has been removed in stages; the edges are clean and incised and very large areas have been stripped, down to the sapwood. If Pileated Woodpeckers were the cause, it would be reasonable to expect that there would be some sign of layering, especially given the surface area involved, which far exceeds that shown in the Congaree photos or any others I know of (on hardwoods) from the Cornell searches.
The high branch work from Texas is intriguing, but the resolution of the images is insufficient to determine whether this clean scaling or whether there’s some excavation, especially on the lower portions. In addition the work is not nearly as extensive as some of the high branch work we’ve found.
Edited to add: I’m more intrigued by extensive work below the crown, as in these images. One tree (in the third photo is), definitely a sweet gum is from the old search area. The other tree, which I believe is an oak, is within a hundred yards of where I recorded kent-like calls in 2013, although the photos were taken a year before.
There are several other images of sweet gum scaling from Congaree in this report from the mobile search team, but this work does not involve the removal of bark from large contiguous sections of trunk, and the resolution is not sufficient to tell whether the bark has been removed in stages, although it appears to be in at least one of the four photographs. If I were to find it, I would assess this work as being mildly interesting but would not get excited about it in the absence of other indicators.
To return to my exchange with Chris, it gave me the opportunity to revisit this material, to give some more thought to my hypothesis about feeding sign, and to make some adjustments:
- I think scaling on pines, even live ones, is physically possible for a pileated, although the bark will often show signs of having been removed in layers, meaning the edges will not appear as clean. Nonetheless, I do not think there’s a way of reliably determining what species has scaled a pine in the absence of a direct observation and suspect that even HAWOs and RBWOs can scale extensively even on recently dead pines.
- For the work that I think is diagnostic, the species that I think are most reliable are oaks, sweet gums, and hickories. I think that the distinction is an easy one to make once you’ve seen the work firsthand.
- In the old Project Coyote search area, we had persimmons, hackberrries, and honey locusts that had very suggestive scaling and lots of it. But the bark on honey locusts tends to loosen early in the decay process. Hackberry bark fractures, and while persimmon bark is thick and tight, it tends to loosen when the wood is still very hard. These qualities complicate the analysis, though I’m confident some of that work was done by IBWOs. There was a vast difference between the size of bark chips from known PIWO foraging on honey locusts and suspected IBWO foraging on the same species.
- Extensiveness and quantity (concentrations) are important to look for too, especially when there are a lot of pines or an abundance of more easily scaled hardwoods. For this analysis, I include looking at high branch work but otherwise don’t ascribe a great deal of importance to “Tanneresque” sign, unless there’s a lot of it, and it’s associated with what I think is diagnostic.
I am not suggesting that this is the only way that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers forage. There may be seasonal and regional variations, but I suspect that some of this type of work will be present in any area where IBWOs are resident. It’s not necessarily easy to find. I agree with Fangsheath, from ibwo.net, that the failure to do so should not be treated as evidence of absence, but I’m convinced that finding this very specific type of work is compelling evidence that IBWOs are present.