Sunset Sighting (Possible): April 27, 2018 – Updated x2

Update 2, May 2, 2018: I have always made being forthright with my readers a priority. I chose to revert this post to draft in order to pause and reflect. Based on recent events and the prematurity of the post and first update, I think some changes in my approach to blogging are in order, something I will address in a future post.

I have decided to restore the initial post and the first update to public view because I owe it to my readers and think it’s the right thing to do.

As several people have pointed out, I was too hasty in “accepting” that whatever I saw on April 27 was a Pileated Woodpecker. My description of what I heard and saw on April 27th was inconsistent with Pileated, and I stand by the description. My observations of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost on the 28th differed from what I heard and saw on the 27th. From an email sent early in the morning on the 29th:

A PIWO came in, overhead, either silently or very soft wingbeats when it landed. It drummed a couple of times and went to roost about 20 minutes before sunset but continued tapping from inside the cavity for about five minutes. (The bird on the 27th had come in no more than 2 minutes before sunset.) I hope to have gotten some decent photos. All PIWO sounds in the area stopped ~8 minutes prior to sunset.

It strikes me this morning that this behavior was somewhat different than the other bird’s; last night’s PIWO must have seen me, but my presence didn’t prevent it from coming very close and going directly to the roost. The other bird appeared to have been spooked by my presence.

Here’s what I know: I am confident I heard the wing sounds, as described, and am personally convinced that what I saw was a large woodpecker. I’m also confident I saw a PIWO going to roost near where the other event took place, on the following night, approximately 20 minutes earlier relative to sunset. I have the pictures to prove that. The rest is inference.

It’s easy (for me at least) to get overly enthusiastic about possible encounters; its also easy for me to turn around and look for ways to discount or discredit them in my own mind. To some degree, this is a good thing and probably comes with the territory, unless you’re delusional or prone to self-inflation. Still, there are points at which enthusiasm and skepticism become unhealthy. This applies to personal enthusiasm, self-skepticism, and to the way others respond to ivorybill claims. The Internet environment feeds unhealthy responses.

Regardless of anything else, this was a productive trip. We have six cameras deployed (thanks to Erik, Geoffrey, and Jay for contributing a new cam each) – five on hickories, either recently dead or in decline, and one a big sweet gum stub, three years dead, with some very recent bark scaling and signs of beetle infestation, in an earlier stage of decay than the Singer Tract tree where Pearson observed ivorybills feeding in the early 1930s. While this work could well be something other than ivorybill, and the bark is loose, it seems worth watching for a while.

I have been monitoring this stub since the top came down; in fact, we deployed a camera there in the spring of 2015, only to lose it to flooding. (The new deployment is higher on a nearby tree.) This suggests that our main strategy for camera trap placement – finding potential feeding trees and stubs in advance of any large woodpecker activity requires a multi-year commitment.

Even in this impatient world, patience is a virtue.

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Update, April 30, 2018: Based on an observation last night of a Pileated Woodpecker going to roost in the sycamore cavity shown below and an exploration of the clearcut area this afternoon, I strongly suspect the bird I saw on the 27th was also a Pileated Woodpecker. I still have trouble squaring what I heard and saw with Pileated, but the circumstances suggest that’s what it was. I’m opting to leave the content up, with this correction, in the interest of transparency. I will undoubtedly have more to say on this in the near future. Accepting that the bird in question was a Pileated Woodpecker in no way affects my view that the sounds Matt recorded in March and the ones Matt and Phil recorded in March 2017 were made by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.

Original Post: I initially planned on including this sighting in a complete trip report but have decided to write it up and post it now as a kind of dispatch from the field. I may include some further commentary and imagery when I post the full report sometime within the next couple of weeks.

I expect this post will attract a number of new readers, so I want to preface the account with a few comments. Friends, associates, and many regular readers probably know that I’ve had a handful of possible sightings over the past 11 years, a total of seven, if memory serves. This over many hundreds of hours in the field. With the exception of the November 2009 sighting in the location where a suggestive trail cam photo was obtained a week later, I have not had a high level of confidence in these possibles and have rejected two of them as the product of wishful thinking. Last night’s experience was altogether different, even when compared to the 2009 possible, as was my reaction to it.

Here’s what I wrote to my inner circle approximately one hour after the sighting. I have made a few minor edits for clarity and to protect the location and have added revisions/corrections/additional comments in bold italics:

I’ve already shared this with Matt and Patricia, and I dictated the details into my recording device (which has been a little buggy) immediately after the incident. I haven’t listened yet, and this will include some additional details. (Any substantive differences between the recorded comments and the contents included here will be addressed in the full trip report, though I don’t anticipate there being any.)

I arrived at the spot where Matt made the recordings last month at approximately 6:40 PM (I was in the area before sunrise too). I sat facing WSW; the area directly across the water from me was recently clearcut. There are trees along the bank with an open expanse behind. Sunset was at ***. The events described took place between 2 minutes before and three minutes after sunset, by which time I had pretty much given up hope that anything interesting would happen.

There were two cypress trees across the water from me; one perhaps 1’ DBH and the other over 2’. I did not consciously register a bird flying in to the larger cypress, but I suspect I sensed it. (In retrospect, I wonder if I unconsciously heard it flying in, as my focus for the evening was on listening.) In any event, my first conscious observation was of a large woodpecker taking off from the backside of the tree. My impression was that it had flown in and took off almost immediately on seeing me. I was able to hear the wingbeats, which sounded stiff and wooden, not muffled and whooshing like the PIWOs I’ve heard. (I’ve only heard PIWO wingbeats when birds were directly overhead or when I’ve flushed them at very close range.) I was looking more or less directly into the remaining sunlight (the sun had long since gone below the tree line), and the light was very low, so I could only see a silhouette. The wings were long and narrow, and the overall GISS (General Impression, Size, and Shape) was not PIWO. After several flaps, the bird went into a glide, and I lost sight of it very soon thereafter. I’d estimate I had eyes on it for 2-3 seconds.

I continued to watch the area when what I took to be the same bird flew in to some hardwoods perhaps 20 yards SSW and 10 yards inland from the cypresses. I heard the wingbeats again but could not locate the bird in the trees; darkness was falling rapidly. I made a split second decision to try some Pileated playback to see whether it would provoke a response. PIWOs had been calling and drumming until a few minutes before this incident. I did several rounds of playback using the iBird Pro app and got no response or visible reaction. At this point, I checked the time, and it was three minutes past sunset.

FWIW, I find this sighting more personally compelling for IBWO than any of my previous possibles, including the one in the old search area where we got the trail cam photo a week later. (As implied by the updates, my view on this has shifted – as I not only heard wingbeats but saw white on the wings and the suggestive trail cam image obtained a week later adds support; there’s a closer temporal association than there is with the recordings Matt obtained just over a month before.) Some of this is gut feeling, but the wingbeats (audible at 30-50 yards) wing and body shape, the glide, and the lack of response to PIWO playback (though the hour was late), all contribute to my interpretation. Would I bet my life that this was an ivory bill? No. Will I add IBWO to my life list? I’m not sure, but I’m closer to doing so than I ever have been.

So there it is. I’m going back to the same vicinity tomorrow morning, though I may go to the edge of the clear cut.
The cavity in the attached image may also be of interest. It is likely fairly fresh, as Matt would likely have seen it last month had it been there then. I staked it out this morning and nothing emerged. It is southeast of where I was stationed.

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I returned to the area this morning and found an additional interesting cavity in a sycamore about twenty yards south of the oak and hickory where I last saw the bird.

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This cavity (in a sycamore) looks deceptively small in the photo due to the large diameter of the trunk. My field impression was that it was easily big enough, and I’m conservative in making these judgments.

It was either not used overnight or had been vacated by the time I arrived, as I had encountered an almost uncanny delay that caused me to miss the sunrise. I reached the end of a long gravel road, about a quarter mile from my planned stakeout spot and ran into a turkey hunter. As so often happens, a conversation ensued, and to my astonishment, he told me his name was Kuhn. I asked if he was related to the Tallulah Kuhns, and indeed he was; he was far from home himself, and we were nowhere near Tallulah. He had known his cousin (not sure what degree) Edith Whitehead and was aware of her father’s work on pecan agronomy and hybridization, though he knew nothing of the ivorybill and his relative’s central role in the story.  What an extraordinary (almost in the Sagan sense) coincidence.

A final note, while I saw no field marks, the wingbeats are an acoustic equivalent. As Fredrik Bryntesson reminded me, Tanner wrote about the sound very explicitly. I knew this in general terms, of course, but the actual language took me a little by surprise:

A description of the wing sounds is found in Tanner’s monograph, p. 58: “The wing-feathers of Ivory-bills are stiff and hard, thus making their flight noisy. In the initial flight, when the wings are beaten particularly hard, they make quite a loud, wooden, fluttering sound, so much so that I often nicknamed the birds ‘wooden-wings’; it is the loudest wing-sound I have ever heard from any bird of that size excepting the grouse. At times when the birds happened to swoop past me, I heard a pronounced swishing whistle.”

I’ll leave it there for now.

 


Remembering Frank Wiley on the Anniversary of His Passing

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

Frank and I met through the Ivorybill Researchers’ Forum (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.

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Trip Report Feb. 20-24, 2015: Still More Smoke

Note: this is a very image-heavy post, and most of them appear ‘below the fold’.

Although we faced significant challenges during this trip, it was nonetheless a very productive one. I was joined by John Henry, the photographer who was with me when I recorded kent-like calls in March 2013. Work obligations kept Frank Wiley out of the field, except on February 24th. A flight delay and 1:20 am arrival at my hotel in New Orleans on the morning of the 20th limited my field time to a couple of hours on that day. I had planned to get in a final half day on the 25th, but wintry precipitation prevented it. Weather conditions were a challenge throughout – skies were consistently cloudy and dark; there was occasional rain; and temperatures fluctuated from the 70s on Friday and Saturday to near or below freezing on Monday and Tuesday.

On the afternoon of the 20th, John Henry and I went to the eastern sector, the most easily accessible part of our search area. This is the vicinity where a visiting biologist, Frank, and I heard double knocks during my last visit, and where we have found a significant amount of feeding sign since 2012. I found some fairly impressive, extensive, and recent bark scaling high on the trunk of a fairly distant tree. I was unable to examine it up close, but from a distance it appeared to be consistent with what I think is likely, if not diagnostic, ivorybill work.

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On a non-ivorybill related note, the feral hog population seems to be increasing in our area, and they do enormous damage to the habitat, probably not in way that impacts the ivorybills we believe to be present, but their impact on forest ecology is likely severe. While they are hunted by some in the area, and don’t seem to be nearly as abundant as they are in Congaree National Park, for example, they are still a severe problem.

Hogs

 

Edited to add: This poor photograph of large, relatively slow moving terrestrial mammals, the best of several taken at less than 100 yards, illustrates just how difficult it is to obtain good pictures in this environment.

On the 21st, John Henry and I went into the habitat on through the northwest corner. This is an area of fairly recent blowdown, several deep, meandering sloughs, and dense blackberry thickets, making it incredibly difficult to explore. On more than one occasion, we had to retrace our steps and find a different route. I estimate that we were able to cover a quarter mile per hour. Traversing this area is hard on body, boots, and clothing, and it’s very difficult to pay attention to anything except the next step. We finally reached the site of the target tree featured in Frank’s Pros and Cons of Trail Cams and where I recorded a possible DK in response or reaction to an ADK. We decided to do a double knock series. Following Frank’s lead, I did a little pounding on the log before doing any DKs. Then I did a DK (I wasn’t recording, as I was using an external microphone mounted on my camera and figured I’d turn it on when I finished the series). Within approximately 10 seconds, there were 3 extremely loud single knocks that came from east-southeast of us. I’d estimate they were spaced about a half second apart and were no more than a couple of hundred yards away. Nothing else happened in response to the series. Although they didn’t have the resonance of typical woodpecker drumming, they didn’t sound like branches breaking, gunshots, or industrial sounds. There were no hunters in the immediate vicinity, no vehicles parked along the access road on our way in and out of the area, and we heard nothing remotely similar during the rest of the day.

On the 22nd, Frank and I made a pilgrimage to meet J.J. Kuhn’s daughter (known to us as Mrs. Edith) who had honored us with an invitation. We spent a delightful afternoon with her and her daughter, son, and son-in-law. They regaled us with many stories about Kuhn’s life, before, during, and after his time with Tanner. As readers know, we see Kuhn as the true master at finding ivorybills. Mrs. Edith is writing a biography of her father, so we’ll leave it to her to tell the story. During our absence, John Henry visited the northern sector and reported hearing a double knock late in the afternoon. He also spoke to two local hunters who claimed to have seen ivorybills. The elder of the two men said he hadn’t seen any recently but had seen a pair 15 years ago in the area that’s discussed in the first and last paragraphs of my previous trip report. This is the third local person to have claimed a sighting in that general vicinity.

The other person’s claim was of a sighting at the south end of what I refer to as the northern sector, so John and I decided to explore that area (which had not been visited) on the 23rd. As is so often the case, travel was complicated by deep, meandering sloughs, although it was nowhere near as difficult as what we encountered on the 21st. We did not have any possible auditory or visual encounters, but I did find one very impressive looking cavity (although not a fresh one) and a downed sweet gum with very extensive and fairly recent bark scaling.

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John next to the main trunk to provide a sense of scale.

John next to the main trunk to provide a sense of scale.

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This type of work is similar to work found last year. and while it doesn’t exactly meet the criteria I’ve laid out previously for what’s diagnostic, I strongly suspect that it is Ivory-billed Woodpecker work, beyond the physical capacity of a PIWO. The bark was tight and difficult to impossible to remove without an implement.

Frank joined us on the 24th, and we entered the eastern sector farther north. The hike in at this location is long and difficult, but our efforts were rewarded, and we gained quite a few new insights. Once we were well into the bottomland area, we experimented with doing some playbacks. Frank played some Pileated Woodpecker calls and drums, which stirred up a good deal of activity. One Pileated flew in silently, and several others called with the rapid, “cackle” call and drummed in the distance. He then switched over to playing the Singer Tract recordings, and two more Pileateds flew in to the trees just overhead. They drummed and did the “wok” call, apparently in direct response to the recording. It is at least intriguing that playback of ivorybill calls would produce such a response from Pileateds.

We packed up and headed deeper into the habitat and found a sweet gum with three large, oval shaped cavities.

The lower cavity is the most obvious; the other two are near the top, partially obscured by branches.

The lower cavity is the most obvious; the other two are near the top, partially obscured by branches.

About a hundred yards away, I came across another downed sweet gum with extensive and suggestive scaling and large bark chips underneath; one of the chips, shown below, appears to have strike marks that are suggestive of IBWO, similar to the ones discussed in this post. I failed to get clear photographs showing the extent of the work on this downed tree, partly due to angle and lighting and partly due to the events discussed below.

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Large bark chip with apparent bill strike.

Large bark chip with apparent bill strikes.

Detail of downed scaled sweet gum.

Detail of downed scaled sweet gum.

This limb, which was somewhat punky, had been fully stripped of bark, apparently after it fell. Also note the scaling in the background.

This limb, which was somewhat punky, had been fully stripped of bark, apparently after it fell. Also note the scaling in the background.

There was a nearby hickory snag that had been heavily scaled in the manner that I think is diagnostic, although not recently.

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John had moved some distance away while Frank and I examined the tree, and I started taking pictures. As we were doing so, we heard two distinct double knocks in close succession, roughly from the south. This was at approximately 11:15 AM. We remained in place for 30-45 minutes at which time we played back the Singer Tract recordings. John had moved closer to us. Within 30 seconds to a minute of the playback, Frank and I heard a kent-like call. We disagreed about the direction. Frank had it from the Northwest, and I thought it was from the West. Between 30 seconds and one minute later, a large black bird flew in from the west at about 85 yards. My view was fully obstructed, but Frank saw it for several seconds before it took off, at which point John saw it but could not distinguish any field marks.

We proceeded through some very impressive habitat and found some additional scaling in the vicinity, some on a hanging limb and some more on a downed sweet gum. I have now found five downed sweet gums with this type of extensive work in the past year and nothing similar on other species (I did find similar but much less extensive scaling on a downed persimmon, an uncommon species in our area.) This may be significant

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The quantity of suggestive and recent bark scaling I found on this trip relative to time spent was remarkably high, as was the possible encounter rate.

I hope to return the search area in about a month and may do one or two posts on other subjects before then. Stay tuned.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited to Add: I’ve been reminded that the 1935 Mack’s Bayou Nest failed, and that Pete more likely fledged in 1937. The fate of the adult Mack’s Bayou pair is unknown.

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

http://proregulus.blogspot.com/2007/12/i-almost-certainly-ignored-this-article.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cavities and Context

As many readers of this blog are aware, I’ve been actively searching for ivorybills since 2007 and have been obsessed with foraging sign and cavities since my first days in the field. Over the years, I’ve looked at bark scaling and cavities both in and out of suspected ivorybill territory and have developed and refined a hypothesis about what constitutes diagnostic ivorybill foraging sign. I have come to believe that no such diagnostic category exists for nest or roost cavities, although size, shape, and other contextual elements can support a suspicion that a given cavity is an ivorybill nest or roost.

The cavity cluster we found in May 2014 has characteristics that are encouraging – size, shape, tree species, bark scaling in the vicinity – and one of the cavities resembles a known Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest. This is more than ample reason to survey the surrounding area very carefully (and I’m eager to get back out there), but whereas I feel personally confident that the dramatically scaled hardwoods in our search area were fed on by IBWOs, the mere presence of intriguing cavities is nowhere near as compelling for me.

Similarly, while I suspect that Frank Wiley found a recent nest and at least a couple of roost holes in our old search area, this view is informed more by the associated conditions than by the qualities of the cavities themselves. The suspected nest was in a tree that was heavily scaled and excavated in a way that was strikingly similar to a nest tree found in the Singer Tract, and this is more important than the size and shape of the cavity itself. The two suspected roost holes were in close proximity to one another, and were certainly large enough, but were dramatically different in appearance. There are several facts that are more significant than size or shape. We had a camera trap that covered both trees for a period of several months, and no Pileated Woodpeckers were photographed using the trees in question; the only image we obtained was suggestive of ivorybill but inconclusive (no images of either species were obtained from the suspected former nest tree, even though there were active PIWO roost cavities within 20 or 30 yards); in addition, we found an abundance of feeding sign in the area and had multiple auditory encounters and possible sightings within a few hundred yards of the suspected roosts between August 2009 and April 2010.

oldareacavity2

cavity 2 reportWillow Cavities, East-Central Louisiana 2009. Photos by Frank Wiley.

In examining the images of the suspected roosts and comparing them with other images of woodpecker cavities, I came across a photograph of a Crimson-crested Woodpecker (Campephilus melaneoleucos) near a cavity and was struck by the fact that it was almost identical in appearance to one of our suspected roost holes. I did some further research and found an image of a Pileated Woodpecker nest that was quite similar, if not quite as close a match.

All of this leads me to think that, while it’s important to look for suggestive cavities, this should not be the top priority. I’d encourage other searchers to focus on feeding sign, habitat characteristics, and local reports above all. The limited available information suggests that feeding sign is what led Allen and Kellogg to the Singer Tract birds and that it’s what Kuhn and Tanner looked for. Pileateds will use big cavities (and I’ve even seen White-breasted Nuthatches nesting in holes that look perfect for ivory bills). While finding a nesting or roosting ground will be central to documenting the ivorybill if it persists, cavities alone will not point the way.