This was an eventful trip, with an extraordinary amount of activity on the first four days – including a possible sighting and several possible auditory encounters – and none at all on the last two. I was alone on October 13th, 17th, and 18th; Frank joined me from the 14th-16th. Conditions were generally good – light winds (strongest gust, 20 MPH, was on the 13th) and sunny or partly cloudy skies. Daytime highs were in the upper 80s-low 90s, with uncomfortably high humidity on 17th and 18th. Notwithstanding the recent flooding in Louisiana, the forest floor was dry and water levels were lower than I’ve ever seen, making it much easier to reach less accessible areas.
I found very little fresh scaling, although a tree on which we had a trail cam appeared to have been worked on quite extensively sometime after my last visit in late May. The card probably contains imagery through June and possibly into July. Unfortunately, it may have been corrupted; Frank is working on retrieving the data. If I were superstitious, I’d point to this as another case of “the curse of the ivorybill”. That aside, the paucity of fresh scaling (only a few trees with small chips consistent with PIWO work at the bases) supports the idea that bark scaling has a seasonal component that is related to breeding. This is implicit in Tanner, the limited data on ivorybill stomach contents, and in several previous posts (links).
I am somewhat hesitant to mention and describe my possible sighting and some of the other possible encounters this trip but have decided that it’s better to be comprehensive and transparent. Of all the events of the past several days, I think the double knocks Frank and I heard on Saturday were the most compelling. While my views on the IBWOs persistence are unchanged, my pessimism about obtaining conclusive documentation has grown. I may have more to say about this in a future post.
And with that, here’s the day-by-day log.
I arrived in Sector 3 at sunrise on Thursday morning and got to the ‘hot zone’ as quickly as I could.
The small pond with several scaled trees, discussed in this post, was completely dry, enabling me to look at some of the downed wood that had been in or under water on previous visits. I found a large and very interesting cavity in some blowdown. Both the shape and size are unusual and more consistent with IBWO than PIWO. (My iPhone 7 Plus’s dimensions are 6.23”x3.07”)
I went a little farther south to the trail cam and noted that one of the target trees had been more extensively scaled since my last visit in May. The work is on the bole of this less than 1’ DBH sweet gum that had been damaged by a falling limb and has recently succumbed (photo below). There were large chips on the ground, but they did not appear to be fresh. If the scaling was done in June, as I suspect, we hope to have captured the source.
I hunkered down and watched the trees for some time, seeing and hearing nothing of interest. When the sun was above the tree line, I ventured south and east, thinking I’d take advantage of the low water and explore some unvisited areas.
I had a possible sighting at about 9:25. I was walking south and turned to my right, looking across a clearing to a large snag that I estimated to be approximately 200 yards away (paced off at over 170 steps and later rangefindered at 160 yards). The snag in question is very close to where Frank had a sighting in March.
I texted my wife with a description that I fleshed out in an email that evening, bracketed remarks have been added for clarification.
“I saw a brilliant flash of white as a woodpecker flew up onto the tree [this was a dorsal view.] I reached for my binoculars not my camera; I think because the distance was so great. I got the bins on the bird and got them focused as it took off. I didn’t get anything like a good look, but again saw brilliant white wings with a little black. I also had the distinct impression that the bird was much too large to be a RHWO. But it was a fleeting glimpse (or better two fleeting glimpses).
I did some playback of PIWO and IBWO and had no responses.
I . . . went to the snag. There is a RHWO roost at the very top, and I saw one juvenile and another RHWO but didn’t see the head [and could not determine whether it was a juvenile or an adult]. Though RHWOs were present, seeing them at this close range made me feel even more strongly that the bird I spotted was much bigger. I can’t fully rule out RHWO, but I also find it hard to imagine that I would have been able to get any details at all such a distance unless the bird was large.” Snag where I had the possible sighting. The bird landed on and took off from the stub at center. A Red-headed Woodpecker cavity is at the top of the left stub. My view was dorsal and from below, so the white was clearly on the trailing edges of the wings, ruling out Pileated.
This was my first possible sighting in almost three years. I was disoriented and shaken by it, as I have been with my handful of other possibles. And since it was not a good look, I can’t help but doubt myself.
In reply to my emailed description, Bob Ford had this to say:
“My ‘for what it’s worth’, I had a similar sighting once and paced it off to the same distance, then found Red-headed Woodpeckers and watched them at around that distance (maybe a little closer). Yes, can’t rule out red-headed but they look pretty small at that distance.”
As it turned out, Frank and I were able to spend some time observing Red-headed Woodpeckers in an open area at 50-100 yards. This was on Sunday morning at approximately the same time and under lighting conditions that were, if anything, somewhat brighter than those on Thursday. These observations led me to lean somewhat more strongly toward Ivory-billed Woodpecker. While the white rump of the Red-headed was easily visible at these distances, the white on the wings at a similar angle of view appears a lot less extensive and vivid than what I saw, and Red-headeds indeed look quite small.
I was able to capture a female Pileated and a sub-adult Red-headed in several frames. I’ve included a couple of the images here, both because they illustrate the size differential and because the posture of the Pileated is very similar to the posture of the bird in one of our old trail cam photos; the angle of view is different; nevertheless, it seems relevant with regard to neck length. The snag was less than fifty yards away. The first photo in the series shows the entire area. Frank measured the distance to the distant snag at right as 100 yards; the snag in the second and third images is at the left edge of the frame in the first.
On Friday morning, Frank and I had hoped to return to the ‘hot zone’, but when we arrived another vehicle was parked at the end of the road, presumably a squirrel hunter. To avoid contact with others, we went to Sector 2 but found another vehicle parked where we were hoping to hike in. We opted to hike into Sector 3 from the south, a part of the area that we visit less frequently and that’s harder to traverse when water levels are high.
I did not note the time, but I’d estimate that it was between 9:00 and 10:00. Frank did a series of double knocks, and shortly afterwards, I heard two single knocks (Frank heard one) and then a possible distant double knock that we both heard. Later on, farther north and closer to the ‘hot zone’, he did another series, and there was a loud, close single knock, followed by what may be the longest and most agitated-sounding Pileated calling I’ve ever heard. We both found these knocks somewhat intriguing, but neither one of us thought they were compelling.
On Saturday, there were no vehicles at the trailhead, so we were able to return to the ‘hot zone’. At a little after 9:00 am, we were approaching the northernmost edge when we heard 5 double knocks from two sources to the west of us. I estimated the distance at over 200 yards, but Frank put it somewhat closer, perhaps 150. We both agreed they sounded very good for Campephilus; Frank thinks some of the best ever; he wrote: “. . . three of the first five, early on, were very crisp, clean, and woody; among the best I’ve heard.”
We stopped and waited, and heard nothing. Frank did an ADK series and got no response. About fifteen minutes later, I did another series, and this time, I heard 2-4 more double knocks. Frank was applying insect repellant, the reason for my uncertainty about the number of knocks I heard. He only heard one. We sat for another 20 minutes or so, and, after hearing nothing, proceeded south to the scaling concentration. When we reached the pond with the downed cavity, we heard another DK from the south, at fairly close range.
From there, I took Frank to where I was standing when I had the possible sighting, and he measured the distance. We then went on to explore some previously unvisited places, finding some possible cavities and starts and a little bit of older feeding sign. This part of our search area is difficult to reach and navigate unless conditions are extremely dry, and we suspect it may be where roosts are located at present. If we can visit and explore it when leaves are down, we will be able to do a more intensive search for potential roosts. This is a difficult undertaking, especially given that the big trees are more than 100’ tall.
On Sunday, we went to Sector 2, the easily accessible part of which has seen a major increase in human activity and four-wheeler use over the last three years. This is the area where the tree on the homepage is located. Because waters were so low were able to get to parts of this sector that we haven’t visited in a couple of seasons due to changes in hydrology caused by beavers and and human traffic.
I was sad to discover that what I called the kissing trees, my favorites, have separated.
At 11:30, about 4 miles in, Frank nearly stepped on this canebrake rattler, only the third one I’ve ever seen.
A few minutes later, a series of approximately a dozen calls from two or three sources caught our ears. We agreed on the following details: they sounded more like “yips” than “kents” (I didn’t consciously remember that Allen and Kellogg described some ivorybill calls as “yips”); they were all single notes with no variations in pitch, perhaps not as rich sounding and higher pitched than the Singer Tract recordings, but with something of their toy horn quality; the first calls came from the east and northeast, and with movement northwestward and away from us. A Downy Woodpecker called shortly afterwards; I mentioned to Frank (and he agreed) that the “yips” had a similar quality to the Downy’s “Pik”, what I’d describe in retrospect as their brevity and emphasis.
After the calls subsided, we proceeded north for another hour or so, before looping south and west. At approximately 2 PM and at about the same latititude, I heard three more calls that were more kent-like. Frank missed them; while I suspect they came from Blue Jays, I’m including them for the sake of completeness.
On the 17th, I explored parts of Sector 1 I haven’t visited before but did not see or hear anything suggestive of ivorybills. The same was true on the 18th, when I returned to the ‘hot zone’.
I don’t anticipate returning to Louisiana until sometime in December but may do another post or two between now and then.
I made a brief visit to our search area from November 14-16. Because I was alone, I mostly avoided the more difficult and remote locations and focused on more accessible areas where possible encounters have taken place. This includes our current camera traps. The weather was a problem – steady moderate rain from 7:00-10:30 am on the 15th and early morning drizzle, moderate winds, and cloudy skies on the 16th, which was also the opening day of duck season. On that day, I ventured farther into the swamp and encountered one duck hunter in an area that appears to get very little human traffic. There was frequent gunfire throughout the morning and into the afternoon; however, even on this day when people were hunting for deer and ducks, I saw only four trucks parked along the parish roads, met two people on the road (one of them having just rescued two hunters who had gotten lost.) This was roughly the same level of traffic as we encountered on the opening day of squirrel season in October. Compared to other places I’ve visited in Louisiana, this is a fairly low level of human pressure, although between the gunfire and the weather, avian activity was suppressed on the 16th. Even the crows were less vocal than usual.
On the morning of the 14th, temperatures were in the mid-20s at sunrise. I visited the camera traps and found what may have been fairly fresh bark chips at the base of one; however, I couldn’t identify any areas of fresh scaling on the tree. Frank Wiley will be servicing the cameras and changing the cards in the near future. Time will tell whether anything was captured this time around. At 9:15, near one of the camera traps, I heard three kent-like calls from the ENE. They sounded very clarinet-like in tone, more so than some of the other calls we’ve recorded. The calls were very close together temporally, and I wrote that the cadence was “not quite what I’d expect.” At 12:55, I was in a different location and heard two more intriguing calls from the SSW (also SSW of where I was at 9:15). A Blue Jay was calling roughly simultaneously from a different direction. I consider both of these incidents ‘weak possibles’ because I was alone and because the calls were so few in number.
On the 15th, I spent most of the morning in the field despite the rain, giving up at 9:30 am. The skies cleared at around 11, and I spent part of the afternoon exploring some habitat to the east of our hot zone. One of our group members has made several visits to this section, but I had only spent one morning there. Because it was unfamiliar territory, I chose to walk the bank of the bayou that bisects it. The understory along the bayou is dense and predominantly comprised of holly, which made for tough walking (and also made it difficult to look for and photograph feeding sign.) I was only able to go about ¼ mile in an hour at which point I turned back. Although I covered very little ground I did find an abundance of feeding sign, including a recently dead snag that had been scaled in the manner that I think is diagnostic, and multiple examples of the scaling on higher branches that is consistent with what Tanner described. The high branch scaling appears to be older, but the work on the snag seemed recent, with fresh bark chips on the ground, so it may be an active feeding site. I’ve included some images to illustrate.
Due in part to weather conditions (which made looking for feeding sign a challenge) and gunfire I did not see or hear anything significant on the 16th, although I went deeper into the swamp following a familiar route. About 2.5 miles in, I came very close to stepping on a large cottonmouth as I stepped over a downed tree. Its mouth was wide open, and it was ready to strike when I spotted it. Just a reminder of how dangerous it can be to wander around alone in the swamp.