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Trail Cam Captures Redux: Beyond (My) Reasonable Doubt, Part 2

The previous post generated a number of responses, mostly positive, but there were a couple of negative remarks, one of which I thought I should address.

One claim was that this new way of examining the imagery (which was misleadingly described as “enhancement”) confuses the issue and makes the images harder to assess. In reality, the processes used in the previous post and in this one are for the most part not “enhancements.” While I have used various image enhancement tools in the past, most of these treatments use unaltered original images to create composites that make it possible to separate figure from ground and parts of the target from artifacts. It’s not a perfect method, but it’s an illuminating one, even with low resolution images. It requires no special forensic expertise. As should become clear from this post, it can also be useful for estimating size.

The images examined in this post were all captured December 7, 2014 on a Reconyx Trail cam that was showing its age. They were previously discussed here, here, and here.  As in the previous post, I’ve used Luminar to create the composites and apply various effects for this deeper dive. As always, views can be had by clicking on the images themselves; mousing over the images will reveal captions in most instances, and I have added versions with arrows to help orient you. I strongly encourage you to examine the images closely.

One initial comment about these images and the ones discussed in the last post: I’m personally convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that two of those images show Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. The images discussed in this post show fewer details, so they may not be quite as compelling. Either way, the captures under discussion are only part of the mosaic, and the subjective conviction that we have found Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in two locations is not solely dependent on them. The audio from last year, for example, is strong evidence in its own right. Go here for a detailed discussion of evidence gathered since 2009

I’ve reposted the original captures in tiled mosaic form below; I’ll follow that with some composites and comparisons among the images. I think the results are helpful if not quite as revelatory as the ones in the last round.  A very prominent American birder tweeted that one of the images below shows a Blue Jay (9.8-11.8″) and characterized the suggestion that it might be an ivorybill as “crazy”. (This is the capture I think is likeliest for ivorybill in this group.) I think his knee-jerk suggestion is absurd, as this approach to reviewing the images should make more apparent.

 

I’ll begin with the raw image I’ve always liked most for ivorybill, as previously discussed in detail and in comparison with Imperial Woodpecker captures. (Note that the version comparing putative IBWO and IMWO has been enhanced.)

IMG_4195

Suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker

rotatedcomposite

Rotated, resized image of Imperial Woodpecker in flight. The bird is angled downward and slightly away from the camera obscuring the bill and foreshortening the profile. An automated motion blur reduction feature has been applied to the image of the putative ivorybill.

The next image shows the difference between the foregoing frame and one captured approximately 40 minutes later. The bird to the left of the snag is clearly closer to the camera (which was approximately 85′ from the target snag), between it and the snag. The composite strengthens the impression that the suspected ivorybill is behind the tree and the foliage behind it, since at least some leaves appear to be between bird and camera. Frank estimated the foliage as being 15′ more distant.

 

In the earlier discussion, several Pileated Woodpecker captures, including the one below, were used for comparison. These captures were taken from a slightly different position, but that’s irrelevant to the issue of size relative to the reference object, the jug handle-shaped stub.

IMG_2735-1

Pileated Woodpecker on Snag

It may be even more instructive to contrast the capture with the Red-headed Woodpecker, apparently caught as it was preparing to land on the snag. The comparison suggests that the two birds are approximately the same distance from the camera. The possible ivorybill’s body is considerably longer than the Red-headed Woodpecker’s wingspan (14-17″). Thus, between the Pileated Woodpecker (~16-19″, with southern birds typically on the smaller side) and the Red-headed Woodpecker, it can be inferred that the suspected ivorybill is approximately the right size (19-21″), considerably larger than a Red-headed and somewhat larger than a Pileated. I am unable to think of an alternative ID for a bird of similar size and shape, even leaving aside the fact that a white trailing edge seems to be present even in the original, unmodified version of the capture. (The trailing edge becomes more apparent when the image is processed to reduce motion blur.)

 

A different but related method of image processing is helpful for understanding the position of the bird relative to the snag and also suggests that another capture in the series is at least size-appropriate for ivorybill; the tuck and the long, pointed shape of the wings are also intriguing. The first composite shows the unknown bird and the Red-headed Woodpecker. (Note what seems to be a wing, species unknowable, protruding from behind the snag; it appears in the Red-headed frame and no others and had gone unnoticed until now. On looking again, this could also be a squirrel’s tail, albeit unusually positioned.) The second is an overlay of the suspected ivorybill capture and the unknown bird processed using Luminar’s “Color Burn” feature; the two birds appear to be approximately the same size and in the same plane. I’ve added a shot of a Pileated Woodpecker in flight, with wings in a similar position, for comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

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Another capture from the morning of December 7 has always interested us. The underwing pattern and shape are suggestive of ivorybill and reminiscent of one of the Singer Tract photographs. But questions about size have lingered. Comparing this image with two others from the same deployment that show Red-headed Woodpeckers may be helpful, and it has pushed me toward favoring Ivory-billed Woodpecker for this capture as well.

IMG_4399

Either Ivory-billed or Red-headed Woodpecker Depending on Size

 

 

 

 

This capture seems more ambiguous to me, but a few factors are more consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker than Red-headed Woodpecker. Both Red-headed Woodpeckers, one captured on the same morning under similar lighting conditions, appear to be closer to the camera than the possible ivorybill. My efforts at measuring wingspan were crude, but the suspected ivorybill seems to have a slightly greater wingspan, despite the upturned angle of the wings and apparent greater distance from the camera. This would tend to exclude Red-headed.

The comparison is also useful insofar as it shows that the wing and body shape of the possible ivorybill are not similar to the Red-headed Woodpeckers captured during this deployment. While Red-headed wing and body shapes can resemble ivorybill at certain angles and under certain lighting conditions, as Bill Pulliam documented years ago, the tail in this image looks too long relative to the body, and the wings look very narrow, at an angle that I don’t think would create an illusion of elongation.

As always, I’m open to correction, and my interpretations are provisional. Intelligent and informed comments are welcome.

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A Tantalizing Trail Cam Capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the time lapse video clip.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

An ornithologist wrote:

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

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

I was seeing body only, folded wings white patch.

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

The response:

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

My answer (another person raised a similar question):

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

And the conclusion:

Good. It is a very intriguing picture.

There was also this exchange with a consulting biologist:

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

I replied:

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

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

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

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

The rejoinder:

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

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

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

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

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

I had one point of disagreement:

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

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

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

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

Anyway, thanks for the re-orientation.

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

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

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

Definitely no fakery here 😉

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

I think the size comparison stands regardless.

Negative concerns –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the response:

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

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

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

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

I replied:

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

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

 


Part of the Search Team by Erik Hendrickson

I was very pleased that we were able to have searchers in the field almost without interruption for over three key weeks in February and March. Erik was in the area alone from February 28-March 6, and conditions were good enough for him to get out for part of almost every day. At present, Matt Courtman is still in the field. I will be posting my trip report within the next few days; it covers the afternoon of March 7 through the morning of the 16th. There have been no possible encounters during this period, a stark contrast with this time last year. I’ll be addressing this in my report, but in the meantime, here’s Erik’s. It was a pleasure to read. I’ve made a couple of side comments in italics.

Back in the early 2000’s, I often used the holiday break as a time to take off from work and go birding someplace I’d never been before. Following the Ivorybill rediscovery announcement in May 2005, I decided to go to Arkansas “on a lark” and at least see the habitat where the bird had been found. There would be birding opportunities – a chance to see wintering species not present at my home in Montana, and I wanted to visit Little Rock High School National Historic Site.

After several days of birding, I saw the ivorybill. Like many other sightings, it was a brief look, but I saw the bird through binoculars, sharply focused, in good light. I made 4 more trips to Arkansas and Florida in the next two years, before my job took me to Alaska for 8 years. I made no more trips to the southeastern United States in that time.

But retirement in March of 2017 allowed me time to think about a return; and Mark graciously responded to my inquiry with an invitation to join his search effort in December 2017 / January 2018. I got to accompany him and Steve Pagans again in February; and Mark had another search planned for March, but the timing and logistics didn’t quite work out. With trepidation, I asked about searching the week before the main search effort, and Mark was encouraging. I’d seen how well Mark navigated the woods he knows so well, and Steve was equally competent (Steve is considerably more competent) – and always had his GPS available to ensure we could get out of the woods.  But on my two initial trips; I often did not know where we were headed and often got turned around.  I didn’t say so, but I knew I’d have to get a lot better at reading my GPS.

Mark also encouraged me to purchase a dedicated audio recorder, in case I heard double knocks or kent calls as other searchers have in the past. This was perhaps the most obvious advantage to being in the woods in March: the likelihood that ivorybills would be more vocal and/or more noticeable if they engaged in courtship, cavity construction, brooding and interaction at a cavity, or feeding of nestlings/fledglings. If I could be in the woods a week before Mark’s major search effort, then at least I was providing some additional coverage for a possible encounter.

A friend of mine said with encouragement “I’m sure you’ll see it this time!” I didn’t respond that “I don’t think so…”. Of course I’m optimistic, but my primary goal in the field is to contribute quality hours to searching for a species which has a very low encounter rate. The more hours searchers rack up, the more encounters we have. It’s important to me to contribute by adding up those good hours.

Logistics are a major part of the search effort: traveling from my home in Colorado; arranging airflight, rental car and lodging. Being prepared with the right clothing, rain gear, hat, camera, GPS, audio recorder, first aid kit, and all the miscellaneous supplies carried each day. I studied maps so that I wouldn’t be as lost as I was on my first trips.  I could check online for the weather forecast and sunrise/sunset times. And then on my travel day, it takes about 12 hours from my house to my destination.  I pick up lunch supplies at a local supermarket, and get ready for 7 days of searching.

It’s exciting first thing in the morning – arriving at the start point, and getting everything ready to walk into the woods. I only forgot to record the location of my vehicle once – but remembered within a 1/2 mile of my start, and that was close enough to ensure I could get out in the afternoon. I start out listening to and trying to see every bird – they’re all different from the birds back in Colorado, and if I’m standing still trying to pull a Yellow-eyed Vireo out of the shrubs – well, I can be listening for ivorybills at the same time.

Much of my time in the bottomland forests, I’m simply acting as a roving Audio Recording Unit. Although I rely on my eyes more than my ears – and at times it seems that I can see a lot of the habitat around me – I know from experience that I can’t really see all that much. Woodpeckers cling to the backside of trunks and branches.  Sometimes I watch them up high, and then they move around to the opposite side of a branch – and they’re completely invisible to me. Had I not seen them move to that location, I’d never know they were there.

So as I scan the forest around me, I’m aware that there’s really only a limited amount of “space” – of “volume” – that I can peer into to check for birds. My best method for detecting the presence of many (most?) birds, is being able to hear them. So I wander around the forest, always listening, and hoping to hear a bird that may not vocalize very often.

I know from experience that I have good hearing, in the sense that I can detect very low levels of sound; often I can hear levels of sound lower in volume than my birding companions (but, sometimes others hear sounds that I miss). However, I’ve also learned that I don’t have a “discriminating” ear, and I easily confuse all kinds of species: Pileated Woodpecker sounds a lot like Northern Flicker; Northern Cardinal sounds a lot like Carolina Wren; Tufted Titmouse can sound like Carolina Chickadee. It always makes sense to me when someone tells me what I’m hearing, and often – given enough time (if the bird continues to call) – I can figure it out. But I know I’m not as good at identifying birds by sound as I am by sight.

I’m pretty good at identifying birds in the field and in photographs. Often, I only need a few pixels to correctly identify a bird. I make my share of mistakes, and often call out the name of a bird before I’ve completely processed all the information – and my initial identification (part of the thought process for arriving at a final ID) is incorrect. But while I make lots of mistakes while trying to arrive at the conclusive ID for a bird, I’ve got to be certain in the end.  Entire books have been written on this topic – and that makes sense to me.

Searching for ivorybills is very different (for me) from “birding”. Birding is a fun, enjoyable activity that I do regularly, in all kinds of habitats, with lots and lots of opportunities to see and identify birds. Searching for ivorybills is mostly just putting in hours without seeing or hearing anything. But my approach to searching is to go “birding” and enjoy the birds I see, and to be aware of the environs around me as I’m looking for or looking at, birds. I stop and pause for several minutes at a time. I’m not in any hurry – I don’t have to be anywhere else. I think about all the other recent encounters that have been described:  someone in the right habitat, often engaged in an activity other than searching – and while relaxing, or while sitting down, or while engaged in something other that “actively looking”, suddenly they become aware of a bird that they focus on, and it turns out to be an ivorybill. I think about lots of things written about ivorybills, things that I can remember and things that I’ve heard other searchers and other birders talk about. And… I wander around the bottomland forest – listening and looking.

I made a point of looking for large cavities, and I found 8 on this trip that were large enough and asymmetrical enough for me to stop and record them. I photographed each cavity (several photos, at successive zoom ranges) and marked its GPS coordinates. I tend to consider cavities that are too small (suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers – or even smaller species), but I think I’d rather be conservative in this regard. I’d thought perhaps that if I found one or more candidate cavities, I would try to watch them as early in the morning or as late in the afternoon as I could. But I realized that simply finding the cavities, and trying to find efficient routes from the cavities to/from my vehicle, would take more time than was available to me. A fresh, or routinely occupied cavity, might be distinctive in a way that would set it apart from other cavities – and none of the ones I found was notable in that regard. If I had unlimited time, I thought about aiming a trail-cam at the “better” cavities I found – and I might give that idea more thought in the future. (The last two intriguing cavities I’ve found were not good candidates for camera traps; height, backlighting, intervening vegetation can all be problems. This issue is under- appreciated, and it became more apparent to me last trip. More on that in my report.)

I looked for scaled bark, trying to pay attention to the details Mark has taught me in the field.  As a long time reader of the Project Coyote blog, I read many of Mark’s descriptions of scaling, and looked at his photographs. But having him explain scaling in the field, spending several minutes at a tree with fresh scaling, increased my understanding by at least two orders of magnitude. Mark brought to life the importance of scaling as evidence for ivorybills occupying or using the area. But I also learned that Mark has an eye for “seeing” scaling, and in my previous trips I never spotted “good” scaling before Mark did. (It’s just a matter of practice.) On this trip, I did see some tree top scaling in a sweet gum, and I saw a few downed logs (recently downed) with scaling that might have been done by ivorybills (but which also could have been done by other species). I was conscious that I tried harder looking for scaling at some times, and less hard at other times – it’s a skill that needs to be learned, and I’m still at the bottom of the learning curve.

I saw many Pileated Woodpeckers over the week, and on the first day, I noted that I saw 4 pileateds while I was standing in one spot, more or less simultaneously.

Great Blue Herons (and other species) always seemed to be aware of me, when I was walking (even walking slowly/quietly), long before I was aware of them. By contrast, when I was standing or sitting still (especially when in a shadow, but even when in the sun), birds and other animals would sometimes approach quite close, and go on about whatever they were doing, clearly not yet aware that I was present. And sometimes, even once they became aware I was present, their behavior was still reserved and they lingered at closer range than the birds (or pigs, or deer, etc.) that became aware of me as I was walking.

Some observations under the latter conditions come to mind: (1) After a large limb broke off from a tree, crashing to the ground with an impressive disruption of the quiet, two pileateds flew to a cypress tree near where I was standing quietly. The first pileated flew to the top of the cypress and drummed a couple of times. The second pileated flew to the trunk of the cypress to investigate one of two cavities, one right above the other. The pileated stuck its bill and just a bit of its head into the cavity when suddenly a gray squirrel exploded from the cavity, driving the pileated away.  The squirrel clung to the cypress just a foot or so from the cavity, chattering loudly for a few seconds before retreating back into the cavity.

(2) I was sitting with my back against a birch tree, watching a fresh, asymmetrical (but small) cavity in a cypress tree across a creek (mostly taking a break in the heat of the afternoon), when a Hermit Thrush approached from a nearby shrub. The thrush moved closer (to within perhaps 15′), then off to my right, and then back in front of me, before finally moving slowly off and out of view.

(3) Eating lunch on a log one day, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker suddenly appeared in my peripheral vision, seeming to fly right at my head, before veering off at the last second to perch on a large trunk about 12′ from me. I’d been sitting quietly (the bird might have thought I was a stump?), but seemed to recognize I was not part of the landscape when it veered off to perch and start tending its sap wells. I was able to grab my camera and take a couple photos while it was at close range, the bird never flushing as when they are startled, but rather simply moving gradually higher up the tree and out of view.

A couple of random thoughts based on my field notes: I flushed wood ducks about 3 or 4 times, and always thought it would be impossible to confuse a Wood Duck for an ivorybill. Even one time when I noted that “the ID was a little tricky”; the situation was that I wondered for a split second “what was that?”, and not “could that have been an ivorybill?”. I observed two (rather small, I think) Cottonmouths; both were well behaved and non-aggressive.  Very beautiful snakes.

And one other observation: while standing quietly in a shadow, I saw a large bird, darkish in color, mostly obsucred by a tangle of vines, fly in to a log on the ground. I could not see the bird, and thought it was on the opposite side of the log from me, and there was much undergrowth that made visibility difficult. I heard several loud (very loud) raps, interpaced with quiet, and based on my time in the woods, I thought pretty sure this was a large woodpecker, foraging on a downed log, and occasionly delivering 3 to 6 heavy blows to the wood. The bird continued foraging in this manner, with several sequences of loud knocks, and I finally decided to move to my left to try to get a better angle on the log. I heard another couple sequences of raps and then quiet, and I was pleased I hadn’t started the bird and caused it to flush. I moved to my left, and a little closer to the log, and then there was a downed tree blocking my path, and some water, and I had to make some noise to get around the obstacle, and continue moving to try to see the area around the downed log better.

By this time, it was clear that I had flushed the bird, and did not see or hear it any more.  I’ve thought about this event, and it emphasizes to me that birds may often be close enough to see, but impossible to see because of vegetatation blocking the view, and that birds we often think of being “in the shrubs” or higher “in the trees” are often on or near the ground. If I had to guess, the bird was either a Pileated Woodpecker or a Northern Flicker.  I’ll never know.

I started writing this note with the intention of providing a simple summary of my observations during the week I was in Louisiana, but quickly realized I was describing a more general sense of purpose and the idea that looking for ivorybills is distinctly different from looking for other birds.  I could add some good search hours to the effort – that was worthwhile and enjoyable to me, and although I’m uncertain how my hours contribute to the Project Coyote overall effort, I am very pleased to be part of the team.

photos follow . . .

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First morning: Wolf Spider, possibly Tigrosa helluo.

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Cottonmouth (fairly small, less than 2′ long; it saw me before I saw it).

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A slug on a branch where I suspended my backpack for a morning break.

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I suspect this otherwise healthy looking tree has some parasite or other infectious agent causing blisters in the bark.

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I looked for large, asymmetric cavities; these are probably too small (but it’s difficult to judge size; the cavities were often 80′ or higher above ground).

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Recent rains had swollen water bodies and washed leaf litter and other debris off the forest floor; and made even very shallow ditches treacherously slippery.  And… it was difficult to find places to cross small streams and sloughs.

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Raccoon prints in the mud.

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Recently dead trees are of interest because they may attract woodpeckers; and a very large, powerful woodpecker might be indicated if tightly held bark is stripped away in large flakes, a feat difficult for smaller woodpeckers to perform.

 

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I’ve included several photos of logs used to cross deep water; as an indication of how it’s difficult to move efficiently through the forest.  What’s not seen, is how far I had to walk to find a suitable log to cross, and all the logs I rejected.

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The branch at right possibly shows scaling; the kind of clue that we look for that may indicate foraging by ivorybills. (The tree is a sweet gum, and there was additional scaling on it the following week.)

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I believe all these are Red-eared Sliders.

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Red-eared Slider.

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These appear to be twigs stripped of bark and left on the bank; either because I startled a beaver, or because whatever animal was accumulating these was waiting for a future time to retrieve the wood.

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Unidentified fish.

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Zebra Swallowtail.

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For whatever reason, I seem to notice scaling on fallen trees more than on trunks and/or limbs overhead; this appeared to be a fairly recently felled tree, with bark scaling.

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The other side of the tree trunk above.

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And at the end of the fallen tree, was this “tall stump” that also appeared recently damaged, and with recent bark scaling.

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Examining the scaling closely, I think I see where the tip of a woodpecker’s bill has struck a dead blow into the wood.

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It took me several minutes to clear the flotsam off this tree so that I could cross it.

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Another tree crossed the same afternoon.

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And another crossed that afternoon (it was my longest haul out of the woods).

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I believe in the middle background is a sweet gum, that has forked, and then rejoined itself…

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… like the eye of a needle.

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The most common woodpecker I saw was Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.  It was useful to try to photograph bird species, to practice that skill, just in case (the majority of my bird photos are poor).

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Red-headed Woodpecker.

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The stump of this fire-damaged tree completely burned, while the adjacent trees were undamaged.

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I would spend long minutes, just sitting or standing and watching open areas; hoping to re-create the situation described by other observers of ivorybills.

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Cavity that is not too large, and not too asymmetrical.

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More cavities that are … interesting.

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Brown Thrasher.

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This photo re-creates where my hand was about to grab onto a Devil’s Walking Stick just before I saw the thorns.  I was about to descend a muddy/slippery shallow ditch – this is the only Devil’s Walking Stick I saw during the week.

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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

 

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Another fire-damaged tree, loblolly pine (I think); again without fire spreading to any adjacent trees.

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Large, asymmetric cavity photographed maybe 200′ distant and across a water body.

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Cottonmouth.

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A large irregular cavity on the underside of a limb in a Sycamore; in my recent visits, we’ve never discussed Sycamores as a tree susceptible to scaling or which might have cavities.

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Pipevine Swallowtail.

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Another cavity photographed at a distance.

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And one more cavity; it seemed larger to me in the field, but this photograph makes it look small and symmetrical.

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I had to walk a long way to find this log to cross, and the photograph doesn’t show, but it was a bit of a scramble from the end of the log up onto the bank.

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A series of 3 (older) symmetric cavities in a cypress, with a fresh (irregular) cavity above.  I watched the upper cavity for 1/2 hour or more, never seeing anything go in or out.

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There are lots of challenges in walking about the forest besides water crossings; briers, tangles, thickets, holes to step in, mud, spider webs, fallen logs; forgetting to mark my vehicle on my GPS in the morning; GPS batteries run down, etc.  The logs were easy to photograph and maybe give a sense of the challenges.

 


Trip Report: October 13-18, 2016

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”)

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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.

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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.” imgp3469Snag 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.

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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.

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At 11:30, about 4 miles in, Frank nearly stepped on this canebrake rattler, only the third one I’ve ever seen.

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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.


Part Two – Frank’s Report from the Field: October 9-11, 2015

Day 2 – October 10, 2015

We have only visited the southeastern quadrant of our “northern sector” four times. This is mainly due to the amount of time it takes to cross about a mile and-a-half of the uplands surrounding the bottom. Bob and I decided we would try a longer, but possibly quicker and easier, approach by following a fire lane that is maintained a couple of times a year. It was a pleasant, if boring, hike of about a mile and three quarters, a little further, but much easier going to get to the edge of the bottom.

The forest on this side of the stream is of a somewhat different composition than that on the other side. As well as the sweetgums, loblolly pine, and various Quercus sp. an appreciable percentage of the trees are mature 3′ DBH or more beeches.

A Beech with a not-particularly-interesting large (6

We made our way to the main channel with relative ease – this quadrant of the forest seems not to have as many deeply incised sloughs and secondary channels, so the temptation to just keep moving slowly is irresistible. After reaching the main stream, we began to do half-circle transects, looking for anything interesting. We finally took a break about mid-morning, and I performed an ADK series and shortly thereafter a series of playbacks. We then sat quietly for about thirty minutes.

We were separated by about 15 yards, and Bob was sitting at the bottom of a large tree facing away from me. Before we continued on our way, we compared notes, and we had both heard two double knocks, and possibly one kent call. Kent calls, what are and what aren’t, have been debated ad nauseum for years. Suffice it to say that this one, though further away and not as loud, stood out from the Jays that were making a ruckus all around us. All we could say for sure is this one was “different” in a way that’s hard to describe.

We continued on, finding our way back to the bank of the main channel every so often. The stream is dryer than I’ve ever seen it.

At one point, I came upon a series of curves, which being a bit deeper, allowed the water to pond. It was not running and none too fresh, but it was water. I noticed these two turtles on a log, probably a slider of some kind and a cooter. They seemed to be annoyed at one another.

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We continued easing through the forest, moving slowly and stopping to listen and look occasionally. I photographed Bob standing next to a large swamp chestnut oak.

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We found a bit of intriguing scaling here and there, but no large concentrations. This dying sweetgum snag is a good example. (Note the large insect at the upper right. We have not been able to identify it.)

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At about one o’clock, we’d just kept walking through “lunch hour”, we decided to take a break. While we were snacking and rehydrating, I performed another series of ADKs followed by playbacks. After about an hour, Bob and I once again compared notes, and once again we had heard a pair of kents, and a single DK. I have to note that nothing we heard appeared to be a direct response to the recorded kents of the anthropogenic double knocks. While I was sitting there, I made this picture of a Red-headed Woodpecker.

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We finally came to a corner with an adjoining piece of private property. As the property line was on a direct bearing for the truck, and was “only” a mile through unexplored terrain, we decided to take a chance even though terrain sometimes imposes obstacles. Fortunately for us (we had covered about six total miles previously) the terrain wasn’t bad at all, and other than a couple of hills to climb, the walk was pretty easy. On the way home, we stopped and picked up dinner at a local BBQ joint that has become something of a Project Coyote tradition.

Day 3 – October 11, 2014

On the way to the search area this morning, Bob and I, feeling a bit peckish, decided to stop at one of the convenience stores on the way. We were a bit mystified to find this sign in the window:

Fried Chick

Being a proud son of Louisiana, I’m well aware of our love of foods that are considered a bit, ummm unconventional, but even I was a bit taken aback at the prospect of frying chicks…

We arrived at our entry point about ten minutes after first light and headed into the forest. This particular area Mark has discussed a number of times – a couple of hundred yards from the parking area one encounters a tornado blow-down track that is approximately 400 yards wide. This area is unbelievably difficult to traverse – large boled trees scattered like a giant’s game of pick up sticks, thick, almost impenetrable thickets of new growth, blackberry vines and saw briars, as well as the usual random sloughs, and cutoff stream channels.

It took us nearly an hour to make the half-mile to the location of the snag where photos, discussed in previous posts by Mark, were taken. My express purpose was to place one of our new Plotwatcher Pro cameras in this location. New growth of limbs and underbrush made this deployment a bit more complex than the last time. Bob trimmed intervening vegetation while I programmed, set up and started the camera.

After all this work, I used the camera’s Aimcheck function to make sure that the cam was placed optimally. We then proceeded to follow the bank of the main channel downstream. It should be noted that the stream is not running. In all my years of coming to this area, as a hunter, and searching for ivorybills, I have never seen it this dry.

We came to a familiar ponded slough where Mark and I have often stopped and rested for a few minutes. One of the larger trees, a 3.5 ft. DBH water oak had blown down since the last time Mark and I had visited the area in April. The tree still had leaves on it, though they were dry and brown, and the bole and upper branches had no sign of woodpecker workings. I believe that this tree was blown down on or around July 4th as that was the last time severe weather passed through the area. As they are very light and easy to carry, I had an extra Plotwatcher Pro cam with me. Taking advantage of this opportunity, I deployed the camera with a good view of the bole and top – hopefully this tree will attract insects, and soon thereafter woodpeckers feeding on them.

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Frank Wiley examining a cavity through binoculars next to downed water oak at new camera deployment location.

Bob Ford standing next to ~20' root disc of downed water oak

Bob Ford standing next to ~20′ root disc of downed water oak

Bob and I continued upstream for another half mile, located a nice spot with a good view, and I performed an ADK series, followed about ten minutes later by a series of electronic playbacks of Singer Tract ivorybill calls. Shortly thereafter, Bob heard a double rap drum, that was captured on my digital recorder. I personally don’t believe that the drum was a direct response to my ADKs as there was at least a fifteen minute interval after the last of the ADK/playback series.

The double rap is not “perfect” in that the “intra-knock interval” is about .05 seconds longer than the “ideal” – based on averages of the intervals of other Campephilus drums – but it sounds very good.

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As we were leaving, I determined to blaze a better trail through the blowdown area. Following a straight bearing on my GPS, I used a hatchet and snips to carve a path through the heavier ground cover. Perhaps crossing will be a bit easier next time.

On the way out of the forest Bob and I were treated to one last encounter. We came across this Buttermilk Racer sunning itself on the road. While not endangered, this snake is uncommon and seldom seen. After taking a few photos of him, I tapped his tail with my foot, encouraging him to seek a safer place out of the roadway.

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Buttermilk Racer

I really enjoyed Bob Ford’s visit – he is a skilled woodsman and birder, and his insights as a professional wildlife scientist are greatly appreciated. I am looking forward to Mark’s next trip – hopefully over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Also, Mark and I would like to thank The Rapides Wildlife Association, and another donor “MC”, for their much appreciated and unsolicited assistance in purchasing our new trail cams, memory cards, and batteries.

A note from Mark: Frank captured some of the possible kent calls on his recorder. They are faint, and it may not be possible to tease any detail out of them. He may do a follow-up post if anything of interest can be gleaned.


Trail Cam Photos Revisited

Frank recently found a series of images from our trail cam deployment discussed here. These photographs, taken with a second camera, are of very poor quality, but they show what is clearly a Pileated Woodpecker on the target snag. Frank’s discovery led us to re-examine some of the images discussed in Frank’s post and elsewhere on the site because they gave us a reference object to assess the size of the birds in two other low quality trail cam photos.

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Based on this reference object and informed by outside evaluations, we’re confident that the “mystery bird” discussed in this post is in fact a Red-headed Woodpecker. (We still concur with the author’s analysis of the other image discussed in the post.) The bird is clearly behind the tree but not very far from it, and it is simply too small to be anything else. Despite my initial interest in this photo, I had been leaning toward Red-headed based on feedback from a number of people and on the length of the tail.

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I have always thought that this was the most intriguing image in the series, although some reviewers have disagreed.

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I’ve also always believed that the bird was behind the snag and in front of the somewhat more distant small branches, which would mean it’s large. Frank, who has by now reviewed perhaps 1 million trail cam images, has always agreed with this interpretation.

Frank’s discovery of the Pileated sequence led me to re-examine this photograph and dig a little deeper. One reviewer suggested that motion blur made it impossible to make any judgments about size or distance from the camera. In response, I did a bit of research and found Focus Magic, a forensic program designed to reduce or eliminate motion blur.

The results of running the image (bird only) through Focus Magic are interesting. (No other processing was done.)

Image processed with Focus Magic. Setting for a 35 degree angle and a blur distance setting of 13 out of 20

Image processed with Focus Magic. Setting for a 35 degree angle and a blur distance setting of 13 out of 20. The object was selected using the lasso tool in Photoshop, making it possible to de-blur the moving bird without affecting the rest of the image.

I shared this processed image with Louis Shackleton, a professional photographer friend who has a background in ornithology. I also sent Louis one of the Pileated images and these two other trail cam photos that were taken within an hour and ten minutes of the first, on December 7, 2014.

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The first of these shows what we believe to be either a Red-headed or an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight and behind the snag. The other shows an intriguingly shaped but badly blurred bird in flight, passing between the camera and the snag. (The motion blur in this image is so severe that I was unable to make any meaningful improvements using Focus Magic.) Louis had this to say about the photographs he reviewed:

“ . . .I concur that the first image is the most interesting. Comparing that and the image of the PIWO on the tree, it seems to be larger, [and] as you say, I think it’s beyond the snag. The second image, it’s also beyond the snag, but there’s no way to gauge how far. The third image, it’s definitely in front of the snag, but also no way to tell how far in front.”

Frank and I interpret the photograph as follows. It shows a long-necked, long-tailed, slender-bodied bird that is somewhat larger than a Pileated Woodpecker flying upwards at about a 35 degree angle. There is white on the trailing edge of the wing, although it’s unclear whether this white is on the underside of the left wing, the upper side of the right wing, or both. We do not believe this white to be an artifact, since it appears faintly in the unaltered image; it becomes more fully resolved when the blur is eliminated; it is still present even at a blur distance of 20, the highest Focus Magic setting, when image clarity breaks down significantly.

Focus Magic processed image with blur distance set at 5

Focus Magic processed image with blur distance set at 5

Focus Magic processed image with blur distance set to 20

Focus Magic processed image with blur distance set to 20

A couple of considerably more ambiguous features are also intriguing. The bird appears to have a fairly distinct and sizeable bill, and in the Focus Magic iteration in which the white is most clearly defined (blur distance 13), there’s a hint of red on the head, although this could easily be an artifact. While the William Rhein film of an Imperial Woodpecker in flight was shot at a different angle, we think the profile and structure of the IMWO in that footage strongly resemble our mystery bird.

Screen capture of Imperial Woodpecker in flight

Screen capture of Imperial Woodpecker in flight from the film by William Rhein

Screen cap of Imperial Woodpecker in flight, shortly after take-off, at a different angle, but with similar wing position.

Screen capture of Imperial Woodpecker in flight, shortly after take-off, at a different angle, but with similar wing position.

Edited to add: To facilitate comparing our mystery bird with the Imperial Woodpecker in the frame shown above, I’ve created a composite image using the 13-35 de-blurred image, which I’ve also brightened. In addition to flying downward, the Imperial is angled slightly away from the camera, foreshortening the neck and obscuring the bill.Composite

It has been observed that there’s nothing to prove our mystery bird is a woodpecker, and that’s a fair point; however, the size, shape, and apparent white on the back of the wing are all consistent with Ivory-billed Woodpecker. We realize that this is far from conclusive but can think of few alternative interpretations, all of which are problematic.


Trip Report, Part Two: March 31-April 5, 2015 – Sighting on 4/3/15

As mentioned in the Part One of this trip report, I was alone in the search area from March 31st to April 2nd. Frank Wiley joined me from April 3rd-5th. He had a very robust, brief sighting on the morning of the 3rd, and we had a possible auditory encounter on the 4th. Conditions changed dramatically over the course of the week, and by the 4th, leaf-out had progressed to the point where examining tall trees for cavities and scaling had become very difficult. Weather conditions were generally good, although winds were high for much of the time. It rained heavily on the night of 3rd, and all we did on the 5th was set up a trail cam.

March 31, 2015

I hiked into what we now think is a hot zone and worked my way south, finding approximately a dozen downed sweet gums and the standing sapling that had been heavily stripped of bark. I did several playbacks and got reactions from pileateds and red-bellieds – calling and drumming but not attractions. I called it a day when I found a secondary feather that I suspected might come from an ivorybill. It seemed large for a red-headed and was white, except for the base, which was black on both sides. I bagged the feather and hiked back out. Upon examination, it became clear that it was indeed a RHWO feather; the differences are subtle. The innermost secondary of the Agey and Heinzmann feather, which has been confirmed as an innermost ivorybill secondary, is 3.5” long (thanks to Fredrik Bryntesson for providing the information on this feather, which comes from a letter from Heinzmann to Wetmore) and is all white. I have seen an ivorybill secondary that is 4.25″, though I’m not sure of the number. It had black on one side. The difference is a very fine one, especially since the innermost RHWO secondaries also have black on one side and white on the other. This was false alarm, but better safe than sorry. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Feather Atlas is a great resource; I only wish that it included the ivorybill. Photo of RHWO feather taken with pocket camera in the field.

April 1, 2015

To my relief, nothing much of consequence happened on April Fools Day. I returned to the same area and did several playbacks over the course of the morning, generating increased drumming and calling from pileateds, red-bellieds, and red-headeds. The playbacks also seemed to cause Barred Owls and American Crows to vocalize, and after one series at 9:00 am, two crows came in silently to investigate and then called a little. I also found the “chopped” sweet gum sapling that day; it was within a hundred yards of the scaled sapling, in an area where there was an abundance of work on sweet gums.

April 2, 2015

I visited three other locations. I began with the area where I found a concentration of bark scaling in 2012 and where I recorded calls in 2013 and where the tree on the homepage is located. The hydrology in this area has changed considerably for several reasons, and I saw nothing of interest. I did encounter a couple of large moccasins. BigMoc Playbacks provoked some reactions from pileateds and red-bellieds. Strangely enough, the pileated did not respond to PIWO playbacks.

I then went to another patch where there have been contacts over the years, and where we found a heavily scaled downed sweet gum last spring. There has been no further work on that tree, and the decay has progressed to the point where the bark is loose and Bess beetles, skinks, and slugs are residing underneath. This tree has now been down for between between one and two years, and the twigs and small branches are starting to fall away. The bark too is getting looser.

Impressionistically, this is quite consistent with Tanner’s characterization of the decay process. We suspect that this lack of return visits is typical of ivorybill feeding behavior, since we’ve monitored multiple feeding trees and have seen this pattern repeatedly. In one case, the small scaled oak in the old search area, there was one round of scaling found in January and a second in May or June, but in all the other monitored trees have been scaled once and that’s all. In my experience pileateds typically return to feeding trees on a fairly regular basis, and in the case of this particular tree, there’s obviously an abundant food supply under the bark.

April 3, 2015

Frank and I hiked into the ‘hot zone’. We did some playbacks at approximately 8 am, although I did not record anything about them in my notes. We proceeded in a more or less southerly direction with Frank in the lead by about 10 yards; I was walking slowly and looking up and to my right. As we approached a body of water, Frank stopped and blurted something unintelligible. I caught up with him, and he said he had gotten a very good look at a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker that had flushed, presumably from a fallen log lying in the water or possibly from water’s edge. The distance was no more than 20 yards. I handed Frank my field book so that he could draw what he saw and record his observations. I’ve included the sketch and transcribed his description, with a few redactions related to the specific location. These were done immediately after the sighting and without reference to a field guide. Not included in the description is his estimate that the sighting lasted 2-3 seconds, as the bird, which was in the open for perhaps 10 yards (we’ll measure this distance at the next opportunity), flew upward into an opening in the woods across the water, and in his excitement, he mistakenly gave the date as April 4. Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 4.58.02 PM

  1. Big traffic cone shaped WHITE bill (3”ish?)
  2. Solid black head/face – light colored eye (whiteish)
  3. Bright red crimson crest puffed up not what you’d expect.
  4. Stripe on face beginning behind.
  5. Stripes on back form chevron over rump.
  6. Wings long/thin shallow rapid flaps.
  7. Rear 1/3 to 1/2 of wings white, all the way out to primaries.
  8. Long tapered tail.

Later that day in an email exchange, we added the following comments.

Frank:

“At the first sign of movement, I assumed a Wood Duck had flushed, looked in that direction, and immediately saw the crimson red of the crest. I then thought, “PIWO” but noticed the big white traffic cone bill, and an almost entirely black face. There was a white stripe that started below/behind the light (I got the impression of white – not yellow) colored eye. The crest was not “groomed” as is usually seen in most of the artwork – rather it was puffed up as if the bird were agitated.”

Me:

“I just have a few things to add to this. I was about 30 feet behind Frank and was looking in the opposite direction, so I didn’t see it. Frank kind of blurted something, and when I got to him, he was clearly and deeply shocked and absolutely sure of what he saw. I told him to sketch it and then write a description. I didn’t hear any splashing or wood duck sounds, and I’m sure I would have if it had been a duck. He mentioned that he didn’t think the bird was terribly frightened and had probably flushed due to the sound of something approaching, since he was likely out of view.  We were approaching the area where I found a concentration of bark scaling, including both the hatchet sapling and the other scaled one I found on Tuesday. (A better photo and a detail of a worked exit tunnel on that one are attached) and were perhaps 100 yards away. I had not mentioned this to Frank until after the sighting. It’s also not at all far from the cluster of old cavities we found last spring. I guessed that the bird was drinking from the creek, and we are contemplating putting a camera on the log, in the event that it’s a place that might be a preferred spot.” The only other item of note on the third was our finding an interesting looking old cavity in a fallen sweet gum. Though partially healed over, it appears to have been quite large when fresh, at least 6″x4″ and the area beneath it had been stripped of bark. DownedCav

April 4, 2015

We returned to the same general area on the morning of the 4th, covering a lot of territory and finding more scaling on downed sweet gums. At approximately 11 am, we heard a loud knock or knocks. Frank heard a softer first knock and a much louder second one. I only heard the second, but it was loud, sharp, and woody. It’s worth noting that though louder second knocks are unusual, they are by no means unheard of . . . “the second blow is louder in 21 out of 119 recorded examples of double-rap displays by seven Campephilus species we studied . . .” The knock or double knock had come from the northeast.

We decided to do some playback, after which we heard two more possible double knocks in close succession, now from the west. I was not overly impressed by these, feeling they somehow lacked the energy I associate with really good knocks. Frank agreed about the first but thought the second was as good as any he’s heard. Slight differences in perception like these are not at all uncommon in our experience.

April 5, 2015

On the morning of the 5th, we went out to place a trail camera where Frank had his sighting. We’re hopeful that this new higher resolution camera will provide unambiguous results. It’s worth noting that we flushed a Pileated Woodpecker from virtually the same spot and from a similar distance as we approached the water. There was no mistaking it, and within a roughy similar time frame, and with a virtually identical flight path, it was possible to note an equivalent number of field marks, including the facial pattern; we agree that this pileated appeared to be a female. Weather and lighting conditions on both days were similar with overcast skies, perhaps slightly darker on the morning of the 5th.


Guest Post: A Respected Birder’s Perspective on a Couple of Images


About our Guest blogger:

Greg Links

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Biggest Week Field Trip Leader 

Greg has lived in and birded Northwest Ohio since the age of 7. He has served as President, Vice President, Field Trips Chairman and Rare Bird Alert Compiler for the Toledo Naturalists’ Association, one of the largest, longest-standing and most respected Ohio nature clubs. A former member of the Ohio Bird Records Committee and author of “The Status of the Birds of Northwest Ohio”, there are few people who know the local birds and birding spots better than Greg. Known for his enthusiasm and high energy, Greg has led successful expeditions to Central and South America, Africa, Mexico and all over the US and Canada, and recently co-founded a small birding tour company. As much as he enjoys traveling for birds, there is nowhere he’d rather be in May than right here in the western Lake Erie region. 

Greg contacted me about two weeks ago and expressed enthusiasm about the material on our website. It was very gratifying to get such a positive response from a birder of his stature. After a couple of additional emails back and forth, we invited Greg to join us the field and to do a guest post on what he finds most intriguing. We’re pleased that he agreed to do both and are looking forward to his visit. Here’s what he has to say, with a couple of parentheticals and links from me:

Like so many birders, I have long been captivated by the mere mention of “Ivory-billed Woodpecker.” As a child, I stared with wonder at the illustrations of the Ivorybill in my Golden guide and Peterson guide. Published in 1966, the Golden Guide said it was “on the verge of extinction…last reported from the deep forests of TX, LA, SC and FL.” This was more than 2 decades after Tanner’s seminal work in Louisiana’s Singer Tract. Since then, “unverified” reports have filtered in from Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and elsewhere. If you are reading this, then you surely have seen photos taken of an East Texas bird, video taken in Arkansas, video taken in Florida and sound recordings of various call notes and knocks from different locations. The people behind many of these aren’t your average backyard feeder watcher. They are scientists, teachers, ornithologists, experienced outdoorspeople whose reputations and even lives would be shaped by their observations. That they would be incapable of using reason and logic over emotion and “want-to” in every single instance seems preposterous to me. The burden of proof for establishing this species’ continued survival has become unimaginably high.

I’m not sure why or when looking for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers became akin to looking for the Loch Ness Monster or Sasquatch.  With 20/20 hindsight, I recall the Gene Sparling sighting of 2004 in Arkansas that turned into the David Luneau video that turned into the Cornell University conservation event of the century and wonder if that had been managed differently, would there be so little attention to the efforts since. In 2006, Geoff Hill and his Auburn group in Florida managed to compile some fascinating and in my opinion, diagnostic evidence of the IBWO’s existence. That evidence received virtually no attention from the so-called experts. For the life of me, I cannot understand why, other than perhaps for fear of misplaced ridicule from colleagues.

As written on the pages of this blog, and according to multiple sources, there have been “controversial” sightings in 1946, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1955, 1958, 1959, 1962, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1999, 2004, 2005 and 2006. Since 2006, there have been sightings in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Despite my own search efforts here in the US, my only experience with Campephilus woodpeckers is in the New World tropics. I have seen and heard Red-necked, Crimson-crested and Pale-billed Woodpeckers and each and every time I have encountered one, I’ve been taken back to my early days of looking at that Golden Guide, imagining what it would be like to see an Ivorybill.

Undeterred (and/or encouraged!) by events of the past or potential backlash from the present, Project Coyote is undertaking perhaps the most prominent known search today in the United States. There are two pieces I’d like to discuss.

Trail Camera Photo A

 

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First, let’s orient ourselves. The positioning of the wings tells us this bird’s head is at the top of the bird and the tail is below (short orange arrow pointing to tail). While I can’t be sure, I believe we are looking at the upperparts of the bird, not the underparts. If true, then we can eliminate Pileated based on the extent and location of the white. Even if we are looking at the underparts, the white on the wing is not consistent with Pileated and is similar to the pattern shown in this photograph of an ivorybill in flight. This leaves us with Red-headed Woodpecker to consider next. The upperparts of Red-headed Woodpecker show white along the trailing edge as this bird does. However, Red-headed Woodpecker also has a white rump that extends to above the tip of the tail. We don’t see that in this image. In addition, the white on a Red-headed Woodpecker’s trailing edge does not extend out to the primary feathers like this bird’s do. What about the structure of this bird? Size is difficult to ascertain from this photo but it certainly appears the bird is flying well behind the tree in the foreground, leaving an impression that its overall size is considerably larger than a Red-headed Woodpecker. The actual shape and length of the wings seem off for a Red-headed Woodpecker; though again, this could be deceiving based on any number of factors. In short, I would expect a Red-headed Woodpecker to show less white in the wings, more white in the rump, shorter, “stumpier” wings (from body to tip of primaries) that are very rounded and blunt at the tips. The tail also looks long for a Red-headed Woodpecker, however it isn’t as pointed as I’d typically expect to see on an Ivory-billed. My conclusion? Interesting, but inconclusive. (This and several other interesting images are discussed here, in Frank Wiley’s post, “The Pros and Cons of Trail Cams”. You can click on individual pictures to enlarge.)

Trail Camera Photo B

 

image001 Once again, let’s orient ourselves to the image before us. This is a large woodpecker that is obviously clinging to the left side of the largest tree in the photo (also taken with a trail camera that was aimed in an area where people had heard single note “kent” calls and double-knocks, consistent with the Campephilus genus). I feel the bird is looking directly away from the camera (others have said they believed the bird was looking directly at the camera). My opinion is that the light color we see in the middle of the bird’s head is not its bill, but rather a leaf from the small branch in the foreground. However, if you look closely, there is a white line that is visible on the bird’s neck (as what an Ivory-billed would show). Could this also be an artifact or twig? Perhaps, but I personally don’t think so. (A processed version of the image, discussed in this post, shows the white line more distinctly and suggests that the apparent red in the crest is an artifact; the raw image and the preceding frame are available there as well. This and another suggestive image were obtained in 2009-2010. More details are here.)

Let’s completely forget about color for a minute and look at shape and structure. First, the overall appearance of this bird looks very long and slender. I have seen hundreds (thousands?) of Pileated Woodpeckers in life and viewed countless photographs online of Pileateds clinging to a tree. Virtually all have had a bulkier look to them.

Even more striking to me is the neck. Specifically, its length and shape strongly suggest Campephilus. Almost every available image of Ivory-billed Woodpecker (as well as many other Campephilus species) shows a long, slender neck much like the bird depicted in this photo. There is a 1937 photo by Tanner of a female Ivory-bill at her nest that even shows a similar neck position. Pileateds simply don’t look like this. In my opinion, the bird shown in this photo is likely an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

I have no doubt that there are a few Ivory-billed Woodpeckers hanging on. The evidence is substantive and recent. I look forward to joining the Project Coyote team in the field soon to help them in their efforts. I applaud them for making their search results public on this blog. When the day does come that the clear images or videos are taken, what then? We’ll cross that bridge when we arrive.