I’ll be posting Frank Wiley’s report on his recent visit to the Project Coyote Search Area in two parts. Below is his account of his first day in the field.
I was contacted last month by Bob Ford, a biologist with the USFWS in Tennessee, about a possible visit to the Project Coyote study area sometime in early October. After some back and forth, we agreed that the weekend of the 9th would be best for both of us. Bob has visited the area in an unofficial capacity on a couple of previous occasions; he is a skilled birder, with a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Science. His focus has always been on birds and bird-habitat relations, especially in bottomland hardwood environments. All that aside, Bob is a great guy to spend time with, and an all-around skilled woodsman. He arrived on the evening of the 8th, having spent the earlier part of the week fishing in South Louisiana with some of his colleagues with the USFWS.
October 9, 2015:
We arrived at the study area at dawn, shouldered our packs and entered the forest. This particular spot is in the northern sector, and provides the easiest access to the area that we informally call Jurassic Park from a road that passes through the surrounding uplands – thus cutting out over a mile of fairly difficult foot travel at the beginning and end of the day. We were barely out of sight of the truck when I heard a rapid ticking sound in the leaf litter near my feet. I thumped the ground with my walking stick and was rewarded when a Copperhead about 18” long moved due to the vibration. Only a moment before, it had been completely invisible, camouflaged by the surrounding leaf litter. We stopped for a few moments, took a few photos and left the little guy to go about his business.
We hiked a fairly difficult three quarters of a mile through the bottom, crossing several deeply incised sloughs and secondary creek channels. The area was extremely dry; there’s not been a significant rain event since early July, when a series of severe thunderstorms passed through. Stealth was impossible, the dry leaf litter making it sound like we were walking on Corn Flakes. We made it to the main channel, and walked beside it until I found the top of a sweet gum tree that had blown down during Mark Michaels’ last visit. (It had green leaves and no sign of insect infestation when it fell in April.) We had speculated that there was at least a decent chance that ambrosia beetles would infest the two main forks of this top over the summer, and hopefully attract large woodpeckers. The smaller of the two forks did not disappoint. Not only had it been infested with beetles and larvae, the bark had been stripped from 60% or more of the branch. The scaling, in all respects fit the very narrow set of parameters that Mark and I have come to believe can be considered diagnostic as the work of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker – that is, extensive scaling on a freshly dead/dying tree with very tight bark, large (silver dollar or larger sized) bark chips that have clearly been removed with one or more powerful strikes, and little or no damage to the underlying sapwood.
When Mark first spotted this top on April 21, we both felt it was important to get a camera to this location to watch for woodpeckers. With this in mind, I had brought one of our new “Plotwatcher Pro” HD time lapse video cameras with me. I found a nearby tree that gives the camera a nearly perfect angle for recording any succeeding visits to this downed top by a woodpecker – both the stripped part, and the part that is almost untouched. We have high hopes for this camera in this location. It will take a photo every 5 seconds from 6 AM to 7 PM every day for three months or more according to the manufacturer.
While we were stopped, we took the opportunity to perform an ADK series and run a couple of playback sequences. During the quiet period, we neither heard nor saw anything suggestive of IBWO, even though there was a lot of activity from other woodpecker species.
As the main stream through the bottom is at a lower level than I have ever seen it, we took full advantage of the opportunity, and crossed at a location where the banks were eroded in such a way as to allow us to get in and out. Remember that the stream bed is incised approximately 15′ into the surrounding ground, so one has to be careful in choosing a crossing point, even with the stream completely dry in places. We did an “M” shaped transect that involved about 3 miles of difficult to negotiate terrain. The dry sloughs and incised cutoff channels are much more common in this area, making traversing the terrain much more difficult. We stopped at lunchtime and at two o’clock performed ADK series and playbacks but heard nothing suggestive of ivorybill activity.
At one point, I was walking near a large tree, paying more attention to the canopy than where I was putting my feet, when I happened to glance down. I quickly hopped to the side, because my left foot was about 3″ from the head of an enormous Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus atricaudatus). Bob backpedaled about 5 quick steps and asked, “Where’s it at?” Like me, he was very impressed with the size and apparent health of this beautiful and potentially deadly predator. Bob later said that he reacted the way he did because, “If it was big enough to startle you, I didn’t want to get too close…” We took a number of photos while the big guy (we estimated his length at nearly 5′) lay placidly with his head on a root buttress, clearly waiting on a convenient squirrel to pass within striking distance. He seemed totally unconcerned with our presence as we circled him (I got quite close several times) making photos. Finally, I just couldn’t resist and asked Bob if he wanted to hear him buzz. I gently poked him with my walking stick a few times. After the third poke, he rattled a bit, and coiled into the “OK, I’m pissed, now leave me alone” position. For those who’ve been dying to know, the answer is, “Five, and a button…”
We exchanged a happy high–five at having encountered this big guy and continued going about our business, leaving him to go about his. Truly an awesome and exciting encounter.
As the day wound down, we worked our way back to the stream, having explored about two and a half to three miles of ground that no one associated with Project Coyote had explored previously. The forest is of outstanding quality with many superdominant trees, mostly sweet gum and Nuttall’s Oak indicating a mature, healthy, and beautiful swamp forest. We crossed, and made our way back to the truck, feeling good about a productive and enjoyable day in the field.
As I mentioned earlier, Bob had spent the first part of the week with some of his USFWS colleagues fishing in south Louisiana. They were successful in bringing home some Redfish and Speckled Trout, both game fish that are exceptionally tasty. When we got in, we cleaned up, and I fried up a good mess of both kinds, along with steak fries and hush puppies. Bob liked my fry mix so much that he brought two ziploc baggies of it home with him for future use. I can make more. Got to teach them folks from up north how to cook!
Mark here pointing out that Bob’s from Tennessee, hardly up north from where I sit. Stay tuned for Part 2.
Frank Wiley and I have spent the past four days in our search area, beginning on Thanksgiving morning. Before getting into the details, it merits noting that this weekend is the probably the peak of deer season in Louisiana. On Thanksgiving, there were perhaps fifteen or twenty people hunting on the edges of the habitat corridor. We encountered a single person in a tree stand that day, at the edge of the potential habitat. The number of hunters dwindled over the weekend, and on Sunday morning, we heard only one or two distant gunshots and saw a lone pickup truck parked along the parish road, nowhere near the bottomlands where we’re focused. On Thursday, we visited the southern sector, where we’ve spent the most time and have had the most encounters, calling it a day in late morning for Thanksgiving. At dinner, a long-time acquaintance of Frank’s described seeing IBWOs at a location about 10 miles from our search area from which we’ve had another credible-seeming report. We spent Friday through Sunday in the northern sector, which contains some extraordinary habitat, much of it old growth or nearly so. In this sector, sweet gums and oaks of 3-4’ diameter at breast height are not uncommon, and larger trees, like the one pictured, can be found from time to time.
Travel in the northern sector is extremely challenging due to blowdowns and deeply incised sloughs. On Saturday, it took almost the entire day to cover a total of three miles. One impressive feature of the area is the presence of large patches of cane that reaches as much as 15’ in some places. In some parts of the forest, cane is the main component of the understory.
It appears that some places within the northern sector have not been visited by people for several decades. In one apparent old growth area, the only litter we found was a Schlitz beer can and a 16 ounce glass soda bottle, both of which date to the 1980s. There were no shotgun shells or other signs of human presence to be found. Approximately 1/4 mile south we did find a hunter’s flagging that was several years old. This is difficult and seldom visited territory.
At 8:40 on Thursday morning, we heard some distant, intriguing kent-like calls. There were, however, several Blue Jays calling much closer to our location. We then visited the tree shown on the Project Coyote homepage that we found in May 2013. The decay is progressing, and there are many new insect exit tunnels through the remaining bark. It seems significant and mysterious to us that there is no sign of further woodpecker foraging of any kind on the tree. This tree is in within a known Pileated Woodpecker home range, and we believe that if the work were that of a Pileated there would have been multiple return visits by now.
Old feeding sign that has the appearance of the work we believe to be diagnostic is abundant in the northern sector, but we did not find anything that appeared to be fresh. We suspect this may be at least in part a seasonal factor and that scaling of bark is a more central feeding strategy during mating season and until young have fledged. Nonetheless, we were impressed by the abundance of feeding sign. These are several examples. We found the excavation in the last image to be somewhat different from typical Pileated Woodpecker work and therefore somewhat intriguing, although we suspect it was done after the bark had been removed. The wood showed no signs of rot.
We did not hear anything intriguing on Friday, but at 1 pm on Saturday, deep into the remote, untraveled area, we heard two ambient double knocks. The first of these was perhaps the closest to recorded Campephilus DKs I’ve ever heard in the field. Frank heard an additional DK or two that I missed. We then got two or three single knocks in response to a series of ADKs (anthropogenic double knocks). These knocks appeared to come from two sources, moving from slightly northwest of our location toward the south. On our way out of the area, we found an old snag with an intriguing cavity, as well as one being used by a sub-adult Red-headed Woodpecker. We returned on Sunday morning to place a game camera on the tree. At approximately 8:15 am, prior to setting up the camera, we did an ADK series (this within 200-300 yards of where we heard the DKs the afternoon before). We had several knocks, both single and double, in apparent response.
As peak search season approaches, we’re encouraged to have three distinct but connected areas where we’ve found suggestive feeding sign and have had putative encounters. While there have been no sightings in the northern sector, the contact rate is extraordinary, as is the abundance of feeding sign. To be continued . . .
In this post, I compared scaling on sweet gums in our search area with images of scaling on sweet gums taken by Martjan Lammertink in Congaree National Park; he has graciously granted me permission to post those images and some others here.
The focus of the original post was on the direct comparison between known Pileated Woodpecker scaling on sweet gums and the work we are finding in our search area. The differences are quite dramatic. In this post, I will simply include a number of examples of suspected ivorybill work from both our old and new search areas without too much discussion. The differences should be self-evident, even without reference to bark chips. I have come to believe that much if not all of the high branch scaling that Tanner presented as being typical and (by implication at least) diagnostic is not necessarily inconsistent with PIWO work. Thus, in the absence of other indicators, the Steinhagen photos are potentially interesting but not highly suggestive. Note that in all three images of PIWO work on boles, there is clear evidence that the bark has been removed in layers. This is true even on the pine, where signs of this layered work are visible on the left, just above the bird. I now suspect the absence or near absence of layering on extensively scaled, tight barked hardwoods may be the single most important component in the gestalt and may even be diagnostic in itself.
Even when the scaling is quite extensive, the signs of layering are likely to be a giveaway, as in this example from public land near our old search area. The bark chips around the base of this tree were all small and gave further indication that the work had been done in layers.
Most of the images below have been discussed in other posts. The scaling is on oaks, hickories, and sweet gums and the differences in appearance should be self-evident.
In late 2011, I visited the Museum of Natural History at Harvard and took some iPhone photos of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker nest that’s on display there. In reviewing the pictures of cavities I took last week in Louisiana, I was struck by the similarity in appearance, especially between the Harvard cavity and the cavity in the stack, the most significant difference is in orientation; one angles left and the other right. I’ve cropped and zoomed the Louisiana cavity, while boosting the contrast and details, and I’ve flipped the Harvard cavity so the orientation is the same.
The Louisiana cavity could, of course, have been gnawed by squirrels, but the similarity is intriguing.
Edited to add: while I believe there is a type of feeding sign that is diagnostic for IBWO, cavities are another matter. In my view, ivorybill-ish cavities only become interesting when associated with other indicators, especially feeding sign.
Late last June, I collected several beetles and larvae from a suspected feeding tree in our search area. An entomologist has identified one of the adult specimens as Hesperandra (or Parandra) polita. All the adults were the same species, and we presume that the larvae were as well, although we were not able to preserve them for identification. Parandra polita is one of the few species specifically identified from the stomach contents of Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimens.
According to the Birds of North America species account:
“Most of the animal material (45% of the total sample, USFWS files fide Tanner 1942a) was composed of cerambycid beetles. Two species of cerambycids were identified as Parandra polita and Stenodontus dasystomus . P. polita is a long-horned beetle that has been described as “rather rare” in the s. U.S., but common in Mexico and Central America (Doane et al. 1936), thus potentially providing a specific dietary link between Ivory-billed and Imperial woodpeckers. These beetles feed on the heartwood of old and weakened hardwoods.”
It’s intriguing to have found a known Ivory-billed prey species on a suspected feeding tree.
Edited to add: We may in fact have found two prey species on suspected feeding trees; the other was an adult eyed click beetle (Alaus oculatus); Tanner found a click beetle larva fragment in a Singer Tract nest.
There may be some value in considering the distribution of the particular type of suspected Ivory-billed Woodpecker foraging sign that I’ve discussed in my recent posts. For the purposes of this analysis, I will limit myself to one very narrow category of bark scaling: extensive work done on the boles of live or recently dead trees (species undetermined in some instances; at least one identified as hickory.) Bark has been tight when examination is possible, and large exit tunnels are abundant. The appearance of the work is consistent – no underlying excavation, no sign of scaling in layers, clean edges.
Two of the trees are in the southwestern section of our search area. This is the general area where I’ve had most of my auditory encounters, although it’s also the area where I’ve spent the most time.
Three of the trees are to the northeast of this pair; two of these were in an inaccessible location and were photographed at a distance of about 40 yards. While they could not be examined for bark tightness, the appearance of the work was consistent with the other examples included in this summary.
Two of the trees are to the east of a parish road (this includes the one discussed in my November update.)
One tree is in the northernmost area we’ve visited and where we’ve spent the least time. Auditory contacts in this area have only involved one source.
The as-the-crow-flies distances involved strike me as being potentially significant. The shortest distance between any two trees is about a quarter mile. The two southwestern area clusters are about half a mile apart at the closest point. From the easternmost tree in these two clusters to the examples east of the parish road, the distance is ~1.35 miles and hence about 2 miles from the westernmost trees. The area to the north is about 2 miles northwest of the easternmost scaling and about 2.8 miles north of the southwesternmost tree.
In 2012, there was a cluster of scaling between approximately .5 miles farther south. The two series of kent-like calls involving two sources heard and recorded in March 2013 came from even farther south.
The distances are much greater than would be expected if a lone pair of Pileateds were engaging in anomalous feeding behavior (there would probably have to be at least three pairs of PIWOs involved.) They’re roughly consistent with the home range Tanner gave for the Singer Tract pairs.