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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even in this impatient world, patience is a virtue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll leave it there for now.

 

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Trip Report: October 17-23, 2017

The first trip of the season was relatively uneventful, although we heard possible single and double knocks on Thursday morning and afternoon. Unusually heavy hunting activity and bad weather kept us out of the field on Saturday the 22nd and most of the Sunday the 23rd. Peggy Rardin Shrum joined me from Tuesday through Friday.  Tommy Michot was with us Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and Steve Pagans joined us Wednesday through Friday.

Tommy has been very good at encouraging us all to do more stopping and listening. My focus on looking for feeding sign has probably led me to do more walking than I should.  We’ve also started experimenting with playback of a couple of the March calls, cleaned up, amplified and looped by Phil Vanbergen and would like to offer it other searchers for their use. Feel free to email me for an MP3 if you’re unable to pull it from the site.

The amplification and cleaning up highlights the differences between many of our sounds and those recorded in the Singer Tract (though I still think the species involved is the same). Agitation and disturbance may account for the shorter, sharper sound of the John’s Bayou calls, and as has been discussed in prior posts, written descriptions of the calls, including Tanner’s, point to a good deal of variation.

We observed that playback of these calls often provoked responses from woodpeckers of all kinds at close to the same level as Barred Owl playbacks, though this was impressionistic not quantified. Crows and raptors sometimes seemed to react as well. I played around with some other sounds chosen more or less at random – Goldfinch, Blue Jay, Ring-billed Gull, Black-backed Woodpecker. None of these seemed to have much effect, though the Black-backed did appear to evoke a smaller number of woodpecker reactions.

Water levels were low enough to enable us to get into some of the less accessible areas, but the need to  deal with our trail cams prevented us from spending a lot of time exploring. There were no indications of woodpecker activity on the target trees, and we continue to have problems with camera malfunctions. Two of the four we had deployed seem to have failed since June; one of these may have been damaged by a tree fall, but both cams have the same issue – shutting down after booting up. We’re trying to identify the glitch and determine whether the cameras are reparable.

Tuesday, October 17

We visited the northern sector to check on our two northernmost camera deployments. The first of these (now discontinued) was a standing hickory with signs of insect damage. Tommy and Phil Vanbergen had changed out the batteries in August, and 64% of the charge remained. The second target is a hickory about 200 yards away that had lost its top in a spring storm and an adjoining beech that had also been damaged. Since August, a large hickory had fallen, bringing down a number of limbs from other trees in the process and perhaps damaging the camera without hitting directly. In addition, a large fallen oak limb obscured most of the trunk of the main target. We pulled the camera when we discovered the apparent malfunction. On the return hike, we headed east to a part of the area I had not previously explored and that has had little coverage.

Wednesday, October 18

On the morning of the 18th, I stopped for breakfast at the place closest to our search area.  Early on weekday mornings, it’s a hangout for law enforcement officers and older folks, as well as various people passing through on their way to work. A sheriff’s deputy and a couple of older men had been in the place on Tuesday, discussing local history. All three were familiar faces, as no doubt, I was to them.

For the first time, this particular bunch engaged me in conversation, asking whether I was hunting. I said no, I was looking for birds and taking pictures. They asked what ‘what kind of birds’, and I said woodpeckers. “What kind of woodpeckers?” “Rare ones”, I replied. They initially thought I was referring to “itty bitty ones”, Red-cockadeds, but I explained that I meant big woodpeckers. “You mean those Indian Hens” (meaning Pileated), one asked. I told them what I was looking for was similar but not the same and took the opportunity to show them pictures from my iBird Pro app.

The Deputy Sheriff and one of the men recognized the Pileated but said they’d never seen an ivorybill. The third guy pointed to the ivorybill image, and said, “I used to see them when I was hunting over on . . . but I gave up hunting seven years ago.” This is the second or third local claim I’ve heard from this area, which is several miles away from the focus of our efforts across a major highway.  It looks decent on Google Earth. While I’ve been wary of engaging in too much conversation with locals, it sometimes provides interesting intel, and this evolved organically; I didn’t reveal our location; and I hope it won’t result in too much gossip.

I met up with Tommy and Peggy, and we went to the southern sector to check on the other camera deployment (another tall hickory stub) to discover that one of the two cameras had failed in the same manner as the one at the northern location. We changed the batteries on the functioning camera and pulled the malfunctioning one. We met up with Steve, who had arrived later and followed another route, in the early afternoon and hiked out with him.

Thursday, October 19th

Peggy, Tommy, and I devoted the morning in the northern sector, exploring the less-visited eastern side. At approximately 8:35 we did a series of double knocks, which did not produce any immediate responses. We remained in place, and shortly before 9, we heard several single and double knocks from south of our location.  We were not recording at the time, and I considered them to be moderate possibles. We met up with Steve, who had been some distance north of us, about an hour later; he had heard our ADKs but not the apparent responses.

In late morning, we headed west and moved the functioning trail cam to the nearby hickory/beech blowdown. This is where Peggy, Tommy, Phil, and I had heard some knocks in June. It took a group effort, but we were able to move the large oak limb that was obstructing the view of the hickory bole. We redeployed the camera, trained on the bole. Given the season, it seems unlikely that this stub will be scaled in the next several months, but I anticipate leaving these camera traps in place for an extended period.

We stayed in this spot for lunch and did a little more exploring in the immediate vicinity before heading back toward the trailhead in the early afternoon.  At approximately 2 pm, as we were approaching the spot where the March recordings were made, we heard several ambient knocks, also moderate possibles, but were unable to generate any responses.

There was more shooting than usual in the area during this trip and there were distant industrial noises from time to time. These were all easy to distinguish from the possible SKs and DKs.

Friday, October 20th

Peggy, Steve, and I returned to the same vicinity and spent our time in the less visited eastern half, some of which was familiar to Steve. In addition to be being hard to reach, the terrain in this area is difficult, making it more difficult to explore.

We did not see or hear anything of note, although I found some suggestive older scaling on boles – one example on a sweet gum and one on the dead side of a still live hickory. I’d estimate that this work is at least a year old. The hickory work is of the kind I think may be diagnostic for ivorybill, and the sweet gum work is interesting for being on the bole and also for apparent large exit tunnels. I also find the excavation on the hickory to be of potential interest. The wood does not appear to be soft, and the digging does not look like typical Pileated Woodpecker work. In a couple of instances, Tanner mentioned how Ivory-billed Woodpecker work resembles that of the Red-bellied Woodpecker except for appearing to have been done by a larger animal. This hickory excavation may fall into that category.

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Old scaling on sweet gum bole

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Scaled hickory bole with unusual excavation

Saturday, October 21

I met Peggy at the breakfast place, which was unusually busy and filled with hunters. It became clear that I had not picked the best time to be in Louisiana, as this was a big hunting weekend. In addition, the weather forecast called for heavy rain by late morning. Peggy had a long drive ahead, and we agreed that there would be little point in going into the field. She left for home, and I opted to drive around, specifically to see if I could find any easy access point for searching in the vicinity that local people had mentioned and also to scout other nearby areas for potential. I had very limited success, getting a look at part of the bottom, which looked like it might have potential at a cursory glance.

The rains came on Saturday night and continued through Sunday morning.

Sunday, October 22

The rains kept me out of the field until noon, at which time I went to the eastern sector and and spent about three wet and unpleasant hours there. It rained sporadically, avian activity was generally low, and visibility was poor due to cloud cover. I didn’t see or hear anything of interest.

On Monday, I awoke to an email with a very detailed account of a sighting by someone I’ve known for several years. I may devote my next trip to following up on this report and to looking at areas in another part of the state. In any event, the next post will likely be the final in the series that this one has interrupted.