Woodpecker feeding sign and Project Coyote

I was introduced this week to Project Coyote, an ongoing research effort to confirm the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Louisiana (or on earth, if you prefer). The team has found feeding sign, recorded double-knocks, claimed visual encounters, and obtained trailcam photos, all of which they interpret as suggestive that Ivorybills still fly freely at their study site.

Of course, suggestive is in the eye of the beholder: I see some items on the website that are very difficult to separate from other more likely explanations and others that strike me as intriguing.  (This page of photos would be a great place to start if you’d like to see for yourself.) Of all of the information Project Coyote presents, I am most interested in a few of their photographs of woodpecker feeding sign, especially this smaller tree that looks like something went at it with with a chisel or small hatchet. I have seen other trees scaled like many of the photos on their website, but I’ve never seen anything like the sign on that tree.  If I had I would have photographed it because it’s quite distinctive.

Here’s an example.  In March of 2012, I took a walk and came upon some trees here in central Oklahoma that had been very heavily worked by local woodpeckers in search of, presumably, some kind of tasty wood-boring insect larvae.  In forests in this area, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpecker are abundant; Northern Flicker is pretty common in winter and as migrants, with a few sticking around to breed; Hairy and Pileated are here but uncommon; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker winters with us; and Red-headed Woodpecker is very patchy in distribution, with none in this immediate vicinity at that time.   Given the size of the work on these trees, I can only assume that it was one (or more) of the larger species responsible, i.e., Pileated, Hairy, Red-bellied. Flickers are possible I suppose, but they tend to forage on the ground much more often than I’ve seen them working trees.

My objective in sharing these photos is simply to illustrate for the Project Coyote team an unusual example of woodpecker excavation that I’m 100% confident was NOT from Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  If these photos provide information that can be applied to their interpretations, great.  Otherwise, I wish them well in their search.  Though I’m not optimistic about it, I certainly hope that they are successful in finding and confirming the continued existence of the magnificent Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

OKbarkexcavations OKbarkexcavations2 OKbarkexcavations3 OKbarkscaling1

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One Response to Woodpecker feeding sign and Project Coyote

  1. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the post and the encouragement. The ‘chopped with a hatchet’ tree is certainly unusual. I’ve never seen anything like it, nor have a couple of others I’ve consulted. Because it’s unique, it doesn’t match the criteria I’ve developed for what I hope/believe is an ivorybill diagnostic, although it seems to fit certain descriptions of ivorybill foraging.

    A little about me . . . I’ve been obsessed with feeding sign since 2007, something that was fueled by reading the National Geographic report on the 1935 Allen and Kellogg expedition and learning how bark scaling played a central role in leading Kuhn and the Cornell team to the John’s Bayou nest. Since then, I’ve studied the available literature on bark scaling and woodpecker anatomy, not to mention Tanner, Allen and Kellogg, and the Dennis and Lamb papers on the Cuban ivorybill. I’ve also spent many hours in the field looking at foraging sign – in and out of historic ivorybill range and potential habitat (South Carolina, Florida, Arkansas, and Louisiana), as well as around my home north of New York City and elsewhere. Based on all this effort, I believe I’ve come up with one or two categories that are diagnostic. I have only seen this type of work in Louisiana.

    In addition to general appearance, there’s a gestalt that involves the following: apparent time of death, state of decay, tree species (no softwoods, sweet gum, hickory and oak primarily, possibly persimmon, honey locust, and hackberry), extensiveness of work on the individual snag or limb, concentration within a given area, and when possible tightness of bark and size of chips. One of the main criteria is that there be little or no digging in the scaled areas. In the best examples, the bark is cleanly scaled with no damage to the underlying wood, and well defined edges suggesting the bark has been removed in a single layer, as if pried off with a chisel. . The hickory on the home page, which was still alive when found, is a pretty good illustration. For folks who want to dig into my analysis more deeply, this page is a good place to start: http://projectcoyoteibwo.com/1087-2/

    Regarding the images you posted, this is nuanced, and it’s difficult to be sure from the photos, but I doubt any of them would excite me much if I were to find them in the field – three because of the quite extensive digging, and the fourth both because the wood appears to be punky, and it looks as though what it shows is actually bark removal in conjunction with shallow digging, which is not really scaling.

    I suspect that some of the issue here relates to how hard it is to convey the nuances in photographs, no matter how good, and that what I look for (whether I’m right or wrong) would be considerably clearer if you were to see it first hand.

    Anyway, thanks again.


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