"...the ornithologists still had serious doubts. Sutton finally put it directly: 'Mr. Spencer, you're sure the bird you're telling us about isn't the big pileated woodpecker?'

"Spencer exploded. 'Man alive! These birds I'm tellin' you all about is kints!' he shouted in their faces. 'Why, the pileated woodpecker's just a little bird about as big as that.' He held his fingers a few inches apart. 'A kint's as big as that!' he said, holding his arms wide... 'Why, man, I've known kints all my life. My pappy showed 'em to me when I was just a kid. I see 'em every fall when I go deer huntin' down aroun' my place on the Tinsaw. They're big birds, I tell you, big and black and white; and they fly through the woods like pintail ducks!'

"After Spencer's outburst, the members of the team were all believers -- not just because of his vehemence, but because his description was so accurate. Ivory-bills do not have the typical bounding flight of the pileated woodpecker. They generally fly away high and straight, with stiff flight feathers, looking very much like a pintail, and their call is a distinctive nasal kent, kent, kent -- very similar to the local name Spencer used, kint. Sutton and the others couldn't wait to get to the bayou and start searching.

"As it turned out, that was not an easy proposition..." --Gallagher, Tim. The Grail Bird: Hot on the Trail of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, pp. 10-11: "Of People and Peckerwoods."

Saturday, May 31, 2014


Below is a photo by Martjan Lammertink, "the world expert on large woodpeckers," of a tree which "has bark peeled in typical Ivory-billed fashion.  The birds use their large, chisel-like bills to pry the bark away and get at the beetle grubs underneath."  [Source:  www.birds.cornell.edu/Publications/LivingBird/Summer2005/press_conference.html .]

Julie Zickefoose relates her conversation with ornithologist Don Eckelberry, who had observed living Campephilus principalis in 1944:  "I may be the last ornithologist to have seen them in the States... It was in April, 1944.  This is northeast Louisiana, the Tensas River bottom... It isn't really a woodpecker; it's a bark peeler.  When she was peeling bark, her head was turned back to the side and went under the bark.  Down at the base of the tree you'd find big strips of bark, not little chips.  She'd start and hitch down and keep peeling it down and eating the grubs in the cambium layer, between the bark and the wood."  [Source:  www.juliezickefoose.com/writing/ibw.php?id=4]

The following image shows the "chisel-like" bill of Campephilus principalis:

[Source:  Wikipedia entry for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.]

Julie goes on to say:  "It's clearer to me now that the chances of these big tree-peelers hanging on in the face of full-scale forest exploitation are slim.  While ivorybills could use their great chisels to advantage in digging nest cavities, they were not, by nature, true excavators, as are pileated woodpeckers.  The smaller birds do peel bark, but they also dig deeply into the wood, from living to decades-dead, finding a great variety of insect food along the way.  Pileated woodpeckers inhabit a wider niche; they're closer to being generalists in their food requirements and foraging strategies.  Even in the Singer Tract, Tanner estimated a density of 36 pileateds inhabiting the foraging territory of a single ivorybill!"

It is becoming clearer to me that any searcher for Campephilus principalis must be familiar with the signs of bark peeling mentioned above.  Until now, I have mainly looked for large tracts of forest that include many dead and dying trees.  I recently read somewhere (I will attribute it when I recall) that Ivory Bill needs, more specifically, trees that are either dead or within a year or two of dying.  But the telltale sign is the peeling.  Now I must train my eyes to look for it.

EDIT:  It would seem that Audubon's illustration depicts this behavior, with the object of the bark-peeling -- a wood-boring beetle -- the center of attention:

EDIT:  Here I must give mention to my suspicions regarding wildlife populations in the 81,000-acre Singer Tract (compare to the Leaf River Wildlife Management Area, at 42,000 acres).  From what little I have read of it during Tanner's stay (I have not yet read Tanner's account, but it is coming), the place was teeming with wildlife of all kinds -- it had every species there that would have also been there during Audubon's time, excepting only the Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet (Paroquet).  Wolves, bears, and panther were fairly common.  But considering that the Singer Tract was an island of primeval wilderness in a region largely logged over, it may have become a last refuge for many of the area's species of birds and mammals:  populations, therefore, may have become artificially inflated due to human activity outside the bounds of the Tract in the previous decades, as the wildlife with mobility fled logged-over areas for the relative safety of the Singer.  Thus it is possible, for example, that while Tanner's estimation of 36 pileateds for every ivory-bill might have been accurate (as accurate as tidy mathematics may be in sprawling, untidy Nature), the number may only serve as an indicator of the unnaturally high animal and bird populations of the Singer Tract as a whole.  This aspect, at least, of Tanner's observations may make them unreliable as a guide to present-day population dynamics of Dryocopus pileatus, and of Ivory Bill.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Jack H. Merritt's Letter, November 1967

Thanks to "Cyberthrush" for making this available on his site:  www.ivorybills.blogspot.com.

Apts. for Rent

Following are some images from the Chickasawhay Wildlife Management Area (WMA) part of DeSoto National Forest, about 10 miles south of my home in Laurel, MS.  Most of the WMA is an upland longleaf pine plantation managed for the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (which I finally observed in March of this year) and gopher tortoise, and for deer and wild turkey.  However, numerous small creeks intersect the woods, creating bottoms in which both pines and hardwoods grow very large.  Following are images of trees along West Tiger Creek, taken by me during a day trip with my brother in May.

 One of the bigger cypresses we found along West Tiger Creek.

 Brian pauses in one of the more open areas.  The terrain is very difficult, with numerous deadfalls and thick underbrush.  I suspect many of the dead trees were killed during and after Hurricane Katrina.

These areas of large trees, with many dead and dying ones, are narrow and typically follow the creeks; but the creeks connect these older woods (more or less) over a large area, stretching many thousands of acres across this part of south Mississippi.  West Tiger Creek, for example, flows into the Bogue Homa*, a relatively goodly-sized creek that eventually flows into the Leaf, which of course flows into the Pascagoula.

I call the DeSoto NF the "Kingdom of DeSoto."  It is a truly incredible place.  I have observed every woodpecker species native to our area in those woods, excepting the Hairy Woodpecker, which has so far eluded me (they seem to be at best uncommon in this region), and of course Ivory Bill.  Walking these storm-ravaged woods, I cannot help but think that, given the enormous amount of dead and dying timber, especially among the creek and river bottoms, there is ample food to support Campephilus principalis, a wide-ranging Emperor surveying the various Pileated kingdoms and lesser woodpecker principalities.  What I have seen lends support, I think, to the idea that Ivory Bill is a kind of "disaster bird" that takes advantage of the destruction of Southern forests from storm systems coming up out of the Gulf of Mexico, and from the more common tornadoes spawned by continental weather systems that threaten us much of the year.  Much attention has been paid of late to swamp forests in Louisiana, Florida, and especially Arkansas, but more upland timber and its associated creek and river bottoms across the wider Southland should perhaps not be dismissed.  More cannot yet be said in this matter.

*Here is as good a place as any to note this:  Bogue Homa Creek flows south from Lake Bogue Homa, a man-made lake just to the east of Laurel.  I recently, and by sheer stroke of good fortune, happened to speak while on the job to an older gentleman who grew up in the area behind the lake.  Over a bag of birdseed, he related growing up in the woods and swamps behind the lake, and out of nowhere he related seeing Ivory-bills in those same woods before they were cut, in the 1940's!  Mind, I had not even mentioned Ivory Bill to this man; and he did not use the terms "wood hen" or "Indian hen" to talk about the bird, and seemed to know about its status and great size.  Unfortunately I was pressed by other customers and could not get any more information, or even the man's name.  Such seems to be the luck of the Ivory-bill hunter.

Barred Owl near Lake Bogue Homa, March 2014.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Fledgeling

Today I believe it became kind of official:  I am an Ivory-billed Woodpecker hunter.  Today I made my first concerted effort at locating Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and their habitat in my native South Mississippi; so I thought it fitting that I should mark the occasion with the blog I've been toying with creating to chronicle my efforts, whenever they should begin.  Which they now have.  Ergo...

Right now I am too tired after a long day of slogging through swamp and driving desolate country roads to say much more.  But I will say that today, a part of me that I have long held in check has been given wing.  It was always meant to be.

John James Audubon.  Still the best artist's rendering.  You da man, John J.

Happy hunting.