Day-to-day log during visits after 2013

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2-1-14. I have returned to the Pearl for a visit. It was nice to see the Tree 6 area again. After the original rigging of that tree was lost in a storm last year, I decided to transfer the line from the pulley to a carabiner that is attached to the strap that is down and to the right of the pulley. Last spring, I tried to do some maintenance on the trail to Tree 9, but it was blocked by a fallen tree and nearly a year of overgrowth. I managed to find parts of the trail and reroute it around the fallen tree. The rigging on Tree 9 still appears to be in good shape.

2-2-14. It has now been eight years since my first sighting. I decided not to go out since it was raining this morning. I started having back spasms last night, but I should be ready for swamp duty by tomorrow.

2-3-14. I did some exploring on the Mississippi side near Tree 7. There is good habitat in this secluded area, which is directly across the Pearl from where there have been sightings on the Louisiana side.

2-4-14. I spent a few hours in Tree 9 on a foggy morning. This tree is near the locations where there have been sightings, it is fairly easy to access, and it offers a good view in all directions. Some footage from Tree 9 is posted here.

2-6-14. Last year, I made two unsuccessful attempts to replace the rigging in Tree 8, which was lost in a storm. It takes a perfect shot with a bow and arrow to thread the needle and get a line up that tree. Each time I have gotten a line in place, there has been a problem with the end of the rope getting stuck in the fork. I wrapped the end of the rope with duct tape this time, and it passed through the fork. It was a wet and chilly day, and the rain and sleet started coming down while I was on the way up. Tree 8 is in a good location, and it provides a good view about 87 feet above the bayou.

3-28-14. I’m on the way back to the Pearl for another visit. Since the trail and tree maintenance was finished during the previous visit, there should be more time for stake-outs and searching during this visit. While viewing the discussion of the 2007 video on YouTube, someone noticed something interesting during the double knock event. There is a red glow about the head a few seconds before the double knock, when the bird is making the side-to-side motions. It also shows up several seconds earlier when the bird is climbing. This is apparently the first footage that has been obtained in recent decades in which the sex is resolved.

3-29-14. I left my house yesterday afternoon to begin another exciting journey to the Pearl River. After 1440 miles of driving, I arrived — right back at my house. I checked the water level in the Pearl before leaving, but a huge storm raised it up to flood level. I got all the way to Alabama before finding out about the flood, and then I did a U-turn. It has now been six years since my last sighting.

11-5-14. I have returned to the Pearl for a visit. I had a nice observation session in Tree 8, where I heard four double knocks around this time of year in 2009. It was windy, and the bird activity was low. Some footage from Tree 8 is posted here.

11-6-14. I spent some time in Tree 9, which provides a nice view over areas where Ivory-billed Woodpeckers have been observed. It was windy again, but there was more bird activity than the day before. There are some dead trees nearby where woodpeckers were foraging. Gretchen joined me for her first climb since turning 60. Some footage from Tree 9 is posted here.

11-7-14. I began my work in the Pearl River exactly nine years ago. I have various aches and pains from the past few days. So I’m resting today. In the video footage that I posted from Tree 9, I mentioned a tree in the distance that could be Tree 8. Based on the bearing, apparent distance, and other clues, I’m now convinced that it must indeed be that tree.

11-8-14. I enjoyed a long observation session in Tree 5, which is located to the south of the area where I’ve had sightings. This tree provides an excellent view in all directions. The surrounding area is remote and has lots of tall cypresses that would seem to be good candidates for roosting and nesting. I had a few close calls with cottonmouths on the way back. Some footage from Tree 5 is posted here.

11-9-14. It’s a bit of an ordeal to carry climbing gear out to Tree 5. I will take a day to rest up. Just before getting to the top of Tree 5, I noticed that lichen was growing on the strap that holds the pulley in place. That made me feel a little uneasy, but then I noticed that the strap has significant damage after more than seven years of exposure to the elements. Since the rope was looped over a strong branch, I wouldn’t have fallen to my death, but it would have been an unsettling partial fall if the strap had snapped. The pulley makes it easy to pull the rope into place, but it increases the chances of the line getting caught up after big storms. I lost the riggings of Trees 0, 6, and 8 when moss and branches got snagged by the line and wouldn’t pass through the pulley. I now just run the line through a carabiner. It’s harder to pull the rope into place, but I haven’t lost any more riggings.

11-10-14. I kayaked up the bayou to the Tree 6 area. The weather continues to be nice, and woodpecker activity picked up. Some paddle-cam footage is posted here.

11-11-14. I spent a few hours in Tree 6. During the flyunder in 2008, the bird flew just to the side of the tupelos in this photo. Some footage from Tree 6 is posted here.

11-12-14. I’m resting today, but I hope to get out to the swamp again before returning to Virginia. Gretchen obtained some nice photos during the visit to Tree 5. This one shows Tree 5 from below. I’m visible in the crown in this photo, which gives an impression of the sturdiness of Tree 5. In the lingo of tree climbers, it contains several “bomber” branches near the top.

11-13-14. It’s raining this morning. I’ve always wondered how much weight I was toting around the swamp. The backpack contains cameras, GPS, laser rangefinder, water bottles, and various other items. I used to carry a lot more, such as an extra video camera. I’ve never felt burdened by the backpack, but the climbing gear isn’t easy to carry miles into the swamp. I usually wear the harness. The bag with over 200 feet of climbing rope must be carried, and it’s the most unpleasant part of the load. With the reduced amount of stuff that I’ve been carrying lately, it all comes to about 40 pounds. I take about 27 pounds of that up the trees. Not too bad, but it adds to the fatigue when combined with hiking and climbing. It can really be a pain when when sinking up to your knees in marshy areas.

11-14-14. I spent a few hours in Tree 6 this morning before starting the drive back to Virginia. It was in the low 30s and windy and my feet were wet. I kept watch from a different branch, which provides a different view down the bayou. Bird activity was low. A woodcock flushed from the edge of the trail as I was walking back.

2-8-15. It was nice to be back in the Pearl River on a spring-like day with lots of woodpecker activity. I hiked along the bayou between the areas where the videos were obtained in 2006 and 2008. There have been signs of ivorybills in that area a few times over the years. I noticed that someone stole the rigging line from Tree 6. It took a lot of work to replace the line in that tree after it was lost in a storm. I won’t have time to do it again during this visit. I also went by Tree 8 and found that the rigging line appears to be intact.

2-9-15. I spent the morning to the northeast of the area that I visited yesterday. Once again, there was a good deal of woodpecker activity. It’s interesting to see the fluctuations in the numbers of certain species. During my first few years in the Pearl, I only saw a few Red-headed Woodpeckers. Then there was a huge influx and they were abundant for several years. Now they seem to be gone again. It seems that there are more Orange-crowned Warblers this year than in previous years.

2-10-15. All nine of my sightings in Louisiana were along about three miles of a winding bayou. I spent this morning looking for signs of ivorybills in areas between bends in the bayou. I visited Tree 9 and saw a rotten tree that looks like it could topple at any moment. I also took some photos of the nearly black mud near Tree 6. The white trailing edges on the dorsal surfaces of the wings are prominent in the 2008 video. Some of the black on the wings is also visible, but the dark mud in the background makes it harder to see than the white. I flushed an American Woodcock.

2-11-15. After enjoying a nice sunrise, I hiked out to Tree 9 and had a pleasant observation session up there. A sapsucker was looking down at me as I was pulling the rope into place. After climbing to the top, I noticed that it has been very active up there. I obtained footage of a Pileated Woodpecker in flight over the treetops in the distance (the movie plays at half speed). This was the type of event that I had in mind for ivorybills when I started using tall trees for observations, but the one in the 2008 video flew nearly directly below. The time has come to head back north.

7-21-15. I have returned to the Pearl for a brief visit. This morning, I visited the area near Tree 6. It was hot and humid, and there was little bird activity.

7-22-15. I climbed Tree 8 and enjoyed the view from 87 feet above the bayou. A Mississippi Kite was perched and calling nearby, but it flew away before I got the camera out. I encountered several cottonmouths while walking along the bayou. It would be nice to spend more time in the trees, but I need to head back north today.

2-2-16. On this date ten years ago, I had my first of ten Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings. I was hoping to spend some time in the Pearl this winter, but those plans have been postponed due to flooding.

6-1-16. I was hoping to visit the Pearl after the water finally receded in May, but it didn’t work out.

6-18-16. I often wish that I could go back in time and suggest to Audubon, Tanner, and others to include more details when writing about their observations of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Without video footage that was obtained in recent years, I would never have been able to interpret and recognize the significance of some of their accounts. Tanner mentioned that these birds usually flap their wings during short flights between limbs. I’m sure that I read that comment without giving it a second thought before obtaining the 2006 video, which shows a large woodpecker taking a flight of less than one meter between limbs in which there was a highly unusual deep and rapid flap. It’s easy to understand why this species requires such flaps by considering that it’s one of the most massive woodpeckers in the world and that it has narrow wings that are adapted to long flights at high speed. The deep and rapid flap makes sense for such a bird, and it’s consistent with Tanner’s account. As indicated by a painting of the two large woodpeckers in flight by Julie Zickefoose, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was expected to have different a flap style than the Pileated Woodpecker. The wings of the Pileated Woodpecker are shown folding closed during the middle of each upstroke. The wings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker are shown remaining open throughout the flap cycle. The dorsal stripes and all of the details of the dorsal surfaces of the wings were well seen from an ideal vantage point nearly directly above when the 2008 video was obtained. There was no question that it was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but there seemed to be a contradiction when the video was inspected. The bird in that video has the same distinctive wing motion as the Pileated Woodpecker. There seemed to be a paradox until Dalcio Dacol noticed that an obscure Tanner photo of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight was taken at an instant when the wings were folded closed. This resolved the apparent paradox, but there remained a mystery. According to Don Eckleberry’s 1944 account, there is little motion of the inner wing during flight. There was also a report of stiff wingbeats in one of the reports from the Choctawhatchee. I believe that this mystery has now been resolved. The bird in the report from the Choctawhatchee was gliding in just before swooping up to land. Eckleberry’s observations were made of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker coming in to a roost tree. It seems likely that, after being in cruising flight during most of the flight from a foraging site, a bird would switch to a gliding flight with occasional flaps as it nears the roost. The bird in the 2008 video was in cruising flight. Tanner reported that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has a high flap rate, and his account would only make sense if it were a tacit comparison between the two large woodpeckers. Despite that report, there have been claims that the Ivory-billed Woodpecker should have a lower flap rate than the Pileated Woodpecker, but the high body mass, narrow wings, and high flight speed of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker correlate with a high flap rate according to the leading models. The bird in the 2008 video has a flap rate that is about double the flap rate of the Pileated Woodpecker (about ten standard deviations greater than the mean flap rate of that species). Tanner’s comment on the flap rate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was based entirely upon observations (no flights of this species were captured in the historical film). It wouldn’t be possible to make a reliable conclusion about how the flap rates of the large woodpeckers compare unless there is a substantial difference. The only plausible interpretation of Tanner’s account is that the flap rate of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker is substantially greater than the flap rate of the Pileated Woodpecker, and this interpretation is consistent with the 2008 video.

7-21-16. I have spent the past several days investigating the possibility of using a drone with a 4K camera for searching for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. The approach seems very promising. Video footage from several test flights is available here.

8-31-16. I got my first high-definition video camera ten years ago. It was the Sony HDR-HC3. I wore out two of them during my work in the Pearl River. I just had a chance to try out a Sony FDR-AX53, which records in 4K. There have been some amazing developments during the past ten years! This camera has a better zoom and better stability. It also has an amazing viewfinder — the quality is almost as if you’re looking through binoculars. If only I had that camera when I obtained the 2006 video! It was a standard camera, and I wasn’t able to spot the bird in the crummy viewfinder. I tried unsuccessfully to spot it in binoculars. With this camera, I am certain that I would have found the bird in the viewfinder immediately. Then I would have zoomed in and obtained footage comparable in quality to the film from the Singer Tract. Another major advantage of this camera is that it records to an SD card that holds 256 gigs. The old cameras use DV tapes, which cause loss of time and battery power during rewinds, make lots of mechanical noise (especially after lots of use), and require playback to get the data onto a computer.

1-18-17. I have returned to the Pearl in order to get some drone footage of the swamp in the winter.

1-19-17. This is the tenth anniversary of the day on which I saw a pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in Geoff Hill’s study area in the Choctawhatchee and obtained video footage of several events involving flights, behaviors, field marks, and other characteristics that can only be explained in terms of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

1-20-17. I launched the drone from a boat for the first time. The combination of a motorboat and a drone makes it possible to cover a large portion of a river basin that would have seemed unimaginable ten years ago.

1-24-17. A paper on video evidence for the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was published today in Heliyon. This paper contains an analysis of several events that appear in the 2007 video and extensions of the analysis of the 2006 and 2008 videos that was published in a previous paper. It also contains an analysis that suggests that the expected waiting time for obtaining a clear image of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker is millions of times greater than it would be for a more typical species of comparable rarity. When confronted with an analysis that brings into question the soundness of a policy that affects an important issue, it is appropriate for scientists to either accept the analysis or attempt to refute it, but in this article, ornithologists simply stated that they would stick to the policy despite its long history of failure without commenting on the analysis. This lack of willingness to discuss science is one of the primary reasons that the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker remains a controversial topic and that there exists no meaningful conservation program for this species. I did some drone flights from Locks 1 and 2 on the west side of the Pearl. I also did a drone flight up English Bayou while following along in a motorboat. I got a nasty case of whiplash when the motor hit a submerged log. Drone footage is available here.

2-7-17. I have returned to the Pearl for a brief visit. I spent the morning exploring areas further to the north near Henleyfield, Mississippi, but the weather wasn’t suitable for flying the drone.

2-8-17. I flew the drone at the Old River WMA and Bogue Chitto NWR. I tried to find a trail that I used about ten years ago to access the swamp. I found what appeared to be the old trailhead, but the trail must have grown over.

2-12-17. I flew the drone again at Old River WMA. Drone footage is available here.