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Monday, January 08, 2007

Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Choctawhatchee River, Florida

Map of Choctawhatchee River in the panhandle of Florida. To reach Tilley Landing from Tallahassee, take Rt. 10 west to Rt. 81 south; continue several miles past Red Bay (see center of map) and you will see a sign on the left.

This is the sign to the Tilley Landing boat ramp.

Entry road is a bumpy gravel road which smooths out

and you reach this sign on the right.

The road goes through a mixed hardwood and pine bottomland forest.

About .2 mi. past the green sign on the right we came to this dying hardwood tree.

There were areas of bark scaled off on one side

and lots more scaling on the opposite side of the tree.

Closer view.

Still closer view showing massive chiseling and areas where the wood is splintered and there are a few insect holes in the wood.

At the base of the tree were some mushrooms on its trunk and fresh looking wood chips on the ground. Our Corgi puppy has her nose on the wood chips. Wonder what she can tell?

On the gravel road we saw other evidence of scaling on trees.

This twisted, pine had large areas of bark off of it.

This tree has some interesting chiseled marks and holes.

Close-up showing horizontal, gouged marks that are rounded on one side

A pine with section of bark removed and hole.

Scaled off area is roughly 3 x 3 inches and the beetle larvae hole is slightly less than 1/2 inch wide.

At the end of the road there are two boat ramps, this is the one on the right. The water area is called Dead River and it empties into the Choctawhatchee River.

Here there were all the comforts of home — a covered picnic table and grill,

and even a well maintained porta-potty. There were two hunter's trucks parked and we could hear gunshots in the distance.

The view across the water was interesting with some large trees. The tree with the hollowed out base had a cavity high up in it

as this photo shows.

Here is a close-up of the cavity.

To the right of this tree was a bush with red berries and in the middle was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, hardly visible in this photo taken with my Canon Mark II with a Canon 300 mm IS lens with a 1.4 converter.

But if you blow-up the photo and crop it you see the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with a berry in its mouth!

On our way to Florida, we left Congaree National Forest in South Carolina (see our blog entry below), a majestic old growth forest in the historic range of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and in which a current search for the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers is taking place. We then headed to the Choctawhatchee River in the panhandle of Florida, where Auburn researcher Dr. Geoff Hill and his team had reported Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in May 2005 and the winter of 2006 and were again searching this winter season. An update to his website as of yesterday says they have had several more sightings of Ivory-billed woodpeckers very recently. We were curious as to what the area was like. We did not have a canoe so were limited to looking on foot and by car.

On Geoff Hill's website, he specifically recommends going to Tilley Landing and says "this area has numerous large cavities and scaled trees, including feeding sign on spruce pine along the road, suggesting that it is regularly used by Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. Walking the gravel road from the upper parking area (at the Choctawhatchee Wildlife Area sign) to the end of the road is an excellent way for birders who do not want to kayak or wade to search for ivorybills."

We went to Tilley Landing and followed the signs and gravel road. The road at first is bumpy, then levels out and goes through swamp forest of pine and hardwoods in which there are some large mature trees, mixed with smaller, thinner trees. We both drove and walked and did see a variety of trees with areas of bark scaled off. A short distance past a green sign we came on a tree right next to the road with massive amounts of bark scaled off. The tree was dying but not entirely dead and the bark was still fairy well adhered on it. It has mushrooms growing out of the base and plentiful fresh wood chips on the ground.

Could these have been done by an Ivory-billed Woodpecker? To actually know, one would have to have evidence of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker doing this and also rule out the possibility that a Pileated Woodpecker could have done this. We are well aware of the large controvery surrounding any recent Ivory-billed Woodpecker sightings and to our knowledge, there are no crystal clear recent photos of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, which is the proof the ornithological world is waiting for. Hill has three teams now searching the Choctowhatchee hoping to obtain photos of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

Hill shows numerous examples of tree scaling on his website that he feels is unique and on more tightly adhered tree bark compared to what he had witnessed done in the Alabama woods around Auburn Univ. presumably by Pileated Woodpeckers.

According to the authoritative Birds of North American monographs done by Dr. Jerome Jackson on both the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Pileated Woodpecker, both woodpeckers could do scaling on trees, but much less frequently in the case of the Pileated Woodpecker. He says "the primary foraging method for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was to strip bark from recently dead trees by using its bill much like a carpenter's wood chisel to reveal beetle larvae: also sought wood-boring insects in small trees and fallen logs, splintering them in its search for food. Less often would excavate in a manner similar to Pileated Woodpeckers—digging deeper, slightly conical holes into rooted wood."

Regarding the Ivory-billed bill, Jackson says the "bill is incredibly robust; its straightness and broad and deep base contribute to its strength. At about 7.6 cm long and tapering to a chisel-tip on both upper and lower halves of bill can serve not only as a wood chisel, but also as probe, dagger, and pincers all wrapped into one tool, a Swiss Army Knife for the primeval forest." He says that the Pileated's bill is a "dark bill that is much smaller and more pointed than Ivory-billed's."

It is interesting to look at the scaling examples in the photos above. One in particular shows large horizontal rounded gouges across the wood. If someone could provide definitive evidence of the feeding signs of Ivory-bills, this could be used to assess other habitats for the presence of Ivory-bills.

We continued down the road and at the end there are two boat ramps — one on a road veering off to the left, one on the right. I took the photos of the one on the right. It was a well equipped ramp area going down into the water with all the conveniences. The water area is not directly on the Choctawhatchee River, but leads to it. If one were to venture out in a boat you would need good GPS skills and detailed maps.

We encoutered several hunters and trucks and could hear distant gunfire at times while standing at the landing, but there mostly was quiet. We soaked it in. Across the water there were large Cypress and other trees, one with a good sized cavity. We heard and saw Eastern Bluebirds fly over our heads. Across the water we heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and saw it in a shrub eating the berries. At one point in the Choctawhatchee woods, we saw a Pileated Woodpecker fly in front of us, giving a side view. We had a one second view through the trees, but it was enough for us to see the red crest and black trailing edge on the upper and lower wings as it flew.

The birdlife was not as abundant as we had seen at Congaree National Forest and we did not hear many bird sounds. Our bird list is below. We did not see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. If it does exist, we hope Hill, or someone, gets a clear photo.

Bird List, Choctowhatchee River

Winter Wren
Northen Cardinal
Carolina Chickadee
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Northen Flicker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Eastern Bluebird
Carolina Wren
American Robin
Common Grackle
Red-winged Blackbird
Hermit Thrush
Northern Mockingbird
Pileated Woodpecker

Photos @ Lillian Stokes, 2007


Julie Zickefoose said...

Awesome! I love those chisel mark photos. They don't look like they were done by a petite bill! Thank you so much for this virtual tour of the Congaree and Choctawahatchee--places most would dearly love to visit. Fabulous!

Anonymous said...

I am not a bird watcher. Back in 1991 or 1992 I was deer hunting with my brother in Bennington Oklahoma it was the first day of rifle season I was sitting on the ground about 7:30 or 8:00 ocklock in the morning when I saw the biggest woodpecker I has ever saw. when it was pecking on the tree it sounded like a jackhammer on the tree it made so much noise that I started to shoot it with my gun I watched it for several minutes before it flew off. I didnt think much about it until I saw a show on tv called ghost bird. I think it was a ivory billed but it has been so long ago its hard to remember exactly what its markings was and I was young. Im not saying it was a ivorybilled but from what I can remember I think it might have been.