Application of image processing to evidence for the persistence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)

The videos were imported from digital videotapes using iMovie 4 and iMovie HD 6.0.3. They were deinterlaced using JES Deinterlacer 3.8.4. Images are processed here using QuickTime Player 7.3.3, GraphicConverter 8.8.3, and GIMP 2.10. Within these applications, it is possible to interpolate and adjust brightness, contrast, color, and other parameters. The simple processing applied here is effective for some cases. With advanced processing techniques that involve greater control and analysis of parameters, experts in image processing might be able to extract additional information.

The 2006 video

The first video was obtained from a kayak with a Sony DCR-HC36 standard video camera (which captures interlaced video at 720 × 480 pixels) in the Pearl River swamp in Louisiana on February 20, 2006, in an area along English Bayou where there were five sightings that week; the ‘kent’ calls of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker were heard twice during the same period, once coming simultaneously from different directions. The 2006 video shows a large woodpecker perched on a tree, climbing upward, taking a short flight between limbs, and then taking off into a longer flight. Part of the perch tree, which includes two forks that facilitated scaling, was used in the size comparison in Fig. 2; the bird in the video appears to be larger than a Pileated Woodpecker specimen8. According to Julie Zickefoose, whose paintings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker have appeared on the covers of the January 2006 issue of the Auk and both editions of Ref.3, the “long but fluffy and squared-off crest,” “extremely long, erect head and neck,” “large, long bill,” “bill to head proportions,” “rared-back pose,” “long and thin” wings, “flapping leap” between limbs, and “ponderous and heavy” flight are suggestive of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker but not the Pileated Woodpecker13.

Figure 2

A pileated Woodpecker specimen is mounted on part of the perch tree. Frames from the 2006 video were scaled using forks in the tree (dashed lines). A meter stick is placed at the point where the flight between limbs occurred. The inset shows Pileated Woodpecker and Ivory-billed Woodpecker specimens that were photographed side by side at the National Museum of Natural History. The bird in the video is partially hidden by vegetation in the image on the lower left, but it is fully in view in the images at the top when it took the flight between limbs.

The 2008 video

A short distance up the same bayou, another video was obtained with the same camera on March 29, 2008, from 23 m up a tree that was used as an observation platform for keeping watch for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers flying over the treetops in the distance. A large bird that flew along the bayou and passed below was identified as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the basis of two white stripes on the back and black leading edges and white trailing edges on the dorsal surfaces of the wings (those definitive field marks were observed from an ideal vantage point at close range and nearly directly above). The appearance in the video of the bird, its reflection from the still surface of the bayou, and reference objects made it possible to determine positions along the flight path and obtain estimates of the flight speed and wingspan. The bird in the 2008 video folded its wings closed during the middle of each upstroke as illustrated in Fig. 3. The two large woodpeckers are the only large birds north of the Rio Grande that have this distinctive wing motion, which is clearly resolved in the video. Using an approach that he had previously developed and applied to other woodpeckers17, Bret Tobalske, an expert on woodpecker flight mechanics, digitized the horizontal and vertical motions of the wingtips and concluded that the bird in the video is a large woodpecker13. The flap rate of the bird in the video is about ten standard deviations greater than the mean flap rate of the Pileated Woodpecker13.

Figure 3

Illustrations of large woodpeckers in flight. Left: The Pileated Woodpecker typically swoops upward a short distance before landing on a surface that faces the direction of approach; the Ivory-billed Woodpecker has long vertical ascents that allow time for maneuvering and landing on surfaces that do not face the direction of approach. Center: An Ivory-billed Woodpecker takes off with rapid wingbeats into a horizontal flight that quickly transitions into an upward swooping flight. Right: Illustration of a flight in the Pearl River swamp on March 29, 2008, that was viewed from 23 m up in a cypress tree. When the wings are folded closed in flight, the dorsal stripes and the white triangular patch have the same appearance as they do for the perched birds in Fig. 1. As discussed in Movie S6 of Ref.8, the wings of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in a historical photo and of the bird in the 2008 video have the swept-back appearance of the wings in the middle image.

Additional characteristics of the bird in the video that are consistent with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker but not the Pileated Woodpecker are the high flight speed, narrow wings, swept back wings, and prominent white patches on the dorsal surfaces of the wings8,13. There is one characteristic of the bird in the video that was initially thought to be inconsistent with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. On the basis of historical accounts of a ‘duck-like’ flight, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker was thought to have a duck-like wing motion in which the wings remain extended throughout the flap cycle. In a series of paintings of the large woodpeckers in flight by Zickefoose18, the wings of the Pileated Woodpecker are correctly shown folding closed during the middle of the upstroke; in a proper representation of conventional wisdom at the time, the wings of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker are shown remaining extended throughout the flap cycle (duck-like flaps). An apparent paradox arose during the initial inspection of the video, which revealed an unexpected wing motion. The paradox was resolved after the discovery that a photo from 1939 shows an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in flight at an instant when the wings are nearly folded closed13.

The 2007 video

The other video was obtained with a Sony HDR-HC3 high-definition video camera (which captures interlaced video at 1,440 × 1,080 pixels) that was mounted on kayak paddles8 in the Choctawhatchee River swamp in Florida on January 19, 2007, in an area where an ornithologist and his colleagues had recently reported a series of sightings7. During an encounter with a pair of birds that were identified as Ivory-billed Woodpeckers on the basis of field marks and remarkable swooping flights, the camera captured a series of events that involve flights, field marks, and other behaviors and characteristics that are consistent with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker but no other species of the region. The analysis of the 2007 video is based in part on the fact that the probability of a series of unlikely events becomes extremely small as the number of events increases12. There is a downward swooping takeoff with a long horizontal glide that is consistent with the following account by Audubon15: “The transit from one tree to another, even should the distance be as much as a hundred yards, is performed by a single sweep, and the bird appears as if merely swinging from the top of the one tree to that of the other, forming an elegantly curved line.” There are upward swooping landings with long vertical ascents that are not consistent with the Pileated Woodpecker but are consistent with an account by Eckleberry of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker that “alighted with one magnificent upward swoop”19.

A long vertical ascent allows time for maneuvering, and the bird appears to rotate about its axis during two of the ascents as illustrated in Fig. 3. In a film of the closely related Magellanic Woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus)20, there is maneuvering during a landing with a long vertical ascent. During and after one of the ascents, a woodpecker in the 2007 video shows field marks and body proportions that are consistent with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker but no other species of the region. There is a takeoff into horizontal flight with deep and rapid flaps that are not consistent with the Pileated Woodpecker but are similar to the deep and rapid flaps during a takeoff of the closely related Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus imperialis)21. In another event, a woodpecker climbs upward and engages in a series of behaviors that are consistent with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker but no other species of the region, including delivering a blow that produces an audible double knock and taking off with rapid wingbeats into a flight that immediately transitions into an upward swooping flight that is illustrated in Fig. 3.

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