"...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, October 21, 2017

Surveilling the Leaf Wilderness, 14 October 2017

Going into the fall search season, I determined to spend greater time in still hunts in some of the more promising Ivorybill habitat we have surveyed.  Towards that end, I recently spent nearly three hours sitting on a baldcypress hip in the 900+ acre Leaf Wilderness Area.  I pass by the Wilderness regularly on my trips to the Pascagoula River Swamp, but this was the first time I'd set foot there in nearly three years.  There one may pass through four woodland types between the highway and the Leaf River (a major tributary of the Pascagoula River):  first, upland pine forest; then a thin band of slope forest along an old river bluff; islands of bottomland hardwoods; and tupelo-baldcypress swamp forest, which comprises most of the area of the Wilderness.  It is all mostly mature second growth, with at least two relict baldcypresses that my brother Brian and I discovered when we first explored the area in 2014.

I got there well after dawn on what would become a clear, warm (70s-80s) day.  I had originally intended to surveil an area much farther south, in Elephant Man Swamp, in the Stronghold sector of the northern Pascagoula WMA; but there were many hunters there, and I had not worn any orange.  There were no hunters in the Leaf Wilderness when I drove back up there.  I hiked through the strip of pine woods, past the neglected visitor center, and over the railroad tracks; then, through the narrow band of slope forest, and into the swamp.  I moved very slowly, taking about an hour before reaching Treebeard, a relict baldcypress some 300 yards into the Wilderness.

Site (the blue dot) of my still hunt, by the relict baldcypress "Treebeard."

 Bigleaf magnolia near rotting pine snag near the visitor center.

 Moving into the slope forest from the railroad tracks.

 Pine and white oak are plentiful in the narrow band of slope forest.

 Despite what this photo might suggest, it is relatively easy moving through the slope forest.

 The slope forest ends rather abruptly, and the swamp begins.

 Woodpecker work on a hollow tupelo.

 The water here was shallow enough to make slow, steady progress possible.

 I encountered no snakes in the Wilderness that day, though my brother and I had found cottonmouths to be plentiful here on prior visits.

 I found Treebeard again with little difficulty.

 Treebeard is not the largest relict baldcypress we have found in the Pascagoula River Basin, but he was the first.

 What became my seat for the better part of three hours.  It became only moderately uncomfortable.

 I only noticed this frog sitting nearby after I'd been in place over thirty minutes.  He sat with me for most of my stay.

 My view facing west through the swamp, back towards the slope forest.

I watched a pair of pileated woodpeckers working on a cavity in a nearby baldcypress.  They moved about my area, calling and clucking to one another.  I heard other pileateds nearby, as well as flickers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and downy woodpeckers.

Though I neither saw nor heard anything suggestive of Ivorybills that day, the variety of mature forest types within the Leaf Wilderness, as well as its rather strategic location between the vast upland pine woods of the DeSoto National Forest and the Pascagoula River Swamp -- not to mention the sighting by Jack Merritt in December of 1960, somewhere in the vicinity -- make it worthy of more still hunts in the future.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Others hold out hope."

Stallings combing the Delta for the ivory-billed woodpecker

By William Browning, News Editor
Recreated with the permission of The Greenwood Commonwealth
Friday, January 4, 2008 

Jim Stallings is combing Delta forests trying to find a strikingly sleek, smooth, powerful bird that no human eye has officially seen in more than 60 years.
"When I'm deer hunting, instead of hunting deer I'm sitting there looking for that bird," the 49-year-old Greenwood native said in a tone that half mocked his new passion.
Stallings admits that he wasn't looking for the fabled, elusive ivory-billed woodpecker 20 years ago, "but had I known about it, I probably would have been."
It's been an endangered species since 1967. The last authentic documented sighting came out of northwestern Louisiana in 1944. Some scientists fear that the ivory-billed woodpecker is extinct. Others hold out hope.
"Some people believe that there may be a few left," said Nick Winstead, an ornithologist with the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson. "Some people think they're out there lingering in scattered areas."
In some circles, the bird has attained Elvis-like status. Each year, reports of a sighting bob to the surface, though none have been verified. Even a 2004 sighting in Arkansas that came with a four-second video failed to trigger across-the-board acceptance of its existence; it only stoked the verve of amateur bird watchers and scientists alike.
"It is certainly a very compelling piece of evidence," Dr. Martjan Lammertink, an ornithologist at Cornell University, said of the footage. Many consider Lammertink, 36, the world's leading expert on large woodpeckers. "Since then there have been a lot of follow-up searches. And people are fanning out those searches."
Count Stallings, who is working toward a degree in sociology at Delta State University, as one of the ivory-billed woodpeckers' new devotees.
"I grew up in the outdoors," said Stallings, who retired from the United States Air Force in 2005 after 22 years of service. "But for a long time I didn't know that much about birds. I knew they flew and that you shoot ducks. That was it."
But when he enrolled in Dr. Mark Bonta's "Environmental History of the Delta" geography course, all that changed.
"We had to do a research paper, and it was between doing mine on water conservation or these birds," Stallings said. "I could have done it on water conservation and been done with it. That would have been easy. But I thought about it and decided that it was time to tackle something that everybody would benefit from."
According to Winstead, Stallings' decision to focus his search in the Delta is as good as any.
"Certainly in the past, the Delta would have been a prime habitat for them," said Winstead, 28. "The birds needed large patches of forests where dead wood could be found."
The birds could find the larvae of wood beetles, their chief food source, in dead wood - "but after colonization, most of that habitat was eliminated," he said.
Winstead added that the stretch of land between the two levees on the Mississippi River offers locations that the bird could possibly frequent.
"Every time I go out looking for it, I want to go more and more," Stallings said. "Yeah, you could say I'm hooked."
Stallings' quasi-obsession with the woodpecker, which averages a 30-inch wingspan and 20-inch-long body, doesn't surprise Lammertink.
"It is an absolutely stunning bird," said Lammertink, who in 2007 marched a mobile search team across five Southeastern states in search of the bird. "It is the biggest North American woodpecker; a powerful, fine, graceful animal; awe-inspiring. That is definitely part of the appeal."
Another appeal, Lammertink said, is that the bird is near extinction. Still there is a glimmer of hope that some remain.
For the past three weeks Stallings has been loading up his gear, heading into Delta forests and praying to see - or at least hear the distinctive "double-knock" of - an ivory billed woodpecker.
To remind himself how the bird's distinctive knock sounds, Stallings carries with him a 1935 recording made in deep-woods Louisiana by Arthur Allen, who was head of the Cornell ornithology lab.
So far, Stallings' search has led him through Morgan's Brake, Tallahatchie County, Dahomey, Malmaison, Delta National Park, Panther Swamp, Anderson Tully, Mahannah and St. Catherine Creek. Down the road, he plans to branch out through the Desoto National Forest, the Pascagoula River and the Bogue Chitto River.
"Just to know that the bird is alive and continues to live, that would be enough for me," Stallings said, admitting that he hasn't had any luck so far. "Maybe it will be me who finds it; maybe it will be someone else. I don't care. Just having it back would be enough."
Winstead, who has worked for the Museum of Natural Science for three years, was a bit more candid.
"It would be very cool if he could find one."
Source:  http://www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory/more_info/CommonwealthArticle

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Return to Titan: 9 September 2017

I happened upon the area I would call Titan Swamp in early December 2015.  It lies along a west-central edge of the Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area (WMA), tucked between the mouth of Black Creek and that of his sister Red Creek a little further south.  These two blackwater streams flow southeastward through the Pine Belt to eventually empty into Cypress Creek, an overflow channel of the Pascagoula, which rejoins the greater Pascagoula River some miles downstream.  Numerous smaller unnamed channels and sloughs crisscross the muddy bottomland between Red and Black Creeks, ebbing and flowing with the rains, merging for a while when the Pascagoula floods the forest.

In December 2015, I was able to explore a small part of Titan Swamp on foot, and was amazed at the number of huge baldcypress and tupelos that I found there.  At that time, my interest lay primarily in seeing for myself the land nearest the creek mouths, and in exploring Woodpecker Island to the east, formed by the overflow channel Cypress Creek.  I walked along the edge of drying Titan, then across its lower end, marveling at the trees as names for them formed in my mind.  After a half hour or so, I assumed I'd seen its extent, and moved on, leaving the rest of the land between the creeks for another time.  When I finally got back there this past September 9, I found I'd been mistaken.

Brian and I drove along the WMA road through Red Swamp to the landing on Cypress Creek, putting in our kayaks a half hour after dawn.  It was 61 degrees (Fahrenheit), breezy and clear; hunting season is not yet here, so we had the woods to ourselves.  Biting insects made themselves scarce.  It was, in short, an almost perfect day to be afield.

I'd thought we would kayak up Cypress Creek to the mouth of Red Creek, then continue up the latter, eventually easing up a small inlet on the north shore; there we would secure the kayaks, then hike northeastward to the edge of Titan Swamp, cut west overland, and bear slowly southward until returning to Red Creek and the kayaks.  This we did, mostly, but ended up meandering all the way through Titan Swamp, emerging on the south bank of Black Creek.  We sat for a while there, eating snacks and drinking our bottled water, listening to red-headed woodpeckers argue among themselves.  From there we cut hard west-southwest, but we overshot our entry route which forced us into a switchback pattern among some wide, wooded sloughs before finally reaching the kayaks near midday.

Our hike took us through some of the finest mature bottomland forest we've yet found in the Basin.  Heavy shade, along with frequent flooding from the nearby creeks, means the forest is largely clear of underbrush.  Shagbark hickory is common there among the usual water oaks and sweet gums.  I was surprised at the number of immense tupelos and baldcypresses lining the many sloughs that link Titan Swamp with the two creeks.  Some of the larger sloughs barred our way at times and would have made foot passage impossible in seasons of higher water.  White ibises croaked at us as we struggled through the thick gray mud to get better looks at particularly impressive baldcypresses and tupelos.  There are, perhaps, more relicts in Titan Swamp per acre than anywhere else in the Pascagoula River Swamp; and Titan itself, as I found out, is not simply restricted to the small tract I'd explored back in 2015, as I had thought.  It instead comprises the whole area between lower Black Creek and Red Creek.

(I apologize if my description of the lay of the land is confusing.  It is a complex picture, one I am still coming to understand more fully.)

 Morning on Cypress Creek.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Slipping into another world.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Nearing the mouth of Red Creek.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 We saw two young raccoons up a tree during our hike.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Titan Swamp, near Black Creek.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Another view of Titan.

 The mud here is deep and treacherous.

 We pause to rest by Black Creek. 

 "Mine eyes have seen the glory."  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Raccoon-work.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Not far from Black Creek, we found an enormous tupelo, which Brian named 'Fat Bottomed Girl.'  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 I'm not sure if Fat Bottomed Girl is just one tree, or two.

 Brian likened the roots of this tree to a flowing gown.

 The largest of the relict baldcypresses we encountered, safe from our close inspection in his deep slough.  I had difficulty getting a photo.

 I have named this tree the Hurliman Cypress, in honor of my friend Dean Hurliman of Iowa, carver, poet, and kindred spirit.  Dean's carving of a male Ivorybill in flight hangs above my desk as I type this, one of several he has very generously gifted to others in the Ivorybill community; he recently sent a pair to the Audubon Center at Moss Point, MS.  Dean, you may be in Iowa, but you are always with us.

Screen shot from Brian's phone showing location of the Hurliman Cypress (large blue dot).  The large stream flowing generally north-south in the middle is Cypress Creek.  The Hurliman Cypress lies between Black Creek to the north and Red Creek to the south.  East of Cypress Creek lies Woodpecker Island.

Screen shot showing latitude and longitude of the Hurliman Cypress.

 Another view of Black Creek.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Another view of the shy Hurliman Cypress.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Typical bottomland near Red Creek.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 This giant sat safely ensconced on an island of impossibly thick mud.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Sloughs can be surprisingly deep, warranting careful inspection.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Me, over-thinking a challenge again.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Maybe I'm getting to old for this.  I hope not.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 My kayak, a most welcome sight after our long swamp hike.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Beautiful Red Creek, with Cypress Creek in the distance.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Such impressive habitat, combined with that of the greater Pascagoula River Swamp and the adjoining upland pine forest along the edge of the Basin, could certainly offer strong refuge to any relict population of Ivorybills that might still haunt the area.  While we saw no unusual feeding sign or particularly striking woodpecker cavities, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," as the saying goes.  The quality of the habitat, combined with its remoteness, difficulty of access, and general ruggedness, all give Titan Swamp high marks in my book.

A mixed flock of white ibises, wood storks, and great egrets watched us from Red Swamp as we drove out.  The ibises and storks have probably already moved south for the winter.  In a couple of months, the forest here will lose much of its foliage, making it harder for big, elusive things to hide from prying eyes.  As always, autumn brings a sense of hope and anticipation of what the coming months hold for those of us who walk in old Ivorybill country.