"...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."

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Mistflower: Horseshoe Lake, 5 November 2017

The phrase "looking for a needle in a haystack" -- a moving needle, at that -- has always been apt in describing our efforts to find and document Ivorybills in the Pascagoula River Swamp, due in part to the large amount of rugged territory involved.  On the other hand, the large area also means that, after well over three years of exploring, there are still places new to us, tucked in odd corners of the Basin that we have managed to overlook.

Poring over Google Earth last month (as I do almost daily), I noticed a small, tree-filled oxbow called Hog Pond, in the dead center of Big Swamp.  I have at one time or another surveyed the land both to the north of it -- Goff Dead River, in October 2015, and (along with my brother Brian) Big Swamp's  southeastern quadrant, in December of last year.  Hog Pond is extremely isolated and totally surrounded by bottomland, so I thought it a worth a look.  Brian and I decided that the best way to get to it would be to cross the Pascagoula from a landing on the east bank; beach the kayaks on a big sandbar directly across the River; then, proceed almost directly westward through the forest, a hike of less than a mile.

Hog Pond is in the center-left of this screenshot I took with my phone.  The nearest public landing we could find was at the small blue location dot; the upstream paddle of 1.5 miles to the sandbar would have likely left us a bit exhausted.

Unfortunately, we were not able to find easy access to the River near the sandbar, as the landings nearby were closed to the public.  Nearby Horseshoe Lake, off the east bank of the Pascagoula, appeared (on Google Earth, anyway) to perhaps connect to the River through one or perhaps both its ends.  We found that this was not so at this time of year, though no doubt the lake gets refreshed annually by the Pascagoula's overflow, and one could probably navigate the bottomland between the lake and the River by kayak at such time.  We never made it to Hog Pond that day, but surveyed Horseshoe Lake by kayak.

Access to Horseshoe Lake was no problem.

A high, sandy bank at the lake's lower end separates it from the Pascagoula.  The bluff overlooking the River is a wild tangle of brush, a black willow grove, and broken timber.

I'm glad we did.  The lake is not shaped so much like a horseshoe -- more like a ladle, or a fishhook; a quiet, elegant child of the Pascagoula's ancient wanderings.  The surrounding mature bottomland and swamp forest is beautiful and invites further exploration, especially a swampy area to the lake's immediate east.  As we had already spent an inordinate amount of time driving around, we had to save that investigation for another day.

Horseshoe Lake launch.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

I found on our last kayaking trip that repairs I'd made to my kayak, the Kuhn, had not worked, and that it was still taking on water through a crack in the hull near the stern.  This time I used Krazy Glue, which seemed to do the trick.  This latest repair held; I hope it continues to do so.

Dawn shone silver through the misty swamp just to the east of the lake. 

The trees along the shoreline are magnificent!  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle. 

 A family of four white ibises, lingering here very late in the year.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

We hauled the kayaks onto the thick muddy north end of Horseshoe Lake to explore on foot.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Dry swamp forest past the lake's north end.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Giant leopard moth caterpillar.  I remember people calling them "wooly bear" caterpillars when I was a kid growing up in rural Jasper County, Mississippi.

 Returning to the kayaks after exploring the lake's north end.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 A lone anhinga was one of the few birds beside the ibises we observed.  Anhingas and cormorants in flight always give me pause.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Rounding the bend along the lake's southwestern shoreline.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Can you see the anhinga here?  Me, neither.  It is not impossible to get a good photo of a bird from a kayak, but it can be quite a challenge.

 A baldcypress with the bark stripped off.  We've seen this kind of work before in the Pascagoula River Basin, and can usually attribute it to gray squirrels.

Trying to get the Kuhn still long enough to photograph these cavities through the trees was maddening.  There were many, many cavities in the trees within eyeshot, though we didn't see any woodpeckers.

 The high-water mark is evident.  

White ibis, upper right.

Brian couldn't help but note the fascinating, twisted shapes of the trees.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Blue mistflower.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

A warmer than average autumn has bought the spiders a little extra hunting time.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Crossing back to the landing.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

We drove around a little bit afterward before heading to the Benndale Super Stop for our usual meal of their excellent chicken strips.  Though we neither saw nor heard anything directly suggestive of Ivorybills on this trip, I hope to return to Horseshoe Lake and explore the surrounding area on foot.

As a bonus, I returned home with a souvenir of the swamp, a work of art by the Pascagoula River:

I found it in a mad jumble of driftwood atop the sandy ridge between Horseshoe Lake and the River.  It now hangs on the wall by my desk at home, where I have written so much about our experiences in the swamps and bottomlands.

I am not a materially wealthy man; but I'm one of the luckiest people I know, to be able to search for one of the rarest and most spectacular birds, in some of the most serenely beautiful wilderness on Earth.  My only regret so far is that I didn't start sooner.

Singer Tract, April '35.

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.