"...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."

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Ice Swamp: On Melkor's Road, 3 January 2018

Brian and I chose one of the coldest days of the season to hike Big Swamp.  Temperatures rose to only about 20 degrees (Fahrenheit) after midday.  The swamp was dark and gloomy in the cold and both our cameras and eyes had difficulty focusing, to the point that we missed at least one important fork in the trail that resulted in our having to make a disconcerting backtrack.  We also somehow missed the short path that leads to Melkor's Pond and the rather menacing baldcypress that guards it.  I have never seen ice in the Pascagoula River Basin in our years of exploring it (since 2014).  Water levels were significantly higher than on my last trip; we unfortunately got our feet wet more than once, and were obliged to make a risky crossing of German Slough towards the end of the hike.

The birds were mostly quiet.  We neither saw nor heard anything suggestive of Ivorybills or their activity, though while along Melkor's Road we both heard the same strange, distant calling that had mystified me on my previous hike there.  I suspect it was a squirrel, but the acoustics of that place may have been playing tricks on our ears.

White-tailed deer were very active.  We had pleasant conversations with hunters on ATV's on two different occasions, and they seemed a bit amazed at the ground we had covered on foot (around 12 miles total, by Brian's measure).

We were making for Hog Pond, but it remained elusive as before, and we were obliged to turn back after hiking around eight hours.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Fresh woodpecker work on the forest floor.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

I suspect Pileated Woodpecker.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

The steel ATV bridge over this slough was completely submerged.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

The gloom gave way to blue skies as we made our way north up Big Swamp Road.
Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Ever troublesome German Slough, along our return hike.  Brian and I successfully crossed it via the same downed tree we have used in the past, though on this day it was partially submerged in icy water.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Melkor's Road: Big Swamp, 1 December 2017

I arrived at Thieves' Landing, on the west bank of Black Creek, shortly before dawn (6:30 a.m.).  Mist lay heavy on the Pascagoula River Basin; the temperature hung just below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, warming to about 70 later in the day.  Rain the night before left the forest dripping and muddy, though water levels remain low -- a good thing for swamp hiking.  I was surprised to see the landing area empty of other vehicles; easing the kayak to the creek, I heard gunshots some miles distant, but they were the only ones I would hear all day.

I had no clear plan save to cross Black Creek into Big Swamp, and see where the trail took me, moving slowly and listening for kent-calls and double-knocks, and eyeing the thinning forest canopy for interesting cavities and signs of woodpecker scaling.

After stowing the kayak in a sandy thicket, I bore east along the trail for about a hundred yards before turning southeastward, as the path shadowed Black Creek.  I'd been on this section of trail a couple of years earlier, but then had followed it only a couple of miles before it seemed to vanish in trackless bottomland and swamp forest.  Evidently I had wandered off the trail proper back then, because now the trail bore me faithfully all the way to Big Swamp Road, which is the main trail running from Sandy Wash Bend in the north, south to the confluence of Black Creek with Cypress Creek, the overflow channel of the Pascagoula River.

As I hiked, the beauty and solitude soon put me in a Tolkien frame of mind. 

 I found this downed spruce pine the last time I passed that way, some two years ago.  The WMA people have graciously worked with chainsaws to clear it from the path.  The bark on it is still tight in places.

 As I continued down the path, the forest began looking new to me.  I realized that I'd wandered off the path the last time, but now it seemed sure and true, so I continued on.

 I found a second downed spruce pine a couple of hundred yards down the trail from the first.  The bark missing along the bole was likely scraped off as it crashed past other trees on its way down.

 Woodpeckers have been busy along the limbs.  The work may have been done before the tree fell.  The bark is still fairly tight on much of the tree.

 Beautiful and impressive swamp chestnut oaks are common in this part of Big Swamp.

 My camera is simple and not equipped for the poor lighting conditions of the day.  Here I attempted to photograph what was probably a dead sweet gum that I believe was struck by lightning.

 Very quickly the trail bent round to a small, muddy, lonely pond, guarded by this fellow.

 I waded out into the water as far as I could to get a better photo.  

 He suffered my approach, but was not terribly friendly.

 I could not get a decent picture of him.  Inspired both by his enormous base -- twisted and deformed perhaps by some ancient, long struggle -- and by his demeanor, I named him Melkor, after the renegade Vala responsible for much of the ills of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth.  

 I continued east from Melkor's Pond, along the trail I now call Melkor's Road.

 The strange shape of some of the oaks along Melkor's Road lent their surrounding glades an unearthly air.

 The WMA people are improving trails in Big Swamp to provide better access to ATV's.  Several hunters passed me along the trail on their ATV's during my hike.

 My last view of Black Creek from Melkor's Road.

 Great egrets.

 Mast from swamp chestnut oaks was plentiful on the forest floor.

 Woodpecker scaling on a dead tree I could not identify.  The bark was neither tight nor loose.

 I passed several hog wallows during my hike.

 Woodpecker work on a maple snag.

 This lovely swamp slowly made itself visible as the trail bore me eastward.

 I believe it is fed in part by German Slough, a troublesome watercourse to the north.

 The dry autumn is evident in the low water level here.

 I saw a number of dead pines like these.  Probably loblolly, very uncommon in Big Swamp.  I rested here a few minutes, listening to what I first thought might be kents, but which I eventually realized was a squirrel barking, though it sounded very strange.  The acoustics of the swamp can be tricky.

 Varda, at left, sits upon a small promontory not far from the trail.

Varda's husband Manwe, the mighty cypress at the right. 

A very large woodpecker flew from near the crown of the cypress in the center of this photo as I emerged onto the bank of this slough to get a better look, at around 9:30 a.m.  Flying with steady wingbeats, after the manner of a crow, it circled around to the woods behind me; I had difficulty making out the underparts of its wings.  It perched in another tall tree, and when I moved to get a better look, it flew off again, and did not return.

Swamp selfie.

 Tulkas the Champion here grows in a quiet slough not far off Melkor's Road, less than a mile from Manwe and Varda.

 A crown of faded gold for the old king.

 More improvements.

Some late autumn color.

 Evidently I was on Albritton Road.  I like "Melkor's Road" better.

Heading north on Big Swamp Road, I decided to make for Hog Pond, which my brother Brian and I had hoped to reach on our last trip to the WMA.  Hog Pond was still some miles distant, but I was in good spirits, energized by the country I'd seen.

At length a path led eastward off the main trail.  I decided to follow it, thinking it would bear me either to Hog Pond, or to another remote oxbow, Harrison Lake, which I had not visited before. 

 An old ATV crossing.  The thick metal pipe has almost rusted through in spots.

 The trail quickly faded and became difficult to follow, but I was encouraged by the sight of this stately, powerful cypress, surrounded by his many knees.

 I named him Orome, after the Huntsman of the Valar; and my wisp of a trail became Orome's Road.

 A young shagbark hickory.

 The trail began arcing slowly south-eastward, until I came out upon a bluff high above the Pascagoula, the Singing River.  It continued south along the bluff; I knew then that I would not make it to Hog Pond, but was led on by the promise of Harrison Lake.

 I was rewarded in a few minutes by a heavily wooded slough, an overflow from Harrison Lake.

 This is the second Harrison Lake I have encountered in my life.  The other is in a valley in the southwest of Glacier National Park, Montana.  I am not sure which of the two is more beautiful.

 A mysterious grove of live oaks just beyond the shore opposite.  I found a similar grove along the shore of Lingum Lake not far to the south, in 2016.

 Orome's Road bore me slowly westward, back to Big Swamp Road.  I passed this sign along the way, reminding me of my long hike to Lingum Lake last June.  Like the identical sign farther south, this one seemed to signify nothing in particular.

Back on Big Swamp Road, I headed south, then cut west along a familiar track that would lead me almost directly westward to my kayak and Thieves' Landing.  Beyond German Slough (whose waters, fast and deep, I had to cross on all fours over a slippery log), the trail was now greatly faded, and I had to rely largely on Google Earth and my compass to bring me back to my kayak.

 I crossed a number of downed trees on my return hike to Thieves' Landing, including this large oak, which may have been a swamp chestnut oak.  The trees may have been downed by a tornado.

Swamp miles.  Not bad for an old man.

Just beyond the WMA land, I passed private property along the access road that had been clearcut since my last visit.  This wasteland will take many decades to recover.

     Woodpecker activity was high for much of the day.  The mystery bird, along with the abundance of woodpecker cavities and scaling (though none I would consider diagnostic for IBWO), satisfies me that the areas along both Melkor's Road and Harrison Lake hold promise.