"...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, June 28, 2014

Excursion: West Tiger Creek, 28 June 2014

At the suggestion of "fangsheath" from the Ivory-billed Woodpecker forum, this morning I visited an area where burned-over pine meets a narrow band of mixed bottomland, which has the potential for wood borer blooms.  I was in the woods shortly after dawn.  It had rained the night before, so the forest was still dripping wet, and it was very humid and still.  The bugs were no problem, but after a couple of hours fighting the thick brush, I grew weary and ready to retire.  There were a few big trees, mostly pines, but at least one very large poplar over fifty years old, and a goodly number of white oak.

This area was burned over back in March, I believe. 

This pine had some strange bark growth to it. 

Not sure what caused it. 

I did happen upon a feather from friend Dryocopus pileatus:

So it was not a complete washout.  But I am tired.  I may not head out into the field for several days.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Expedition: Leaf Wilderness, 23 June 2014

IBWOH's:  Brian Carlisle, Christopher Carlisle

Summary:  Brian and I were in the 900+ acre Leaf Wilderness at dawn.  Our goal was to travel northeastward from the remains of the trailhead, to Horseshoe Lake, a landlocked oxbow off the west bank of the Leaf River.  We covered several miles of mixed bottomland, along with several high ridges which held some nice oak, pine, and magnolia.  It was not too warm.  After about four hours, our trip was complete.  There were no kents or DK's (double-knocks), but we found some intriguing woodpecker work.  It was very difficult terrain.  We attempted, as always, to move silently through the woods, but there was inevitably much snapping of branches underfoot, as well as the wet ground sucking loudly at our boots.  We only saw two snakes; other wildlife included a deer, two box turtles, a Hooded Warbler, many singing Prothonotary Warblers, and two Yellow-crowned Night Herons (one adult, one juvenile).

This first group of photos were taken by me.  Several turned out rather blurry, unfortunately; but some of Brian's did, too, apparently, so I do not feel so bad.

 Some serious bill-work there.

 We found a second giant cypress, here just beyond a hollow sweet gum.  I named this cypress Leaflock.  Brian got some better pictures.

 Brian getting some photos of Leaflock.

 He is very focused.  My photo is not.

 Shield-like roots out upon a long slough.

 We followed this slough a mile or more.  Very difficult going, with many downed trees.

 A large woodpecker nest cavity high up in a tree across the slough.  Very well-formed entrance.

 Approaching Horseshoe Lake from the east.  We somehow overshot it initially, putting us on the west bank of the Leaf River.

 A group of dead timber in Horseshoe Lake.  A nice woodpecker cavity is in the tree to the far left.

 The cavity looked big enough for a wood duck.

Brian's photos turned out much better.  He is our group's chief photographer.

 Woodpecker nest cavities in a living hardwood tree.

 Gloom in the pre-dawn swamp.

Yeah.  Our bad.

  We measured Leaflock:  17' circumference, putting him at over 5' in diameter.

 I believe he is probably over 250 years old.

 Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

Conclusions:  The Leaf Wilderness, while relatively small, abuts the Leaf River WMA (part of the larger DeSoto NF system), three Nature Conservancy preserves, and the Pascagoula WMA, putting it in the heart of a vast network of nearly unbroken Ivory-bill habitat.  It includes both bottomland hardwood and mixed bottomland, swamp, and mixed upland forest, which would afford Ivory Bill a variety of potential food sources.  Needless to say, we will return to this Wilderness, probably many times in the years to come.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Excursion: East Tiger Creek, 16 June 2014

On 22 April of this year, I recorded some audio in the Tiger Creek area of DeSoto National Forest.  My secretary and I were birding together that afternoon (stalking warblers, specifically), when I heard a bird I did not recognize.  We were near East Tiger Creek, a tributary of Bogue Homa Creek, which flows eventually into the Leaf River, which in its turn empties into the Pascagoula.  (Incidentally, the Bogue Homa flows from a lake of the same name, an area for which I have an eyewitness report of Ivory Bill, albeit a questionable one.)  The area we were in was bottomland hardwood and pines, surrounded by both mature upland longleaf and a small tract of slash pine.  The bottoms around East Tiger Creek -- I suppose I should specify that it was not West Tiger Creek, nor simply Tiger Creek, but East Tiger Creek.  All three join together some miles to the south, and none are terribly large, for creeks, anyway.
     As I was saying, the bottoms in and about East Tiger Creek are primarily magnolia, sweetbay, maple, American holly, some beech, an occasional cypress, and pines.  This area was hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, and there are still many downed trees as evidence, making the already difficult terrain even more so.  When the trees fell, they left many open areas that have since grown up into wild, brambly thickets, rife with greenbriar and blackberry and other (generally thorny) plants.  Susanne and I had been birding from a bridge over East Tiger Creek, when I heard a bird I suspected might be a blue jay, but couldn't be sure.

I have since decided that it was probably a blue jay.  It was calling to another one farther up the forest road, to the north, and the replies cannot really be heard on the clip.  I am still not 100% sure that it was a blue jay; and the calls were different enough to make my heart beat a little faster.  Now let me say:  I have hiked, hunted, and birded woods here in the Pine Belt since I was ten.  I know a blue jay when I hear one.  This may have been a blue jay; or the kient-like calls we heard may have been a raptor of some kind.  I sent the audio to Dr. Jerome Jackson, probably the world expert on Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, who kindly took a listen.  He suggested that what I had heard may have been a young, fledgling woodpecker, or a tree frog.  I don't think it is either one, but it is, likely, only a blue jay.
     I guess.
     Now that is not the only time I have been brought up short by an unknown bird in this area.  Twice now this year, at the Tall Pines Trail a few miles north of the East Tiger Creek bridge, I have seen and heard large birds that I could not identify.  Both incidents are so seemingly trivial as to be almost unworthy of mention, but they continue to play over and over again in my brain.  Which is why, on 16 June (this past Monday), I returned to the bridge over East Tiger Creek, and this time I ploughed into the wild tangle where Susanne and I had heard the calls that day back in April, to see what could be seen.
     It was hot, and despite a Deet drenching of possibly toxic levels, there were Bugs.  I used the occasion to test the MosquitNo, a citronella wristband that is supposed to be very effective in repelling insects:

I did not notice that it was particularly effective in anything, except maybe to state that I was trying to raise some kind of social awareness.  To make matters worse, I had fought my way over a hundred yards into the thickets before I realized I had left my binoculars in the truck.  This is bad enough -- anathema, even -- for a birder; but for a King Pellinore hunting the Questing Bird, it was an immeasurably abysmal personal slip.  I considered (briefly) turning back to get them:  but that was A Bridge Too Far, so to speak, and decided instead to limit my exploration to an hour or so.  Recalling my map of the area from the DeLorme Atlas and Gazeteer, I would make for where the East Tiger Creek joined with Tiger Creek, which looked to be only a couple of miles away.  And after all, I still had my camera.
     Luckily, there was little need for binoculars.  I only saw 1 small bird that was too far away to identify, but got a decent look at a female Prothonotary Warbler, and a male Hooded Warbler in rapid flight near my head.  The most interesting subjects there, at that time, were the trees, beginning with this fellow most specially:

A large woodpecker nest cavity in a living ash or beech (I am not sure) directly over Tiger Creek.  Note the snag above the cavity, similar in placement to the snag in this photo, though farther up the trunk:

I only point out the snag, and its position relative to the nest cavity, because Tanner says:

This makes twelve reported species of trees in which Ivory-bills have nested... The first nest described by Allen and Kellogg (1937) was in the dead top of a partly live red maple, with the entrance 43 feet from the ground and facing north, directly underneath a small broken stub... the second was in a large dead oak stub... below the bases of broken off branches...

Audubon (1831) stated that the Ivory-bill carefully chose its nest site for protection from rain, digging below a sheltering limb... (The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, Chapter 13, p. 69:  "Nest Building and the Nest.")

     I do not have measurements for the cavity, but its large size and location in a living tree are intriguing.  It was, however, not more than 25-30 feet up from the ground, which would put it at the extreme low end of average Ivory-bill nest heights which could be up to 70 feet, he says.  There is scoring to the bark above and to the left of the cavity, and apparently some damage or rot to the top of the entrance.  Concerning the shape of the cavity, Tanner goes on to say:

     Audubon (1831) and Thompson (1885) described the entrance hole to an Ivory-bill nest as being round, but the nests described by several other writers and all those I have seen have had oval or irregular entrances.  The holes that I have examined in the Singer Tract varied from oval through egg-shaped to nearly triangular...The smallest recorded hole measured 3 1/2 inches (Scott, 1888), the largest, the 1937 nest in the Singer Tract, was 4 3/4 by  5 3/4 inches, and the most enlongate measured 3 1/4 by 6 3/4 inches (R. D. Hoyt).
     For comparison, the entrance holes of Pileated Woodpecker nests are described by Bendire (1895) to be from 3 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter... (69-70).

This area had several groves of mature white oak and magnolia, and there were squirrels actively feeding while I was there.  Signs of woodpecker feeding activity were plentiful, including evidence of a powerful bill at work:

This pine had its top removed by a tornado, probably:

I think it had died in the years since Katrina.  There is the telltale sign of a lightning strike:

Regardless, the wood-boring insects are hard at work on it, as shown by the powdering of sawdust about the tree's base:

And woodpeckers have been at work, as well:

As I have said before, the terrain is very difficult, and it is nearly impossible to move in those woods quietly.

Despite the rough going, Tiger Creek has some areas of serene beauty:

All that remains of a stump:

The trunk lay nearby.  The area is a wash that is probably covered with water during the rains of early Spring:

It, too, showed signs of Order Piciformes:

I suspect these trees came down during Katrina:

Rot and fire damage to a living pine:

The pine in question, probably dying:

Another view of the mixed bottomland forest canopy:

After over two hours, I had not found the junction of Tiger and East Tiger Creeks.  It was getting hot, I was getting tired, and I knew I had to be home in time to get ready to go to work later that afternoon.  I set off eastward, away from the creek, a course that took me straight through a nearby stand of youngish slash pine. Even there, I found much evidence of woodpecker activity, though I do not doubt it was the work of Br'er Pileated, as I have observed them before working on saplings such as this one:

In summary, short and relatively birdless as the excursion was, it was not without merit.  My eyes are becoming attuned to spotting woodpecker sign, which I now see in more places than ever before.  This part of the Tiger Creek drainage area, while quite small, links directly to the greater riparian highways of southeast Mississippi, culminating in that river of my hopes, the Pascagoula.  The problem I seem to be developing is one of a lack of reference material.  There are precious few images illustrating Ivory Bill's bark-peeling activity, and I feel that much of the time I may only be witnessing the work of Dryocopus pileatus.  However, I have a plan that may remedy that, which I will discuss in a later post.