"...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."

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Most Matter-of-Fact Tree

     "The rain had begun in earnest again, but there was one more stop.  Instead of heading back up the slope when they had reached the highway, Murrah drove the jeep under the bridge and into the forest on the other side.  At once the track came to an end, and Murrah announced that they would have to get out and walk again.  The damp black earth around them was incisored by deer tracks, so many of them that Quisenberry wondered aloud if the area might not be overpopulated with the animals.  Not so, said Murrah; they came through the winters sleek and fat.  And it was a fact that even in this spot where most undergrowth had been shaded out, what there was of it didn't look overbrowsed.
     "Wisner dropped behind, absorbed in the cathedral atmosphere of the place.  When he glanced around, he saw Quisenberry and Murrah some distance ahead, their backs to him, looking at something in front of them.  Wisner wondered what it could be.  At first all he could see was the general, now familiar, impression of gray and black trunks massed together in the gray-blue light, endlessly repeating themselves in diminishing perspective as though the whole effect were created by mirrors.  In this gloom, all color merged and it took him several seconds to realize what he was staring at.  Once he did, he could notice nothing else.  Before him was the largest cypress he had ever seen, or could ever imagine seeing.  It dwarfed all those trees around it which he had been thinking were so large.
     "It was also, he began to realize, the oddest-looking cypress tree he had ever seen, not because it outdid the normally extravagant tapering, the sometimes grotesque contortions, of that habitually eccentric species, but because it rejected all of that.  It was the most matter-of-fact tree in the world, a tree such as a child might draw.  Its enormous girth, twenty-eight feet in circumference and at least nine feet in diameter, rose up straight as a smokestack with no visible diminution at all to a height of more than one hundred feet, at which point it abruptly stopped, the top gone, presumably as a consequence of arboreal blight and/or some long ago wind.  When Wisner gazed straight up he saw that one side of the vertical shaft was interrupted, half-way up, by an immense knot, a gouty looking extrusion draped in moss and lichen, commodious enough to seat himself and his two companions for a picnic lunch.  At eye level, there were small holes through which he could see that the tree was entirely hollow.  Quisenberry, circling around the other side, speculated that the core of the cypress must have rotted before the first loggers came here generations before, which was how this one tree got to be left alone.
     "The effect of all this monumental agedness was neither grand nor solemn; it was better than that.  The tree was not only the sort of tree that a child might draw, but one that a child might imaginatively live in.  Wisner felt that he had seen it somewhere before, and then dimly remembered the illustrations in his childhood storybooks -- the fortress trees built by sympathetic nature to house truant boys and girls as well as clans of elves and dwarfs."

     -- Schueler, Donald G.  Preserving the Pascagoula, pp. 99-100:  "In the Swamp."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Scouting Expedition: Goff Basin, Pascagoula WMA, 26 July 2014

IBWOH's:  Brian and Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  Crossing the Pascagoula River eastward from Benndale along Highway 26, one may see Crossroads Free Pentecostal Church.  Turning right there, onto Basin Road, Brian and I found this oxbow lake some miles to the south.  This part of the WMA off the east bank of the Pascagoula is called Goff Basin, really a series of oxbows that appear to flood with the spring rains.  The WMA map shows most of the lakes being private, but this one has public access.  An older gentleman was putting his boat in as Brian and I readied for our hike; by the time we returned some hours later, four or five others had joined him.  The surrounding forest is dominated by cypress, interspersed with many large oaks and hickories.  This is second- and third-growth, mixed bottomland; and while we encountered many good-sized trees, very few of them approach in magnificence Treebeard and Leaflock, in the Leaf Wilderness a bit farther north, or the dead Red Swamp Giant off the west bank.  Oaks are by far the biggest type here.  

     We saw no snakes or alligators, but crossed paths with no less than three box turtles.  Observed bird life was limited to great blue heron, little blue heron, what I believe to have been hooded warblers, cardinals, a yellow-billed cuckoo (first one I've seen in many years), and a lone white ibis.  A raccoon was the only mammal we came across.

     Insects included damselflies, large dragonflies, and a big beetle who was in a hurry to get somewhere.  We had no difficulty with biting insects, possibly due to the ubiquitous spiderwebs throughout the bottoms.  The day was not particularly hot, but the humidity was off the charts, bordering oppressive.

     We heard no kent-calls or double-knocks, and saw and heard nothing in response to our own crude DK's.

Water oak. 

Empty musselshells and crayfish carapaces litter the forest floor.  

 The bayou has dropped several feet since the Spring.  Old trot lines hung from the trees above our heads, indicating the entire area is submerged through much of the year.

Impressive cavity in a living cypress, one of few cavities I observed. 

 The going is easy this time of year, although the deep-channeled bayous and streams required us to take large detours upstream in search of suitable fords.

"Spiders, Gandalf..." 

 Orange fungus.

 Feeder stream flowing into the lake.  The water was quite cool.

Willow oak, the only mature one I have ever seen, though their saplings are abundant. 

 Sandy wash, near the Pascagoula.  

River birch, the only species of birch that grows this far southeast.  Goodly numbers of them grow in the sandy wash, among the cypress and sycamores.  We did not encounter them anywhere else in Goff Basin.

Reddish-brown stag beetle, Lucanus capreolus (Thanks to Fred Virazzi for the identification, and to Mark Michaels).

We spotted this heavily scaled dead tree in a nearby swamp as we were leaving. 

Brian using his inhaler.  Not really.  He was making owl-noises in response to a Barred Owl calling in the distance.     

Neither, hopefully, is the Lord God Bird.  (We are men of Reason, but also of Faith-based Ornithology.)  West of Lucedale, Hwy. 26, near Basin Central Rd.

Conclusions:  The Goff Basin area holds promise due not to any preponderance of large, dead and dying trees:  rather, I think it is both for the large number of oak and hickory (significant sources of mast), and for the openness of the bottomland forest itself.

     As I have mentioned before, the Pascagoula and its tributaries (the Leaf and the Chickasawhay) is the longest undammed river system in the lower 48 states.  As Brian and I meandered through the bottomland off its east bank, the significance of this for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker really became apparent to me -- significance which has, in my opinion, been a bit underappreciated, and should be a factor to be considered in any survey of potential IBWO habitat.  The annual flooding leaves considerable swathes of open woodland, of the kind that has elsewhere been mentioned as important for the IBWO flight manner, more free of saplings and brush that would otherwise obstruct its flight paths.  Jerome Jackson, in remarks about IBWO habitat in Cuba, stated, "The ivory-billed woodpecker has obviously existed in diverse habitats, the common threads being old-growth forest and extensive, unbroken forest.  I would add to these obvious characteristics the importance of open forest." (In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Chapter 10, p. 215:  "Cuba")  

     The freedom of the River to "breathe" may be what makes the Pascagoula system unique among potential Ivory-billed habitat.  I am glad I live close enough to make fairly regular surveys of this magnificent region, and every foray strengthens my hope that one day, I may see Ivory Bill.