"...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, October 29, 2014

IBWO-1 Up!

Got the call from the mechanics today... not the starter, but the ignition switch.  I should have my own ride again in a day or two.  YES!!!

Not sure when I'll be able to get back into the field, though...

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

An Important Edit

Recently I was made aware of some impressions my post "Confessions of an IBWOH:  1. Thrushes, Thrashers, and the Silent Sky" made -- impressions I in no way intended.  I would like to take the opportunity to apologize to any who may have taken offense, and would like them to know that I have gone back and edited my original post.  I hope the edit will make my meaning more clear.  I also want to thank those who voiced their criticim constructively.  They were well-founded opinions, and much appreciated.

Monday, October 27, 2014

IBWO-1 Down

I think the starter has gone out on my Nissan Frontier.  Looks like I'm grounded for the time being.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Close Survey: Stalking Big Sam: The Land South of Hutson Lake, Pascagoula WMA, 23 October 2014

IBWOH:  Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  South of Hutson Lake, an oxbow in the north end of the Pascagoula WMA, lies a smaller, V-shaped lake that my companions and I have somehow managed to completely miss in our surveys of the area.  Having discovered an old logging road there via Google Earth, I determined to walk the road to the lake, then walk around it through the trackless bottomland, making my way cross-country back to the familiar trail.

I started rather later than I would have liked, and so was not on the trail itself until shortly after 7 a.m., barely beating the sunrise.

On this survey, I decided to make some short videos as I went, which I hope will add a little variety to the blog and give the curious a better idea about the lay of the land, and getting about in this remote place.

Turning down the unexplored old logging road, I found myself walking in bottomland hardwood forest typical for this area, and found a nice, small woodpecker cavity in a living oak tree:

The trail ended soon enough at a field, recently cut like the others.  Beyond it lay the small lake I'd found on my Google Earth map.  I bore westward, around the north end of the lake, and soon found myself in a series of sloughs in various stages of dryness.

Continuing west-southwest, I had to bring out the machete and hack my way through briars and vines.  In a big mud puddle, I found some baby catfish:

A number of large oaks grew in that area, including this one with a very large, oval-shaped cavity, one of the biggest cavities of its type that I've seen in a live tree of any kind:

Trying to maneuver into a better position to see the cavity, I was startled by a series of unusually loud knocks on an oak tree several yards away.  Making my way as quietly as possible through the tangle, I finally saw an extremely large woodpecker, working on a high bough.  The bird was difficult to see in the shade; adding to the difficulty, I faced east, with the full glare of the sun in my eyes.  Naturally, I held my machete in one hand and my walking stick in the other.  By the time I had fumbled my binoculars into my hands, the big woodpecker had flapped off in the direction of the opposite shore of the lake.  I could not make out the markings of a pileated, and it looked to be bigger than any pileated woodpecker I have ever seen, adding to my uncertainty.

I continued on among the wooded sloughs.  At the end of one, I found this:

Not sure what kind of equipment this is.  It looked to be an old sluice that controlled the water level in the adjoining slough.  Not long after photographing it, I again heard the loud rapping, and quickly moved on.

This time, I could not locate the bird.  A quick snack, and I moved forward again, keeping the lake to my left as I moved south.

The strip of land between the River and the lake is quite narrow, for I was among the oaks at the south end of the lake after a brief hike.  I found an old tree stand there, its canopy in tatters, though its ladder and frame were still in good shape:

Not far beyond, I once again encountered the loud knocks of a big woodpecker at work.

I was able to actually identify the bird this time.  It was a pileated woodpecker, but the biggest pileated I've ever seen.  It must be an old bird; I would imagine the oak cavity I photographed is one of its roost holes.  I was not able to determine its sex, so I named it Big Sam, which allows for some gender ambiguity.  I never saw it fly off.  I continued eastward until I reached a familiar stretch of one of the old logging roads, and made my way back to IBWO-1.

Conclusions:  No kents, although it is still early in the season.  No double-knocks.  No bark peeling of any kind, although visibility is still limited by foliage.  I would like to return to this area, if for no other reason than to photograph Big Sam.

I did drive farther south, and re-crossed the River on the Wade-Vancleave Road, but was unimpressed with the quality of habitat there, which was mostly pines.  Houseboats line the banks of Pascagoula, at least along the stretch visible from the bridge.

Next time I am in the Pascagoula WMA, I will wear blaze orange.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

UPDATE to 'The Way Is Shut': Brian Carlisle Photography

My brother Brian Carlisle has updated his photoblog with images from our last excursion, to the Rimes Lakes area and McRae Dead River.

Confessions of an IBWOH: 1. Thrushes, Thrashers, and The Silent Sky

My father was from Greenville, Mississippi.  He was going to high school in Sandersville, in Jones County (famously, the "Free State of Jones") in the southern part of the state, when he met my mother.  After his service in the Marine Corps, they settled in Baytown, Texas, just to the east of Houston, where Dad found work in the oil fields.  I was born there in 1970, and was early on a child of Suburbia.

We often returned to south Mississippi to visit my mother's side of the family, and I was always impressed by the trees there.  Trees -- especially pines -- dominate the Mississippi landscape the way mountains do in Switzerland, I imagine.  Their presence is inescapable.  The horizon is seldom visible because of them.  They loom over the state and interstate highways, shrouding xenophobic towns from outsider eyes, though the brick and concrete manages to muscle its way through here and there.  Parts of Texas were (and are) much the same; but the forests near Baytown had long ago been hacked and burned and scraped away, until only a few relict stands were left lining the bayous.  Mississippi, poor in industry but rich in nature, early on made a favorable impression.  That was a good thing, as my parents moved us there in 1979.

In Mississippi, I soon learned, kids had fathers who hauled pulpwood for a living.  Shockingly, to my ten year-old, suburban mind, they also ate squirrels.  More shocking still, some folks ate robin.  People, including some dearly-loved family members, also had weird names for things.  Chimneys were "chimbleys."  Folks did not mow their yards:  they "mowered" them.  I soon decided that most Mississippians were generally confused about things, and began to think I would have to keep a mental English-Mississippian Translation Guide running at all times.  (Said Guide has served me well.)

I had early on developed a love of the natural world, and had many books on hand to inform me, so I was able to correct the adults quickly when they called a cardinal a "redbird."  I forgave them, as it is almost easier to just say "redbird"; but when I heard them refer to chimbley sweeps, I was genuinely confused as to what they were talking about.  I knew what a chimney sweep was, having watched Mary Poppins at some point:  but they were referring to birds.  I soon discovered that they meant chimney swifts.  This further solidified my position on the mental faculties of Mississippians; so, when I heard them referring to what was obviously (to me) a thrush as a "thrasher," I mentally shrugged, corrected them, and went about the business of being a smartass city kid.

Months passed, and I became further seduced by the natural world, especially birds.  Perhaps it was the Eastern bluebirds that nested in a birdhouse I built in Sunday school, or the striking red-headed woodpeckers that frequented the fenceposts and power poles along the country road where we lived.  Maybe it was one of the many birds I shot with my Red Rider BB-gun:  numerous robins (I did not eat them), the occasional bluebird, unfortunate sapsuckers.  I never was able to take a mockingbird, or a cardinal; the former are vigilant warriors, while the latter, perhaps aware of their bright beauty, are watchful to near-paranoia.  But whatever the causes, at length I felt I needed a field guide, and eventually received an Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds:  Eastern Region, which I still have to this day.

It was not long before I discovered that it was I who had been wrong.  The birds my fellow Mississippians had been calling thrashers were, in fact, thrashers, and not thrushes, as I had smugly assumed:  an early lesson in humility, among many others to come.  (The lessons have sometimes been hard, but I am thankful for them.)  The brown thrasher is every bit a fixture of the lovely Mississippi landscape as the mockingbird, though somewhat less visible.  I realized that I had never even seen a thrush of any kind; I would not see one, in fact, for many years.  The field guide continued to open my eyes, and I soon knew gems called Inca dove, black-throated green warbler, slate-colored junco, white-throated sparrow.  Shelby, my best friend in those days, also got hooked, and we joyfully pursued summer tanagers and purple finches in the intermittent forests behind his parents' property, where I also learned to hunt squirrel.  (Squirrel is pretty good, prepared the right way.  I still haven't eaten robin, though.)  In time, moreover, I became wise to what I did not know, which was pretty considerable compared to those my ten year-old brain had figured to be generally confused.  The only one slow-witted and confused, I came to realize, was me... a condition that has, admittedly, not improved much with age.

But I continued reading, and learned that there were birds that were native to Mississippi that I would not ever see.  Of these, the "Big Three" were the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  I had long been familiar with the idea of extinction, having read voraciously of dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals for years.  The Big Three, however, were something else entirely.  All three were "extreme" species:  the most numerous bird in the world, the only member of the parrot family found in the United States, and the second-largest woodpecker in the world, respectively -- all gone, due to man.  I was incredulous, and angry, that the opportunity to see these species had been taken from me by the shortsightedness of people long since dead.  I still am.  I found a copy of The Silent Sky:  The Incredible Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon by Allan W. Eckert in my school library, and cried when the last wild pigeon died. I grew jealous of the peoples of Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia, who could still see wild parrots in their native countries, something that I could never do.  That option had been taken from me long before I was ever born.  I began to grow frustrated by the people around me.  I could not understand why others were not as saddened as I was by our loss, not realizing that most people cannot know what it means to have lost something they never had to begin with.

But though the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet were, according to all accounts, extinct beyond doubt, the hint of possibility lingered in the literature regarding Campephilus principalis.  Like so many others before and since, I am sure, the thought of seeing an ivorybill captured my imagination, as it did that of my friend Shelby.  Every pileated we saw winging its way overhead quickened the blood in our veins, as it still does for me.  One of my earliest memories of birding involves he and I, standing in his front yard, watching a large woodpecker fly overhead; we looked and one another and yelled, "Ivorybill!" and took off after what was doubtless a pileated woodpecker.

That I can still feel that quickening of the blood at the sight of a pileated woodpecker now, over thirty years later, after my faith in so much has been shaken, and in some cases lost:  that lets me know that I am still very much alive, and am not too different from the city kid who became a bit of a country boy all those years ago.  That I felt, and still feel, sadness at losing something I never really had... well, I guess that's part of the reason I find myself in some of the most difficult habitat in the United States, chasing what many would say is a ghost.

I feel -- rightly or wrongly -- that I am owed some compensation for the silent skies.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Excursion: The Way Is Shut: Rimes Lakes and McRae Dead River, Pascagoula WMA, 6 October 2014

IBWOH's:  Brian Carlisle, Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  Having spent an inordinate amount of time the past week poring over maps of the middle Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area, I set forth at the usual ungodly hour with my brother (after a refreshing four-hour sleep), southbound for the Pascagoula basin.  Skies were clear, and a cool morning gave way to a mild midday.  I had high hopes that we would be able to access Big Swamp, some kilometers north of Black Swamp, at the confluence of Black Creek and the Pascagoula River.  It is a very isolated area of bottomland that, based on my research, I believe could be promising ivorybill habitat.

As some months before, when Richard and I attempted to access nearby Red Swamp, private land blocked our access to Big Swamp at every turn.  We spent around two hours driving nervously down public roads that led deep into private land, finding only locked gates and innumerable POSTED signs.  At times, we were likely only a few hundred yards from WMA land.

Frustrated, we drove back north and crossed the Pascagoula River to its east bank, intending to talk to someone at the WMA headquarters about how one would go about walking into Big Swamp.  HQ was, of course, closed.

On our way out, we stopped at Josephine Sand Bar (on the Pascagoula River) and Upper and Lower Rimes Lakes, where Richard and I had been earlier this summer.  An enormous flock of blackbirds could be heard behind the trees on the opposite shore of the river, and they soon rose into view, numbering in the hundreds.  Then we spied several wood storks, and excitedly followed them to the Rimes lakes, where they allowed themselves to be photographed.  It was the first time either of us had ever observed the species.  They are magnificent!

Wood stork with (I believe) an immature little blue heron. 

I'd been hoping to see a wood stork all summer. 

I suppose they will depart shortly for a warmer clime. 

Returning to the west bank, we drove around some of the public roads until reaching McRae Dead River in the WMA.  McRae Dead River is a long, narrow oxbow, once in the Pascagoula River channel, and does connect to the river in high water.  Now the water is very, very low, allowing easy passage along its banks.

Brian crosses a cold, clear stream flowing into McRae Dead River. 

The water was low enough here to cross what is normally a shallow end of the oxbow, near a ruined beaver dam.

We took the opportunity to explore the surrounding forest.  It is generally youthful mixed bottomland, with a few widely-spaced older individuals, usually water oaks; and there is a nice grove of mature live oaks.  The forest is interspersed with wild tangles of blackberry, muscadine, and brush, that makes the going difficult.  Human activity is very obvious at the lake, in the form of the rotting hulks of two fiberglass boats and numerous cans and bottles littering the shoreline.  As far as potential IBWO habitat, I would rank the area around McRae Dead River rather low, much lower than the mixed forest to the north, around Hutson Lake.  I could find no signs of scaling on any of the living trees.  Finding that the forest grew progressively less promising the farther we progressed, we called it a day and turned around less than halfway around the lake.

Shagbark hickory. 

I think this is a Fowler's toad.  I hope someone more knowledgeable will correct me if I am wrong. 

The cypresses are ever so slightly shifting to their autumn dress. 

The lake, as well as the Pascagoula River itself, is very low.

Conclusions:  Big Swamp is, by our best reckoning, inaccessible save by boat.  Until we obtain kayaks, access to some of the most promising ivorybill habitat in the Pascagoula WMA will be limited mostly to the area around Hutson Lake, where there is still some areas that we have not explored.  Big Swamp, and Black Swamp further south, yet remain tantalizingly beyond our grasp, for now.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Close Survey: Beaverdam Creek, Black Creek Wilderness, 30 September 2014

IBWOH:  Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  I parked IBWO-1 at the trailhead near the General Jackson Interpretive Trail and began my hike at 7 a.m., not long after sunrise.  (Andrew Jackson apparently led his army through this area on his march to New Orleans in 1814.)  A clear dawn rapidly gave way to haze.  Temperatures were mild, though it was very muggy in the forest.  Over the next four hours, I hiked the Black Creek Wilderness Trail as it wound its way first upstream along Beaverdam Creek, then (crossing the creek via the Highway 29 bridge) downstream to where Beaverdam Creek joins Black Creek; then, a little farther on, to a small oxbow lake just south of Black Creek, in the bottoms between the creek and the piney ridges.  I began the hike back at 11:15, and arrived back at the trailhead at 1:20.  Much of the trail (now largely cleared, thanks to work crews) there winds through pine uplands, but there are many opportunities to explore the bottoms in and around both Beaverdam Creek and Black Creek, and I availed myself of several.

The forest was very still.  Biting insects were largely absent, and I did not have to use any repellent.  Bird life seemed a bit muted, even the blue jays.  I heard several pileated woodpeckers and flickers, and saw and heard red-bellied woodpeckers.  There were many thrushes in the woods, both wood thrush and hermit thrush -- likely migrants.  Small flycatchers were common, as were Carolina wrens and tufted titmice.  I saw one catbird.  The tanagers are gone.  Turkeys were vocal, and I flushed one from thick brush among the pines.

My focus was a search for sign:  scaling, of a type that could be consistent with that of ivorybills.  I did not find any.  There was, moreover, a dearth of scaling in general, save for on the many hurricane-killed pines, with one glaring exception.  I also found very few woodpecker cavities, which I found odd, considering the abundance of standing dead timber.

Typical scene at trailside. 

Living loblolly pine showing extensive scaling and excavation. 

The bark on the affected side is loose and easily sloughed off.  The bark on the opposite side is tight. 

I suspect Pileated and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

Beaverdam Creek, from a high bluff on the west bank. 

A shallow stretch of Beaverdam Creek.   


 Magnolia overlooking Black Creek.

I liked its shape and way of growth. 

Loblolly pines and white oaks crowd the bluffs and ridges overlooking Black Creek. 

Small oxbow. 

Typical pine snag along the trail. 

I discovered a hidden trail that leads to the confluence of Beaverdam Creek (foreground) and Black Creek.

On the return hike, I decided to attempt some cross-country orienteering, using my compass:

Luckily, it worked.

Conclusions:  A very enjoyable hike, tinged however with frustration and disappointment at not finding any sign of IBWO's.  While it is not "all about the IBWO," and the area is more than worthy of future hikes, I do not plan to return any time soon, at least not to that area of Black Creek Wilderness (I may return to the eastern edge later, if time permits).  If Campephilus principalis does indeed inhabit the Wilderness, it is likely only a pair, or maybe a lone individual.  And while, as contributor Fangsheath at the Ivory-bill Researchers Forum has (importantly) noted, "...the absence of such evidence should not be taken as absence of the ivory-bill" (referring to feeding sign), hunting for ivorybills in country where one can find no evidence, however promising the habitat, almost feels worse than fruitless.  

My companions and I have explored some of the most promising tracts on the periphery of the Pascagoula basin, and at points further in.  We have found no scaling or cavities that suggest the presence of ivorybills anywhere, save within the more immediate swamp forests of the Pascagoula and lower Leaf rivers; and only within the Pascagoula River Swamp lie bottomland forests that seem (to my mind) extensive enough to support one or more pairs of Ivorybills.

My fiancee Susanne has said more than once that I should focus my efforts on the Pascagoula.  Having ruled out the peripheral locales, I can no longer argue.  All roads in my search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in south Mississippi now lead to the Pascagoula River Swamp.