"...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, April 14, 2015

Into the Gloom: Big Swamp, 13 April 2015

IBWOH's:  Chris and Brian Carlisle.

Summary:  Brian and I took our kayaks down to the Black Creek landing near the northern end of Red Swamp, where I had crossed into Big Swamp on March 31.  The previous day's rain gave way to fair skies near dawn, with temperatures forecast to rise into the 80's (Fahrenheit), with more rain coming.  It was very humid.  After a short drive north from the landing, where the swamp forest gives way to a mixture of pine and magnolia on the WMA border, we drove back south towards the landing.  Brian quickly spotted a big cypress from the road as we neared Black Creek again, a monolith I had somehow missed despite having been in the vicinity twice before.  A large cavity could be seen almost halfway up its trunk.  We attempted to reach the tree, wading through dark still water and a barrage of mosquitoes:

Defeated, we returned to the launch, and after a few minutes slipped across Black Creek, and found the trailhead into Big Swamp.  The trail split soon enough, but instead of taking the north fork, we followed the other one.  It ran roughly east-southeast, but split again after a hundred yards.  We elected to take the east fork, leaving the southern trail (into Black Swamp, I imagine) for another day.

We quickly found ourselves in mature second-growth mixed bottomland.  As with much of the WMA in the Pascagoula River basin, sweet gum, water oak, swamp chestnut oak, spruce pine, cypress, and water tupelo dominate.  There is also a healthy understory of American holly.  Red maple frequents the more sunlit edges near the trail.  The going was fairly easy, though as with the trail to German Slough, there are many slick clay banks, and stream crossings are common.  A heavy layer of DEET insect repellent helped keep the mosquitoes at bay, though their annoying hum was constantly in our ears.

(Photo:  Brian Carlisle) 

(Photo:  Brian Carlisle) 

The birds were out in force, mostly the more common species such as cardinals, blue jays, crows, white-eyed vireos, and the like.  The booming calls of barred owls can be heard in the video above.  I heard one pileated woodpecker near the boat launch, and I believe Brian spotted one and heard others later; but woodpecker activity on the whole seemed rather muted to me, though there was plenty of evidence to suggest their presence.

Some interesting bark scaling, possibly pileated or hairy woodpecker work, on a recently dead snag attached to a still living maple:

We hiked at least two miles into Big Swamp, often leaving the trail to investigate trees or the area's many sloughs and small lakes.

 (Photo:  Brian Carlisle)

Fellow traveler in Big Swamp.

Brian investigates a second titan cypress we discovered that day.  Those giants of the swamp never fail to intrigue, drawing us in, usually to remain yet untouched in their muddy homes.

Examples of scaling were not uncommon.  Here, woodpeckers (likely pileated) have explored the recently-dead center section of a living tree:

Note the small wood chips at the tree base. 

I look even skinnier than usual in the distortion of Brian's GoPro camera image.  (Photo:  Brian Carlisle.)

As the morning wore on, the sky became heavily overcast, and we began to hear thunder rumble in the distance.  Around two miles in -- not far, I surmised, from where the trail intersects another trail that runs north-south the greater length of Big Swamp -- we reached a deep, wide moving body of water.  I believe it is the same German Slough which barred my way on the other path two weeks before; but the slough before us was swollen much wider.

We heard a bird call we could not immediately identify, coming from the far bank.  Brian and I attempted to catch a glimpse of the bird, calling from some tall trees:

We were not able to positively identify the bird (likely a blue jay, or some kind of hawk), and so withdrew, moving forward along the trail again.  A light rain began to fall, and presently we heard a noise of rushing water.  We saw soon enough that German Slough barred our way further.

(Photo:  Brian Carlisle)

Discouraged, but fearing also a coming deluge, we made our way back down the trail to Black Creek.

Conclusions:  Big Swamp is as vast as I imagined, and the swamp forest is as rich and healthy as I had hoped.  Signs of human activity were minimal, and of recent activity there seemed to be none.  We heard no kents or double-knocks, and saw no feeding sign that (to my mind) could be considered diagnostic of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.   However, the area is so extensive that it could take many months for such a small team as ours to adequately explore it, from Sandy Wash Bend in its north to Black Swamp in the south.  The romantic in me imagines such a remote, forbidding swamp fastness providing refuge for creatures ill-suited to the noise and machinations of modern man.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The "Big White Traffic Cone": Latest Update from Project Coyote

I've been out of town for several days, but wanted to call attention as soon as I could to the latest -- and very encouraging -- trip report (in two parts) by Mark to the Project Coyote site.  Well worth the read!

Weather permitting, tomorrow my brother Brian and I will kayak back into the Big Swamp area of the Pascagoula River basin for a further survey of the habitat.  It's been raining here a day or two, and no doubt the bugs will be nearly intolerable.  I will, in all honesty, be more at ease with a fellow experienced hiker along.  The remoteness and difficulty of the terrain can be daunting.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bug City: German Slough, Big Swamp, 31 March 2015

IBWOH:  Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  A few nights ago, I was sitting in a warm bath, reading Philip K. Dick's classic sci-fi novel Ubik.  I can usually read only a few pages of it before I feel my brain beginning to liquefy, and that night was no exception; but it was at that time that I remembered something important:  a short, direct route -- really a portal -- into Big Swamp.

Maybe it was Ubik that helped, or just relaxing in a warm bath.  At any rate, I recalled last year's foray by myself and fellow hunter Richard Ezell into the northernmost finger of Red Swamp, and the boat ramp we parked near.  That boat ramp is on Black Creek, and directly across from it lies the wild tangle of Big Swamp.  Almost giddy with the new (or refound) knowledge, I pulled up Google Earth later that night, refreshed my memory of the route to the landing, and planned a hike of one mile directly east into Big Swamp, to eventually strike a long north-south road/trail.  I hoped to follow the faint outline of a trail I spied on Google Earth, which seemed to wind more or less eastward before vanishing in the trees; otherwise, I would simply use my compass, and strike out overland for the north-south road.  Regardless, I planned to keep the trip short, since I would be going alone; both Richard and my brother Brian are currently working their jobs offshore.  All that, of course, after a quick crossing of Black Creek in my kayak, the Kuhn.

I got to the landing without any trouble.  The weather was very fair, with only a little fog and an occasional high cloud, despite earlier forecasts calling for rain.  I thought I passed through some faint drizzle south of Benndale, but realized the sound I heard against my windshield was only tiny insects.  (This was significant.)  Temperatures were expected in the low 80's (Fahrenheit).  I arrived at the landing around 7:30 a.m.  There was no one else there, but a boat was moored to a small tree nearby.

Thankfully, Black Creek had retreated to within its banks since my last visit.

Driving down the WMA road, I thrilled again to the sight of the big trees on either side, and to the dark, still swamp to the left, where the year before I had seen my first white ibis.  Eager to get going, I opened the door, and let a small cloud of mosquitoes into the truck. 

They were all over me, like the Arizona babies on H.I. in Raising Arizona.  I imagine I uttered a suitable expletive, and quickly dug out the 100% DEET pump spray I had not used since last September or October.  I sprayed myself down real good, and let off a few volleys into the cloud of humming bloodsuckers, which retreated, though not far.

IBWO-1 and the Kuhn, facing south towards Red Swamp.

Black Creek flows past a channel into the adjoining swamp.

East bank of Black Creek.  A trailhead can be seen in the center.

I hurriedly loaded my gear onto the Kuhn and shoved off.  Upon the water, the humming bug cloud abated.  Less than a minute later, I was across, hauling the kayak up a slick clay bank.

 View from the east bank.

Downstream view.

Immediately I was set upon by the mosquitoes again.  I dragged the Kuhn to a secluded spot behind a river birch, applied another coating of DEET, then set off, the cloud of mosquitoes following.

Barred owls called to one another from the depths of Red Swamp to the south.  The trail ran east-northeast through some rather unimpressive second- and third growth woods, dense blackberry brambles pushing in on either side.  One rather leggy bramble snagged my ear, drawing blood.  Birds called from all around, but whenever I paused to search with binoculars, the whine of mosquitoes grew loud, causing me to soon move on in frustration.  The trail followed the line of Black Creek a short distance, but eventually bore me eastwards, away from the river and (I hoped) towards the north-south road.

After a couple of hundred yards, the brambles drew down, and the forest began to mature into some respectable second-growth bottomland, with the usual supsects of the deep Pascagoula River basin dominating:  water oak, red oak, swamp chestnut oak, sweet gum, water tupelo, baldcypress, spruce pine, and river birch.

The trail was faint in many places, and I got the impression that few (if any) people had been there recently.  There was no litter, no spent shotgun shells.  Here and there little creeks and sloughs intersected the trail, and I waded through them easily.  Slowly but surely, the trail bent northward, away from the direction I had initially planned, but I decided to stay the course, preferring it to trekking solo through the unmarked swamp.  About a quarter of a mile in, I found a red oak with some interesting marks upon its trunk:

It is perhaps old scaling, long since healed.  There were other, similar areas upon the tree farther up the bole, leading me to think that it was not (as I first suspected) healed damage from another tree striking it as it fell.  This was the only possible scaling upon a living tree that I encountered that day.

I did not hear many woodpeckers, though their presence could be found pretty easily, as with this totem tree:

Eventually, I heard and saw several red-headed woodpeckers, but other species were noticeably absent that morning.

Coming upon a steep bank, I saw that the trail had in the past been maintained for ATV use:

I climbed down the steel ramps and waded across.  Farther up, nearly a mile in, I was finally stopped short by a deep, swift stream, which has a name:

The stream was impassable, if I wanted to keep my feet dry (I did).  Tired of the constant hum of mosquitoes, which had several times successfully penetrated the DEET barrier, I turned around and headed back to Black Creek.

Conclusions:  I heard no kents or double-knocks, and found no scaling other than that upon the red oak, which is likely several years old and impossible to qualify.  However, I am encouraged by what I have seen of the trees in Big Swamp.  I hope to return many times this year, and explore it as thoroughly as we have the lands farther to the north.  It is certainly a bigger area, and the terrain is even more challenging.  Red Swamp Landing is now proven as our portal to this place, which has as yet not yielded its secrets willingly.