"...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, September 19, 2015

Across the Pascagoula: Otter Pond and Beyond, 17 September 2015

IBWOH's:  Brian Carlisle, Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  With autumn fast approaching, and milder weather prevailing here in south Mississippi, I have been anxious to return to the remarkable Pascagoula Basin to resume the search for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  The opportunity came today, and my steadfast brother Brian and I made plans for a return hike to the Hutson Lake area, in the northern half of the Pascagoula River Wildlife Management Area.

Late in the evening before the trip, Brian messaged me and asked if I had considered an area in the extreme north of the WMA, sandwiched between some private property and the west bank of the river.  I had never seriously considered it, due to the probable lack of public access, but after glancing at the area on Google Earth, I thought it might hold some promising habitat -- specifically, bottomland hardwood forest, cypress-tupelo swamp forest, and upland pine forest; such a combination of diverse woodland habitat in a small area would certainly be worth checking out, I thought, since I tend to agree with Mark at Project Coyote regarding the potential of mature pine forest in the search for the Ivorybill.  (Please see Mark's intriguing essay on the subject at their site here, also linked at right.)  Besides, it would be exciting to explore a totally new area within the Pascagoula River region.  I quickly searched for access roads, and hammered out a route and a roundabout hike around nearby Davis Dead Lake, a large oxbow, that would lead us to the area, centered on a vague, smallish, boggy-looking body of water named Otter Pond.  I texted my plans to Brian, who quickly pointed out that we could access Otter Pond much easier by simply driving to a nearby boat ramp on the east bank of the Pascagoula River, and paddling downstream a few hundred yards to the sharp bend, behind which Otter Pond lies.

That gave me pause.  The Pascagoula is broad and, I imagined, rather deep in its channel.  I do not yet consider myself an experienced kayaker, and the thought of capsizing far from shore in a fast-moving, large Southern river made me lose my appetite.  My misgivings eventually had to make way for the explorer's impulse, which seems to run strong in my family and is no doubt to blame for a fair number of misfortunes therein.  I texted Brian my approval, secured my kayak, the Kuhn, and went to bed, trying not to think about any number of things that might swim up the Pascagoula from the Gulf of Mexico, to lie in wait in the river near Otter Pond.  (My parents took me to see Jaws when I was six years old.)

A grey, cloudy dawn found us at the boat launch, approximately 1.8 miles north of Mississippi Highway 26.  Temperatures were in the 70's (Fahrenheit), with a nice breeze -- a true blessing in Mississippi, with a week left in summer.  A pair of ospreys greeted us, and I was lucky enough to see one slam into the slow-moving water after its prey.  We slid the kayaks down the very steep boat launch and into the river; due to the angle of approach, the stern of each kayak dipped deep into the river before bobbing up again, so that both our asses were immediately soaked.  A bad omen, I thought; but the ospreys were hunting still, following us downriver in seeming encouragement, and we quickly crossed the swift channel near the launch to the calmer waters of the opposite shore.  In fact, I have never seen the Pascagoula River so low; it was, in fact, at a lower ebb than the normally much smaller Black Creek during flood stage, which we experienced with fellow hunter Richard Ezell earlier this year.  The hull of the Kuhn scraped the sandy riverbed, and several times I found myself scooting the kayak over sandbars in the tea-colored water.



...and beyond.

We beached our kayaks near what we believed would be Otter Pond, and hiked past a black willow grove, up a gentle bank, through tall brush, and into the woods.

This is what we saw first:

Beautiful, mature second- and third-growth mixed bottomland hardwood and cypress/tupelo swamp forest, with a path running roughly northeast-southwest.  We decided to follow the path northeastward, and walked through some very nice hardwood forest habitat, with many different types of trees -- swamp chestnut oak, water oak, sycamore, holly, red maple, green ash, magnolia, what I believe to be pignut hickory, and shagbark hickory.  We also came upon a type of tree that we could not at first identify, having shaggy bark similar to that of shagbark hickory, but with much smaller, willowy leaves.

 Natural cavity in a sycamore.

 We could not at first identify this tree species in the foreground.  Brian later correctly identified it as water hickory.  Interesting that, after all our time in the woods in this region, we still discover tree species new to us.

Another view, showing a large natural cavity.

Birds were abundant in the older woods.  We heard red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers.  Ubiquitous warblers, likely in their fall migration to the tropics, busied themselves in the forest canopy; late in the hike, I would get my first decent glimpse of a black-and-white warbler in many years.  A broad-winged hawk allowed Brian several nice photos before moving on.  Deer were more common in this area than any other in the Pascagoula Basin that I have been in.  We saw no wild hogs.  I needed no insect repellent.  The forest grew younger (and quieter, tellingly) the farther we went, so after about a mile we turned around and made our way back.

The open, grassy cypress/tupelo swamp forest lay invitingly off to our right, and Brian suggested we explore it.  We quickly decided that we were walking in what was probably Otter Pond, now Otter Glade.

Canopy view.  Imagine scanning this constantly for a shadowy, quiet bird the size of a crow or small hawk, all the while avoiding holes, snakes, spiderwebs, poison ivy, and briars. 

 Medium-sized woodpecker cavity in a dead cypress.

 Woodpecker work (likely red-bellied or pileated) on a recently-dead tupelo.

The going got rougher as we made our way to the south and west; it appeared that a tornado had passed over, as there were many downed trees of large size, and others leaned crazily this way and that:

The storm-tossed swamp forest.

We exited Otter Pond-Glade, and followed the trail southwestward, passing through some hardwood forest bordering on mature pine, and the occasional cypress/tupelo slough.  The trail petered out, so we held to our course, keeping the Pascagoula within sight to our left.  Not far from a bluff overlooking the river, Brian spied this nice-sized woodpecker cavity in a living cypress:

 A mantis measures the cavity dimensions.

We poked around the brush at the base of the cypress.  "Chris!" Brian said excitedly, and picked up a black and white feather:

 Dryocopus pileatus feather.

It was only the second pileated woodpecker feather I have seen just lying about, so it was cause for some (albeit muted) celebration.  

Here, as in other parts of these woods, woodpecker feeding sign was not difficult to find.  This was one of the more interesting examples, on a tree that was still alive or very recently dead (the wood was still quite hard):

Markings on this tree are somewhat similar to those on a tree found by John Agnew in the Choctawhatchee River basin in 2008, referred to as "A tree where Ivory Bills have been foraging" in the account of his encounter at this site; but see also notes by Holzman and Sykes regarding pileated and Ivorybill feeding sign here.   (NOTE:  Links corrected 9/20/2015.)  I was drawn to the odd horizontal "chop" marks, which are to my eye rather unlike the horizontal drilling seen upon a dead tulip poplar in this photo, and to the tree in the Agnew photo as well.  (Thanks to Mark Michaels of Project Coyote for his thoughts on the subject, and for direction to both the Holzman/Sykes paper and the photo from the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Forum.)

Finding another wide trail, we kept on through big woods, hanging to the left past a fork.  At last, we found ourselves at one end of Davis Dead Lake, an oxbow sired by the changeable Pascagoula.
 Spanish moss lays heavy claim to this large water hickory.

 Davis Dead Lake.

Brian got some nice photos of a doe feeding near the water's edge.  Not far past the lake, the forest grew much younger as it neared the end of WMA land, so we retraced our steps to the last fork in the trail.  A short hike led us to a lovely small pond, this time with real water in it.  A sign named a nearby recently-plowed, small field as Beaver Pond Field.  

A fruit-laden quince (correctly identified by Brian), growing at the edge of Beaver Pond Field. 

My camera could not quite capture a good photo of a woodpecker cavity in a living cypress on the opposite side of Beaver Pond.

Another woodpecker cavity, this one in a dying tupelo surrounded by water.

Brian nearly stepped on a fawn, which burst from the soft ground near the water's edge and tore through the brush in front of me to vanish in the woods.  A lone white ibis circled overhead, while a great blue and a little blue heron watched us from the pond's far corners.  We paused for a while, taking pictures and eating snacks, before heading back to the kayaks.

The butterflies had since awakened, many of them fluttering about the flowers along the banks of the river.

We even spied a lone monarch, who would not suffer his picture being taken.

A yellow-bellied water snake had found shady refuge beneath my kayak during our hike.  He went on his way, albeit unwillingly, and we turned our boats into the current for the return paddle to the launch.

Last view of the mixed forest along the bend of the river.

We kept to the shallows as long as we could, out of the current.  Low water obliged us to half drag, half float our kayaks for most of the way; we collected some nice driftwood for our aquariums as we went.  After hauling our craft up the steep launch, I took a long, last look at the river.  I did not want to leave.

Conclusions:  Some more work is likely necessary here.  Although it is a small area -- compared to the vastness of Big Swamp and other habitats in the Pascagoula River complex -- its diversity of mature forest types, remoteness, and relative inaccessibility to humans give it high marks in my book as habitat favorable to Ivorybills.  It was one of our most exciting, rewarding days in the field.

Bonus:  Some of Brian's beautiful photos from that day.

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