"...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."

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Unfathomed: Big Swamp and Big Lake, 22 November 2015

IBWOH's:  Brian Carlisle, Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  I'll be honest:  sometimes I study the Google Earth views of the Pascagoula Basin with much the same level of scrutiny I studied Christmas toy catalogs as a kid.  I see woods and lakes and creeks I have not yet explored, I look for points of access, I wonder about the movement of waters.  Often, the reality is different than Google Earth would indicate; and sometimes I find myself standing bewildered in deep woods weeks or months later, wondering why and how my understanding of the Swamp came up short.

In our search for Ivorybills in south Mississippi, we have only walked a fraction of Big Swamp, the area between the Pascagoula River and its tributaries, Red Creek and Black Creek.  Google Earth names a third waterway, Cypress Creek, whose name I have not come across elsewhere.  It is a peculiar stream in that it seems to be a kind of overflow channel of the Pascagoula -- beginning at a southeastward bend of the River, Cypress Creek flows more or less directly south, taking in the flows of both Black Creek and Red Creek from the west before rejoining the Pascagoula roughly eight miles downstream.  On Google Earth, the heavily forested land to the east of Cypress Creek (between it and the Pascagoula River itself) appears a formidable maze of ponds, small lakes, sloughs, and shrinking paths, all far from a paved road, and likely forbidding enough to deter the more easily daunted.  In my latest attempt to understand this place from my desktop computer, I discovered what appeared to be a narrow public road leading through private land to a telltale patch of white on Cypress Creek -- a boat launch in the midst of the Wildlife Management Area (WMA).  The launch, I theorized, could be used as a base on Cypress Creek, allowing exploration by kayak of the labyrinthine swamp nearby.  The only difficulty looked to be in the road itself, which appears flooded on Google Earth; strangely enough, it appeared we would have to kayak a flooded road to access the boat launch, in order to kayak Cypress Creek.

I messaged Brian, who was at work at the time.  He soon shared my interest in the site, and our excitement at the possibilities built, until we finally found ourselves with our kayaks at dawn at the end of the flooded road leading to the launch, in an area much farther south in the Pascagoula Basin than we have yet explored.

It was the coldest morning of the season so far, with temperatures in the low 30's (Fahrenheit).  Strong winds raked Big Swamp under a clear blue sky.  There were other trucks parked back up the road, and we heard the baying of hounds out in the Swamp; but of other human activity there seemed to be none.

Cypress-tupelo swamp along the road.  I believe this is the southernmost end of Red Swamp, so called because of its proximity to Red Creek, a tributary of the Pascagoula.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 The flooded road leading into the WMA.  A beaver crossed it farther up, while we readied the kayaks.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle. 

We decided to leave the truck there, believing no one else would attempt to drive through the tea-colored water.

The flood was only just high enough to allow the kayaks passage, and in places our hulls scraped gravel.  We had a mile to kayak from the truck to the launch on Cypress Creek.

I wore a hunter-orange cap, expecting to find a great increase in deer hunting activity.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Not quite halfway to the launch, the road rose above the cold waters; two trucks were parked nearby.  We decided that apparently we could in fact drive to the launch, so we kayaked back to the truck, loaded up the kayaks again, and Brian drove his truck into the flood.  It wasn't long before I heard the muffler burbling under water, so we decided that in fact we could not drive to the launch, and Brian put the truck in reverse.  This time, we parked off the road to allow easy access for any more resolute travellers.

Kayaking again, we made it back to the parked trucks, portaged the kayaks about a hundred yards, and once again put in, still headed towards Cypress Creek.

Flooded bottomland forest.

What began as youngish cypress-tupelo swamp forest changed to respectable second-growth bottomland forest as we kayaked northeastward, though there were no trees that I saw comparable to those of the Hutson Lake sector, in the north of the WMA.  Presently, the road rose above the flood again, obliging us to portage the remaining hundred yards or so to the Cypress Creek launch.

Several trucks were parked there, along with a couple of buses that had apparently been converted to campers.  A number of hunting dogs greeted us, but there were no humans about.  We set down the kayaks and walked to the creek bank.  My heart sank.

 Cypress Creek, as seen from the boat launch.

What is probably a perfectly tame, slow-moving creek in summertime was now a churning wall of water, foaming about the bent trees along its submerged banks.  The thick woods to the east, which I'd hoped we could kayak at a leisurely pace, looked to me like a flooded Amazon rainforest.  I knew that the current was too strong for us.

Big Swamp won.  Again.

We portaged and kayaked back to the truck.  From there we drove east, across the Pascagoula River along the Wade-Vancleave Road, and then north along River Road.  Our next stop:  Elephant Man Swamp, miles to the north, where we hoped to re-install the game camera upon an especially large tupelo with some intriguing cavities.  Luckily, Brian had on his previous solo trek in the area found a shorter route, so that it should have only been a matter of a hike of less than a mile or two to get the camera set back up.

One may find Peace and Love along River Road.

We parked near the trailhead and hiked the short distance through mature pine forest to Elephant Man Swamp.  As we expected, the bottomland was flooded, so we decided that we would kayak to the tupelo and set up the game cam.  Brian took out the camera, going through the plastic bag I had carefully put it in, along with the instructions, fresh batteries, and the bungee cords which hold the camera in place.

"Where's the memory card?" he asked.

I stared.  "Uh.  Still in the computer at home, probably," I said, stream-of-consciousness-like.  We sat there a minute, chewing on bacon jerky.

"Need a checklist."


The morning had gotten on somewhat, but we still had some hours to kill.  There are several lakes in that area, and we settled on kayaking Big Lake, which I'd wanted to do for some time.  The area around Big Lake -- which lies north-east across the highway from the Hutson Lake sector -- is difficult to explore on foot, so the lake has remained mostly mysterious to me.  A bit dejected, we drove on northward.

Big Lake is not really an oxbow, like many of its siblings along the Pascagoula; it's more like a kind of lazy " ~ ".  We drove along the WMA road through old, impressive bottomland to the launch on Big Lake, passing an orange-clad old woman glaring at us from beside a travel trailer.  We put in, kayaking into the wind (I would have windburned cheeks and forehead later).  

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Nearing the far end of the lake, we continued onward along the stream that fed into it.  Later, Brian would realize that he had hiked this area in a drier month.  Navigation was difficult in places, but we continued to kayak on nearly two miles.

Deer and birds did not seem too threatened by our presence in the stream.  Brian got this shot of a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Eventually, the stream opened up onto Davis Eddy, a kind of overflow lake along the Pascagoula.  I was amazed at how far through the forest we were able to kayak.  It was now after noon, so we turned around and headed back downstream to Big Lake.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Great egret (lower right).  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Conclusions:  The bottomlands of Big Swamp beyond Cypress Creek may have to wait for the dry season, when we will merely have to deal with insects, cottonmouths, and possibly alligators.  So far, although the south of the WMA holds great promise (due in part to its mystery, no doubt), it is in the northern sector that we have found the most impressive, and extensive, habitat.  I hope we can install the game camera somewhere in that area soon.

I feel a bit defeated by Big Swamp.  For all my schemes and efforts, it remains largely enigmatic.  I mulled this while paddling beautiful Big Lake, and I recalled my most recent correspondence from my friend, the artist and poet Dean Hurliman.  Perhaps anticipating a frustrating day like this, Dean wisely passed along the following quote from Henry David Thoreau:

At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed, and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.  We can never have enough of nature... We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander... There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.

I suppose I will have to let Big Swamp remain mysterious to me... at least, for now.  It is but a piece of a larger field in this worthy game.

A game which should include a freakin' checklist.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The IBWO Has Landed

Yesterday, I came home after work to find a work of art in a very large box on my carport.

The carving is by poet and artist Dean Hurliman of Iowa, with whom I have had the great pleasure of corresponding this autumn.  Dean shares the hope and optimism of many regarding the Ivorybill, and it is reflected in the determined, even defiant look of this carving.

As I grow older I have come to prize most that art which is given to me freely by family members and friends, both of which I am blessed to have in abundance.  Dean, your gift is an honor, as is your friendship, neither of which I could have forseen when I began this endeavor.  It's all a bit humbling, to be honest.

Here's to hope, and faith, and the Quest.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Loose Ends: 3 November 2015

IBWOH:  Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  I made a solo trip back to the Hutson Lake sector of the northern Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area (WMA), walking through the bottomlands along Hollow Man Road.  I also retrieved the game camera my brother Brian had set up in the swamp near the old Elephant Man cypress; lastly, I explored the forest along the far edge of the WMA, on the opposite side of the slough from the titan cypress we call Lord God Tree.

I started out about a half hour after sunrise.  The woods were mostly still and muggy, with temperatures topping out in the low 70's (Fahrenheit) under an overcast sky.  Mosquitoes were out in force.  Woodpecker activity was high; I observed multiple individual flickers, red-headed woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and especially pileateds, whose laughter and absurd clucking kept the forest lively all morning.

Not far from Hollow Man, I passed a young man still hunting by one of the elongated fields maintained by the WMA personnel, putting me on edge; I wore no orange.  After retrieving the game camera, I headed northeast, passing through a narrow, heavily wooded strip between Lord God Tree's slough and private property.  I had high hopes for this place, since it encompasses three forest types in a relatively small area:  cypress-tupelo swamp forest, bottomland hardwoods, and mixed pine-hardwood upland forest.  The latter included mature pines, beech, magnolia, and dogwood.  The bottomland hardwood and swamp forest was much younger, however, and dense undergrowth and rising waters made the going difficult in places.  Eventually, after a couple of hundred yards, I came out upon a high hill thick with briars and young pines, the legacy of recent logging, and knew I was on private property and had come too far.  My return hike was much quicker, and I passed the young hunter on the trail, now accompanied by an older gentleman I assumed was his grandfather.  We exchanged pleasantries as we headed in opposite directions; but I am not used to encountering strangers in those woods, and continued on my way feeling a bit unsettled.

The first field one encounters going south on Hollow Man Road.  Behind the line of trees lies the northern part of a slough complex that empties into an eddy south of Hollow Man's lake, which in turn feeds into the Pascagoula River.  I always pause at this field and scan the tree line, hoping to see a flash of black and white wings. 

 Mast:  in this case, acorns of the swamp chestnut oak.

 Typical view along Hollow Man Road.

 View from within the bottomland hardwood forest near Elephant Man Slough.

 Very heavy bark stripping on a baldcypress in Elephant Man Slough.  I have seen and documented several instances of this particular kind of bark stripping, and have yet to find a definitive explanation.  I am almost 100% certain this is not woodpecker work, as I can find no marks upon the sapwood that would indicate bill strikes.  If squirrels are responsible, I would like to know what end:  do they use the strips of bark for nesting material?

 Cypress-tupelo swamp forest near Lord God Tree, thick with young cypresses.

 Lord God Tree himself, as seen from the east.  He seems a shy colossus, difficult to photograph.

I came upon several places in the area of the three forest types that had been ravaged by hogs. 

This cannot be good for the forest.

The slough just below the first field, as photographed on my return hike.

Conclusions:  I heard no kents or double-knocks, and saw no large birds I could not identify.  I will have to wear orange in the woods for the next several months.  The game camera results are inconclusive, so we will set it up again in Elephant Man Slough upon the cavities in question, and leave it for a longer time.  I expect to make only one more search effort during the month of November.

The days are turning colder here in the Deep South, and the waters are rising.  Each season brings new challenges, new opportunities to learn, and new revelations.

I'm thankful to be here.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Pierce Lake, 29 October 2015

IBWOH:  Brian Carlisle.

Summary:  My brother Brian makes a solo pilgrimage to the Pascagoula River Swamp to set up a game camera on an interesting tree cavity, and explores and photographs beautiful Pierce Lake, which he and I had glimpsed at the end of our hike of 22 October.  Regular readers of this blog will by now be familiar with the quality photographic images Brian regularly produces:  all the following photos are by him; the few captions are by me, from information he provides on his Facebook photo group, The Humble Hiker.

 Woodpecker apartments in a tupelo.  Dry slough near Pierce Lake.

Pierce Lake is a fairly large oxbow in the central Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area (WMA).

 The sloughs and bottoms around Pierce are typical cypress-tupelo swamp forest.


 Brian reports that woodpecker activity in the area was high, especially Pileateds.

Red-headed Woodpecker.

Black racer, a common snake species in the WMA.

Box turtle, another common reptile species here.

Orchard orb-weaver.

After hiking around Pierce Lake much of the day, Brian drove up to the landing where he and I had launched our kayaks the previous month.  The Pascagoula River has risen considerably, thanks in large part to rains brought by the remnants of Hurricane Patricia.

The bend near the Otter Pond area can be seen downstream in the distance.

Conclusions:  Brian feels strongly that the Pierce Lake area warrants further study.  Given the maturity of the cypress-tupelo forest and the preponderance of woodpecker species there, that is probably not a bad idea.

Drawing down the Moon over Dacy Lake in the predawn hour.