"...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."

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Titan Swamp and Woodpecker Island: To the Farthest Reaches, 10 December 2015

IBWOH:  Chris Carlisle.

Summary:  Try as I might to fully take in the Wild when I am in it, I cannot help but feel Time pressing on me.  It limits my wanderings in search of the Ivorybill to those places I can get to and explore within the span of a few hours.  I suppose it is a good thing, in its way, requiring me to focus on a single region -- in my case, south Mississippi -- instead of, say, falling into the trap of briefly visiting promising habitat, then moving on to another state, rather than giving the habitat in question the benefit of a close survey, or multiple surveys, as warranted, through the seasons.

At roughly 100 miles from my home, the Wade-Vancleave Road is my mental and geographical limit.  To the north of it is the greater mass of the Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area, including Big Swamp; south of the road, the bottomlands increasingly give way to true swamp, as the Pascagoula River, swollen by then with the waters of Black Creek and Red Creek, regularly breathes fresh water out into the streams and sloughs.  Only a few miles further south, in the Ward Bayou Wildlife Management Area, the looming swamp forests dwindle to wider waters and small cypress domes, until the swamp fails altogether and is gradually replaced by marshland.  The community of Wade, at the east end of the road, lies about thirty miles to the west (as the crow flies) of Mobile, Alabama.

I have only been on the Wade-Vancleave Road twice that I recall.  The first time was last year, and I was struck by the large number of houseboats lining the River; I noted also the substantial second-growth bottomland forest along the Road.  My brother Brian and I passed along that road again last month, and I was again impressed by the woods there.  With drier weather of late here in south Mississippi, I decided to take my chances with that far country, even though Google Earth shows water covering the WMA road through the middle of the forest.  As insurance, I loaded up my kayak, the Kuhn, into my truck the night before, and was on the road by 5 a.m. the next morning.  I did not have high hopes for a successful day of exploring.

Sunrise was at 6:45 on December 10, with temperatures in the low 50's (Fahrenheit) and only a few passing clouds, forecast to increase through the day.  As the stars faded with the coming dawn, I turned off Highway 57 onto Old River Road, heading for the Wade-Vancleave Road; then I decided, on a whim, to check in on the flooded road that Brian and I had kayaked last month, and to see if I might if Cypress Creek, that odd overflow stream of the Pascagoula River, still overran the surrounding bottomlands.

To my delight, the road to Cypress Creek was almost completely high and dry.  I was able to drive all the way to the boat launch, where two older gentlemen were struggling to get their boat motor cranked.  We chatted a few minutes about fishing, and squirrel hunting, and about how I was not quite from those parts; but I was eager to get started.  I got the Kuhn into the gentle current as the sun rose, intending to paddle upstream and visit the mouths of first Red Creek, less than half a mile away; then, that of his brother, Black Creek, another 1 1/2 miles further up; and then, time permitting, to follow Cypress Creek roughly two miles farther, to where it breaks off from the Pascagoula River.

 Several rather large cypresses in the forest near the launch.


Downstream view.  Cypress Creek rejoins the Pascagoula River after some 4 1/2 miles. 

 The view upstream.


 Can you see the Pileated Woodpecker?  I passed almost directly under the bird before it flew off.

I paddled for a few minutes before the roar of the boat motor downstream broke the early morning silence of the forest.  Soon enough, the two hunters/fishermen passed me, headed upstream towards Red Creek.  I sat bobbing in their wake a while, listening to the waves slap the muddy banks. 



 The mouth of Red Creek is in almost the exact middle of this photo, just to the left of the cypress.

Woodpecker activity, and bird activity in general, was high.  Squirrels bounded along the banks, and I could hear them rustling among the leaf-litter out of eyesight in the forest beyond, along with other creatures which remained hidden.


As I paddled, my thoughts dwelled a bit upon the layout of the area.  I came to realize that land to the east was actually an irregularly-shaped island, created by Cypress Creek, though it is not named as an island on any of the few maps of the area I've seen.

I passed the mouth of Red Creek.  A fine expanse of old mixed bottomland and swamp forest beckoned beyond and to either side of it -- hints of Red Swamp, of which I have only tread the periphery; but I paddled on, eager to see what Black Creek had to show me.  Shotgun blasts from deep within Red Swamp sealed the deal.

Cypress Creek bends this way and that in its course.  Past one bend above Red Creek, a beautiful swamp of very big cypresses and tupelos came into view on the left bank of Cypress Creek.  Floating nearer, I saw that the swamp floor was mostly a fairly open expanse of drying mud.  I quickly beached the Kuhn at the mouth of the swamp and set out to explore it on foot.  It turned out to be one of the loveliest, most magnificent natural areas I've yet experienced.

Cypress Creek, as seen near the edge of the swamp.

 A large, hollow cypress (center) guards the gateway.

 Woodpecker activity was highest here.  I counted no less than six species passing from this swamp to the island across the creek:  Downy, Red-headed, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers, along with Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Northern Flickers.


 To walk among so many great trees is a truly humbling experience.


 Perhaps a tree's shape and way of growth reflects, to an extent, its inner spirit.  If so, I imagine a sylvan dancer's soul dwells within this tupelo.

 I discovered a number of titans beyond the guardian at the swamp-gate.

 My only companion:  a lone great egret, who suffered my brief sojourn in his hunting-grounds.


 Strange fungus on a tree in the nearby bottomland.




As I walked, my thoughts formed a name for that place:  Titan Swamp. 

 I do not know how it is with others, but I find the trunks of the great cypresses mesmerizing; the fissures and folds seem the rough pages of a great book, whose language we have lost the ability to understand.

 There are a number of immense baldcypresses there, all hollow.  These two I named Atlas (left) and Prometheus (right).

 A shallow cave formed by where Atlas squats in the mud.

 A fiery finger of sunlight shines through hollow Prometheus.


Hyperion strains towards the sky. 


Titan Swamp is less than ten acres in area, I believe, so I was able to explore much of it rather quickly.  I exited the swamp past its guardian cypress, who I named Kronos; and as I stood near the Kuhn, still savoring the experience, I realized an argument had begun overhead.  A Red-headed Woodpecker had intruded into the personal space of a family of flickers:

Standoff in the crown of Kronos.

The argument ended with the Red-head yielding, flying westward.  I sat down for a snack and some water, and launched the kayak again, making upstream for the mouth of Black Creek.

I continued to note the high concentration of woodpeckers as I went, particularly in the bottomlands on the island to the east.  Though it is not named as such on the few references I have -- and is not actually named at all -- I decided to call it Woodpecker Island, as much for the many species I spotted there as for the hope of the One we have yet to find.

It took a bit longer to reach Black Creek; and when I finally saw its mouth, I saw also that my attempt to reach the Pascagoula by that route would have to wait for another day, for a fallen tree blocked further passage.


 The mouth of Black Creek (center).  Black Creek figures importantly in the history of more recent Ivorybill sightings:  there occurred an audio encounter by Ronald Sauey, late co-founder of the International Crane Foundation, and Charles Luthin, executive director of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin.  Sauey described a call that "sounded every bit like the historic Ivory-bill recording of Allen and Kellogg."



The wind had begun to pick up, the clouds increasing.  I turned away from the mouth of Black Creek, which I had desired to see for myself for so long, and let the current take the Kuhn.

 Floating back south along Cypress Creek.


Nearing Red Creek again, I edged near the mouth, drawn once more to the large trees I saw to the east; however, a light rain suddenly and unexpectedly began to fall.  I shoved off, paddling quickly with the current.



Luckily, the rain ended after a few minutes.  Soon the Kuhn's hull ground against the gravel of the boat ramp.  The hunters/fishermen were nowhere to be seen.  I had only been gone about three and a half hours.

Feeling rather satisfied with myself, I decided to drive on southward, and explore by truck the area of the WMA north of the Wade-Vancleave Bridge, where I had originally intended to go that day.  Crossing the Pascagoula over Cumbest Bridge, I found the road into the WMA with little difficulty.  Luckily, it was not flooded, as the Google Earth images had led me to fear.  I found myself in some very nice bottomland forest, very similar to that in the north of the WMA, around Hutson Lake.

 View of the bottomland from the road.

I drove roughly 2 1/2 miles past several lakes and sloughs:  Brewton Lake, Sandy Slough, Tucker Lake, Boggy Slough, Fletcher Lake, and Cane Lake, until I saw the River through the trees.  I continued on to the road's end, at unfortunately-named, small, and very still Lice Lake.

 Perhaps in naming this lake, someone had wished to discourage visitors.  If so, I imagine "Mange Lake" or "Lake Typhus" might have been more effective.

 As it was, I experienced only vague unease at Lice Lake, and no itching.

 I did not touch the water, though.

 A foot path continues beyond Lice Lake.  I hope to trek it in the coming year; less than a mile away lies massive John Goff Slough, an isolated slab of bottomland and swamp forest.

On the drive back, I turned off the main road to look at a couple of the lakes and sloughs I'd passed on the way in.

 A number of cypresses here sported a vivid pink covering of lichen.  My camera photo honestly does not do it justice.

Sandy Slough.



One road followed really beautiful Sandy Slough towards Brewton Lake.  Driving along, leaning out the window, trying to scan the canopy and not slide off the road into the swamp, I suddenly slammed on the brakes (only afterwards checking the rear-view mirror for other traffic):  a huge cavity, some twenty feet up in a tupelo near the road had caught my eye.  I parked the truck right there in the middle of the road and hauled out my camera and binoculars.

This cavity was unlike all the many others I'd seen that day, in that it was oblong, and not more circular.  I believe it is a natural cavity that has been hollowed out.





 This is easily one of the biggest cavities in a live tree that I have ever seen.  Scrutiny of the surrounding trees yielded no traces of woodpecker work, aside from a low snag near the opposite shore; I could draw nothing conclusive.


It was by then well after noon (Central Standard Time).  I gave Brewton Lake a quick glance, and headed back to paved road to begin the long drive home.

Conclusions:  It is difficult for me to explain the feeling of exhilaration when exploring promising new habitat, and everywhere I went that day qualified as such.  I saw no scaling on live trees in either the Cypress Creek area or the forest farther south, and heard no kents or double-knocks; I should add that while floating Cypress Creek, I was afforded long periods of quiet in which to listen to the sounds of the forest, free from the usual noise of my passage.  But I cannot overstate the quality of this habitat -- the thought that "If there aren't Ivorybills here, there should be" ran regularly through my mind.  

The next few weeks will find me busy with work, and the holidays, and dreaming of dark waters, great trees, and what could (and ought to) be.






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