"...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, April 24, 2016

Stronghold: 23 April 2016

I'd been laid up for two weeks, recovering from hernia repair surgery, slowly going insane and driving my wife along, too.  My doctor released me to return to work after two more full days off, which I decided to take advantage of by returning to the Pascagoula Basin for another try at walking the incredible habitat there.  Third time's the charm, and all that crap.

I noticed on the drive down in the clear, cool predawn hour that the local creeks and streams looked more reasonable than they had the last two times I'd passed them; and the Leaf River, tributary to the Pascagoula, was within her banks as well, though still surging mightily.

I passed the bridge over the Pascagoula and turned off Mississippi Highway 26 into the 37,000-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA) just after dawn -- a little later than I preferred, though I like to believe that the big woodpeckers rise later than their smaller cousins [Tanner noted that "The Ivory-bill was almost the last bird of those woods to arise in the morning." (The Ivory-billed Woodpecker, p. 57)].

It felt good, crunching along the familiar WMA road in my long-suffering pickup.  I'd brought the kayak, just in case all that stood between me and a good hike/stalk was a few feet of water.  Luckily, the sloughs had receded significantly, and my Nissan churned through them towards Hutson Lake, and the trailhead to Hollow Man Road.

Only one other vehicle was around, a shiny black Chevy, parked near the flooded natural gas station.  After checking on the water levels at old Hutson Lake, I parked by the trailhead and set out.  I'd planned on a slow, quiet walk all the way to the venerable baldcypress Hollow Man, locating a lightning-struck red oak along the way, which my brother Brian had discovered last fall.  It was his suggestion to stake it out, knowing the Ivorybill's penchant for dying and recently-dead trees; upon the return walk, I would stop and stake out that tree for an hour, and see what might be seen there.

Hutson Lake is in the upper left of this screenshot, just below Highway 26.

The Spring leaf-out is amazing.  Visibility is greatly reduced.

I managed the "quiet" part of the walk easily enough.  All or most of this bottomland has been flooded recently, as the Pascagoula breathed life into it, and washed away autumn's twiggy leaf-litter.  The new green grass is yet soft and short.  100% DEET kept the nebulous clouds of bloodsuckers at arm's length.  I moved slowly, taking the familiar territory in again.  My thoughts turned as they often do to the Ivorybill, and I imagined this corner of the Pascagoula Basin was once a stronghold for the species, possibly up to the last selective logging of the 1950's; possibly, hopefully, now.  This sector holds few equals in the WMA in terms of quality habitat, which is one reason I return to it again and again.  I made up my mind as I walked to call the area, from Hutson Lake to Hollow Man, The Stronghold.

Not too far in, I was yanked out of my romanticizing.  My walk had possibly been too quiet.  In bear country, like the areas of Glacier National Park that I have hiked, one is encouraged to wear bells on one's gear and to be noisy in general, to give bears advance warning.  Here, in the swamp wilderness of the Pascagoula, bears are not the primary concern, though the rumor of them is strong.

A large black boar trotted out of the undergrowth to my left and stood, blinking and swishing his tail, about twenty-five yards ahead of me.  Very slowly, I retrieved my camera.  Most of my shots did not turn out too well.

After a couple of minutes, the rest of the herd filed out behind him, and he led them westward, towards the River.  I counted nine individuals, most of them young hogs around knee-high.

I believe I've encountered this fellow two or three times before, all in the same area:  a crossroads between a network of sloughs to the west, and a long field and another network of sloughs to the east.  I decided to name him Morgoth, the first Dark Lord in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion.

Yeah, I'm a nerd, if you hadn't already figured.

This time of year, the bottomland is alive with bird life --  year-round residents, summer residents, and migrants bound for northern lands, all busy singing and catching insects.  I made my way slowly on down the trail, stopping now and then to listen, and to watch the birds flitting about the trees.  I heard at least one pair of Pileated Woodpeckers (PIWO's) calling to one another, in the forest to the west of the trail.  Red-headed woodpeckers (RHWO's), normally noisy and conspicuous in the Stronghold, were largely silent and scarce; there were plenty of red-bellied woodpeckers (RBWO's) to take their place, though.  Once, I got a good look at a male Scarlet Tanager, a species which (sadly, for me) merely graces this area in passage to its summer range to the north.  I was also able to get a good look at a male Kentucky Warbler, and watched him for several minutes as he sang.

Then, to the west, I heard a distant kent.  Now, these woods are simply stiff with blue jays, whose huge repertoire of notes and calls I am probably only partially familiar with.  The kent call only sounded once, but it was different enough to get my attention.  I listened for 2-3 more minutes, but did not hear it again.

I was not able to locate the lightning-struck oak, and after a while I approached the southern terminus of the trail.  I checked in on the baldcypress Hollow Man:

This oak seems to be doing just fine out in the water of Hollow Man Lake.  I'm not sure what species it is, but the leaf shape suggests to me a close cousin of the Southern red oak.

Location of Hollow Man.

I made my way back north up the trail, and decided to walk down a smaller trail that juts westward through a network of sloughs and swamp north of the lake.  There I encountered a very nice young man, a turkey hunter, and the owner of the black Chevy I'd seen parked earlier.  He had not seen any turkeys, or much of anything else.

Presently a nice swamp came into view on my left, an area my brother and I had explored on foot last autumn.  Now it was full of slow-moving water.  I made my way in, and due to the proximity of the swamp to some nice bottomland forest nearby, decided to stake out the swamp for an hour.

Not far in, I found what I believe to be a green ash tree, a species not terribly common in this area, unfortunately.  High in the fork of the tree, I spied a large, oval-shaped cavity:

The bark around the cavity looks worn and smooth, possibly from heavy bird or animal use.

I made temporary camp at the base of the ash, in a relatively dry pocket between it and a small beech tree.  There I was afforded a fairly clear view of the swamp, and settled in for an hour with my water, Milky Way bars, and bacon jerky.  A gray squirrel came out of the cavity and hustled away.  After only a few minutes, my immediate surroundings came alive again, with great-crested flycatchers dueling, prothonotary warblers darting by, and a red-eyed vireo singing and hunting insects in the canopy above me for the duration.

During this time, I heard a series of knocks.  Let me state here that until now, I have not, to my knowledge, yet heard what I could honestly consider Campephilus-style single knocks (SK's) or double-knocks (DK's).  However, for perhaps around ten minutes of my stakeout of that swamp -- around 9:30 a.m. -- I heard both SK's and DK's, from two different sources:  one from the north, probably within a hundred yards, and one to the south-east, rather more distant.  The SK's and DK's were punctuated by longer sequences of knocks; for example (this is NOT exact, only my best approximation):

4 knocks + pause + DK + pause + 3 knocks + pause

There was no drumming.  The more distant knocking to the southeast sounded, perhaps due to the acoustics of the terrain, like pistol shots, deep pop-pop's.  I can not detect the knocks on the recording I made with my iPhone, only the incessant chatter of the vireo.  I neither heard nor saw anything else of interest for the remainder of my stakeout, save the beauty of the swamp itself.  

It began to get a bit warm -- the forecast high was 82 degrees (Fahrenheit).  My hour stakeout was up, so I made my way back to the main trail; but I had not got very far when I heard a loud knocking to my left, in the direction of the nearer set of knocking I'd heard earlier.  I determined the knocks I was then hearing came from a dead snag, the top of which protruded from a tangle of vines and small trees.  Detecting movement on the far side of the snag, I moved closer to get a better view of what might be doing knocking, which did not include any SK's or DK's.  I believed at the time that it was a woodpecker foraging.

For a very brief moment, the top of a head appeared in a gentle U on the opposite crown of the snag.  My impressions are of a deep, velvety black colored-head, a hint of red at the back, and an eye that was either white or yellow.  The eye stood out sharply in contrast to the feathers, in the manner of a hooded merganser drake.  I saw no white feathers, and I could not see the bill.  The bird dropped off the snag and quietly disappeared, in what I believed to be a generally northwestward direction (towards the River).  I heard no heavy wingbeats [Tanner notes that the Ivorybill's flight is "noisy" (p. 58 of the monograph)].

In discussing the experience through online messaging with a friend, whose knowledge and wisdom on such matters I respect immensely, I came to the realization that my own memory of the event has become fuzzy, mixed in with images I have since scrutinized of Ivorybill illustrations.  Now I question what I saw, as I am left primarily with impressions, not specific visualizations.  The points I noted at the time -- the hint of red, no visible crest, the deep, velvety black, the eye, the bill obscured by the snag -- are what I remember, not necessarily the substance therein.  I now consider the whole event with a good dose of skepticism; if I had brought along a sketchpad, and quickly set to paper what I had seen, it would have gone a long way towards reassuring me later that I was not (or was) a victim of trick lighting, or even wishful thinking.  That will not happen again. 

I also recall that I was pretty calm, not a reaction I've imagined I would have after an Ivorybill sighting.  Nevertheless,  I determined to follow the bird, hoping that it might have only flown a short distance.  I proceeded northward along the trail a bit, hoping to find an opening in the brush that would allow me to follow the path of the bird, or to at least get a clearer view of the forest into which it flew.

Very quickly, I found a mature, live sweet gum with what at first appeared to be heavy scaling.  This tree is visible from the trail, but for whatever reason, I have never noticed it on the many, many times I have passed by over the last couple of years.  It could be that the scaling is recent.  I hunkered down and threaded my way through a canebrake, some 20-30 yards, until I reached the tree.  

The dramatic extent of the scaling blew me away, initially.

Note the dingy look, suggesting that the recent flooding might have been on the order of several feet.

The tree is very much alive. 

I could find no excavation into the heartwood upon the bole. 

Note the slight corkscrew pattern. 

Scaling on one of the larger upper limbs.  The limb is dead.  I can't detect excavation upon it, though it is difficult to say for certain due to the height.  I initially thought this might be older woodpecker work, but there appears to be possible residual "frass" (left by insect larvae) upon the heartwood, which should be absent in older work due to weathering.

 The exposed heartwood is not soft or 'punky.'  I was only able to drive the point of my machete into it about 1/4 - 1/2  inch.

 The bark at eye level was tight.  Nearer ground level, it was much looser, and some could be peeled away by hand.  Note the insect larvae tunnels.

The ground around the base of the tree showed evidence of heavy rooting by hogs.  There was evidence also that this area had flooded recently, likely during the past month. 

 Some of the pieces of bark I found nearby.  Some pieces were several yards from the tree, and appeared to have been washed away by water.

As with the lower bole of the tree, some of the bark pieces seemed to be discolored by water, such as the large piece on the far left.  Others, like the piece nearest my boot in this photo, showed no discoloration, indicating they fell more recently.

I have many questions about this tree.  The slight corkscrew nature of the bark removal, plus the fact that it extends all the way to the ground, suggests to me that a lightning strike may have been involved, although there was no splintering to the wood, and no blackening, which I usually associate with such an event.  There was no excavation into the heartwood.  At this point I am not comfortable calling this Campephilus-style scaling, nor simply writing it off as the effects of a lightning strike, or some combination of the two.  I hope to return to this tree for more scrutiny.

I made a short survey of the immediate surroundings, but found no other scaling.  

My return hike was relatively uneventful, aside from a pileated woodpecker that swooped low overhead, and what I believe was a barn owl caterwauling from the direction of the River.  I was back at my truck around 12:30 p.m.

Young ribbon snake near the northern terminus.

I have many questions about this day in the field, which was probably my most eventful one to date regarding evidence of Ivorybills.  For that reason, and because of the rather sensitive nature of the subject matter, I've decided to limit (for the time being) views of this blog entry to only a few individuals I trust, and whose opinion I value; I will likely also edit this entry further, as my interpretation of the events warrant. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Brian Carlisle, Photographer of the Pascagoula

Much of the principal photography on this blog -- and the best photography, specifically -- is the work of my brother Brian, who nine times out of ten is my companion in the field.  He helps navigate the labyrinthine swamps, sloughs, and bottomlands of the Pascagoula River Basin, and is quick to spot interesting woodpecker cavities and suspected scaling.  More than once, he has helped get us out of difficult situations in this remote wilderness by his encouragement, common sense, and general steadfastness.

The past few months have been anxious times for those of us close to the Pascagoula River.  Brian and I have come to view the River as rather sacred.  This may sound overly romantic to some, but there is nothing romantic about a wild, free river -- it is a rare thing to behold these days, and as aggravating as it can be at times (the current flooding of the surrounding bottomland by the River comes to mind), it is also humbling, a reminder to humans of their fragile, transient nature in this world.  This mighty, magnificent river -- the largest undammed river by volume in the lower 48 Unites States, as I have mentioned in other posts -- is, in addition to the ongoing threat of pollution, threatened by proposed dams on one of its lower tributary streams.  Both Brian and I -- and Brian in particular -- have been closely following developments, and while it seems that the River may have been granted a reprieve recently, the threat has not gone away.

American Rivers, "an organization dedicated to protecting and restoring rivers in the United States,"* recently listed the Pascagoula River as "Most Endangered."  My brother Brian's photo was used to help publicize this important development here.  The designation by American Rivers will hopefully go a long way towards helping to keep the Pascagoula River in its current state -- with enough elbow room to periodically shift its bed, and to occasionally breathe life into the surrounding swamps and bottomland forests, as it has done for time out of mind.

When we began searching for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in south Mississippi -- a search now going on two years old -- we did not realize the hold that the Pascagoula River would come to have upon our hearts and minds.  This hold is evident in the care and love Brian puts into his photos, which are continually reaching a wider audience.  I cannot help but think that is a good thing for the River.

Keep up the good work, brother.

*Karen Nelson, Pascagoula, Mississippi Sun-Herald. (LINK)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Gallagher Goes to Cuba

It was announced this week that Tim Gallagher, author of The Grail Bird and Imperial Dreams, may be laying the groundwork for a new book on another member of the Northern Triad of Campephilus species.  He and Martjan Lammertink have begun a search in Cuba for the subspecies Campephilus principalis bairdii, the Cuban Ivorybill.  This blog follows their search.

UPDATE:  Looks like Gallagher and Lammertink's search effort in Cuba had ended:  www.audubon.org/magazine/may-june-2016/can-ivory-billed-woodpecker-be-found-cuba .

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Project Coyote on the Radio

Mark Michaels of Project Coyote was recently interviewed on Heritage Radio Network about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  The informative and enjoyable recording can be listened to here.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Seasonal Issues.2: 4 April 2016

On Monday, 4 April, I attempted yet again to access the Hutson Lake area of the northern Pascagoula WMA.  While the massive flooding I had encountered on my previous visit had subsided considerably, the small creeks and sloughs were still swollen to overflow.  I arrived in the cool, clear hour before dawn, and was able to drive down the previously-submerged WMA road for about a mile, until I reached a dip where a small paved area of road bisects what is normally a dark, still slough.  Instead, there was this:

I dared not chance flooding my truck attempting to cross.  Despite the mosquitoes, which were out in full force, it would have been a beautiful day to explore.  With heavy heart I turned around, and began the hour and a half-long drive back home.

A fence along a nearby natural gas pumping station hinted at the extent of the season's earlier flooding:

Unfortunately, this was to be my last opportunity to search for the Ivorybill for a while, since this past Friday I had surgery to repair a double inguinal hernia.  I will be out of work for a couple of weeks while I recover; and it shall be at least that long before I can return to the wild swamp fastnesses of the Pascagoula River Basin, and resume my search for evidence of Ivorybills there.