"...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."

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Across Big Swamp: Thieves' Landing to Lingum Lake, 25 May 2016

I enjoy a little variety in some things.  The rivers, creeks, and streams of south Mississippi are for the most part back within their banks, so I decided to take a break from my focus on the Stronghold, and use a day afield to further explore Big Swamp, in the central Pascagoula River Basin, which I had not set foot in so far this year.

Those who have followed this blog may recall my prior attempts at exploring this remote sector, which is bounded on the west by Black Creek (source of a credible IBWO encounter in 1979), which meets Cypress Creek (an overflow channel of the Pascagoula River) to the south; to the north by private land; and to the east by the Pascagoula River.  Thieves' Landing, which I named because of the message of a prominently-placed sign there, affords access to Big Swamp across Black Creek.  I have used Thieves' Landing before as a starting point to explore much of western and central Big Swamp, terrain made difficult by numerous deep sloughs, and by seasonal flooding of Black Creek and the Pascagoula River, which over time obliterates old, seldom-used trails, making navigation in the Swamp difficult and sometimes dangerous.

Location of Thieves' Landing, screen-captured with my iPhone.

A wider view of the area.

Maybe they're just "thieves," not real thieves.  Be aware of them, though.

Dawn comes early this time of year.  I arrived at Thieves' Landing about 6:30, some 30 minutes after sunrise, and quickly kayaked across Black Creek.  There were no other vehicles at the landing.  I feared the onslaught of insects, but their presence was minimal, and I passed the entire hike without any application of repellent.  The creek water was very cool, and the temperature at dawn was around 64 degrees (Fahrenheit), with scattered small clouds and occasional breezes.  It would warm considerably as the day passed, but the morning was quite comfortable.

I dragged the kayak ashore into some low trees, found the trail, and bore east.  Birds were very active; woodpeckers somewhat less so, though I heard several Pileateds and Red-bellied's over the course of the hike, and saw at least three (possibly four) Barred Owls.  I kept a steady pace, pausing frequently to scan the treetops for sign of woodpecker scaling.  The forest in this part of Big Swamp is fully mature bottomland, with very few pines aside from spruce pine; sweet gum, water oak, and red oak are dominant species, with the usual baldcypress and tupelo in and along the numerous sloughs.  For the length of the hike from Black Creek to German Slough -- the latter normally a wide, deep barrier intersecting the trail eastward -- I detected little to no sign that any other humans had been in the area recently.

A fellow traveller.

I encountered a herd of about a dozen wild hogs near one of the bigger sloughs to the north of the trail, the first hogs I have seen in Big Swamp.  There were several young ones, rooting out and feeding upon new green shoots in thick mud.  If they were aware of me, they did not show it.  They are difficult to see in the video below, small shapes on the opposite shore:

In the second video below, I got a little close to a straggler.  The animal took no notice of me, even when I intentionally rustled the leaves underfoot:

I continued east at a good clip.  Not far from the hogs, I found evidence of their passing on the trail:

After a half hour or so, I heard voices:  fishermen in boats upon German Slough.  I do not know how they got there, unless it was from Black Creek.  Local knowledge of the land is invaluable, as Tanner knew well; but I am jealous of my time in the woods, and slipped quietly on by along the faint path, leaving them to their business, and me to mine.

I arrived at the bottleneck of German Slough soon enough.  As is usual in all but the driest months, it was too wide and deep to cross.  I followed it downstream about a hundred yards, until I found an area where the slough was wide and shallow, and successfully crossed there.  I did not escape without wet feet, but it helped that the water was cool.

Presently the trail joined with the great north-south trail that runs the length of Big Swamp. Immediately I noticed numerous ATV tracks, which looked less than a week old.  The last time I had stood at that spot was with my brother Brian the prior year, and we had turned to our left and bore northward.  This time, I took the southern way, and found myself on a wide trail through beautiful, mature bottomland.   The air smelled good; sitting here at my desk, it is difficult to describe, much less accurately recall; but it was enough to give me pause more than once, and to give thanks to the Powers that suffered my presence there.  Besides the almost heartbreaking beauty of that place, which few enough of my species will ever see or conceive of, fewer still will know the taste of the air that filled my lungs, which suggested the older world, before engines and iPhones.

Sometimes I just stand there in those old woods, and feel outside of Time.

But the Sun does not wait for me, so I continue walking.  I have come nowadays to rely more and more upon my iPhone's GPS, which helps pinpoint my location in the field.  I passed a couple of tempting trails before bearing eastward, towards Lingum Lake, which lies not far from the Pascagoula River itself.

Here as before I was in deep, mature bottomland forest.  I had so far seen little scaling of note, and even fewer intriguing cavities, due no doubt in part to the leaf-out.  I passed a Pileated Woodpecker some yards off, working near the ground on a rotten snag in a section of forest not long dry from the spring floods.

 I believe this is a Nuttall's Oak, in my experience an uncommon species in the Pascagoula River Basin.

 A massive, superdominant red oak.

 This cavity in a sweet gum looks barely big enough for a Pileated Woodpecker to squeeze into.

 Nearly every slough seemed to have at least one White Ibis.  I really like them.  Sometimes they will allow one to approach closely.  I tried to get a better picture of this pair...

 ...and failed.

This sign seemed to be placed arbitrarily near one of the many almost identical, otherwise nameless sloughs in Big Swamp.

I did not check my GPS, trusting that the trail would take me straight to Lingum Lake.  But I was deceived, and after a long hike eastward from the north-south Big Swamp trail, I arrived instead at the northern tip of Ferrell Dead River, some distance to the south of Lingum Lake.

Two boats lay upside-down in the shade on a high bank above the shoreline.  I sat down upon one and snacked, watching another fisherman far out upon the lake, and wondering how he got there.

My phone rang.

"Hello?" I said.

"Chris?"  It was my stepson.  "Are you coming home for lunch?"

"No," I said.  "I'm in the swamp."

"Oh.  I thought you were at work."

I finished my snack and checked my GPS.  At that point I was already getting lost, though I didn't know it.  I decided to keep on the trail, thinking for some reason that it would lead to Lingum.  I did not understand the lay of the land; and checking my compass only confused me further.  But I still trusted the trail, which led me farther south, past Ferrell Dead River, and on into the bottomland.

I was confident for a while, because the trail was still relatively easy to follow; and there were old tracks of ATV's to help keep me on the trail.  But the entire area had flooded in the past months, and finally the trail played out, erased by waters.

I really don't know why I thought I should go on, but I had my compass and my GPS, although my phone battery was below 30% and dropping quickly.  I held my course to a wide-banked creek in fairly open woods for some time.

 Shagbark hickory.  I haven't seen many of these in Big Swamp.

This year's crop of squirrels in Big Swamp is large and noisy.  One (not the one in this photo) fell to the ground with a thud near me and sat there, stunned and possibly embarrassed.  

Of course the creek played out just like the trail had, and I found myself in the unenviable position of being alone in unfamiliar woods with a nearly dead phone battery and miles between me and my vehicle.

Big Swamp Rule #1:  DO NOT LEAVE THE TRAIL.



Etc., etc. ran through my brain as I turned around and headed back north through the trackless bottomland, knowing/hoping that I would/should strike the trail that had led me eastward in the first place. Thankfully, this happened for me after about a half hour.

Back on the trail, I determined that I still wanted to see Lingum Lake.  I could not recall whether or not the trail branched off and continued on past Ferrell Dead River, so I retraced my steps until I was back at the boats where my stepson had called me.  There was no other trail.  My only option to get to Lingum Lake was to strike out across country, without the aid of a trail, with a compass and a phone battery at less than 10%.

I retraced my steps back up the trail, using the GPS to reach a position on the trail nearest Lingum Lake as possible before I set off.  I carry fluorescent pink surveyor's tape in my field bag, and tied a length of it here and there conspicuously as I went, using my compass to keep me on a northeasterly path.  My phone battery hovered around 3%.

Thankfully, I came upon the wide, sandy, now mostly dry channel connecting Lingum Lake to the Pascagoula River without too much difficulty.  I easily crossed, and followed it through groves of young sycamore trees, canebrakes, and low, lush briars.

An unwelcome sight deep in the wilderness:  mounds of garbage deposited in the channel by the Pascagoula River during times of high water.  As much as I would like to imagine the Pascagoula River Swamp an untainted fastness, I am invariably reminded that such fancies are rather removed from reality.

The channel widened out into an ugly expanse of muck and briars before Lingum Lake finally presented itself.  False advertising, I thought:  it is not so much a lake as it is a big pond, at least to my eyes.  An old aluminum boat lay moored near the shore, its hull bent and warped by inexorable flows, the only evidence of recent human activity. 

I say 'recent,' because of the very large live oaks, growing at what seems to be evenly-spaced intervals along the lakeshore:

Their proximity to one another suggested to me that they had been planted there.

The best view I could get of the lake.  The terrain on the shore opposite looked impossible to attempt.

 I was not the only one who had come to Lingum Lake that day.

My wife called me, and was a bit taken aback that it was after 1:00 in the afternoon and I was still so many miles from the truck.  I assured her that I was fine, and was about to head back.  I checked the mileage counter on my phone:

That finished my phone battery; and it was only after I had returned to the trail, following my markers, that I realized that I had left my bottle of water on the ruined boat hull back at Lingum Lake, contributing to the garbage I rail against.  I would have to make the bulk of the return hike back to Thieves' Landing without water.

Another fellow traveller in those parts, coming down to Lingum Lake's channel, perhaps for a drink.  The only other reptile I saw all day was a ribbon snake.

It had gotten hot.  On the long road back to Black Creek, I tried counting my steps to pass the time:  I stopped at 1,250.  Wading through German Slough again, my boots again filled, but I did not stop to empty them;  the cool water felt good.

I finally made it back to my truck and air conditioning after 3 p.m.  I estimate my total mileage that day was over eight miles, possibly my longest solo hike yet in the Pascagoula River Swamp.

I had no encounters remotely suggestive of IBWO.  I saw some woodpecker scaling, but nothing that seemed out of the capability of Pileated or smaller species.  I saw few cavities of any size, and none that were intriguing by their shape.  But Big Swamp is massive, beyond my ability to effectively cover it.  It would be better for a team of searchers to canvass the area over several months, I think.  I would like to return, however, and continue to explore its southern reaches, though due to the heat and the distances involved, it may be some time before I do so.