"...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, August 24, 2016

The Inner Circle: Return to John Goff Slough, 21 August 2016

I've been late getting back out into the field, due to a hectic schedule, truck maintenance, and rather disagreeable weather (the usual heat and humidity this time of year, coupled with an unusually wet August).  Hunting season begins in a couple of months, though, meaning there will be others carrying guns (and bringing their dogs) in the swamps and bottomlands with me.

Despite a slight easing of temperatures this week, there continues to be no really good day to search for the Ivorybill this month.  Nevertheless, this past Sunday I headed out again, alone, bound once more for remote John Goff Slough in the south end of the Pascagoula River Swamp.  I brought my kayak, fearing the rains had made parts of my route impassable; but I found the WMA road, under water for months earlier this year, still lay dry and open.

The clear, still dawn came at 6:21.  A few minutes later, I was headed north on the trail through the old bottomland forest.  The birds were quiet for much of the early morning; strangely, they only began really vocalizing later in the morning, after 10 a.m.  Woodpeckers were conspicuously absent throughout my hike, with only 1 pileated and a couple of red-bellied woodpeckers showing themselves the entire day.  Biting insects were a bit worrisome, unlike my prior visit.  Luckily, much of my walk was in deep shade, but temperatures were likely never over 90 degrees (Fahrenheit).  Not exactly comfortable, but pretty good for a Mississippi swamp in August, and made more bearable by occasional breezes.

I retraced the return hike my brother and I took on our prior visit to the Slough, and continued along the trail north.  It brushed the northern tip of the giant old oxbow and bent east, following the course of the inner shoreline.  I generally avoided the trail itself, which was thick with knee-high grasses and weeds; instead I held to the shade of the nearby swamp forest, where the going was generally easier along the narrow band of dry ground between the swamp and the forest edge.  Eventually the trail played out, and I was forced to make my way through some difficult terrain, shin-deep flooded mixed swamp/bottomland forest, until I began seeing some familiar trees and, ultimately, the trail that would take me back to my truck.  Bottomland tree species I observed included sweet gum, spruce pine, green ash (several individuals), water oak, willow oak, Nuttall's oak, shagbark hickory, and beech; the swamp forest was comprised, as ever, by baldcypress and tupelo.

 Swamp forest about a half mile from the trailhead.

Typical views from the first couple of miles from the trailhead.

 I was drawn to this dark creek by the sound of large animal activity on the near bank.

I decided to try to get a little closer.

He was only a small hog, though I could see his tusks.  I was able to get quite close to him.  (I would later cross paths with a sow and piglets, without incident.) 

 Much of the forest floor in the area is kept clear by frequent flooding from the River.

 I was a bit surprised to find occasional loblolly pines in this area.

 I was constantly drawn off the trail by the tranquil, almost eerie beauty of the swamp forest that has overtaken the old oxbow.

 The golden silk orb weavers are lords of their kind here, but they are not unfriendly.  Well, maybe a little.

 The worst are the smaller species, whose webs I am often unaware of until they are stretched across my face or arms.


 I felt the relict baldcypress watched me warily, though the water prevented my close approach.

 I was as always excited to discover another Survivor.  I am in awe of them, and their presence here brings me joy:  for their kind survived a different holocaust -- the destructive logging operations of the 20th Century.  It is ironic that they were spared due to what were seen as imperfections.  Now these towering monoliths are living links to preindustrial -- and, in some cases, pre-Columbian -- North America.  I am heartened that they still stand here, despite the petty machinations of Man.

My furthest point that day.

 Shagbark hickory near the south end of John Goff Slough.

Moth has a bad day.

I ended the 6.3-mile hike near noon.  While had no Ivorybill encounters and found no evidence suggestive of Ivorybill-type bark scaling, I would very much like to kayak John Goff Slough.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Here Be Giants: John Goff Slough, 28 July 2016

The brutal heat dome over much of the eastern and central United States this month did not spare south Mississippi.  Occasional storms, brewed by Gulf moisture, provide brief respites; but it has so far been a cruel summer, leaving me reluctant to venture into the humid swamps and bottomlands.  However, my brother Brian and I decided to brave the temperatures for a foray into the far south of the Pascagoula River Swamp, between the River and the Wade-Vancleave Road, to explore an area I had not been able to access since last year:  Lice Lake, and beyond it, massive John Goff Slough, an ancient oxbow long since claimed by cypress-tupelo swamp forest, lurking in a difficult-to-access corner of the Pascagoula River Basin like a dark, distant planet of our solar system.  I have felt its pull.

We left well before sunrise, but because of the long drive involved from my brother's house, we did not get started until after the dawn.  Lice Lake is at the northern terminus of a long Wildlife Management Area (WMA) road, and we took our time driving it, since it was Brian's first visit to the area.  We arrived without incident, noting numerous juvenile hawks along the way (I believe they were broad-winged hawks) and a couple of feral hogs.  The bottomland forest on this south end of the Pascagoula WMA is what I consider middle-aged, with occasional superdominant water oaks; sweet gum is extremely common here, with many good-sized specimens.  I did not notice any scaling of interest on any of the trees during the drive to Lice Lake.

In the above image, John Goff Slough is the big, reverse-"C" just to the north-east of the blue GPS locator dot.

Our goal, as stated above, was to survey remote John Goff Slough.  I was not sure how to get to it; the most obvious route was to strike out northeastwards from Lice Lake, cross-country; but we followed a trail from the lake instead, hoping that it would lead us to the slough.  Unfortunately, the trail took us east-southeast, following the course of a tea-colored stream named Black Creek on the GPS.  We crossed the creek and followed it back upstream through the woods, then struck out across the bottomland.  Luckily, we discovered other trails, and after a fairly long hike of 1-2 miles, found ourselves at the southern tip of the ancient oxbow.

John Goff Slough lies to the east and mirrors a sharp bend of the Pascagoula River.  Frequent flooding from the River and the Slough has left the bottomland fairly open and easy to navigate, with few thickets and briars.  We made our way along the inner curve of the reverse-"C" formed by the lake until nearly noon, when we finally gave in to the heat and decided to make our way back to Brian's truck.

Following are some images of the area, with sparse commentary.

The WMA road, under water for much (or most) of this past Spring.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

View of the Pascagoula River, not far from the trailhead.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Not sure what the hell I was doing there.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Trailhead near Lice Lake.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

We have not been able to identify this wildflower.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle. 

Chanterelles.  Thanks to Joseph Hosey of Laurel, MS for help in their identification.

It was hot by mid-morning.  I stop to cool my hands and arms in the creek.

 On the trail to John Goff Slough.

 Bottomland forest between the arms of John Goff Slough.

 Old water line on a water oak in the bottomland near the slough.

 Woodpecker scaling on a dead tree.  We noticed no other scaling in the vicinity.

Mast, in the form of shagbark hickory nuts and acorns from a Nutall's oak.

A huge Nutall's oak, in my experience an uncommon species in the Pascagoula Basin.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 John Goff Slough.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Titan, one of two relict baldcypresses we encountered.  Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

 Photo:  Brian Carlisle.

Photo:  Brian Carlisle.


 A second relict baldcypress, which we named Europa.

Bird life was largely muted, including the woodpeckers:  pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers called in the distance, but were no-shows and fell silent by midmorning.  Aside from a flock of wild turkeys and a circling pair of Mississippi kites, we observed few other birds.  With no paved roads or houses nearby, and boat traffic on the River nonexistent, the forest was largely quiet, with only the occasional drone of an aircraft engine humming in the distance.

I hope to return to this southern sector of the Pascagoula River Swamp soon.  While the bottomland forest we explored was not quite as mature as in other areas (notably the Hutson Lake area in the north of the WMA, and central Big Swamp), I feel John Goff Slough and its environs is quality habitat, and holds great promise due to its extent and remoteness.  We would like to be able to kayak the Slough, but as far as I know that would require portaging our boats some two miles.  Further exploration of the area may reveal an opportunity therein.  I hope so; the thought of finding more relict baldcypresses excites me almost as much as the thought of finding Ivorybill sign... possibly because both are, to my mind, glimpses of a lost world.