Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Swamp Pilgrims return home

Home from the swamps of Arkansas last night. We didn't see any ivory-billed woodpeckers, of course, that was not to be expected. But we did see some wonderful swamps and a lot of really big trees.

First observation: there are Ivorybills all over Brinkley, AR. On signs, on the menu in the local BBQ joint, on the business cards of the local hunting/fishing guides. One of the motels at I-40 has changed its name to the "Ivorybill Inn" and features the bird on its sign far larger than life. I can truly appreciate a small town in an economically depressed area and its hope that SOMETHING might drawn in some much-needed cash.

Second observation: Cornell has been proclaiming these woods to be among the most remote and difficult places to work in anywhere in the eastern US. Oh, total absolute BUNK! These are some of the most civilized and accessible swamps that these two old swampers have ever seen! We could hear I-40 all night at our campsite. They're a little more than one hour from either downtown Memphis or downtown Little Rock. The land is nearly all public (two federal National Wildlife Refuges and one State Wildlife Management Area) and most of it is open to unrestricted public access most of the year. There are many well-maintained gravel roads, and miles and miles of very easy hiking/ATV trails to get just about anywhere. Plus the woods themselves are damn-near old-growth with widely spaced trees and very open understory, which makes for easy hiking (at low water) and canoing (at high water). And we could not imagine that the bugs in summer would be any worse than in any other patch of southeastern woods and swamps, easily manageable if you are not a total arthropod-o-phobe. These lands are also popular with hunters and fisherman. This is not remote untrammeled wilderness. It's a wonderful and fairly easy nature outing for anyone with even the most basic familiarity with outdoor living. Sheesh, the boat ramps are PAVED and we had PORT-A-POTTIES at our campsite! Why they are perpetuating this image of utter remoteness and inaccessibility is a mystery to me. It may just be a bunch of people freaking out at the normal bugginess and sogginess of the South, or even being afraid of all the Bubbas-in-camo-with-guns one finds in these places (who are really nothing to fear and could be one of their best assets if properly approached). I suspect thought that they are actually trying to discourage excessive numbers of visitors. This is really unneccesary. There are far more hunters and fishermen already in there than there would ever be birders. It's many many square miles of woods and swamps, and most birders rarely venture more than 1/4 mile from their cars anyway. The more eyes and cameras, the better the chance of more sightings.

Now, about the swamps themselves: beautiful. So many big big trees. Cypress esimated at 2500 years old, oaks and pecans and sweetgums with diameters measured in feet and meters rather than inches and centimeters. How this area escaped total clearcutting I don't know. It's not pristine virgin forest, but magnificent centuries-to-millenia old trees are all around. I have never seen so many old-growth baldcypress spread over such a large area before. Or so many giant oaks. Or ever before seen a real, wild, mature pecan. These big old trees are draped with tarzan-scale tangles and curtains of gigantic vines -- grapes, greenbriar, poison ivy of amazing size. And many many many snags, all heavily worked by woodpeckers. It was aso a recurring small thrill to see the informational signs posted all over with pictures of ivorybills, tips on identifying them and who to call if you see one. Never in my life did I think I would ever really see that.

And the woodpeckers -- I seriouly do not think I have ever been anywhere with such a density and diversity of woodpeckers. It seemed that most of the birds we saw or heard, after subtracting out the white-throated sparrows, were woodpeckers. Omnipresent and numerous. Park in a trailhead and within seconds you have heard three species of 'peckers. After a few minutes make that five. Before an hour has passed you have found multiples of every woodpecker every recorded from the southeast except for red-cockaded (inappropriate habitat) and ivorybill (which indeed really is lurking there somewhere). This is what you get when you let the trees mature, die, and be recycled in situ rather than hauled off to the chip mill. If anywhere in the US could still support a nesting population of ivorybills, this is the place.

Final (and most significant) observation: in spite of those superlatives suggesting the uniqueness of this place, seeing this area actually gave me hope that the bird could survive this population bottleneck and expand again. Because these swamps are remarkable, but not extreme. It was a very familiar environment to us swampers. Take many swamps I have seen, give them a little more time and better management (i.e. LEAVE THE DAMN SNAGS!!!) and we might be able to have multiple populations scattered from South Carolina to Florida and Texas. Indeed, it encouraged me that there might even still be relict populations in these places too. Because, though hunters and fisherman go into these places all the time, birders almost never do. If the Ivorybill escaped detection for this long on PUBLIC LAND just ONE HOUR by freeway from two major metropolitan areas, they could very easily still be lurking in other more remote (truly remote!) swamps in at least seven different States.

And as for the Big Woods... We'll be back.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Woodpecker pilgrimage

We're off first thing tomorrow for Arkansas to see the swamps where the ivory-billed woodpeckers have been spotted. We're not going on a woodpecker search so much as on a pilgrimage to the holy land where the bird was last seen. Just a quick road trip, planning on heading home Saturday.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Night beesties

When I was growing up in Georgia, spending all my free time chasing birds around the woods and fields and swamps, one of the things I always loved coming across was woodcock displaying in the first dawn twilight of a clear early winter morning. This wasn't something I'd find very often; only when I made an effort to get well out of Atlanta to be at some marsh or swamp somewhere as the sky first lightened. It's one of those ingrained experiences of the small secret mysteries of wilderness back here in the well-trammeled East; a private thing that most people never know of nor would understand. It's a simple thing really: as the eastern sky acquires the first hint of orange, a nearly invisible bird circles high overhead against the indigo sky. Every few minutes he plunges in a death-defying dive, and as he pulls out at the bottom his wings sing a delicate tinkling song. If he is lucky, there is a female hidden away in the weeds watching him and calling up to him with a buzzy little voice.

A few days ago, I got home from a pre-dawn errand on a clear, cold morning. As I walked from the truck to the house, I heard the courtship song of a woodcock. In the sky over our weedy orchard, right in our yard, the woodcock were displaying.

Another reminder why the annoyance, inconvenience, and poverty of this life are worth it.


A few nights later, when we pulled into our yard in the evening, our headlights revealed a strange creature hopping through the grass and leaves. It took me a second to realize that it was a woodcock. There have been very few times I've ever seen one on the ground before. They're a secretive, well-camoflauged nocturnal beeste of brambles, thickets, and marshes. Usually they're seen when they fly up suddenly from right underfoot, having remained invisible to the last second.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Sitting upstairs last night, suddenly jolted out of our skins by a loud bang from directly overhead... followed by smaller smacks and pops and more intermittent loud detonations. It took a few seconds to recognize this as the sound of hailstones on the metal roof -- some of them BIG hailstones.

Switching into Official Capacity I ran down the steps and out to the front porch with a flashlight to see just how big they were. It wasn't torrent of them, but it only took a few second to spot some icy golfballs scattered about the front yard. So, I grabbed the phone and called in my Official spotter report. It feeds yer latent megalomaniacal tendencies to call in your spotter report and then hear the alarms go off with the severe thunderstorm warning a minute later [alas, actually, the battery in the weather radio was dead so this time I had to be satisfied with watching the warning pop up on the map on the NWS OHX home page]. Not quite like the tennis balls that fell in the spring of '03, but still makes you glad for the sturdy roof overhead.

Of course the thunderstorm presaged a cold snap, and we might get our first dusting of snow tonight. Or, we might not...

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