Thursday, September 10, 2009

Into Summer

Things that bite, things that sting

I made two more trips to Moss Island in 2008, one in late May and one in early June. I had intended to keep coming every month or so for the rest of the year but for various reasons that just never happened. The rest of the crew was occupied with other nesting season projects, so I was it for the time being. As I had planned, I put some focused effort into covering the southwestern portions of the WMA where the higher ground supports a more diverse bottomland hardwood forest. I also was now video camera equipped, so you'll start to see video clips popping up in these blog entries. On my arrival back on site on May 28th, I undertook a rather grueling slog around the perimeter of this southwest woods area to scope out access and viewing spots. It had not looked so bad on paper, but by the time I was done with it I had covered about 10 km, significant portions of this through boot-sucking mud. Turns out that it really isn't such a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi mud (culturally challenged may click here , here, and here to see what the hell I am referring to; be warned that the last link is an annoying music classic from the Muppets).

There are four points of relatively easy access to this large blob of mixed hardwood forest. You can hike due south from the barn, make a short field crossing, and enter it at its widest spot. You can park at the end of Goosepen Road and enter it at the narrow isthmus where it connects to the more eastern forests. You can approach it from the south and hike along the southern fringe, Or, you can park on the shoulder of Great River Road overlooking the forest's western edge and listen. I did all of these at various times. Not wanting to entirely forsake the earlier "hot zone" I also spent some time around Rhodes and Hushpuckett Lakes.

The habitat in the southwestern woods is a better approximation to the standard model of "core" Ivorybill habitat than is the rest of the WMA. There are a fair number of reasonably good sized hardwoods, and they are of the sorts of species that one reads about in the old accounts: oaks (mostly water and nuttall/shumard), sweetgums, hackberries, elms, pecans. The understory is fairly dense, however, which interferes with sight lines and sound propagation at this time of year. There are also frequent thick carpets of knee- to waist-high poison ivy and (much worse) stinging nettles. There are no trails in these woods; it's all bushwhacking. The mosquitoes range from passable to almost intolerable. Over the decades I've become exceedingly familiar with this sort of habitat and its summertime arthropod populations; it's just something you take measures to deal with:

Pants inside shoes inside boots to keep ticks and chiggers on the outside of the clothes, all clothes and no skin sprayed with DEET (including hat, important for protecting face), fanny pack with attached seat cushion (also sprayed with DEET) to reduce chiggers picked up while sitting on logs, buckskin vest gives extra mosquito protection to back and shoulders, hair and beard protect most of face and neck. Though not the most comfortable of work environments, it is certainly doable with the right preparations. Developing a lifelong tolerance for mosquitoes and chiggers is helpful, too; I tend to find that people who have not been exposed to these creatures very much before seem to react physiologically (and of course psychologically, too) more strongly than do we who have had dozens of chigger bites and thousands of mosquito bites on every square centimeter of our bodies accumulated over the years.

The woodpecker abundances in these areas were quite high in a relative sense, but all across the WMA the woodpeckers continued to be much quieter and less conspicuous than they had been earlier in the year. As for anything even vaguely campephilish, not the faintest hint, either in these new areas or back in the February-April "hot zone." It also seemed like no one at all uses this WMA. When I hiked a path in June, the only bootprints I'd see in the mud on it were the ones I myself had left in May. It did get to be a bit of a downer, spending the days sweating, smelling bug spray, being stung by nettles and bitten by skeeters, finding nothing, and nothing, and still nothing.

Of course there was actually tons of stuff being found, just not the mythical phantom target of the quest. This is a problem birders often have, even when chasing real birds (oops, did I say that out loud? You know what I mean...). You have a quite fine day in the field, full of fascinating sights and sounds, but since you didn't find the one thing you were specifically after it winds up feeling like a failure. This was the reason I largely abandoned stakeout chasing in the 1980s. But the present quest wasn't a run-of-the-mill stakeout, this was the great schismatic ornithological conundrum of my generation.

I'll finish off the 2008 field season with a short compilation of snippets of some of the many other things my video camera and I encountered on these final couple of visits. I originally edited it more for the interests of non-birding friends, but it will give some visuals to complement all this text. Plus, for those of you who have only seen this habitat in the winter, it'll give you a sense of the other half of the year. It is roughly in three sections -- first scenery, then critters, then our intrepid swomp stomper slogging, sitting, and generally searching (must always remember, the filmmaker is the true star of a nature film, right?). There's more video to come from the 2009 season.

Other posts in this series:


At 5:59 AM, Blogger TN Forester Mike said...


I've gone to using duct tape to seal the juncture of pant legs and boots, and canvas leggings help with the nettle once it gets some height. You are right about the skeeters -- most folks have difficulty tuning them out. The 'halo' created by the bug spray seems to keep them at a tolerable distance but one that easily invades most folks space.


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