Wednesday, August 31, 2005

True Believers, Skeptics, & Hoodoo Birds

Michelle and I recently attended a local Audubon Society meeting where the main topic of discussion was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Southeast Texas. As you may have gathered by now I'm slightly obsessed with this subject.

Apparently I'm not alone in this regard. The IBW has become the holy grail of birding. There are good reasons why it should be the focus of so much attention. First of all, it's extremely rare. It's very existence has been an intriguing mystery, and for many years it was presumed by experts to be extinct. Secondly, this isn’t just some little tweety bird. It's BIG, with a chisel-like bill that can rip trees apart. As big and impressive as a Pileated Woodpecker is, this bird is even more so. It's large size and elegant plumage would awe even a non-birder (one of its colloquial names, the Lord God Bird, is no doubt a reference to the sort of exclamation its appearance was apt to elicit). Then there's the fascinating history of its long slide toward extinction, its disappearance, rediscovery, and re-rediscovery.

Imagine a magnificent black and white bird that only inhabits the deepest most impenetrable swamps. A bird so rare that its very existence is questionable. Ornithological literature offers clues as to where to look and what evidence to watch for, but the search area is vast, and the bird is shy and elusive. As James Tanner wrote, it’s like "looking for an animated needle in a haystack.” There are birders who would trade every species on their life lists for one glimpse of a living Ivory-bill, and the quest to find it has become tantamount to a treasure hunt.

Chester Moore was the main speaker at the meeting we attended. He writes an outdoor column for two local papers, the Port Arthur News and Orange Leader. He also maintains a cryptozoology web site, and in his spare time searches for IBWs (as well as jaguarundis, giant catfish, and bigfoot – yes, bigfoot). As a journalist he was involved in the 2002 Zeiss Sports Optics search of the Pearl River Bottoms in Louisiana (incidentally, the eye of Hurricane Katrina passed right through that area, and the storm undoubtedly did some heavy damage to the forest there).

Chester is a “true believer” where IBWs are concerned. He unequivocally told us that there ARE still IBWs in S.E. Texas, and claimed that he had found evidences of their presence, and even had a possible encounter with one, while searching along the Sabine River. His enthusiasm is infectious. Unfortunately the proof is lacking.

I may be obsessed, perhaps even fanatical every now and then, but I’m no true believer. I think it’s very unlikely that there are any IBWs left in Texas. But there’s still the remotest chance that a few have survived, and it’s that slim hope that motivates me to continue searching the Big Thicket. At least the habitat is interesting, and there’s plenty of other wildlife to observe while I’m chasing feathered ghosts.

Generally I’m unimpressed with physical evidence purported to show the presence of IBWs. I figure it’s wise to apply Occam’s razor to these situations. When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras (assuming you aren’t on an African savanna). A large irregularly shaped hole in a tree could have been made by an IBW, but there are more plausible explanations - like excavation by over-achieving Pileated Woodpeckers, or enlargement of an existing cavity by bored squirrels. Likewise the bark stripping that is so often reported as evidence of IBWs at work. Pileated Woodpeckers will also rip the bark off trees, and bark naturally sloughs off snags. I want better evidence for extraordinary claims.

In Arkansas they have such evidence. The video may be inconclusive, but there are numerous sightings by competent observers (the most compelling proof, in my opinion). Autonomous recording units (ARUs) deployed in the Arkansas swamps have recorded what sound like kent calls and double raps. One of the ARUs also picked up a conversation between a couple of boaters who had noticed the recording device. One of them can be heard saying “they’re looking for some kind of a bird, a hoodoo bird - the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s what they’re looking for.”

Hoodoo bird – I like that. He may have been right.

Lately I’ve been reading a couple of books: James Tanner’s classic “The Ivory-billed Woodpecker,” and “In Search of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker” by Jerome Jackson. Both men traveled throughout the southeastern U.S. in search of the IBW. Tanner observed the Singer Tract birds; Jackson had only fleeting tentative encounters with IBWs in Cuba and maybe - just maybe - in Mississippi. Their books offer little hope for the bird’s continued survival. The facts are depressing. IBWs required extensive tracts of virgin forest – forest that for the most part no longer exists. Both Tanner and Jackson emphasize the scarcity of suitable habitat. By the 1930s most of the ancient bottomland forests of the south had already been logged. To Tanner, who had searched throughout the south, the Singer Tract was truly unique, the last pristine wilderness of its kind. And the Singer Tract was cleared within a decade.

Neither Jackson nor Tanner were very impressed with the Big Thicket as potential IBW habitat. Tanner dismissed it as “thoroughly logged over, and greatly over-rated as a wilderness area.” This is sadly true. The Big Thicket is almost entirely cutover and secondary growth. No arguement there. But my concern is that Tanner may have used his limited experience with a single small population of IBWs in the Singer Tract as the definitive guide to what is (and is not) appropriate IBW habitat. It’s possible that Tanner may have underestimated the IBWs adaptability and overestimated it’s dependence on one forest type - or so I hope. Certainly the Cuban IBWs inhabited an environment that was very different from that of the Singer Tract.

It is encouraging to note that it has been many years since Tanner first visited the Big Thicket, and that in the intervening years the forest has matured and gained some protection through the establishment of the Big Thicket National Preserve.

If there are any IBWs in Southeast Texas – a doubtful proposition – they would probably occupy much larger territories and roam over a considerably wider area than the birds that Tanner studied in the Singer Tract. His research indicated that each pair required several square miles of optimal habitat. Large expanses of virgin bottomland forest are as rare as IBWs these days, and in an area like the Big Thicket birds would have to wander over a much larger area to find the same food resources. This is probably true of the bird(s) in Arkansas as well. Consider the vastness of the forests it inhabits, the large size of its home range, the difficulty of access, and the extreme wariness of the bird, and it’s not surprising that the few remaining IBWs would be hard to find.

Jerome Jackson has been among the most skeptical of the rediscovery in Arkansas. Interestingly, in his book he ranks the southern states according to his assessment of how likely they are to still have IBWs. Arkansas takes last place on his list. Texas ranks a bit higher in probability. To Chester Moore and other Texas Ivory-bill hunters that has to offer some encouragement. After all, if an IBW could survive in the remnant forests of eastern Arkansas, why not here?

In the Wake of the Storm

New Orleans in the wake of the storm - flooding, looting, rioting, total devastation. Levees breached, dead bodies floating in the streets. Flood victims waiting for rescue on rooftops. Highways closed or simply gone. No electricity, no potable water. In the aftermath of Katrina the situation is dire. There are thousands of refugees here in Southeast Texas, and at work we get frequent requests for assistance. Looks like the TV commentators who were forecasting doom prior to the storm were wrong, but not by much. It's a big mess.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Katrina Has Landed

I'm watching Katrina batter New Orleans on Fox News. Yesterday the doomsayers were predicting total annihilation for the city. Thankfully that hasn't happened. Katrina has been downgraded to a category 3 hurricane - still bad, but not as intense as it would have been in the disasterous worst case scenario.

One of the levees has been breached, but it looks like New Orleans is gonna survive. No flooding in the French Quarter (yet). It'll be a wet stinky mess, but at least the buildings are still standing. Covington, where Michelle and I plan on having our wedding reception in January, is taking the brunt of the storm now. There are reports of serious flooding below New Orleans in Plaquemines & St. Bernard Parishes. At present coastal Mississippi appears to be taking the worst hit.

Here in Lumberton the wind has picked up, but no rain yet. I've been watching a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird out the kitchen window.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Katrina & the Waves Are Coming....

As I write this, Katrina is barreling toward New Orleans. "Not a party storm" is the way a commentator just described it on on Fox News. This is a deadly category 5 hurricane, and it looks like it could be VERY bad. Tomorrow morning it is expected to strike the city with winds in excess of 160 mph. Worst case scenario: complete devastation - goodbye New Orleans.

Michelle went to Mandeville on Thursday to make wedding arrangements and attend a baby shower. Mandeville, where her mother lives, is on Lake Ponchartrain opposite New Orleans...directly in the path of impending destruction. Because of the storm Michelle had to return early, and her family had to leave their homes. Her mother is staying in Lafayette with Michelle's brother Devon and his family. Her brother Dale, his pregnant wife Barbara, and their two boys also had to evacuate. They arrived here last night at about 3am (after a 6+ hour drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-10). They spent the day with us but left this evening to go stay with friends in Houston. Flooding and wreckage may await them at home, but in the meantime they were enjoying an impromptu vacation. The boys got to do some fishing down at the pond. Most refugees should have it so good.

Michelle and I were planning to go back to Mandeville in September...hopefully Mandeville & New Orleans will still be there. It would be nice to revisit the French Quarter and drink hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's after this hurricane blows over. Here in Lumberton the weather has been strangely calm, with no rain or high winds. Katrina is a huge storm, hundreds of miles wide, and we still might get some rain in the next 24 hours.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Back Into The Muck

On Thursday I did some more exploring in the Big Thicket. My map of the preserve (which is composed of several units, most of which are not contiguous with other units) showed some roads of doubtful drivability leading into the Jack Gore Baygall & Neches Bottom Units, which are on the Neches River north of Evadale. I'd been told that these roads were only passable under dry summer conditions, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to check them out.

One of the roads led to a "county park" on the river. It was more of a parking area than a park. No amenities, just a big sandy bend in the river. And the place sure could have used some garbage cans - it was sad to see all the litter. There is one of those "do-not-do-this and do-not-do-that" type signs as you enter, but dumping garbage wasn't one of the "don'ts" listed. Omission equals permission? Anyway, there was some forest along the river, but not the extensive old-growth forest I was hoping for. I did see a Mississippi Kite flying over the park as I arrived.

Another river access road passes through the adjoining Jack Gore Baygall Unit of the preserve. I found this road to be in reasonably good condition until I came to a big muddy wallow. I decided not to risk getting stuck and continued on foot. I didn't get as far as the river, which I figure was within a mile at that point. The road crosses a series of baygalls (low poorly drained gullies, often with standing water), and I found some interesting habitat down there, mostly mature deciduous forest interspersed with cypress swamp. Plenty of big trees. I heard some loud raps that momentarily had me excited...and who knows, maybe it was an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Incidentally, I heard Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers along the road, and there seemed to be quite a bit of woodpecker activity in general. I also heard a Barred Owl (with a little encouragement they'll start hooting anytime, even in the middle of a hot afternoon). Nice place. I'll have to go back when I have more time to look around.

In the evening Michelle and I went to a meeting of the Golden Triangle Audubon Society. The night's subject? The Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Texas. More about that later.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Mississippi Kites in Lumberton

Recently I've become aware of a new sound in my neighborhood. At first I assumed it was the plaintive whistle of an Eastern Wood-Pewee - that's what it sounded like to my ears. Then my curiousity got the better of me and I actually tracked the bird down. Found it calling from a tree around the corner from my house. Surprise! It turned out to be a juvenile Mississippi Kite. I've been seeing kites in the neighborhood this summer, and suspect that this bird fledged somewhere nearby. So now I know that a Mississippi Kite's call is a loud pewee-like whistle, and I have evidence of local nesting.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Fun With the Kids, Galveston Road Trip, Better Times at Work

If I've been quiet lately it's because I've been having some computer problems. In the last two weeks I've spent much of my free time struggling with a host of issues, including viruses, corrupted files, and a dead modem. I eventually gave up and bought a new computer - Troy has my old one and I hope he has better luck at restoring it than I did. The good news is that Michelle and I finally got a high speed internet connection, so it's goodbye to dialup and those eternal downloads!

This week we had house guests - Michelle's mom came over from Mandeville, and Michelle's niece, Morgan (age 11), and her nephew, Jack (age 5), from Bossier City were staying with us. Michelle is taking them home today, and I would have gone too except I had to work. The kids were great, very well behaved and fun to have with us, I just hope they didn't get too bored hanging around the house - we exhausted my supply of kid-appropriate videos in short order. You can only watch Pee Wee's Big Adventure so many times...

Michelle is Episcopalian, so on Sunday morning we all went to St. Marks Episcopal Church in downtown Beaumont. Before services started we took some pictures in the church's garden, which features a couple of huge live oaks. Because of the urban setting it was a bit of a surprise to find a Barred Owl there. The owl was agitated by our presence, and spent most of its time nervously watching us from high perches and evasively moving from branch to branch. Maybe I've finally discovered a good reason to attend church...

On Monday we drove to Galveston. From where we live this involves driving through High Island, then out to the end of the Bolivar Peninsula, and from there taking the free ferry across the bay. Usually I get to see a few Bottlenosed Dolphins on the ferry crossing. This time they were bow-riding and put on a real show for the kids.

Magnificent Frigatebirds are sometimes seen from the ferry in summer, but I had to settle for Laughing Gulls and Sandwich Terns.

In Galveston we had lunch at the Disneyesque Rainforest Cafe before going to Moody Gardens. Moody Gardens is a natural history museum with aquarium and rainforest exhibits inside a couple of big pyramids. It also has audio-animatronic dinosaurs, an IMAX theater, etc. There are some nifty tropical birds in the Rainforest Pyramid, including Scarlet Ibises and a Sunbittern (I've missed Sunbittern on three trips to Costa Rica - if you really want to see one try the rainforest in Galveston).

The kids loved "Ridefilm," a motion simulator trip through a dinosaur-infested island with an exploding volcano. I would have enjoyed it too, if the bumping and jerking didn't induce nausea. After Moody Gardens we went to the beach to do some vital shopping (I got a alligator head for living room decor) and get our feet wet.

A few bird notes...lately our garden and feeders have been attracting lots of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and I frequently hear Pileated Woodpeckers calling. A Belted Kingfisher was at the pond on July 31, and one was heard flying over on August 3. According to the TOS Handbook of Texas Birds(and personal experience) this is not a species to be expected here in summer. The TOS Handbook indicates that it is rare or very rare in summer outside its north Texas breeding range. So is it evidence of some larger incursion or merely a coincidence that I also saw one earlier this week between Winnie and High Island on our way to Galveston? Hmmm.

There's some good news on the job front - up until recently I was working in Port Arthur, where for almost a year I've been assigned to the location known as "Deep Gulfway" (deep as in "deep trouble"). There I endured constant abuse from the most difficult & unpleasant clerks it has ever been my misfortune to work with. Their hostility, insubordination, and disrespect twice prompted me to write to the district manager begging for a transfer. So I was overjoyed when I found out I was being moved to the store in Lumberton. Now I'm back in civilization, working much closer to home, with a team of dependable hard-working employees. Definitely a positive change.